Deep in the bowels of the Art Institute, there is a portal to another world. It is a pulsating pocket of transcendence — a place that escapes the linear narrative of time. This is an aberration, a crack in the logics, a flaw in the geometry. This is a room that isn’t meant to exist.
Go up the grand staircase to the second floor, through Impressionist galleries funded by major backers of Zionist settler-colonialism such as the Pritzkers and Rothschilds, past rooms and rooms of smiling Europeans, after the modern wing, turning right to the balcony cafe, and then left entering Architecture and Design galleries (A&D)— a space of radical Palestinian art rests in the void.
When you enter Architecture and Design, you will not immediately see Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme’s If only this mountain between us could be ground to dust — the first Palestinian exhibition ever at the museum, curated by Maite Borjabad López-Pastor. But listen closely and you will hear faint emanations, occasional messages coming through from another dimension. Arabic recitations of sliding frequency rise in unresolved crescendo, infecting the air of the Art Institute.
A few paces from the entrance of the small architecture gallery is a dark and hidden chasm in the solid wall. Congratulations. You have stumbled upon the portal.
After entering the exhibition, which is unlisted on the Art Institute’s seasonal map, we are greeted with a dual presentation of laser inkjet prints and vinyl words on the wall. The first part of the exhibition, Don’t read poetics in these lines is a series of 14 prints spliced and re-composed tweets responding to the Arab revolutions. The second, Once an artist, now just a tool is a smattering of words on the wall. These words are scattered, with variable sentence combinations depending on your reading.
The arrow shape formed by the inkjet prints pierces the sea of vinyl words against the deep emerald wall. Don’t read poetics in these lines is not just the title to the series of prints — it is an instruction for how to engage with Once an artist, now just a tool.
Commissioned by Borjabad for this exhibition, Once an artist, now just a tool describes the Art Institute and museums at large. “Bodies not supposed to be seen like this… Exhibitions surrounded by smiling European experts…A violent act.” According to Borjabad, Abbas and Abou-Rahme are talking to the museum directly through this artwork. The artists and curator point to the violence perpetrated and perpetuated by institutions such as the Art Institute.
“Museums are graveyards on the piles of dead bodies,” they tell us. Museums are colonial spaces which are built on theft from colonized lands. Museums loot and fossilize subjugated cultures, condensing entire narratives into “objects” for the viewing pleasure of bourgeois sensibilities.
As colonial institutions such as the Art Institute gild themselves in the language of social justice while failing to actually address the inequities within their royal, lion-flanked doors, Abbas, Abou-Rahme, and Borjabad call us to interrogate which narratives are silently and invisibly being censored.
The Art Institute is a colonial institution of white supremacy, and like the arrow piercing the sea, if we are to engage it we must attack and infiltrate. To infiltrate in artistic practice and curatorial strategy, the artists and curator call us to be formless and formful — we must constantly retool, restrategize, rethink. We must be shapeshifters. When we engage institutions we are not members of those institutions or even allies to any group — we are accomplices to the Resistance. And we attack from the inside.
Walking past the foyer, participants in the exhibition encounter a dark room with projectors at its center. Two multi-channel videos play on loop, and the projectors shine the videos on three walls, each of which has staggered boards. The staggered boards fragment the projections, creating a multiplicity of realities. The set up of the space testifies to the fragmented reality that the Zionist entity has superimposed on the Palestinian people.
The artists created one of the two videos, At those terrifying frontiers where existence and disappearance fade into each other, by grounding themselves in a critical text. They draw from Edward Said’s After the Last Sky, a poetic study of Palestinian life which theorizes about the collective consciousness of the Palestinian people. The artists also transformed the text into a recitation performed as avatars — the sounds of this song are the emanations you hear upon entering the A&D galleries, the occasional messages coming through to an indifferent world.
Abbas and Abou-Rahme used a software to generate the avatars from low-resolution images of demonstrators (some of them their own friends) of the Great March of Return, an ongoing series of border protests on the seamline in Gaza. Where there was missing data in images of protesters (if someone’s face was blocked by, say, an elbow), the software replaced it with glitches and incomplete features that resemble scars.
According to the artists, the creation of avatars is meant to be an act of radical proximity to protesters they were only 100 kilometers from, yet could not reach as a result of borders imposed by the Zionist entity. As Edward Said tells us in After the Last Sky, “There is no line that can be drawn from one Palestinian to another that does not seem to interfere with the political designs of one or another state.” Palestinians, then, teach us how to move in transcendence of borders created by settler-colonies.
This transcendent movement, though, is at tension with the recursivities of violence that settler-colonialism produces. Settler-colonialism produces cycles of violences; dispossession impels more dispossession, and representing a fragmented reality through art reproduces that fragmentation on a different plane of experience.
The avatars are hyper-realistic 3D figures — they appear in front-facing camera screens. Sharp nostalgia for the future colors the resoluteness embedded in the pinpoints of their eyes. Are they real people? Or are they lost time-travelers, stuck between dimensions, in exile from time itself?
