Inside Decolonizing Architecture: The Politics of Visibility in Common Assembly

Image Credit: Decolonizing Architecture. Common Assembly (2011). Installation shot at CAN (Centre d’art Neuchâtel), 17/09 to 28/10/2011. Image courtesy of Sully Balmassière and CAN.

By Nishat Awan and Cressida Kocienski

The following text is excerpted from FUSE Magazine 36.2 (Spring 2013). In order to read the full text, you can purchase the article below.

The Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency (DAAR) [1] is part of a long-term project that deals with the spatial complexities of decolonization through an interrogation of the relationships between law, spatial production and colonial practices in Palestine and Israel. A significant body of DAAR’s work attempts to reveal how the operation of Israeli spatial and legal regimes within the Occupied Territories can produce extra-territorial spaces and grey zones wherein legal jurisdictions fade. For DAAR, these spaces of ambiguity are significant for their role in revealing the workings of power — they are places where such colonial and territorial power can be understood, challenged and perhaps undermined. Their work experiments with narrations of the landscape under occupation, and strives to be both intellectually and architecturally propositional.

In this article, we will consider the rhetoric of DAAR in relationship to their work Common Assembly, which was produced during a summer 2011 residency in which we participated. The work was conceived in response to the unfinished Palestinian parliament building in the West Bank, the prospective Palestinian bid for recognition at the United Nations [2] and the unfolding backdrop of the Arab Spring. Considering the recent expansions and contractions in the possibility for a viable two-state solution within this contested territory, [3] we feel it is an important time to examine the ways in which this work renders visible vital questions about the constitution and agency of the Palestinian body politic, and its viability in terms of its own claims of decolonization, both within and outside the West Bank.

Standing as a disused and incomplete structure, the Palestinian Legislative Council building (its official title, but known to DAAR as the Palestinian parliament) was designed by noted Palestinian architect Jafar Tukan. It is located in Abu Dis, an outlying Jerusalem neighbourhood that used to be a separate village, but has now been subsumed into the expanding city. Much of Abu Dis falls outside the Jerusalem line, Israel’s unilaterally declared 1967 border of the city. Close to the parliament building, severing it completely from Jerusalem, passes the wall that separates the West Bank and Israel. Significantly for the project, the positioning of the building is entirely ambiguous: it sits on the Jerusalem line, partly in and partly out of the city, yet entirely physically cut off from it. The exact reason for this placement is unknown, and its potential political fallout is also in disagreement. Rumours, theories and conspiracies abound — in the tug of war between Israel and Palestine, and between the various Palestinian factions, how did the building land so fortuitously, so awkwardly? Nevertheless, it is certain that the building’s positioning was the result of political manoeuvring.

The Palestinian parliament site was the starting point for the research, design, and film production work that the DAAR residents helped to produce, which also sat within a previously established framework of discourse and exhibited work. The planned outcome of the residency was the touring exhibition Common Assembly, to be shown in Switzerland, the UK and the US. [4] As the title of the exhibition suggests, the nucleus of the work was intended to be an exploration of the commons, informed by Hardt and Negri’s definition of this concept as “the incarnation, the production, and the liberation of the multitude.” [5]

Several months into the Arab Spring, there was a tangible sense of political elasticity in the region brought about by the collective uprisings, and it seemed pertinent to raise the question of the Palestinian struggle from within this wider context. The DAAR participants were keen to transpose this idea of collectivity onto the site of the parliament building, taken to represent a form of politics under threat in the region. A principal reference was the February 2011 cleaning of Cairo’s Tahrir Square by volunteer members of the public, in the wake of mass protests demanding the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. This was seen as a manifestation of the triumph of the political power of the commons, and the claiming of common ownership of civic space.

One of DAAR’s primary strategies is to work with and inside the lines that slice up the landscape. [6] In Common Assembly, the physical space taken up by the Jerusalem line as it cuts through the parliament was cleaned to create an ephemeral and symbolic strip of common space. This was a staged performance-for-the-camera that, because of the inaccessibility of the space to the Palestinian population, was performed symbolically for them in absentia by the DAAR residents.

