Monday, January 5, 2009

Facing Failure. A visit to Bethlehem

Tragedy has a way of playing ironic games that we only begin to understand once it's too late.

About a year ago, I wrote about a project called Face2Face, by two artists who go by the pseudonyms JR and Marco. The simple idea was: bring people to see how similar they are, and how funny. Show the two sides their faces. A charming, courageous project that meant to show the urgency of seeing the other.

That was one year ago.

A few days ago, on December 25th, I visited Bethlehem, the capital of the Palestinian Autonomy.
When entering the city, I discovered street art I had written about.
And the site was sad.

It is true, the works survived on the walls for quite a while. But especially in the case of some of the portraits, the damage was more than just a random act of destruction.

It made me feel like that particular project failed.
Possibly, someone still got influenced by it. But the statement it was making now was much stronger, and seemed to correspond better to the tension. And to increase it.
Among the many question that arose, one came back often: isn't this ridiculous, to think you can just put some funny faces on both sides of the wall, and people will feel closer to each other? You know, We Are The World... Here is what the artists were saying in 2007:

In a very sensitive context, we need to be clear.
We are in favor of a solution for which two countries, Israel and Palestine would live peacefully within safe and internationally recognized borders.

All the bilateral peace projects (Clinton/Taba, Ayalon/Nussibeh, Geneva Accords) are converging in the same direction. We can be optimistic.

We hope that this project will contribute to a better understanding between Israelis and Palestinians.

Today, "Face to face" is necessary.
Within a few years, we will come back for "Hand in hand".

Hand in hand? Today it's tempting to ask, so what does each hand hold?
What is left for the artist? This cute idea of the artist being a social engineer can look ridiculous in the face of the violent tragedy we're witnessing. The Greek tragedy appears in all its seemingly unsolvable power.

But what made this particular artistic project end up like this?
1. It felt like it was a declaration: we don't think you're funny.
2. Maybe it said: your language is not ours. You have no clue about us (but implying: and we - about you).
3. But let us go back to the face. The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas said that
the face says to me: you shall not kill.
Is that why the work was torn? In a way... I would be tempted to say that Levinas gives a reason a little further in that interview:
Accordingly, my duty to respond to the other [because of being confronted with his face] suspends my natural right to self-survival, le droit vitale.
Ergo, a work showing the faces of others can somehow take away my power to consider myself ahead of the other, leaving me at their mercy. They are facing me. In front of me. (Laughing at me?)(Mocking my way of life? My seriousness and attachment to my culture? My people's suffering, maybe?) By looking at me, constantly, they demand recognition that goes beyond any recognition they can give me.

Yes, this seems like a dead-lock. And a sad time, also for art.

One desperate attempt at a positive note.
Not all ancient Greek tragedies ended badly. For instance, The Eumenides, the third part of Aeschilus' trilogy Oresteia, ends well. It is Athena who comes and convinces the goddesses of vengeance - the Furies - to accept a judgement democratically made by a jury. Athena renames the Furies (Erinyes) the Kindly Ones - Eumenides. (And everyone lives happily ever after.)
Can we paint ourselves into being Athenas? We'll keep on trying. But we could certainly use some of those sound democratic judgements to defend.
Selected fragments of Levinas on the face:
The face resists possession, resists my powers.
The face opens the primordial discourse whose first word is obligation.
The Other faces me and puts me in question and obliges me.
The face is exposed, menaced, as if inviting us to an act of violence. At the same time, the face is what forbids us to kill.
The manifestation of the face is already discourse.