We feel an affinity with these avatars, they are us, we are them — they gaze out into the exhibition space, and collapse the distance between the viewer and the artwork, shattering the binary.
The creation of the avatars also alludes to the violence done when events are narrativized. The missing data in the protest videos represents the parts of reality which have been erased. When that missing data gets transformed into scars on the avatars, they signify a violence that representation has done. Cameras cannot capture all angles and aspects of a particular moment of reality. So, videos are necessarily imperfect narratives of protest events, and there will always be a distance between an event and the narrative surrounding that event. At those terrifying frontiers tells us that images do violence. “The images used to represent us only diminish our reality more.”
These scars are the manifestations of the diminishment of reality. The artists compel us to think within this diminishment on a virtual plane, and explore the negative as a site of potential. “To breathe where you should not be able to breathe.” The scars also present us with new information where there was once missing information. The software engages missing bytes — data which is not there — in order to create a new reality out of negative space. Into what was once emptiness, the artists fabricate memory of a scar or glitch. By maiming virtual avatars, the artists deploy visibility and invisibility to produce a recursivity of violence — the violence of missing bytes instigates a new violence of glitches and scars.
Sitting within a recursivity of violence can be didactic. By sitting in recursivities, At those terrifying frontiers probes how the enemy produces the oppressive systems which cause them. This is a reconnaissance mission, and by investigating these logics on a virtual plane, participants in the exhibition can interrogate how to break free of them. Colonialism is a sloppy, incomplete project; therefore it has weak points we can puncture, places that present the potential to break free from recursivities of violence.
Abbas and Abou-Rahme also point us to an alternative strategy to resist recursivities of violence: fugitivity. If only this mountain remains fugitive from capture — this is not an artwork to gaze at, but a space to experience. According to Borjabad, there is no optimized view of the videos; from no point in the exhibition space can you see the work in its fullness. It is impossible to capture it, and ultimately any attempt to do so is a fake representation of the work. This is a subversion of the capitalist ethic, which is to capture you, frame you, and then sell you.
We can learn from Palestinians that there is liberation in fugitivity — in continuing to sidestep their traps, escape their prisons, remove ourselves from their gaze. As an exilic state, fugitivity calls for a collective transcendence of state borders and escape from colonial logics. “Where to become free, you need to become fugitive,” they write. The artists embrace fugitivity as an emancipated form.
Entering the exhibition space is akin to submerging yourself in water. You’re either all in or all are out. Borjabad’s curatorial choices indicate that this is not an object for us to view, but a living entity with which we share space. In order to participate in the exhibition, we must let go of our individual subjectivities. This is a communal experience — I found that every time I would sit down on the plush carpet in the room, other participants would sit down with me. We are here together.
As the artists’ distorted voices punctuated the air, I experienced an unsettledness within my core; there is a tenor to the torment of their tones, as if the voices are trying to spawn new life out of the nothingness of thin air. It is destabilizing, and it is this destabilization which breaks the borders of our individual Selves in order to place us in communion with each other. Make no mistake: this is a violent process. But as Franz Fanon reminds us, violence is transformative.
When you experience this exhibit, you are everywhere and nowhere; you sit at that crevice between life and death, the known and unknown. Indeed, we sit At those terrifying frontiers where existence and disappearance fade into each other. And the exhibition asks you: what’s there?
Despite the unnerving nature of the exhibition, there is a harmony to the dissonance, a dialectic to the dislocation. Rupture after rupture spills into an ocean of discontinuity, constituting a living body made whole only through its fragmentation. And though we may not be able to see the exhibit in its entirety, we can find clarity in its fragments.
There are many backgrounds on which the avatars in the video are superimposed — barren landscape, apartheid wall, lush greenery — a multiplication of realities. And one of these realities, the lush greenery, silently nods at the other video in the exhibition, Oh shining star testify.
One day, fourteen-year-old Yusuf Shawamreh and some of his friends crawled through a hole in the apartheid wall near Hebron in the West Bank. He and his friends were going to pick Akub — an edible plant that is a delicacy in Palestinian cuisine. It blooms for only a short period of time each year; Yusuf went to pick the akub from his ancestral land, with which his fundamental link had been severed. After crossing the fence, Israeli Occupying Forces (IOF) shot him dead. The Zionist entity had known for two years that the hole in the wall was there. There were no warning shots. Abbas and Abou-Rahme center the military surveillance footage of the killing — which circulated online before being removed — in Oh shining star testify.
Oh shining star testify blares sharp and metallic sounds at us. The audio fades in and out, pulsating with electricity. We watch as Yusuf crosses the wall with his friends into the akub fields. Beep, beep, beep. The sounds of what could be a walkie-talkie penetrate a staticky soundscape. Click-clack. Is that a gun being taken off of its safety? We are enveloped in an ambience of fear, an oppressive mystery overtakes us as we try to make sense of our surroundings. We know what is coming, yet we cannot bear to see it.
They are about to shoot Yusuf.
But the moment never comes. We see Yusuf crossing the wall, we see the soldiers standing over his body and carrying him back to their vehicle after he has been shot, yet we never encounter the moment of his death. We are awaiting a resolution to the ever-rising tension; it will never come.