The exhibited work was the installation of a 1:5-scale sculptural cross-section of the parliament as it appears inside the Jerusalem line, transporting this fragment to the site of each gallery in various configurations alongside this intrusive element were projections of both the six-minute film of the cleaning performance, and grainy black and white images of crowd scenes from historical meetings of the various Palestinian parliaments-in-exile. [7] These images produced a spectral assembly of dispersed discussions, removed from their specific context, and with the key figureheads supplanted by images of the audience (although still members of a political elite) to create an image of a de-localized collective assembly. There were also four brief extracts of interviews with political figures [8] displayed on monitors with headphones. The lines of their narratives, set against the figures of the multitudes and the parliament, often cut across one another, producing a microcosmic view of the terrain in all its complexity.

[…]

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NOTES:

[1] DAAR is described as a platform for collective production. It is based in Beit Sahour, a small suburb of Bethlehem in the West Bank, within the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It was founded in 2007 as Decolonizing Architecture, by Beit Sahour-based architects Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, and London-based architect Eyal Weizman.

[2] In September 2011, there was a formal request by the Chairman of the PLO, Mahmoud Abbas, for Palestine to be recognized as the 194th full member state of the United Nations, by the General Assembly, based on the pre-1967 borders, as part of a campaign called Palestine 194. At press time, this has not yet been voted on, and at the prospect of a veto from the US, the request was scaled back to an upgrade to non-mem­ber observer state.

[3] In November 2012, Palestine was granted status as a non-member observer state in the United Nations, which then “express[ed] the urgent need for the resumption of negotiations between Israel and the Palestin­ians leading to a permanent two-State solution.” (See “General Assembly Grants Palestine Non-member Observer State Status at UN,” UN News Centre, 29 November 2012, online.) This unprecedented rise in support for the political legitimacy of the Palestinian diaspora, however marginal it may be in concrete terms, immediately provoked plans for a retaliatory measure of architectural occupation from Israel—the building of 3,000 new settlement homes in the E1 area, to the East of Jerusalem, previously kept clear under international pressure (see Peter Beaumont, “Israel approves another 1,200 settlement units around Jerusalem,” The Guardian, 25 December 2012, online). The insertion of this territorial expansion into the remaining fragments of the West Bank, if it materializes in the months ahead and remains unrevoked, will effectively sever the territory completely in half, and obliterate the chances for establishing a contiguous neighbour state for Israel.

[4] Centre d’Art Neuchâtel, Switzerland; Nottingham Contemporary, UK; The James Gallery at The City University of New York (CUNY), US.

[5] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 303.

[6] Previously, DAAR has worked with the Green Line, which was drawn following the 1949 Armistice Agreement, and the lines of the 1994 Oslo Accords. In each case, they have interpreted their ambiguous physical and legal definition as bestowing these geopolitical borders with a spatial thickness.

[7] These videos were from publicly accessible video archives available online, and ranged from depictions of the first parliament appointed by the PLO in 1964 to the first popularly elected parliament established in 1996.

[8] Ahmed Qurei, PLO Member and Former President of the Palestinian Legislative Council; Basem al-Masri, First Director General of the Palestinian Parliament; Fajr Harb, an activist; and Khalil Tafakji, a cartographer (a highly politicized occupation in the region). The fifth video of Oxford academic and former PLO Representative Karma Nabulsi was from a lecture held in Ramallah organized by Fajr Harb.

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Nishat Awan is a writer and spatial practitioner whose research interests include the production and representation of migratory spaces, inquiries into the topological as method and alternative modes of architectural practice. She holds a PhD in Architecture and is co-author of Spatial Agency (Routledge, 2011) and co-editor of Trans-Local-Act (aaa-PEPRAV, 2011). She was architect in residence with DAAR in 2011. She is a member of the art/architecture collective OPENkhana and is a Lecturer in Architecture at University of Sheffield, UK.

Cressida Kocienski holds an MFA in Art Writing from Goldsmiths, London. Working between video, performance and text, her research concerns spatial production and modes of narration. She collaborates with architects Nishat Awan and Phil Langley as OPENkhana, and is co-editor of the experimental publishing platform The Institute of Immaterialism. She was filmmaker in residence with DAAR in 2011. She has worked collaboratively with Art on the Underground; James Taylor Gallery; South London Gallery; Whitechapel Gallery; ICA, and Resonance FM. Her films have been screened at the Benaki Museum, Athens (2010); FormContent, London (2010); and Pleasure Dome and TSV, Toronto (2012).

 

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