A figure runs across a barren desert landscape towards the viewer. As it nears, we can discern the figure of a young man, smiling and friendly looking. He seems full of hope, happy to have reached his goal and stops right in front of us, facing the camera. But suddenly, something happens. A change occurs in the young man. His expression turns from surprised to fearful, even terrified. He turns around and starts running. The camera, and with it the spectator, is jolted out of its inert spectatorship and follows him. In the final commotion, the young man falls to the ground, the camera shakes and stops.
Seen now, in October 2012, at a moment where Syria seems on the verge of a long and bloody conflict and the original goals of the revolution are increasingly lost in the immediate exigencies of reacting to the horrific violence, Rami Farah’s short video Point, shot in 2005, seems almost prophetic. The hopes of the young revolutionaries who took to the streets to protest peacefully for freedom and dignity, the following brutal crackdown by the regime, and the complicity of an international spectatorship watching a catastrophe unfold, without taking action, all thisseems present in this three-minute long video. At the time of its realisation, it also seemed to refer to the situation of many young Syrians, who had hopes for their future, fuelled in part by the superficial opening of the country after Bashar Al-Assad took over power from his father in 2000, but who mostly saw those hopes and dreams crushed. Of course, it also lends itself to a much more general reading, referring to the hopes, struggles and disappointments of any ordinary human life.
This multi-layered approach, which allows for multiple readings of a work, and of speaking between the lines, was long characteristic of Syrian artistic production, where artists were obliged to wrap critique in a complex visual language of metaphors and symbols. With the revolution and its hopes for individual freedom, artists developed the desire to leave the world of symbols behind and to speak a novel, more direct language.
When protests broke out in Deraa in southern Syria in March 2011 as a reaction to police violence and the brutal torturing of a group of youngsters following their arrest, the regime did not hesitate to react with extreme violence in its attempt to crush the movement from the beginning and also quickly banned foreign journalists from the country. As a consequence, Syrian citizen journalists and activists started taking over the task of reporting and documenting the unfolding uprising and started using the internet as what might be termed an “informal news channel”, used by Syrians and the international audience alike. Soon, more creative expressions of civil dissent appeared, and over the course of the year the number of websites, YouTube channels and Facebook groups called into existence by Syrian creatives increased steadily. They offered a continuous flow of videos, drawings, and poems, commenting on the events on the streets of Syrian towns and villages and expressing hopes for a better future as well as declaring their commitment to the non-violent ideals of the revolution. Initially, it was mainly works by non-professionals, something that stresses the fact that the Syrian revolution started off as a popular uprising and not as a movement led by intellectuals. Professional artists joined in later, and thereby gave the internet a new dimension as a space for artistic expression and dissent.
The calls for freedom and dignity on the streets were paralleled in the artistic and cultural field by a desire to leave behind the encoding of critique that was characteristic of socially and politically critical art prior to the uprising, to address urgent social and political issues openly and without restrictions, and to denounce the brutality and arbitrariness of the regime. However, this outspokenness perforce came with a price. Many artists have had to hide their true identities behind pseudonyms, as echoed by blogger and writer Amal Hanano (also a pseudonym): “We encoded ourselves so we would stop speaking in codes. To call things by their real names, things like murder, torture, rape, repression and humiliation. And to call for what we never thought we would dare to in our lifetimes: freedom, justice, and dignity“.
Here’s a link to Amal Hanano’s essay: ‘The Real Me and the Hypothetical Syrian Revolution (Part 2)’, Jadaliyya 2012, http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/4788/the-real-me-and-the-hypothetical-syrian-revolution.
This is particularly the case for artists living inside Syria, but even artists living in exile have had to consider the risks to their personal safety and that of their families very carefully. The parents of musician and composer Malek Jandali, who lives in the USA, were attacked and severely beaten in their home in Damascus, after Jandali published a music piece that called for freedom. As stated by Dani Abo Louh during the 7th Berlin Biennale earlier this year, for Mohamad Omran and himself, the decision to publish their video Conte de printemps (2011) under their own names wasreached only after long and careful consideration.