When I experienced Oh shining star testify, I felt so much anxiety. And anxiety is a temporal feeling — anxiety is based in worry over the future, in uneasiness over uncertainty. Yet there is also a component of desire to anxiety. We desire the moment of Yusuf’s death in this video because it will break the tension — by refusing to incorporate that moment, Oh shining star testify condemns that desire. We do not need to see Palestinian death in order to value Palestinian life.
Oh shining star testify also produces an experience of ever-present danger, a constant state of emergency. It suspends us in the present. By centering on Yusuf’s crossing of the apartheid wall, the video motions to how Palestinian mobility is limited and how their space is fragmented. But by leaving us in suspense through the refusal to display the spectacle of Yusuf’s suffering, Oh shining star testify also shows us how the occupation restricts the Palestinian experience of time. Checkpoints, random stops, curfews, and random settler violence all serve to distort and warp Palestinian temporality — even time in Palestine is under occupation.
The video stretches our perception of time; it takes a moment and makes it a lifetime. When we live in the limbo Oh shining star testify produces, we experience an iota of the horrifics of occupation time.
This is especially relevant when we recall Once an artist, now just a tool. Museums relegate objects to dead time — an artwork is alienated from the oppressive present conditions under which it was formed in order to preserve it for those privileged enough to see it in the future. Oh shining star testify calls for living time. It calls for urgency — be here, now. Engage, now. Be with Yusuf, now.
Oh shining star testify does not present a linear narrative. While one wall of the exhibition displays the surveillance footage, another wall displays the lush landscape Yusuf had been picking from. The landscape is in motion, up close, out of focus. Then we cut to a still-shot of a fiery moon laid over the surveillance footage. We encounter several different screens of shots layed on top of one another — rich foliage, clapping people at what might be a funeral scene, young people picking up broken up rocks from the ground, a home demolition.
The video presents a cross-section of Palestinian life and death; it pays tribute to the agony of living under settler-colonialism, the steadfastness of the resistance, the richness of the land. The narrative is disjointed, we learn the story in fragments, and it is never complete.
Oh Shining Star follows the form that At those terrifying frontiers told us to expect. As Said explains: “Our characteristic mode is… broken narratives, fragmentary compositions, and self-consciously staged testimonials, in which the narrative voice keeps stumbling over itself, its obligations, and its limitations.”
Who is talking in Oh shining star testify? Is it Yusuf? The akub? The mourning men? Or is it something which subsumes all those things and more? The narrative is disjointed because the reality is fragmented — a resistant reality eludes capture through art, and the result is a work which can only be cohered through its fragments. Liberation is a process of gathering blips of time — moments of collective understanding, sweet resolution, and joint struggle create the reality we strive for. But this struggle is existential, never certain, and always incomplete. Embracing incompleteness can help us see the fragments more clearly. Do we need to be whole in order to be free?
Though the narrative isn’t linear, it is still structured by repetition. “Give me your scarf to wrap my wound,” the lines of people clapping — phrases and scenes are repeated over and over again. There is a compulsion to repeat in this exhibition, so much so that it constitutes an almost anti-aesthetic effect, symbolic of an exile from a land, a history, a home. These are “adornments to what is already adorned,” so says Said. To repeat is to remember; to repeat is to resist erasure; to repeat is to construct a home, not out of bricks and stone, but out of words and symbols. It is to “transform the mechanics of loss into a constantly postponed metaphysics of return,” we learn from At those terrifying frontiers.
Engaging in a praxis of fugitivity, learned from Palestinians, requires that we do not invest in colonial institutions long-term. Colonial institutions are built on the backs of the colonized, slake their thirst with our blood, and quell their hunger by gnawing on our malnourished bones. They will never be for us.
Our investment must be temporary. Infiltration requires an eventual escape plan, and If only this mountain will be escaping the Art Institute on January 3rd.
We must not only continue to out-organize the enemy, but also delegitimize their colonial institutions and create parallels. The Palestinian resistance in Chicago is stronger than it has ever been, and the time for investing in parallel institutions is now.
The Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) Chicago coalition infiltrated the colonial institution of the University of Chicago to host renowned Palestinian poet Mohamed El-Kurd. According to the UChicago-seeded SJP Media Collective, SJP’s across the city have also held Palestine 101 events throughout the Fall to educate the masses. There was celebration in honor of Palestinian joy. And SJP UChicago recently published Cheers to Intifada, an e-zine of potent and emotive art pieces which “probe the past not to summon nostalgia but to learn how our ancestors’ struggles can guide our imaginaries.”
The arts are important because they allow us to imagine what parallel institutions might look like. As the editors of Cheers to Intifada write: artists “craft what justice may look like in the future.” Striving towards an aesthetics of liberation will allow us to draw new strategies of resistance and discover unprecedented knowledges. Make no mistake, producing art alone is not an adequate means to overthrow our colonizers.
But look deeply enough into the preludes of poets, the designs of weavers, or the deep emerald walls of an exhibition nearly gone, and you may catch a glimpse of a portal to another side.