Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Working with, and through, conflict.
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Basma Alsharif’s work implores us to experience beyond the delineations of place, language, story, image, and the political, showing us that a place is not local, language slips, stories can’t be told, images lie, and that we’re humans beyond our politics. Her mode of working and exhibiting is multifarious, operating between installation and cinema, and incorporating a variety of mediums. The following conversation focuses predominantly on her newest projects, a selection of which were exhibited in the solo show Doppelganging at Galerie Imane Farès in Paris this past spring. The moving image works in the show, Deep Sleep, Girls Only, and The Story of Milk and Honey, exist in various forms: as a self-contained work for cinema, as a film installation loop, and as part of a larger scale installation that included photographs, drawings, and texts. The entire exhibition was set within an astro-turfed environment with a soundtrack that filled the gallery with birdsong, the sound of thunderstorms, and a backwards rendition of Jeanette singing Porque Te Vas. Doppelganging also took the form of a performance lecture that included Alsharif’s newest work to date O, Persecuted and was presented in May at the Berlin Documentary Forum.
Since 2007, Alsharif has lived and worked nomadically in Cairo, Beirut, Sharjah, Amman, Gaza, Paris, and now Los Angeles.
Aily Nash With Doppelganging you’ve identified your position as a Post-Palestinian artist, and stated, “I am shifting away from looking at Palestine through the world, to look at the world through Palestine.” Can you describe the process of arriving at this position?
Basma Alsharif It was Eyal Sivan who first called my work “Post-Palestinian” at the 59th Flaherty Seminar in 2013, mainly as a response to the way I dealt with place, conflict, and identity with the luxury of distance and a kind of imagination about the future that isn’t tied to the past, as well as the production of work that wasn’t necessarily activist. This definition allowed me to realize that my perspective is based on an acceptance of the possibility that Palestine may never become a state, that the right of return will never be acknowledged, and that I am interested in what comes next, what we do now.
AN The group of works you made before Doppelganging focused on imagining Palestine beyond the conflict. The immediacy of the everyday is at the heart of Home Movies Gaza. And the focus on day-to-day survival brought your focus to the quotidian space within conflict, where turkeys roam and people watch television and practice violin. Rife with turmoil, of course, but life still has to go on. How do you see Palestine and its history of conflict as a microcosm that is emblematic of the complexities and failures of civilization?
BA Before fully realizing that I was making work that involved Palestine, the Palestinian identity, and the conflict, my understanding of Palestine was, on the one hand, as a place I was emotionally close to and familiar with because it was where I had family, and it was one of the few places I returned to frequently in my life. On the other hand, it was always a place of deep conflict, of struggle, pain, injustice, and turmoil. I saw and experienced these as two separate worlds. One was private, the other very public and polarizing.
In recent years, the question of continuing to hope the situation will improve has felt cynical to me, like some played-out phrase we keep telling ourselves so we can hold on to an antiquated idea about humanity. To ask for people to continue to have hope in the face of so much injustice is insulting. Especially as someone from the diaspora, I feel unable to ask those in Gaza to continue to have hope. The big surprise for me came in returning to Gaza after a ten-year absence to realize that people were living not despite the horrible circumstance they were being forced into but beyond it. The population in Gaza had recognized, perhaps subconsciously, that civilization had failed. Even the ruins had been ruined, and people were finding ways not only to survive but to circumvent their impossible situations. I found it had less to do with hope and more about being really clever in finding ways to move past a failed civilization. Life was not just about having food, water, and shelter but also about prospering and being involved in activities that have nothing to do with survival, to continually exist in the moment post-disaster.
When I was in Gaza, I spent a fair amount of time around people who were riding horses and putting on art exhibitions, and they weren’t doing it as a conscious act of resistance or defiance or proof there was life outside of struggle, but because they were human beings doing what human beings do. I’m definitely not trying to say the situation is positive or hopeful or that it is possible to have a normal life within the Gaza Strip—absolutely not. The situation is tragic and totally inhumane. Israel has bombed a territory with 1.7 million inhabitants who do not have basic human rights, and who have been occupied for decades as a “defense” strategy. The point is that even given such circumstances, the individual is defined by their humanity, not just by history and politics.