Not only in terms of directness are these new videos different from their pre-uprising forebears, but alsoin the techniques applied. Often produced with the simplest technical equipment, they do not try to hide this fact and thus bear witness to the urgency under which they are produced. Characteristic of these works is an extended use of found footage, something that was not very common in Syrian video works before the uprising (one exception being Ammar Al-Beik who made extended use of it in a number of works), as well as the mixing of different techniques, such as animation, performance and drawing. The above mentioned video Conte de printemps interweaves documentary footage with animated drawn paper figures. The figures rise and are crushed before a background of images of demonstrations and violent repression, but manage to rise again, crumbled and dishevelled looking, yet in defiance. With very simple means, the video tells the story of the hopes of the Syrian revolution, hopes that refuse to be crushed (or at least did so for a long time during the earlier phase of the uprising), even when faced with brutal violence. A similar strategy is adopted by the artist who has produced the video “LIBERTé” under the pseudonym Philip Horani. In a filmed painting performance, set before the background of images of real protests, the artist draws groups of figures holding up banners that grow increasingly dense until they are wiped out by red paint. At the end of the video the official Syrian flag appear, its two stars having taken on a flower-like appearance as a sign of hope.
As strong declarations of solidarity to the ideals of freedom, citizens’ rights and non-violence, these works have found their audience in the semi-public sphere of online networking forums, where they have been widely shared. At a time where Syrian artists have been forced underground or out of the country in large numbers, the online spherehas offered a space in which to share both an artistic dialogue and a commitment to the uprising. It has also given artists access to apublic they did not have before, specifically, their own fellow Syrians.
While the works of a number of Syrian artists up till the revolution could be termed ‘critical’ rather than outright ‘activist’, Palestinian art was from its beginnings ‘activist’ by dint of their being‘ Palestinian’. In a cultural context where simply the word ‘Palestine’ is deemed controversial and in which itscorresponding people, the Palestinians, have been consistently denied their existence, the naming, representing and imagining of Palestine, its lands, cities and villages, its history and its everyday culture, becomes a matter of cultural survival and of re-claiming lost spaces. Beginning with the “Liberation Art” of painters such as Ismail Shammout, Suleiman Mansour, Ibrahim Ghannam and Abdul Rahman Al-Muzayen, and others, toworks experimenting with local and natural materials in the time following the First Intifada, upto the works from the last decade, Palestine – the land, its people and its living conditions – continuesto be the theme that most artistic production revolves around.
Since the late 1990s, but particularly since the early years of the new millennium, a young generation of Palestinian artists emerged, who succeeded in bringing the Palestinian cause onto the stage of the international art world. Internationally trained, the works of these artists operate within the visual language of the international, contemporary art world, as contrasted to earlier generations of Palestinian artists. This has allowed them to engage the policies and standards of art institutions and challenge existing power structures that had kept out works of Palestinian artists in the past. In this way, they were able to bring hitherto disregarded and marginalized discourses into the public space of the exhibition circuit. This has not always occurred undisputed: there have been numerous cases of sabotage of running shows and attempted censorship, the most prominent recent case being the ejection of Larissa Sansour from the shortlist of the Lacoste Elysée Prize in December 2011, an incident that garnered much interest internationally and which led to the cancellation of the Prize by the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne.
The work of Emily Jacir deals very closely with the Palestinian situation and her early works had a distinctly activist character. A number of these projects address the restricted mobility of Palestinians, chief among them Crossing Surda (2002), Where We Come From (2001 – 2003) and Sexy Semite (2000 – 2002). Crossing Surda, a video that bears the subtitle ‘a record of going to and from work’, is exactly that. The artist filmed her daily walk across the Surda checkpoint (which interrupts the Ramallah – Birzeit road) on her way to Birzeit University, where she was lecturing at the time. Jacir was forced to shoot the film with a camera hidden in her bag, after an incident in which she was detained for three hours, faced with a gun, and had her video tape confiscated. The shaky images of a road in disrepair, military vehicles and armed soldiers, especially when blown up onto a large screen in a darkened room, leaves the spectator with a profound feeling of discomfort. As the artist states of the work: ‘[Crossing Surda (a record of going to and from work)] exists because an Israeli soldier threatened me and put an M-16 into my temple. If I had not had this direct threatening experience this piece would not exist’
The interview is to be found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/01/arts/design/01wise.html?pagewanted=al
