Traditional Jewish stories unfold in Ofri Cnaani’s 360-degree video projections. She discusses her latest piece, The Sota Project, touching upon a contemporary view of women’s roles in an ancient culture.
Ofri Cnaani lives in Brooklyn, New York, and works in video, installation, and live-cinematic performance. I met Ofri at the Transart Institute’s summer residency program in Berlin, Germany, where she was a visiting artist. Her video The Sota Project alters the perspective of how a video is viewed. The Sota Project is featured from at least 10 projectors in a rectangular room that is seamlessly built from floor-to-ceiling white screens. The viewer enters the room and is surrounded by images and text. There are moments when the entire room is illuminated with video, and others when the viewer is left with one screen displaying a woman’s hand guiding meat through a grinder. The viewer has to decide what to follow as opposite walls often simultaneously play different parts of the story.
Samuel Jablon First off, could you talk about the process of The Sota Project?
Ofri Cnaani I have been working on this project for the last five years. It developed from my interest in ancient narratives and my attempt to tell a story using space, in the form of a spatial narrative.
SJ You created a room that completely surrounds the viewer in the video. What did you invite your audience to experience?
OC I hope to invite my viewers/readers into an active reading experience. The interpretation of the story depends so much on the way one positions her body in the space; if she chooses to move along it or not, what screen to watch and what information to miss. I hope to provide a physical experience of the story, not only a literal-visual one.
SJ What inspired you to depict this story from the Talmud?
OC I’ve studied classic Jewish texts for quite a while and was mainly interested in Talmudic short stories. Many of those stories were written as part of a dialectic tradition and served as a “what if?” example for a theological question. Although they are ancient, I can just open the book and read them almost “barefoot” in my own language, without former knowledge. Many of the stories, like mythologies in other cultures, have a blend of dark, tragic, and poetic elements. I worked on several video pieces before that introduced some corky staging of stories from Greek mythology, but I never thought I’d be able to (re)work Jewish history. Once I started to think about the Talmud as mythology, I was ready to play.
SJ Could you talk about this story from the Talmud, and how you added your own twist?
OC The original story is so short, almost haiku in nature, an epic drama in 14 short lines. The story tells the tale of two sisters who look like one another and were married and lived in different towns. The husband of one sister questions his wife’s fidelity and, therefore, wants to take her to Jerusalem to drink from the bitter waters (Talmudic practice known as the Sota ritual that was used to prove whether or not a pregnant woman had committed adultery). The accused sister runs to her sister’s house for help. The sister asks: what have you seen that brought you here; and the accused answers: my husband wants to take me to Jerusalem to drink the bitter water. The sister says: I’ll go instead of you and drink; and the accused answers: go. The two switch identities, lives, and husbands, and the innocent sister then goes with the accused one’s husband to Jerusalem. She goes through the ritual and is found pure. She then returns home to her sister, who comes out happily to greet her. She embraces her sister and kisses her lips, and because they kissed one another, her sister breathes in the bitter waters and immediately dies. So far the original, but the story is full of blind spots. It is so beautiful and contemporary but at the same time morally disturbing.
For me it’s a story about sisterhood. It’s a story about two women who understand the system and force it to work against itself. I didn’t want my story to be only about doubt and punishment but, instead, about life. Working on the adaptation with Ester Namdar, who wrote the script, we decided to use some side comment we found in the original texts to change the dynamic between the two sisters.
In my version of the story, the dynamic between the two changes. One is hiding a secret while the other is yearning to have a child.
The innocent sister is using the ordeal in order to get pregnant (Ester and I found interpretation of the text that shows how if a woman goes through this ordeal and is acquitted she is rewarded with pregnancy). So she has her own motivation to go. They both choose to live. The second question in the adaptation was how to end the story. I wanted the piece to be still sealed with a kiss but had to find another way to do it. In other words, I was struggling with the question of how to kill them for a better reason…
SJ The husband who accused his wife of being unfaithful ends up sleeping with, and possibly impregnating, her sister, while the other sister is off continuing her affair. It’s engaging, and leaves me with this gritty feeling of reality and what we are unaware of. The characters get what they want by manipulating circumstances to their benefit. Could you speak about this?
OC Everyone lives, everyone lies, and everyone betrays someone. In the sex scene the husband understands that the two sisters manipulated him. He freezes for a moment but then is turned on by this whole mix-up. That is where all the protagonists become sinners. I obviously don’t see a place for punishment.
SJ The cinematic scenes you portrayed are really striking, particularly the scene in the empty pool with several women in bikinis sitting on the ledge, and the rabbi who offers the bowl of bitter water from the pool bottom to the accused sister. Could you talk about these choices, and how you came to them?
OC I have an old video piece that takes place in an empty Olympic pool. I was intrigued by this enormous negative space; a ballroom that starts at level zero. As questions of purity and contamination are at the center of this piece, water and, specifically, public pools are the main leitmotifs here. Having the scene of the ordeal in an empty, dirty, deserted public pool is something I knew I wanted to shoot. The Sota ritual is probably the most humiliating experience a young woman can ever go through, especially because all the other women were traditionally invited to watch. I was scouting for the right pool for a long time. This location was on top of a hill in the southern part of Israel, and was deserted for 35 years.
SJ Another scene that comes to mind is the final one of the film, when the innocent sister seduces her brother-in-law. She has rough un-intimate sex with him, gets what she wants, and leaves. Is it supposed to feel like a rape scene?
OC Yes, in a way. She is stealing sperm. He is horrified when he discoverers this is not his wife but her sister, who is on a mission. As I said before, in the last seconds he gets a kick from being the victim of such an identity swap, but it’s a rape anyway. A major institution I was working with called off a scheduled screening of this piece because of this scene.
SJ Could you also talk about your new project that looks at women and treason?
OC In Hebrew we use the same word to describe the adulteress and the traitoress, something like the betrayer-ess.
I’m shifting my interest from sexual infidelity to the political/national one, and in the tech arena from high tech to low tech. I’ve been working with defunct technology for a while now. On April 2nd at 12:00 PM, I’m going to perform at Galapagos, together with Hadas Cohen, a new piece titled Three Acts of Betrayal. Together we ask what happens when one stops being loyal to their country. What happens when the traitor is a woman, a traitoress? How are traitors judged by the state and by the court of public opinion? What spectacle is formed through their punishment? Three Acts of Betrayal unpacks three acts of treason through three stories of Israeli women, traitoresses, who betrayed the Zionist project at various historical periods. Assembled under the form of a lecture, we will present a live-cinematic performance and sound installation based on an academic analysis of treason. In this piece we will be using audio-visual technologies of interrogation and entertainment to ask how and why we relate to political violence via technological mediation.
SJ Could you expand on “technological meditation”?
OC I’m interested in the “moral strings” attached to different technologies and how various technologies portray to the public concepts of “truth,” “loyalty,” or “betrayal” by the way they are being represented. In the age of Photoshop and Wikileaks, the viewers need to re-evaluate the relationship between medium and message, private and public, and the truth factor certain technologies convey or imply.
Samuel Jablon is a painter and writer based in Brooklyn, New York. His work explores travel, interaction, daily experience, and an individual madness/obsession with absurdity, contemplation, and humanity.