One of the biggest indicators for me was that people had stopped talking about politics or history as they had when I was growing up, and this felt incredibly optimistic to me. It’s something I saw mirrored in other places where I was living or spending time: people seemed fed up with governments and economic systems that enslaved them and a recognition, perhaps, that the pillars of civilization have grown problematic, have become obstacles in moving forward. I am interested in the small pockets of the world where people are finding ways to exist that are redefining civilization. In this way, I see Palestine as one place that is being forced to reconcile the shortcomings of humanity and the failure of civilization, and to find a way of moving forward.
AN This realization is present in both Home Movies Gaza and in Deep Sleep, yet approached very differently. In Home Movies Gaza there is a formal distinction from previous works—in how “documentary” or straightforward the viewing experience feels. In Deep Sleep, you are performing a new technique—hypnosis as a “pan-geographic shuttle” to disparate locations, “different sites of modern ruin,” and you’ve linked this type of movement and mode of viewing to the fundamentals of the cinematic experience.
BA There are so many effects applied on almost every piece of footage in Home Movies Gaza: loops, things playing in reverse, overlaid images, non-diegetic sound, and chroma-keyed animals. The material was brought together to mimic footage from a home movie. It is meant to feel more straightforward or candid than my other works, where things are highly staged and heavily worked over. It was a strategy I used to show a place tainted by its political circumstance, with the contradiction being that the everyday does play out innocently in this inescapable situation. This is where the use of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies comes in. I felt that Gaza was the island the boys inhabit, but in reality, one hundred years later.
Deep Sleep is different in that I wanted to remove the specificity of Gaza, and allowed other sites (Malta and Athens) to be a reflection of Gaza, its past, and a future it never achieved. The three sites are heavy with ruins of ancient civilization, some more recognizable than others, but ultimately it is about surviving beyond the presence of history. Think of populations that are being forced to migrate due to climate change. Gaza may be destroyed, but so is the Roman Empire. The effect I was after was to deeply immerse my audience in an experience of these sites through my own physical experience of them, as a subject under autohypnosis—to force the sensation of being lost in ones own memory and the inability to recognize how one image follows another. I was interested in creating a world that had no beginning or end, sort of like a dream.
AN You often perform the act of creation of your works—carrying the tripod in Farther than the Eye Can See, and recording sound in Deep Sleep. You both insert and remove yourself from your work. Where do you find you want to enter, and how, and why do you encrypt your presence?
BA The use of myself in my work is as a kind of body-double. A lot of my work, even early explorations, has to do with a distance I create in the material I use. I would work to disconnect an image from where I had found it or how I had shot it. I had this idea that the autobiographical wasn’t so interesting but that the subjective gaze was inevitably the perspective from which I make work, and so there is a kind of autobiographical process in discovering, making, and gathering materials for a work. I saw myself as a subject that moved things around, that went through a process and could be directed to serve a function in a film in the same way that sound or images move ideas around. It was less important to me that I be recognized as the “performer” in my works but rather as a figure that was part of creating the image. In Deep Sleep it was much more specific. My subconscious was the subject, and I wanted to invite everybody else’s subconscious into the film to go to a place that is slowly disappearing (the Gaza Strip) through these other places (Malta, Athens).
AN You have a Venn diagram exercise in a version of your Doppelganging talk, in which you locate the meeting point of your circumstances with your practice, identifying this point of overlap as your position. I’m interested in the way you taught and shared this with students and the question of whether the artist’s position grants one the right to depict certain people, certain topics. The exercise examines the intersection of one’s own position as an artist, and that of the ethics of representation.
BA I have taken the ideas that led to these projects and turned them into issues to be expanded in a workshop I led in various places. One of the central questions of the workshop is where agency is located for each participant in relation to their practice: How do artists give themselves license over their subject matter? How do we treat the work of those who explore subjects that are outside of their own experiences or travel to foreign places to make a work versus artists who make work about a subject or place they are close to?