Mobility is also at the centre of the project Where We Come From. The artist asked fellow Palestinians to send her requests of tasks they could not perform themselves, due either to the status of their identity papers or residency status. Jacir, who thanks to her American passport was able to travel freely promised to undertake the different tasks. She documented her activities, which included a date with a girl for a young male requester, paying bills for another requester and placing flowers on the grave of the mother of a third. Presented as a series of photographs documenting the fulfilled assignment together with the original request, Where We Come From is a record of how mobility restrictions stand in the way of the most mundane tasks and render any attempt at normality futile. Applying a more subversive approach, Jacir used personal newspaper ads in another project to comment on mobility and stereotypes. In Sexy Semite (2000 – 2002), the artist and some friends inserted 50 mock ads in a newspaper (The New York Village Voice), seemingly of Palestinian women seeking marriage with an Israeli. The language is that typically deployed in such ads and the tone is light and playful. However, each of them refers somewhere in the text to common stereotypes and national symbols: ‘Ready to start a big family’, ‘Redhead Palestinian ready to be colonized by your army’, ‘Do you love milk and honey?’, ‘Still have house keys’. The reality behind this project, that mobility for Palestinians is restricted to a point where the only way out of the deadlock might seem to marry an Israeli, is in stark contrast to the light tone of the ads and points out the absurd effects of mobility restrictions on people’s lives. The project thus shows the ‘ridiculousness [of such restrictions] by contrasting it with the ease of other forms of exchange or with easy exchanges enjoyed by others’ (Demos, T.J.: ‘Desire in Diaspora’, Art Journal , Vol. 62/4, Winter 2003, p. 76). In its initial form (the project has also been exhibited in art spaces), Sexy Semite presents a cunning subversion of the communicative space of private newspaper ads, relying on the distribution of the paper to assure the work’s exposure. In the way that the project makes use of existing communication tools, it relates to other forms of similar art practices, such as Mail Art. Conceived by artists as a means of distributing art through the international postal system in protest against a restricted and corrupt gallery and art market system, the movement came to have a particular importance for artists in socialist Eastern Europe and Latin America, for whom travel was either impossible or severely restricted. Mail Art was used in the 1970s and 1980s to reflect upon and attempt to overcome their state of isolation, both geographically and artistically, but also as powerful acts of dissent. The Chilean artist Eugenio Dittborn even developed a particular form of Mail Art he termed ‘Airmail Paintings’, large works using lightweight material that were folded and sent out of the country during the dark years of Pinochet’s dictatorship. For the artist, the works that often revolved around themes of repression represented ‘messages in a bottle’, a ‘way to get out’. They also allowed the artist to enter into a dialogue with an international public, something that would not have been possible within the conventional modes of distribution and exposure of the art world.
Similarly to Emily Jacir, The work of afore mentioned Larissa Sansour also comments on the occupation of Palestine and its consequences for its inhabitants. The artist’s work references pop-culture and light entertainment, a deliberate strategy the artist has chosen in order to counter stereotyped images of Palestinians as either terrorists or as victims in mainstream media. By using formats that the public normally associates with entertainment (TV shows, popular cinema, sci-fi comics), she seeks to convey a political message and undermine the representational mainstream norms that apply to the Palestinian situation and that the public seems to have got used to and even expect.
This strategy first appeared in the two early videos Bethlehem Bandolero (2005) and Happy Days (2006). In both videos the artist herself takes a leading role, which is typical of Sansour’s work, undertaking seemingly absurd actions. In Bethlehem Bandolero, the artist stages a gun duel with the Israeli separation wall. The imagery is reminiscent of 1970s Italo-Westerns, from the opening, sped-up approach of the protagonist feature that breaks with the genre and adds to the general feeling of absurdity) through the town, the menacing church bells, up till the final show down, in which Sansour faces the terrifying wall. Happy Days takes its theme from apopular 1970-1980s American TV show and presents a satirical take on a ‘happy’ life under occupation that of course remains worlds apart from the idyllic 50s and 60s USA portrayed in the original show. In a series of vignettes, the video shows typical scenes from daily life in occupied Palestine: the Israeli army, watchtowers, road blocks, identity controls, tourists on visits to the Holy Land and the artist herself as ‘The Palestinian’. As in Bethlehem Bandolero, the sped-up sequence of images appears playful, renderingthe contrast to the reality behind the images even more disturbing. Lately, Sansour has turned towards bolder fictionalisation, with the sci-fi inspired works of A Space Exodus (2009), the graphic novel The Novel of Nonel and Vovel (2009), Nonel and Vovel’s Inferno (2010), thelatter two both collaborations with artist Oreet Ashery, and finally her most recent project Nation Estate (2012). All these works operate in the space between highly stylised fiction and political reality; a space the artist considers the most adequate for her work.
