Conversation: Benji Boyadgian and Agnes Stillger

An email exchange during the COVID-19 pandemic in March and April 2020

The meme “Dear world, how is the lockdown? Gaza”, which came up in social media in the first weeks of the global COVID-19 pandemic, implies that nowadays the management of (real and imagined) risks drives societies towards containment, enclosure and various forms of incarceration. Closing borders, controlling and restricting movement all of a sudden became the new normal in the rest of the world. Benji, your artistic work centres on observations of the interaction of bodies and space, of building structures and infrastructures and you investigate all these materials as an archive. In 2015 with Phantasmagoria of Drones you mapped in great detail the urban fabric of Bethlehem including the separation wall, roads, checkpoints, refugee camps etc. What are the changes that have now additionally been physically inscribed in this landscape with the Corona crises and governmental measures?

I was actually thinking about the drawing when the curfew began, it felt premonitory, but not for the reasons one could have imagined. The drawing depicts the entrance of Bethlehem devoid of people, activities and closed borders, fitting the times of the pandemic pretty accurately. This scenery is not unfamiliar to the memory of this place, because of Israeli military curfews imposed in times of high tension. Lockdown/occupation analogies have come up quite frequently in social media platforms since the pandemic began, but those are totally different circumstances, and this analogy downplays the nature of the occupation, which is not a state of exception but rather a permanence. Since I did the drawing in 2015, some small changes have happened, a few new buildings were erected, and the neighbourhood blossomed into the epicentre of occupation tourism. I probably would not have thought of doing this drawing had I not been commissioned to imagine a subjective map of this place. I find the use of images of the wall conflicting, because it has the potential to assert itself in the imaginary of this place, to commodify it and normalize it. Contrary to the incentive of shedding light onto a situation, it seems to shine a light onto it. Inadvertently but predictably, the wall becomes a monument of the 21st century, commemorating our times and the perpetual present events we live through. A monument understood as an idea that stems from hegemonic structures to remind us of something. In the process of elaborating this work, I noticed that views from above of this area are not accessible to the public and you cannot fly a drone because it is a politically sensitive area: Basically, this image did not exist. In that respect, I thought the only thing that made sense was a map that attempts to show realistically the different layers of the landscape and the wall being another trace, a sense of looking at the distant past of a present that unfortunately is here to stay.
Bethlehem was the first city to go under lockdown in early March; a couple of weeks ago those orders were relaxed. The Israeli checkpoint reopened, but with tougher crossing restrictions, a few hundred metres apart, a mobile Palestinian Authority patrol car sifts those who enter through the checkpoint, an ironic momentary reversal of roles considering the context at large. Life is slowly getting back on course, but tourists are absent and not about to come back. It will be quiet in this open-air museum whose image overshadows the hopes of people dreaming of a better life and equality.

I want to quote Indian novelist Arundhati Roy who, in a long text on the situation in India published recently in the Financial Times, noted “The lockdown worked like a chemical experiment that suddenly illuminated hidden things… as the wealthy and the middle classes enclosed themselves in gated colonies, our towns and megacities began to extrude their working-class citizens — their migrant workers — like so much unwanted accrual.” I think her observation can be adapted to most societies right now. What did you observe?

It is difficult to paint a general picture of the situation here, because of the social complexities, the territorial fragmentation, etc… Regarding the occupation, the colonial steamroller is in full swing. Control of mobility is already set up, aided by an array of tools. The territory is designed to potentially lock down neighbourhoods and cities. This situation is all very well documented, to the extent that it feels like we have reached a tautological impasse. With the pandemic the gates shut, unexpected ones too, and unexpected ones opened. When the lockdown started, Israel called on the Palestinian labour force to cross the border and stay there, something unheard of, but logical in terms of the economic dynamics of colonial exploitation. Some workers cross illegally through breaches, others legally through checkpoints; the lure of working in Israel is financial, as salaries and opportunities are better. There was this story about Palestinians reporting to the Israelis breaches in fences that workers use to cross back and forth to Israel, but they were lenient in closing them. This is another example of an ironic reversal of the imaginary, only temporarily. As Israel was reaching its peak and the lockdown got stricter, a lot of workers returned to the Palestinian cities and villages. This created all kinds of fears based on the idea that they would bring back the virus. The first reported death in Palestine was a consequence of this situation, and there are other cases of spreads related to this.
As I mentioned earlier, Bethlehem was the first city to go under lockdown, because it is a tourist attraction. It is a small agglomeration, made up of a few municipalities and some refugee camps, and sealed on all sides by the wall and settlements. The northern municipalities are wealthier, but in general the population is socially mixed and the social structure is to a large extent family or clan based. Apart from the refugee camps and historic centres that have their own identity, the urban fabric is heterogeneous. There are no gated communities as such but upper-class villas, pockets of wealthier compounds and luxury residencies scattered around. What struck me in the beginning was a wave of xenophobia, because the foreigner brought the virus. Prices on Italian pasta dropped. The first few weeks the atmosphere was eerie, the streets were nearly empty, many of them were blocked, stone boulders were named road-blocks of peace. Different agencies of the PA forces were all over, essentially controlling the movement between neighbourhoods, saving the population from the virus through the resources invested in security. The fact that very few cases were reported made people more relaxed, especially as Ramadan started and continued, as it is social holiday. One could see more people in the streets and questionable corona distancing. Except for an event where the Israeli army took advantage of the lockdown to raid a camp and arrest people, the political atmosphere in Bethlehem was quiet. There were also a couple of confrontations with the PA regarding the return of workers for the Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, a four day curfew was imposed, which ended up with an anti-lockdown incident at the entrance of a refugee camp that resulted in some heavy gunfire and few injuries. There was also an anti-lockdown clash midway through Ramadan, tyres were burned at a junction, and riot police intervened. But the general atmosphere is the anxiety of economic hardship. To sum up the lockdown, it started with fear of the foreigner, and then moved to the fear of poverty.
The question of class displayed itself on all sides, like all over the world, the virus revealed broken systems. As class identification has been altered by national or ethnic identification, it plays a role in the political imaginary of the occupation in terms of the way we identify the protagonists. Class is not a topic that is much talked about, apart from the logical association of capitalism and colonialism, hence the Palestinians are imagined as the poor, which is not false, but the lack of class discourse shapes generalizations in the collective subconscious. Both societies are far from being socially and economically homogenous. To make matters worse, since it was instated in the 1990s the PA has been coerced by the donor countries to create a market economy, this, combined with their security obligations, makes them actors in maintaining economic peace, hence the status quo, or, the management of the occupation.
If we take the art world and look at the imaginary of the occupation, it is not very different. Decolonization discourses occupy a hegemonic space, they present a set of legitimate critiques, but they also have their limits. There is what Arundhati Roy highlights, an underlying problem of class that is not being addressed. Their methodology follows a top down approach and leaves any form of social science to be desired. The attention shifts to the representation of the consequences of the situation, or dystopic imagery mirroring its subject of criticism. Rather than reflecting on the source and causes of the problem, it is an imaginary that reiterates the condition of the dominated and, by corollary, maintains a form of alienation that is the goal of colonization: the prevention of emancipation.