It’s an old question, but one that continues to determine a great deal about how works are received, how we look at and make work today, whether or not we acknowledge it. This is something I have been interested in sharing with other artists, to see the range of responses, from Western to non-Western ideas, about agency in art-making. It has been a way to explore my own agency and how or why I give myself license to explore Palestine as a subject. I don’t feel that my background as a Palestinian is enough to validate an “ethical” use of Palestinian history or the contemporary conflict, or that I have a green light to point my camera at a refugee camp for twenty minutes uninterrupted. But then again, I don’t believe we need permission to produce work about places that are foreign to us. It’s all about how we understand our power in relation to whatever subject we are exploring, and that the work acknowledges that relationship in some way without trying to validate why it is acceptable.
Whether or not I was born or grew up in Palestine is insignificant. My relationship to that place significantly affected the way I experience the world, and this perspective is the position my work operates from. Whether or not my work addresses Palestine, it is one context for understanding my interest. My work has less to do with Palestine, and more simply with the human condition in relation to political history, the environment, time, the future, etcetera. I don’t have permission to shoot a refugee camp and honestly, it’s not such a polite thing to do. But I decided to record a twenty-minute drive from Gaza City heading south from a car window. When I saw the footage for the first time I noticed a quick decline from city to slum. I saw children running around the ruined landscape almost oblivious to where they were and was most excited by how this footage described the landscape in this very two-dimensional way, like a wall of moving images that quickly disappears.
I was a little surprised at how depraved Gaza came off, how classically like a ghetto or favela it read as an image, and wanted to find other images that would complicate our understanding of that territory, especially as a place incessantly documented in the news because of the conflict. I decided to use the footage that I shot, not because I have a right to use it as a Palestinian, but because I wanted to make a film that asked its audience to have an experience of a particular environment created by war and occupation, which would then contradict itself.
AN In the process of making O, Persecuted, and working with Kassem Hawal’s militant 1974 film, Our Small House, as source material, how did you arrive at the other images and moments from media history that you wanted to put in dialogue with your performance and the original film?
BA O, Persecuted was made by filming the process of painting over Hawal’s film Our Small Houses in reverse, at 2.5 times the speed. It was then reversed to give the impression that the film was being uncovered, that the paint was being removed. This was paired with a soundtrack of several modified tracks from the original film combined into a single piece of sound. Initially, the film was based only on this act of uncovering, but as soon as I made the first cut, there was something sort of placid and banal about this act alone, something limited to a past, and my feeling about conjuring this history in the present was anything but passive. I was asked to engage with this material, through a commission by the Palestine Film Foundation in London. I saw it as an incredibly generous opportunity to speak to the current political climate.
Increasingly, there has been a lot of talk about the conflict, about self-determination for Palestinians, injustice, and war crimes. There is heavy condemnation of what Israel has done, is doing, will continue to do, and yet very little actually changes. To look back at the revolutionary period of Palestinian history is heartbreaking mostly in terms of time. How much time has passed since these films were made and how much worse is the situation? Hawal’s film is unique in that it alludes to addressing both Palestinians and Israelis as persecuted people who are thrown together into a merciless battle. The past represented in the film is, first of all, one entity and not the fractured set of territories of today. Looking back on this moment is like moving in slow motion while the Israeli future is billowing forward without looking back. This is how the decision to bring the material of Israeli girls partying on the beach came about. These two realities are so inextricably intertwined but so totally disconnected from each other.
Another important aspect for me was to force women and women’s bodies into this narrative as women’s rights are second to the conflict, thereby reinforcing continued oppression and/or exploitation within each society. One of the biggest obstacles, for me, of spending time in the Middle East has been the dire situation of women’s rights. Looking back at films of the revolutionary period in Palestine, it is painfully clear that women had more rights and more importance in the struggle than they do today. Conflating this moment in history with the Westernized spring-break type footage from Israel is to say that even though the other side seems to be having a better time, the women there are objectified and degraded. On one side women’s rights are suppressed because of the overall humanitarian crisis, while on the other women’s bodies are used to promote a seductive image of the country that is completely contradictory to the supposed security threat that affords Israel the green light to engage in major warfare whenever it wants.
