BDS activists slam art groups for taking tour to IDF-linked Technion

ActivismIsrael/PalestineUS Politics
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An Israeli-made drone.  Technion, the site of a traveling art show that has come under criticism, creates drone technology for the Israel army. (Photo: US Air Force)

An Israeli-made drone. Technion, the site of a traveling art show that has come under criticism, creates drone technology for the Israeli army. (Photo: US Air Force)

Two art groups have come under fire for taking a traveling exhibition to the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, an Israeli university with strong ties to the Israeli military and its occupation.

A handful of art collectives involved with Creative Time’s and Independent Curators International’s (ICI) traveling art show have pulled out in response, and an open letter signed by intellectuals Judith Butler, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and others criticized the exhibition for violating the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) call.

Since 2012, the “Living As Form (The Nomadic Version)” project has traveled the globe, showcasing what the curators call “an unprecedented international project that explores over 20 years of cultural works that blur the forms of art and everyday life, emphasizing participation, dialogue and community engagement.”  The traveling art show is the result of a partnership between Creative Time and ICI.

“Living As Form” was showed in Tel Aviv at the end of last year. Nobody noticed.  But it was the exhibition’s jaunt to the Technion that caught the attention of artists and activists, some of whom have worked with Creative Time.  Now, Creative Time is caught between the demands of pro-BDS artists and their commitment to what they say is a need for dialogue and the free exchange of ideas.

The artists involved with the project were unaware it was traveling to Technion, a major target of academic boycott campaigns that has developed drone technology for the Israeli army, as well as unmanned bulldozers used to demolish Palestinian homes.  The current controversy comes two years after a similar dust-up, when Egyptian media collective Mosireen and rappers Rebel Diaz pulled out of a Creative Time summit in New York because the state-linked Israeli Center for Digital Arts was involved.

Most of the attention this time has focused on Creative Time, which is well known in progressive activist circles.

“People are really angry with us. I’ve worked for 20 years to build a really close, supportive, trusting relationship with artists–and this completely undermines it,” Anne Pasternak, Creative Time’s president, told me.  Still, Creative Time has no plans to pull out of the Technion show.  “As a cultural organization, we believe in the role of people coming together to share ideas…We may recognize the legitimacy of cultural boycott, but we absolutely cannot participate in any cultural boycott.” Pasternak says that in hindsight, the group should have made sure that ICI told artists where the show was going to be taken. Creative Time has no say in where the exhibition goes, though they did reach out to ICI when they found out about the Technion show and urged the group to talk to participating artists.

The controversy got rolling when Amin Husain, a Palestinian-American activist, found out about the exhibition at Technion. He sprung into action, issuing an open letter that quickly spread on Facebook.  “What justice is the show facilitating in this context? It is, in fact, legitimizing an ongoing annihilation of a defenseless people,” wrote Husain, whose work, along with Nitasha Dhillon, has been published by Creative Time’s news and analysis outlet.  “The art may seem to be dealing with issues of justice in the abstract, but operationally it is normalizing that exact injustice it is dialoging about.”

The story grew bigger when art news outlet Hyperallergic’s Mostafa Heddaya began reporting on the issue, and artists involved in the project soon began to withdraw. An ICI staffer then released a letter to the artists involved in the exhibition, informing them of the travel to the Technion and said: 

ICI’s broad network of curators, artists and art spaces from around the world encompasses different positions and responses to Israel and the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict. While ICI does not take part in the boycott of Israel under BDS or other frameworks, we feel strongly about the right of others to boycott. So if you would like to discuss your participation in this presentation of the exhibition, please contact me by email or directly on my cell phone at [Redacted]  so that we can make sure that your positions are respected

The curator of the show, Nato Thompson, also issued a response to Husain’s open letter. Creative Time, and I include myself in this, do make mistakes. The Living as Form show is being toured by ICI and we did not, much to my embarrassment, catch this breech of the BDS. That said, as has been stated, ‘the commitment to the free exchange of ideas has always been central to Creative Time’s mission, and thus we do not participate in cultural boycotts,'” he wrote.  

Husain and other artists were not placated by the statements.  “Anyone who talks about dialogue right now as one alternative to boycott really either wants to offer cover or doesn’t understand the circumstances on the ground,” Husain told me in a phone interview.  The controversy led to the creation of the BDS Arts Coalition, a group of cultural workers dedicated to Palestine solidarity and the BDS movement.

The latest salvo was published in the form of an open letter signed by intellectuals and artists addressed to participants in the art tour:

As admirers of your work and this critical exhibition—which includes so many exemplary projects that imbue our everyday actions and lived environments with community participation, imagination, and political commitment—we are concerned about the disconnect between the artists’ orientation toward social justice and the exhibiting institution’s central role in maintaining the unjust and illegal occupation of Palestine…

Creative Time and ICI are, according to their statements, choosing to disregard the BDS call and unwilling to withdraw the exhibition. They have placed the responsibility on artists to do so. We ask you, as artists whose imaginative and committed work we deeply respect, to stand in solidarity with Palestinians resisting the continued colonization of their land and to stand against the tacit legitimization of institutions which develop the technologies and infrastructures for maintaining the occupation.

