Shifting Ground is a five-day program of book launches, performances and a symposium, conceived by Palestinian curator Lara Khaldi in Ramallah. It opened on Thursday night at Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center with the launch of nine newly commissioned artists’ books and an Arabic translation of Noor Abu Arafeh’s novel ‘The Earth Doesn’t Tell Its Secrets’ – His father once said (2017), as well as Lawrence Abu Hamdan performing Bird Watching — a “live audio essay” built around his research on Syria’s Saydnaya Prison — by phone from Berlin. The third offsite project of Sharjah Biennial 13: Tamawuj, Khaldi’s program responds to an imaginative interpretation of the word “earth” in relation to Palestine.
Sharjah Biennial 13 curator Christine Tohme, of Beirut’s Ashkal Alwan, the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, hoped to use the biennial’s infrastructure and resources to decentralize this year’s edition; Tamawuj itself means a tidal fluctuation, or an undulation. To follow the exhibition in Sharjah in the spring, Tohme invited Khaldi, Kader Attia, Zeynep Oz and Ashkal Alwan to develop local projects in Ramallah, Dakar, Istanbul and Beirut respectively throughout the year. She gave four keywords — earth, water, crops and culinary — to these interlocutors.
But “earth” is a fraught topic because the Palestinians’ relationship to land has been romanticized, explains Khaldi, who did a degree in archeology and art history before becoming a curator of events such as the Riwaq Biennial 5 in Ramallah. Among many other roles, she was also assistant director for programs at the Sharjah Art Foundation from 2009 to 2011, director of the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre from 2012-2013, and organizer of a series of panel discussions for Egypt’s Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival last year.
Khaldi started building the Shifting Ground program instead by researching the current archiving and museum-building fever in Palestine and its significance for a people without a nation state. This led her to questions about what happens to objects that enter a museum, what life could they have, how a graveyard might be full of potential for resurrection, and what else the underground can offer. In one of Shifting Ground’s commissioned publications, for example, architect Yara Saqfalhait researches the massive sinkholes which are spreading in the Dead Sea area, while artist Inas Halabi looks into the burial of nuclear waste in the West Bank.
In this interview, Khaldi discusses how she realized these projects with the participating artists and how the program was envisioned within Sharjah Biennial 13.
Mai Elwakil: Why did you choose artist publications as the main format for Shifting Ground?
Lara Khaldi: I’ve edited books before, mostly exhibition catalogs. I chose to produce artist books this time because it’s a form I hadn’t worked with. I was thinking of forms which we don’t get many opportunities to work with in Ramallah, and forms that can make this [project] last longer. Why not produce 500 copies of each artist book rather than produce one artwork for each artist? Ramallah has a small audience for art exhibitions. But with a simple distribution network, the artist books can reach a broader readership.
Another factor was that many of the artists I chose have been doing research, so I thought why not try the book as a form. I’d like to emphasize though that this is really an attempt. We have nine publications, mostly simple ones.
ME: How did you work with the artists on developing their projects into books? Some, like Samir Harb and Mimi Cabell or Subversive Film (Reem Shilleh and Mohannad Ya’qubi), have been working on these topics for years. Can you tell us how artists experimented with the form?
LK: Some of these projects were already books. With others we had to think about what project could be adapted into a book and what a book is. Shilleh and Ya’qubi have been researching the archive of Hani Jawhariyyeh [co-founder of Fatah’s Palestine Film Unit] for three years now, They worked on a book which is a 1974 syllabus by Jawhariyyeh on how to film using a 16mm camera and it’s annotated by Shilleh and Ya’qubi. We brainstormed how to make it relevant today and decided to publish a supplement: a syllabus on how to film using a 5D camera, developed through a conversation with the Mosireen collective.
With Inas Halabi, it was different. I did several research visits to her studio. She had made this beautiful video titled Lions Warned of Futures to Come (2016) about the burial of nuclear plant waste in Switzerland. It’s a project about radiation and burial and how to make radiation visible again. I asked her if she was interested in localizing this research to Palestine, and she started doing research in the South of the West Bank near the power plant. We knew from the beginning that the form was a book and Halabi developed the project accordingly. She ended up producing five booklets in a red plastic sleeve.
I’ve also wanted to work with Khalil Rabah on the newsletters he sends out for the [fictional] Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind for a while. We ended up experimenting with a collection handbook. But it’s such a big project, it requires more time and funding. So we will present a draft through Shifting Ground. It was an opportunity for Rabah to develop the project and he will continue working on it to finalize the handbook and translate it into Arabic.
ME: Are the artist’s books in English, Arabic or bilingual? What challenges did you face while translating the texts?
LK: Everything is bilingual except this one book by Ma’touq collective. It’s in Arabic since it is extremely local. Ma’touq is a newly formed editorial group of artists and writers in Palestine. The book focuses on Abu Jildeh and Al Armeet, a group labeled by the British as bandits. They were in fact the Robin Hoods of Palestine, stealing from the rich to give the poor. They became politicized in the 1930s and were executed in 1936 by the Brits, just before the Palestinian revolution.
