Common Assembly III, CUNY Grad Center, James Gallery

Scour satellite images of Israel and Palestine for long enough, and you’ll find green giants.  In one of many rituals that purport to legitimize the Green Line, the Jewish National Fund planted a swathe of gangly pine trees to materialize demarcation lines drawn out in the 1949 Armistice Agreements between Israel and its neighbors.  For decades, this bodiless geo-political distinction has provoked countless peace talks; bifurcated fabled towns such as Barta’a in Wadi Ara; and animated laughable meditations on its impossible trajectory.

Much of the same discourse finds a sober analysis in Common Assembly, Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency’s debut exhibition in New York at the James Gallery at CUNY Graduate Center, which casts the steely gray Palestinian Parliament building in Abu Dis, Jerusalem as a beacon for future political aspirations.  Running through this crumbling structure like a gossamer thread is the intangible Green Line, revealed in a film titled Cleaning the Parliament (2011).  Anonymous feet walk gingerly along the dirt-clad, tiered, concrete seating area, brushing and sweeping the layers of dust and soot that mask the borderline.  This act of cleaning might seem cathartic for one of the many residents and volunteers at DAAR; but the steadfast repetition of broom whisks suggests less of an emotional release and more of a call for direct action.  Here, slippages in colonial separations are exploited, and the massive relic that stands as testimony to failed political negotiations can be slain and re-born as a new venue for public activism.

A scene from the Parliament Building interior is dramatized in a wide-format photograph, Palestinian Legislative Council, Abu Dis (2011), which hangs on a wall in a room adjacent to the gallery.  An octagonal skylight bathes the garage-like structure with a hopeful light that communicates future use—temporary or permanent—as a forum for debate.

 

The pith of this exhibition is The Line (2012), a life-size section of the abandoned Palestine Parliament in three dimensions.  Smeared with wet concrete and a hasty application, the rough, Tetris-like creature is the antithesis of its Nottingham Gallery counterpart, which was a glossy, bravura staircase suspended by black wires.  If the first iteration of Common Assembly in Nottingham, UK embraced an of-the-moment quality that would confer artwork status, the second in New York had a more chastened effect.  It instead comes off as an artifact: a dinosaur that has survived intense intifadas.

While DAAR explicitly references radical forms of activism, the effect of the exhibition is that of excruciating practicality.  It takes a miniscule loophole in a former international peace treaty (which turns out to be a small strip of land in legal limbo) and does little to produce an imaginative, hypothetical, and citizen-influenced solution for this newly acquired extra-territorial space.  Despite the healthy measure of critical thought, which redeems much of DAAR’s work, the triumph of fantasy is absent.

At David Zwirner Gallery in 2007, Francis Alÿs’s solo show “Sometimes Doing Something Poetic Can Become Political, and Sometimes Doing Something Political Can Become Poetic” displayed images of the lanky Alÿs on a stroll through Jerusalem, retracing the Green Line with a dribbling paint can.  His wry position was that the Green Line is sometimes malleable and other times incredibly fluid: a thunderstorm, speeding taxis, or carts selling freshly baked khubz could, and did, erase it.  While this performance teetered on the brink of the absurd, it posed important questions to society: can social provocations—and even transgressions—make you abandon assumptions about conflicts that have become normalized?  Can bold artistic performances act as catalytic moments that transform what seems possible in public memory? 

The dividing line born from U.N. Resolution 242 has long stood as a site of artistic expression.  Though Common Assembly III is a resolutely political exhibition, its attempt to situate itself in different contexts of revolutionary protest—from Cairo’s Tahrir Square to Manama’s Pearl Roundabout—is half-hearted.  The project is full of pathos, but unlike Alÿs’s work, is powerless to challenge the status quo—to think beyond the limitations set by Oslo.  This is a work characterized by DAAR’s co-founder Eyal Weizman as “forensic architecture”, or the research of spatial materials within the framework of humanitarian law.  The exhibition’s authors (too numerous to count) demonstrate a calculated, incremental and legalistic vision of an alternative Palestinian future, something most activists would be too impatient to wait for.  It’s slow, heavy, and hardly a spectacle, shielding itself into safety like that other green creature: the tortoise.*

Yusef Audeh

*shortlisted for 2012 Frieze Writer's Prize