In total, six art collectives have withdrawn from participation in the tour.

The heat on Creative Time has pained Pasternak, a prominent figure in the New York art world.

“While we don’t sign on to cultural boycotts, we’re certainly sensitive to issues of oppression and the freedom of the Palestinian people, and we want to…support their work towards freedom and equity,” she said in a phone interview.  “So anything that we’ve done that would undermine our feelings of respect and support for Palestinian independence and freedom is difficult for us. It’s very painful for us, it’s not what we intended to do.”

About Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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16 Responses

  1. amigo
    June 12, 2014, 3:39 pm

    News today that Sinead o Connor is to perform in Israel.Her website however does not have any details of any event.

    http://www.haaretz.com/life/music-theater/1.598485

    She has a web site but there was no way to leave a message .However she is on twitter.

    [email protected]

    Let her know she is on the wrong side of history.

  2. unverified__5ilf90kd
    June 12, 2014, 3:49 pm

    Please notice that J-Street is ideologically aligned with AIPAC in the important battles; J-Street is taking a stand against BDS and is supporting AIPAC in many other areas as well. A friend of mine who has worked for AIPAC told me that J-Street was designed as a “Trojan Horse” for AIPAC. J-Street was envisioned by AIPAC operatives as a disinformation vehicle to attract liberal Zionists who did not support AIPAC and corral them into a quasi sympathetic organization that would work to contain and suppress their activism and neutralize their support for effective channels such as BDS. This is exactly what has come to pass. When will you wake up and acknowledge this already successful strategy to neutralize the so-called liberal Zionists and other fellow-travellers who want justice for the Palestinians. People will think that you are part of the conspiracy ?

    • Annie Robbins
      June 12, 2014, 4:46 pm

      J-Street was designed as a “Trojan Horse” for AIPAC. J-Street was envisioned by AIPAC operatives as a disinformation vehicle to attract liberal Zionists who did not support AIPAC …When will you wake up and acknowledge this already successful strategy to neutralize the so-called liberal Zionists and other fellow-travellers who want justice for the Palestinians. People will think that you are part of the conspiracy ?

      oh heavens what would we do without cowardly anonymous armchair warriors lecturing us about how to do our job. i could care less about people thinking we’re part of a zionist conspiracy. seriously, could care less and have better ways to waste my time.

      go start your own blog since you’re so smart.

      what’s your name anyway? why not attach your real name to this theory of yours since you are not only advocating it but lecturing us on ‘waking up or else people will think we are are part of an aipac zionist conspiracy’?

      • unverified__5ilf90kd
        June 12, 2014, 6:56 pm

        “cowardly anonymous armchair warrior” and “go start your own blog since you’re so smart”

        I take this as a complement as I truly admire your contributions at Mondoweiss. Or – “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” I am not a cowardly anonymous armchair warrior – you got me all wrong. But I forgive you.
        The implied theory in recent years is that if you criticize the Israelis they will not give the Palestinians a just solution. Zionists have been serenading us with such distortions for decades and this theory has now been thoroughly discredited with the Kerry/Obama failure. This type of logic is like saying that if you accuse the indicted crook, his thugs will beat you up. Now J-Street like AIPAC is telling us that BDS will destroy Israel. Any thinking person knows that BDS is designed to stop Israeli Apartheid towards the Palestinians and not to destroy Israel. BDS is designed to stop the Israelis destroying the designated Palestinian State. This is the same distortion of logic that we got before and is designed only to continue the Peace Process farce or the status quo of the occupation and land theft. The Trojan Horse theory for J-Street’s origins is worthy of consideration. I only reject theories if there is proof that they are wrong. After the internecine ways in which Israel has fought the Peace Process over the past decades it is hardly a stretch of the imagination to propose the Trojan Horse theory for J-Street. The evaluation of this theory is as valid as assuming that J-Street was a cover for the Obama presidency. I cannot imagine that J Street have no idea what to do, given the intelligence, background and sophistication of the founders.

    • yonah fredman
      June 12, 2014, 5:11 pm

      J street was designed as cover for the Obama presidency. Obama was ambitious vis a vis Israel at the beginning (see the Cairo speech and the demand to freeze the settlements) and J street was part of his design of having Jewish cover for his actions. But J street could not guarantee the big bucks like Aipac can and that’s what it comes down to.

      J Street is a ship in a storm without a port as long as the peace process is on hold. They have no idea what to do.

  3. JustJessetr
    June 12, 2014, 3:56 pm

    Poor Pasternak. Caught between promoting art as a cultural bridge and a no-dialogue movement that wants to burn the bridge down.

    • Cliff
      June 12, 2014, 6:28 pm

      ‘no-dialogue movement’

      Zionism? Yep, I agree.

      • Zach S
        June 13, 2014, 11:07 am

        Are you seriously denying that BDS is against dialogue? They’re proud of it. They shout it from the rooftops that they don’t “normalize” with anyone who doesn’t already agree with them.