Other artists wrote in whichever language they were more fluent and we translated it. But they worked closely with the translators. Samir Harb and Mimi Cabell’s book [about the infrastructure of authority as seen through the Tegart forts] is very theoretical, so they were in constant discussions with the translator. Other artists revised the translations and sometimes re-wrote the text in the translated language.
ME: What was your experience like publishing the books in Ramallah?
LK: What I found out working on this project is that printing here is very limited. You need to print on standard paper with standard sizes. Otherwise you can make 20 beautifully handmade books. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to make as many copies as possible. Copyright laws are also not intact here.
The artists and designers had to be aware and accepting of those limitations. There were ideas that we couldn’t realize. There’s not so much experimentation with the form, but the idea is to be as creative as possible within these limitations. I would like to work with this more, to understand these limitations and come up with interesting solutions.
ME: How do the themes addressed in the artist’s books relate to keyword “earth”?
LK: “Earth” as a keyword was difficult at first as I wasn’t interested in themes of gardening and agriculture. Also in relation to Palestine, earth is a fraught topic because people’s relationship to land has been romanticized. Palestinians are seen as part of the land. This turns land into a symbol rather than focusing on its materiality. So I started my research instead with questions I was interested in around museums.
My questions about the museum are conceptual. I’m not focusing in this project on the museum as an institution or the associated neoliberal policies. [Theodor] Adorno compared the museum in the 1960s to a mausoleum. It’s a place where objects go to die. The way objects are presented and labeled in a vitrine, it often refers to an era that ended. In Palestine, anything that enters the museum will do in some way with the history of the struggle for emancipation. This struggle is ongoing on the street although some groups want to believe otherwise.
Boris Groys went further to say that unlike museums, although corpses are buried in graveyards, there are always stories of their resurrection. The graveyard is generative and full of potentiality. Things can return and stories can continue. We built on this connection between burial, the underground and museums in our research for the program. My interest in museums led me to graveyards and the underground and earth. That’s how I started learning new things through this project.
I invited Rana Anani, a journalist, and architect Yara Saqfalhait to do the research with me. We are also co-curating the symposium. They brought in different ideas and questions. The underground can also be romanticized, and this is where infrastructure comes in. What do you see when you first dig up the ground? Electricity, water networks, pipes. We then started looking at infrastructure in relation to colonization and forming a nation state. We looked at folklore, folktales that had to do with plants and the underground in Palestine. We have so much more material than we can include in the symposium. The symposium is a big part of the program. It will present a combination of academic papers, artist lectures and performances, different ways of presenting the research, which is not common in Ramallah.
ME: Did you choose to work with the keyword “earth”?
LK: No, Christine Tohme provided each interlocutor with a keyword. but we were free to interpret it in our own way, to decide on the form, and to chose how to go about the research. She got in touch with us in the Spring of last year. She had decided on the biennial’s structure and keywords; she invited us to do offsite projects. We met for an intensive three-day workshop, then we met again a few months later in Sharjah to further discuss our ideas and start the research. The research we did helped us decide on the form, in addition to each interlocutor’s desires and the opportunities and limitations in the places where the projects are realized.
ME: How did the meetings the five of you held help you develop Shifting Ground?
LK: It was done very much in conversation in the beginning. We developed ideas together as there are overlaps in the themes. After the meetings were over, we each went back to where we work, and the conditions of each place were a stronger defining force of the projects.
I think the structure of this edition is wonderful, as every two years Sharjah becomes a center of sorts for Arab artistic production. But to be able to do it the other way round, to localize it, that’s what I’m interested in. Each offsite project was conceived with local themes and audiences in mind, which are also relevant to the outside world. They allow for an engagement with local issues, which might not always happen in Sharjah because of the size of the biennale.
ME: What is it about this edition’s proposal to ‘rethink institutions’ that you find different or pertinent since small art institutions in the region have been in a continuous state of crisis? How does it reflect the context of institutions in Palestine?
LK: Few public institutions exist in the Arab world, and when they do, it is often a joke. So independent institutions assume a public role. The question for such independent institutions has always been how to work and live together, how to create a community. The annual March Meeting [organized by the Sharjah Art Foundation in relation to the biennial’s theme] assumed that role of bringing institutions and practitioners together to think and possibly collaborate. It’s not new. But at times of [political and social] change, if you are self-aware as an institution or structure, then you constantly think about this.
In terms of institutions in Palestine, what’s been happening in the past seven to ten years, is the emergence of private museums. There’s a kind of museum and archive fever, which is interesting. The museum is a product of the nation state. In 1948, the formation of the state of Israel was announced at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Now, museums are being built without there being a nation state, and I’m not talking about international recognition here. There is no sovereignty over land, water or air. It’s quite an interesting phenomenon, which comes up as a question in the symposium and overall program.
ME: Do you collaborate with the editors of [Sharjah Biennial 13’s online publishing platform] Tamawuj — Omar Berrada, Amal Issa, Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, and Brian Kuan Wood? Is it a possible platform for your research?
LK: Yes, we have already published part of our early research on the ideas of burial and underground there: An Index of Buried and Lost Objects from Palestine. Many of the papers presented at the symposium will be published on Tamawuj as well.