Larissa Sansour in an interview with Wafa Gabsi: http://www.contemporarypractices.net/essays/volumeX/Fiction%20and%20Art%20practice.pdf
The examples above show how artists use different communicative spaces to convey a political message, in the case of Syrian artists by using the internet and in the case of Palestinian artists by “using” the spaces of the international art circuit of exhibitions, institutions, biennials, etc. Works by Palestinian artists, like those mentioned, and which have been widely shown on an international scale were produced with the clear incentive to criticise and challenge the status quo of Palestinian politics and have succeeded in turning the exhibition space into a communicative space, a space in which to articulate protest and invite a re-thinking that might ultimately lead to change. In a similar line, Valie Export recently compared the museum with the public space of the street when asked to comment on the seeming paradox of her feminist activist works now being hosted at major museums of the world.
Interview with Valie Export: http://www.monopol-magazin.de/artikel/20105879/Interview-VALIE-EXPORT-In-Aktion-Salon-Dahlmann-pussy-riot.html
In this context, it is interesting to compare the two different incidents of emergence of activist art in a form formerly not or only sparely known: First, the many works by young Palestinian artists who in the early and the middle years of the first decade of the millennium addressed very openly the conditions of living under occupation. Sharif Waked’s video Chic Point (2003) and Jacqueline Salloum’s Caterrorpillar (2002), a mock toy she also “promoted” on her now defunct website, are other poignant examples in addition to the above mentioned works. This “wave” happened in the light of the growing disappointment with the failure of the Oslo Accord, the second Intifada, the building of the Israeli apartheid wall, and the increasing infringements of the mobility of Palestinians in general. That these artists succeeded in bringing an issue widely deemed controversial by Western public opinion into major international art institutions in a manner that was hitherto unseen should be seen in the light of a complex net of cause and effect: The increased presence of non-Western artists on the international art scene from the 1990s onwards, the international interest in contemporary art from the Arab world after 9/11, as well as the emergence of a generation of internationally trained and globally mobile Palestinian artists.
Second, the use of online social networks by young Syrian artists, frequently geographically isolated from one another and from a large part of their public, to call for attention to the on-going violence in their country. The internet did not present itself as an option for artistic expression until it rose to prominence at the beginning of the Syrian uprising in early 2011. The way Syrian artists make use of the internet to overcome their isolation is reminiscent of the importance of the Mail Art movement for the once geographically confined artists of the Eastern block and Latin America, an exchange that for these artists often represented their only contact with international artistic developments.
Activist art is most commonly linked to alternative spaces for expression, spaces that fall outside the traditional sphere for artistic expression, whether this is the street or other urban spaces, converted buildings or international communication systems. The online networking spaces currently used by Syrian artists stand in the tradition of the latter. That the institutional frame of the international art world can be put to such a use and present itself as a communicative space that allows for alternative discourses and lines of communication is seen in the case of the Palestinian artists mentioned.
In 1969, John Berger wrote in the foreword to his Art and Revolution. Ernst Neizvestny and the Role of the Artist in the U.S.S.R., that ‘What matters are the needs which art answers’. In 2012 we could add: And art will always seek out a space within which to articulate it, inside and outside of the institutional framework’.
 Abo Louh, Dani, personal statement at the 7th Berlin Biennale, on the 3rd of June, 2012.
 This is a recurring theme of recent Palestinian history. Most famous is probably Golda Meir’s statement of 1969 to The Sunday Times, ‘There are no Palestinians’, but this is not the only case and as recently as 2011, the BBC was involved in a controversy about the alleged censorship of a song by rapper Mic Righteous, that contains the sentence ‘I can still scream ‘Free Palestine’ for my pride, still pray for peace, still burn the Fed for the brutality they spread over the world‘. The word “Palestine” was edited out of the song and replaced by sound effects, http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/may/13/bbc-palestine-lyric-mic-righteous.
 Palestinian artist Samia Halaby dedicated an entire publication in 2003 to this group of artists and sought to define it as a distinct art movement: Halaby, Samia, Liberation Art of Palestine. Palestinian Painting and Sculpture in the Second Half of the 20th Century, New York: HTTB Publications, 2003.
 The Surda checkpoint interrupts the road linking Ramallah and Birzeit and is required to be crossed by foot.
 Demos, T.J.: ‘Desire in Diaspora’, Art Journal , Vol. 62/4, Winter 2003, p. 76.
 Even though a closer examination of these interconnected circumstances seems highly rewarding and interesting, it would burst the limits of this essay and must be left to another study.
 Berger, John : Art and Revolution. Ernst Neizvestny and the Role of the Artist in the U.S.S.R, New York: Pantheon Books, 1969, introduction, no page number.