        This is the movement you’ve joined. Just embrace it, warts and all.

      • Talkback
        June 13, 2014, 2:37 pm

        Yes, Zach S,

        BDS is not into normalizing human rights violations, crimes against humanity or Apartheid. They probably learned the right lesson from history. You don’t and never will, cause racist like you put their lot above humanity and humanitarian values. But in all these cases Karma turned out to be a bitch …

      • Zach S
        June 13, 2014, 2:54 pm

        Good, Talkback, so you agree that BDS is exactly what the OP called it: a no-dialogue movement that wants to burn the bridge down.

      • JustJessetr
        June 14, 2014, 8:24 am

        That’s just another way of saying, “That’s right, we don’t believe in dialogue.” Thank you.

        The hard-nosed business of peace-making eschews that stance. Compromises have to be made because history doesn’t work backwards. If it did, Africa would be free of all White influence. It clearly still suffers under economic tyranny from the West and White-rule ancestors (such as farmers in Zimbabwe) even though Whites don’t directly rule there anymore.

  4. Citizen
    June 12, 2014, 4:58 pm

    Living As Form should be changed to Living As Form, Not Substance. Dialogue? I Guess they mean they ape the I-P “peace process.” As to those artists who are participating after being given the news re Technion, re form, what do they think of Guerica, the semi-abstract painting? Anybody doing anything similar, calling it Cast Lead, or Gaza, early 2000? Maybe the art world should bring back George Grosz so he can do some Expressionism on everyday Israel and its OT.

    High quality global journalism requires investment. Please share this article with others using the link below, do not cut & paste the article. See our Ts&Cs and Copyright Policy for more detail. Email [email protected] to buy additional rights. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/2d949c8a-8a6b-11e3-ba54-00144feab7de.html#ixzz34SeScZoS

    Israel in 2013 became the world’s largest exporter of UAVs – a distant second, as measured by production, to the US, with its huge domestic military’s demand, but the premier supplier of drones sold overseas. IOW, the US private drone business is playing second fiddle to Israel. How exactly does Technion fit into this picture?

  5. Citizen
    June 12, 2014, 5:10 pm

    From Technion Web page:

    “The Technion-Israel Institute of Technology is a major source of the innovation and brainpower that drives the Israeli economy, and a key to Israel’s renown as the world’s “Start-Up Nation.”
    American Technion Society (ATS) Donors have provided more than $1.9 billion since its inception in 1940. Based in New York City, the ATS and its network of chapters across the U.S. provide funds for scholarships, fellowships, faculty recruitment and chairs, research, buildings, laboratories, classrooms and dormitories, and more.”

  6. just
    June 13, 2014, 8:50 am

    Speaking of sanctions:

    “Australia may be hit with sanctions over ‘occupied’ East Jerusalem policy change
    Eighteen nations, including Indonesia, have protested against decision to stop calling East Jerusalem ‘occupied’

    Australian agricultural exports to the Arab League’s 22 member states are estimated to be worth $3.5bn while total Australian exports to Indonesia last year were worth $4.7bn.

    The shift has drawn praise for the government from the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, who welcomed the Australian statement on Sunday.

    “To say this sharply and with such clarity and, I would say, courage, is refreshing given the chorus of hypocrisy and ignorance,” Netanyahu said. “Ignorance not only of ancient history, but of recent and current history. What has really happened here? Who invaded who? Who occupied what? What is subject to negotiation? What is the area in dispute?

    “These are new things. I certainly appreciate this stand by the Australian government and I am certain that all those who want to see an agreement here based on peace, justice and truth – and it is impossible to build peace based on historic lies – would agree.””

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/13/australia-may-be-hit-with-sanctions-over-occupied-east-jerusalem-policy-change

    • talknic
      June 13, 2014, 9:29 am

      Australia is out of step with the legal obligations of being a UN Member state and of having a UNSC seat. Like all UN Members Australia must up hold the UN Charter in its entirety incl UNSC resolutions

      The Israeli occupation of territories “outside the State of Israel” … “in Palestine” began in 1948 according to the Israeli Government http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Foreign+Relations/Israels+Foreign+Relations+since+1947/1947-1974/2+Jerusalem+Declared+Israel-Occupied+City-+Governm.htm

      This word ‘occupied’ is a HUGE problem for the Jewish state and its 66yrs of illegal facts on the ground!

    • Woody Tanaka
      June 13, 2014, 9:31 am

      “What has really happened here?” Netanyahoo asked…

      A horde of European Jews descended on Palestine with the explicit intent to genecide or ethnically cleanse its owners and steal the land from them. The process continues to this day.

      “Who invaded who?”

      European Jews invaded Palestine and stole most of it in1947. In 1967, they attacked again and stole the rest, including theretofore unoccupied Eastern al Quds.

      “Who occupied what?”

      The Israelis occupy Palestine.

      “What is subject to negotiation?”

      Israeli occupation of Palestine.

      “What is the area in dispute?”

      All of historic Palestine.

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