Conflating this with the orientalist belly-dancer footage, as the bridge between the two—and the ghost that lingers beneath the surface—is to show the disparity within the reality of this landscape and how much work there is to be done that has nothing to do with nationalism/statehood. It’s meant to force us to return to this idea in Hawal’s film, that both people are persecuted and faced with the same fate—to kill or be killed—and to think about this question today as history moves in slow motion and the future is speeding toward us.
I think this film is undeniably angry but I believe people will find the aggression in different places. My interest was to enact a frustration with history, to have a particularly nostalgic part of Palestinian history colliding with a contemporary Israeli reality. Neither side is represented in a positive light, but it’s also not an attack on either side. I kept thinking that the situation had only grown worse during my lifetime and this film is an attempt to point to a very specific instance of that reality.
AN You employ the intensity of the strobing image and loud, infectious music or sound to powerfully impart emotion, making us feel these stories without placing priority on narrative or factual information. The experience of the image is often more telling than the facts around it. How has cinema’s visceral power become a central tool, or vehicle for you to communicate your ideas?
BA I am really taken by cinema’s ability to allow us to experience emotions and have a cognitive response to subjects we know little about. Often without depending on language in a classical sense and allowing the moving image’s ability to delve into the depths of our subconscious—relying on our senses to grasp and feel something beyond understanding. I think it’s magical even in its most subtle and understated forms. There is a lot of misunderstanding around the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, and I’m not so invested in clarifying it, especially since it is this confusion I am interested in, along with placing it on others as a way to explore a more general confusion about how to exist on Earth, rather than in a particular country. Though I work in other mediums, I see the moving image as a parallel reality that I can create, manipulate, and invite an audience to be a part of.
AN Originally, your sole mode of exhibition was installation in the contemporary art context, but in the last several years you’ve transitioned into also showing your work in cinematic contexts. You’ve explored working with film alongside video, and have approached moving image making from outside the tradition of experimental film. How does this mode of working relate to your themes of peripheral experience?
BA I’m still really affected by the way that the moving image occupies space. The way it looks when it’s projected outside versus a cinema, or on the ground, or while a band is playing, or as an LED in an urban space. I started working with video as a way of exploring other mediums. So, incorporating text, voice, drawings, 16mm film, slides, photographs, and so on. Now, I’m curious about the way in which working with film has made me think about my process before I start to film, rather than when I edit. Less about collecting materials and more about creating them from scratch. I think this is aligned with the fact that I’m no longer exploring the Middle East the way I did when I first came out of school. At the time, I was refamiliarizing myself with the region as a subject, a place I wanted to be more connected to personally. I was mining the field for how representation functions in that part of the world, how it reads to the outside world, how I related to it. It’s not that my understanding of the Middle East or my relationship to it is totally resolved, but that I no longer feel I want to collect or archive, as this feels closer to a research process. Rather than exploring Palestine through my experience of it as an outsider, I am now curious to explore the world through Palestine, as someone who is essentially not from anywhere.
Aily Nash is an independent curator. She co-curates the New York Film Festival’s Projections section and has curated programs and exhibitions for MoMA PS1 (NYC), FACT (Liverpool), BAM/Brooklyn Academy of Music (NYC), Anthology Film Archives (NYC), Northwest Film Center (Portland), Image Forum (Tokyo), and others. Her writing has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Artforum.com, Film Comment, de Filmkrant, and elsewhere. She recently served on the jury at Media City Film Festival and on the FIPRESCI Jury at Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen. Nash curates film and media at Basilica Hudson and currently teaches at Bruce High Quality Foundation University in New York. She is based in Hudson and Brooklyn, New York.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.