Art and Activism in Israel: An Interview with Ronen Eidelman
The Israeli artist Ronen Eidelman shares with us his views about how art fights discrimination in our societies, the artist’s role, the relationship between activist artists and the topics they deal with, his new project of founding a Jewish state in Germany… And many other interesting topics I’m sure you’ll enjoy. I met Ronen last summer at a conference series within the framework of a Palestinian-Israeli exhibition at the Essl Museum, where I couldn’t help getting the impression that what the audience had to say (mostly artists from Israel) was by far much more interesting that what the speakers were -in a very politically correct way- conveying. One of those artists in the audience was Ronen and I think I was quite right…
Ronen Eidelman: The project was part of the Be(com)ing Dutch exhibition. I wanted to give a voice to the stories of people excluded from the Dutch society. Plaques are used to tell stories of heroes, of brave men and women who did extraordinary acts and that society should take example from them. I found that many of these people who have not become part of the Dutch society are great heroes for just surviving. I highlight there means of survival, the means of these people who for different reasons are not part of the Dutch society. The project portrays them as heroes, resisters to an unjust system, political subjects who fight for their dignity, rights and freedom.
People immigrate because of many reasons but what they all have in common is the desire for a better life, a better life for themselves and also for the families and loved ones that they left in their home country. When immigrants arrive in the Netherlands they have find many obstacles in achieving their goal. Some are objective problems like lack of language skills, education, professional capabilities and a lack of a supportive social network. But in many cases the obstacles are a systematic set of rules built both by the government and the society to block immigrants from sharing the wealth. Yet, rather than being mere victims of the racist and capitalist system, who confine to these rules, migrants will do what they have to do to survive. These «means of survival» can be in many cases illegal and what the Dutch mainstream society regards as degraded or morally wrong actions. Immigrants play a big role in the Black market, pirating, drug dealing, smuggling, sex industry and other «shady» activities.
P. M.: It seems to me that that bringing out hidden parts of our societies is one of the main topics your art deals with. (Un)documented disappearance, Manshia and this Heroes of survival seem to be good examples. For this reason, some of your projects could be seen by some people as fairly irreverent acts… Have you ever got in trouble because of this approach or you usually find a good acceptance?
R. E.: I disagree. I think my projects are respectful both with their subjects and with the public and the public space. I have not got into trouble because I try to work with the community in the place I work. And the community also includes city officials whom you have to talk to in a language they understand. Of course, I’ve also done more pirate projects but then i don’t use my real name…
P. M.: Now I’m very curious about that last sentence…
R. E.: Well, I can’t tell you much, but for many years, from the very beginning I was involved in direct action groups against the separation wall in Palestine and we made many creative actions both at the wall and in Tell-Aviv against the wall.
P.M.: Your blog’s name is Medinat Weimar, which is also a project you’ve been working on for a long time and that this year has been finally launched: a (movement for) new Jewish state in Germany. It sounds to me like a big caricature of the situation.
R. E.: In Medinat Weimar I’m both completely serious and at the same time don’t really mean what I’m saying. This is the great freedom of creating a political movement as an art project. The questions and issues that the project rises (Antisemitism, Zionism, the nation state today, etc.) are very serious and need to be discussed, but we need to find new ways to approach these topics.
P.M.: I like very much one cite from your article «Israeli Art and the state of exception» where you say: «Art is the most radical of spaces, a place where the rule of law is suspended». Maybe that’s the reason why it can be used to show these problems from a new perspective? Do you really think the rule of law is suspended in contemporary art?
R.M.: Something I wrote for the Medinat Weimar site:
Political acts are tolerated more if they are executed under the autonomy of art. Art is very confusing for the authorities and therefore it is left alone. If you are out on the street and would decide for example to burn a trash can, and would stand around and then the police would come and say: “What are you doing?” and you would say: “Oh we are artists, we are doing art, and this is a metaphor for blah blah…” Then the police would probably say: “Oh, you should ask for permission”. And you would you start some negotiation and it probably would be okay, maybe you might have to pay a fine, but, there would be no violent interaction or conflict taking place. Yet, if you were to be doing exactly the same act and the police would ask you: “What are you doing?” and you would just say: “Oh we are demonstrating against blah blah…” You would probably be arrested on the spot and there would maybe even be violence involved. It just shows that art has this autonomy and its place in the structure of these liberal democracies we live in. It’s an understood agreement that we need artists, that we need these crazy people, but then they should stay in their autonomies together, in their galleries and their museums and within their own discussions, and with their own journals.
