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The Impact of Art, fierce conclusion to three-day conference

How can you write about a three-day conference, part of which took place behind closed doors, the closing night of which looked like vimeo looks very neat, but where the tension in the room was palpable?

With a completely open mind and not much more background than an average newspaper reader, but with a firm belief in the power of the arts, I spent three days at de Balie. The conference What's Art Got To Do With It, Art, Politics, Israel/Palestine concluded with the meeting The Impact of Art where the idea was for the viewer to get a picture of the previous two days. (About the other days you can here and here reading).

In the behind-the-scenes section, artists from Israel, Palestine, Flanders and the Netherlands had discussed art in and about Israel/Palestine. I was allowed to be there for the last hour, in which the final evening was prepared. Divided into three groups, personal involvement, the economic situation and the pros and cons of a cultural boycott were discussed. Since I am most interested in how artists think about themselves in the world and their personal engagement, I joined the first group. As a result, I was still almost naïve about the tensions that had arisen over the three days.

But what actually happened?

The evening started with a dialogue between two young theatre-makers, George Elias Tobal and Eran Ben Michael. After a light-hearted question about which entrance the audience wants, the optimistic one (art can change something) or the pessimistic one (art cannot change anything at all), the two friends seem to clash hard about where your responsibility lies as an artist. Syrian George Elias Tobal finds Dutch Jew Eran Ben Michael cowardly because he would not die for his family. For Eran, this is so far removed from his reality that he cannot even think about this. He makes art and thus out, and in doing so, these guys get to the heart of the evening. For 'us', the Middle East is far away, no matter how involved you feel.

The short performances by Nir de Volff and Taher Najib are also about personal stories. They make painfully clear how different the lifeworlds of Israelis and Palestinians are. But in doing so, they also make clear to me what the power of art is: empathy and dialogue.

After that, it soon intensifies. In the section on the political-economic context (say: how do you get money and do you have to water it down?), the moderation flies off the handle for a moment. Renilde Steeghs was in the audience. She is an ambassador for cultural cooperation. Naeeda Aurangzeb, the moderator, walked up to her, asking what the Dutch agenda is in granting subsidies in Israel and Palestine. Steeghs' answer was that there is no agenda, but that they work with small Palestinian funds.

Naeeda: "And if a Hamas-loving club wants to apply?"

"Then it comes in to a partner organisation that looks at whether the project promotes human rights and cooperation." Neat answer to a not exactly open-ended question.

George and Eran in their long performance, on which their scene at the Balie was inspired.

To boycott?

The most heated section, with some of the audience walking away, dealt with the usefulness of an economic and cultural boycott of Israel.
Dancer Nadia Harouri goes head-to-head. She tells how, as a teenager, she was able to go to Austria for a music summer school. She thought she was invited because she was good but it turned out she was not, it was because she is Palestinian and so we feel sorry and buy off our guilt with her plane ticket. It also allows Western cultural institutions to bring in more grant money.

She criticises the peace industry, which in its view normalises the relationship between occupier and occupied through cultural exchange. So cooperation is suspect and the ambassador gets a sneer. She is sure the audience feels a responsibility because of their country's role during WWII. She asks the audience to raise their hands while she lists the various demands behind BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) calls. Who is not in favour of non-violent intervention? And so on...

At that point, a few people walk away. Those also get a sneer. "Oh the usual drama, I was asked to present this".

Then she goes on: "most people thought a boycott against South Africa was okay, but mention the word boycott and Israel in 1 sentence and you shoot in a cramp. And that makes perfect sense because Nazi Germany asked to boycott Jewish shops at the beginning of the war. And I completely understand that but it's not right in this context." She continued by taking a stand for the BDS despite objections and that it is not against artists but against the state and state-funded artists like Batsheva Dance Company, a propaganda vehicle of the state.

Her recitation is so calm and polite that it takes a while for the audience to realise how it is being played. But afterwards, I hear a lot of protest.

Or not to boycott?

Gary Feingold responds by saying that he has a love-hate relationship with Israel because he has many friends there and because he danced there for several years. He is ex-director of Dancing On The Edge and he always found the cultural boycott the most difficult issue because individual artists are usually not in a position to influence or change a government and because they often depend on government subsidies.

He tells how at the first festival, there were companies from Israel, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Egypt. A Palestinian company dropped out because of the cultural boycott. Other Arab companies did not want to stay in the same hotel or be in the same programme as the Israelis . They also did not want photos showing them with Israelis, as that could pose a danger on their return. With the latter, Gary could agree. In the end, the Israelis joined the Syrians at the table because the room downstairs where they were supposed to eat was full and there was still room upstairs at the Arab table.

Does he really think you can end the occupation with a conversation between artists?

No of course not, it's about geopolitics, land, human rights and money. But does it help anyone if there is no more dialogue between individual artists? And isn't it effective to bring Israeli artists here who are usually very critical of the occupation, and doesn't that have more impact than when Palestinians are? Economic boycott, Feingold can live with that, but boycott of art and intellectuals? No. By doing so, you also deny many dissenting voices. His reasonable sound garners much acclaim.

If I have learnt one thing, it is that nothing is neutral in this conflict. Or this occupation. Because even these two words are loaded. The arts threatened to get out of sight in that last discussion. I continue to believe firmly in art. And in the dialogue that art can initiate. But I do realise that it's easy for me to talk.

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Helen Westerik

Helen Westerik is a film historian and great lover of experimental films. She teaches film history and researches the body in art.View Author posts

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