During your two-month residency in Florence you created a life-size bamboo model for your work “Reverberation”, aka “The Spaceship” (as I read on your FB page). After a long odyssey (stuck in customs) the piece was finally presented in Istanbul at the Istanbul Modern. So when the work arrived in Istanbul it was only visible to the public for a short period before the museum had to shut down. How does that feel after all the struggles?

The struggle continues. Actually, I was anticipating that the museum would temporarily close, and I did not think too much about it. There are more important things going on at this moment. At a personal level, the most interesting aspect was the odyssey, the process. The spaceship landed in Istanbul, and the lockdown created a temporary lunar atmosphere.

The two titles of this work leave room for interpretation. “Spaceship” has both a scientific and utopian connotation. Alternative fiction has also been an aspect of your work “The Discord” (2016) centring on patterns and repetition in historic tiles. Could you talk a bit about this science fiction/utopian moment in your work? I am even more curious about the title Reverberation – reverberation of what?

The notion of utopia has been in my mind since my architectural studies, the idea of imagining an alternative is compelling. Those utopias shaped the fictions of the 20th century and beyond, like sci-fi. The sci-fi moment as a tangible reference in my work happened during the Armenian Triennial in 2017. When I was doing my research trip, Soviet and prehistoric traces fascinated me, bus stations that looked like space ships and prehistoric caves turned into ritual sanctuaries. I decided to work with steel because I was looking for some reflective surfaces, and the imaginary of this material is interesting, both as one of the mediums that designed all those utopian fantasies, but also in terms of its historical significance. It is hybrids of associations that I extract from the archives of the imaginary.
Utopias, or alternative fictions is one way to deal with the lack of distance that we have from the current political events and their temporality, especially when the event prolongs into something that feels permanent. I look for different ways to evoke present day preoccupations, alternative fiction can be a way to reflect on the cause of those preoccupations, and utopia a way to imagine a better world.
The title Reverberation refers to the echoes of collective subconscious emotions or the phantom phantasmagorias. Being partly of Armenian descent and doing a work in Istanbul is not anodyne. My surname stimulates projections and expectations, whether I like it or not, and they emanate from different sides. The only approach I felt I could have was to question my agency in those circumstances, to live the absurd and do something in the process of it. So, I decided to land a spaceship in Istanbul. I had in mind to make an interactive sculpture that would function as a mise en abimes device, a space that put bodies in interaction with one another and their images, using a system of mirrors. The form came at later stages of the process. During that time I visited Hrant Dink’s memorial and read his book. What struck me was his outspoken anti-racism and claim for equality, and the way the memorial detaches itself from the image of the victim, from the condition of the dominated. From the perspective of the historical loser, equality is a tricky claim. That is where utopia comes in, because it is time to imagine real alternatives, a better world.

Documenting to preserve is an aspect of your work that strikes me. Often in a long process that calls for patience and perseverance, for example thinking of the tiles of “The Discord” or the documentation of “Temporary Ruins”. I was just wondering if this Corona pandemic might leave some traces in your work, but maybe it is way too early to tell… ?

Since the lockdown started I worked a bit, but I spent more time gardening. The different exhibitions I am involved in have been postponed so it is nice to have time to do other things. I am not so sure what kind of traces this pandemic will leave, for now it gives some time to look back at the last few years and reflect.
Documenting in general can be problematic because of its relationship to memory and to the archive. Preservation is something that is generally associated to power structures, I guess that is why we see a lot of interesting art that revolves around archives, to reveal the suppressed memories or to attempt to change the political imaginary that hegemonic archives have instilled. Most of my painting and drawing practice has been centred around documentation. When I came back to Jerusalem after my studies, I was not so sure how to proceed with my work in such a heavy political context. By instinct I decided to observe and document what I see, to position myself as a witness. It is a practice that demands a lot of patience, time and focus. When I work on a figurative subject matter, I usually paint from observation and not images, to question the nature of documentation and in terms of image creation not to repeat a picture, because I do not change the subject per se, I just interfere in the way it is perceived. This led to a development in the way I document throughout the years, and it evolved into something that has more of a fictional feeling to it.
John Berger says something very interesting about drawing and painting by observation and its relationship to time, to paraphrase him, painting is an attempt to preserve time, every glance that leads to a trace preserves the moment it has been observed, and the result is the sum of all those moments.