The artists can do whatever they want and they can be as radical as they like, talking about post-Marxist revolution, or whatever they wish to talk about. We even give them funds, because it’s really good, because then we know where they all are. But as soon as the artists start walking out of the ghetto and say: “Oh no we are not happy in our ghetto, we want to go out and we want to touch society”, then the authorities would say: “You could do it on our terms and we will give you a nice allowance and then you could go to the migrant’s neighborhoods, where you can do a nice project and we might even give you a nice feature on TV” that says: “Look, there is some nice public art, look at these cute students from all over the world”, and then you have to do it on their terms. But what happens if one says: “No, we want to do it on our terms, we really want to touch society, we want art to touch life, and we don’t want it to be a separated autonomic thing”, then it turns into a political act and you’ll be repressed.
So we got to play this game. How to work out of these frames yet still stay safe, still manage to do it, not get blocked. Continue to bear the professionalized identity of “artist” to be safe, but not to really believe in it yourself.
P.M.: It recalls me a different -but related- topic and another cite from the same text: «Israeli art, quite like the Israeli industry of peace, has made protesting into a profession». I recall we talked about something related to this when we met in Vienna. Activist art seems to be a good way for becoming a popular artist. As I see it, most of activist art has a lot to do with marketing: the artist wants to convey a message, maybe even to convince other people about an idea… If you want to help, you need to be successful making your work popular… And, in this world, if your work is popular, it can be sold much easier… On the other hand, if artists don’t get money from their activist work, they’ll have to do something different… I think it can be difficult to be out of the game.
R. E.: I think it’s a question of being sincere. First you have to answer to yourself and your community. I don’t think you can do political/activist art as an individual: you have to connect to people and be part of something. Then if you step out of the line they will kick your ass. I personally don’t make art that survives, there are no objects, just documentation of the action and some marks left in the place. However, if possible, I do like to get paid for my time, but that rarely happens.
P.M.: A very interesting article about stepping out of the line was published in Ma’arav on the occasion of Banksy‘s Santa’s Ghetto. In this world where Internet rules when it comes to conveying messages, it seems difficult to define what the intended audience of such an exhibition is. I don’t know if when someone does something in Jerusalem for their European/American audience, solidarity art can even be seen as a sort of colonialism…
R. E.: It does not have to be so. Again it’s about respecting the locals. Zibbi, an Italian graffiti artist, painted some walls in Ramallah a couple of years ago. He came for a few weeks, learned some basic Arabic, hung out with local artists and they decided together what to paint. You can still see his work in the middle of Ramallah today; the locals are taking care of it. On the other hand, many of Bansky’s work were destroyed. I think it’s also OK to be critical and to annoy the locals, thats also an important job, but of course this also can be done with respect and with a connection to the place.
P. M.: Let me bring up another complex and currently hot discussion: the common confusion between street-art and gallery-art. You wrote once that street art belongs to the street, not to the galleries. I don’t want to get personal, but we met in a museum where you were showing a very street-art piece…
R. E.: I was showing a documentation of a public art project not trying to do street art in the museum, but even at that case I felt very uneasy and I don’t think it went very well. My one time experience showing in a museum just makes me feel stronger about the difficulties. However, I would like to find a better solution to show the documentation of my projects. It has worked sometimes. Meanwhile I will have to do it with my blog and flickr.
P. M.: You are also the director and editor in chief of Ma’arav, the online culture magazine focused on Israeli art. I only know the English version, but I find it very interesting the goal of «influence, educate and widen horizons». Where did the idea of having such a magazine come from?
R. E.: Galit Eilat, from the digital art lab in Holon, and Michael Kisos-Gedalyovich, an art organizer, raised some money and asked me if I wanted to create a online art magazine. They knew from previous magazines I’d created in the past. Together we built a concept, got some great designers and started the work. We are publicly funded, something that gives us independence from the market.
We felt the discussion on art and culture was very limited. Our goal is to reach beyond the «art crowd», to just have a wider discussion. We didn’t have a specific demographic, but we clearly respect our readers and see them as ones we share a dialogue with. It’s mostly artist, writers, intellectuals, students, and theorist and basically anyone who is concerned about art and culture everywhere. We are an art magazine from Israel, not an Israeli art magazine. Our perspective is from here, that’s our voice. However we participate in a global discussion from our stand-point. Many of our texts are not about art, but about fundamentalism, terror, the messiah and redemption, violence, Jewish culture, intellectual property, East-West relationships, Middle East politics…