The fear of vanishing from the history of art led to the invention of exhibitions’ history

A Conversation with Galit Eilat

In a candid and generously long conversation with Galit Eilat, we discussed the tension between nationalists, governments, institutions, and the curator’s work. Prompted by the question “whom to serve?”, we spoke about power, positionalities, and institutional conflicts. The Israeli curator, based in the Netherlands, critiques the attention given to the legacies of art institutions and exhibitions that, in her opinion, may neglect the art and the artists for the benefit of a structure that was built to represent them.

Eilat founded the Israeli Center for Digital Art and co-founded the Mobile Archive. She co-curated the traveling seminars Liminal Spaces and Syndrome of the Present. She curated and co-curated, among other projects, the Polish Pavilion at Venice Art Biennial, the 32nd October Salon in Belgrade, and the 31st São Paulo Biennial. Since 2018, she is the director of Meduza Foundation. She proposes forms of curating focused on collective efforts where the outcomes are concerned with how to think together and with proposing formats beyond exhibitions.

We would like to start this conversation with a rhetorical question inspired by a Bob Dylan song: “Youre gonna have to serve somebody, yes, indeed youre gonna have to serve somebody. Who?”

Since it is a rhetorical question, I am not going to answer it. This says what I think of rhetoric. Rhetoric is a tool. It does not come with a question; it comes with a method, usually to deceive, especially in our time. When I read that you would like to use rhetorical questions, I asked myself, why rhetoric?

Regarding the rhetorical question—or rhetoric in general—as a way to deceive, do you use this methodology in your curatorial approach (consciously or unconsciously), or even more broadly in a political sense?

I wish I knew 20 years ago what I know now. I would have used it to attract, direct people in a certain direction, see the world in a certain way, and bring my vision to the forefront. I’m joking. Rhetoric has to do with language but also with culture, the culture that never mentions things as they are. It is a way to soften a situation that is tense due to differences of class, income, and so on. You need to find a mechanism and a way to liquidate anger that built up over history, for instance.

Dismantling power dynamics within society seems crucial to what you do. How do you balance the authoritative position that is also embedded in curatorial practice? Or, more specifically, as an Israeli curator, how does this dynamic affect your relationships with artists from Palestine or Lebanon, for instance? Since as a curator, you are already in some position of power.

I think it depends on where I am. As an Israeli, in Israel, as a curator or not, I am privileged. This gives me the agency to do certain things. But the real question is, how do I use this agency and for what? It is different when I’m working in Europe, when I’m working inside or outside of an institution, or when I have worked in other contexts. The curatorial in general has received lots of promotion in the past 15 years. Today, I shy away from the word ‘curator’ or the notion of the curatorial because it is abused in so many ways.   

After I left Israel, the first thing I was offered was to curate exhibitions involving Israeli and Palestinian artists, which I never did. I always try, as an Israeli, not to celebrate the fake  ‘peace’ in the Middle East and to enjoy the value of ‘progress Israeli’ and of working solely with Palestinian artists and Israeli artists, inside or outside of Israel. This is a position I never wanted to hold, even though I worked more than many other Israeli curators (in the past anyway) with artists from the MENA region. 

As a director of an Israeli public institution, I could support other institutions in Palestine or in East Jerusalem through the DAL’s administration. 

In a sense, I abused the power given to me, not for my personal benefit and not against the people I worked with. But in a way, I abused the system that I worked for to get permission for people to enter Israel. I think the power of the curator, which is always contextualized, was very helpful. It was based on a sense of trust: that we share the same aim and that we respect each other.

You said there was a difference between working outside and inside Israel, and you decided to leave the country. Do you think there comes a time when, in order to bring change, one should work from outside? How did your position affect your ability to generate change?

I was the director for almost ten years at an institution that I initiated, and I think a director should not stay in the same place for more than eight years. It is enough. You become bored, you start to get used to the power position and this is a death sentence for the imagination. I knew the system too well. 

After the attack on Gaza in 2009, I could no longer tolerate the idea that I’m representing the state. Netanyahu and I had an agreement: Once Netanyahu is elected, I leave the country. I did it twice :). After Netanyahu’s government was elected, it was a big change in state policy. Avigdor Lieberman as a new Foreign Minister instructed diplomats not to apologize about Israel’s position anymore and to be very aggressive about it. I could not represent Israel in this sense. I did not want to use the position that was usually attributed to me, as the cultural body that also works with the ‘enemy’, in a regime that I think was also not interested anymore in this kind of agreement.

How has moving from Israel changed your agency?

It’s not that I couldn’t help others, I couldn’t even help myself.

You mentioned before that the position of places changes the way you think or work. In your project Syndrome of the Present, you promote exactly this, collective engagement in traveling experiences. What do these geographic dislocations enable?

I learned an important lesson from Liminal Spaces. This project had a significant influence on my work. What I learned is that through experience, especially a collective experience, the learning process has a deeper effect. I think we transform ourselves when we engage in doing something together. So learning is done together, in a context and a place. Liminal Spaces produced many things, but it did not produce what it promised—an exhibition. Instead, it brought people through the experience, creating a small community for a few years. In the impossibility of running away from each other, the only option was to stay together. It bonds a group and opens us up to other knowledge and experiences.

Jeff Halper, political activist and former Director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. Liminal Spaces, Abu Dis, 2006. Galit Eilat

After Liminal Spaces, I was offered a grant to develop a project. I offered closed meetings between people from the Middle East and North Africa, these closed meetings didn’t aim to produce anything. They would not produce an exhibition or a catalog. Because of political complications, I delegated the production of this project to the Van Abbemuseum [in Eindhoven]. We met every two months for one year. The meetings took place in Morocco, in Egypt, in Turkey, and the Van Abbemuseum. 

Usually, we are limiting ourselves or our projects to what we think we can achieve or deliver at the end of a project. This project showed that it is possible to write proposals without declaring their outcome from the very beginning. Curation is not just to organize an exhibition in a space, it is also to create the conditions for something surprising to emerge.

Syndrome of the Present. Courtesy of Galit Eilat.

Would you say that traveling seminars are another form of curating for you?

Absolutely. What I find the most interesting and fulfilling for myself is to create the conditions and the context and to invite artists, historians, writers, sociologists, and others for seminars, as a starting point for a project. I think we need to invest more in the artists if we aim for good art, we expect them to come up with new projects often, new ideas, but the support most of the artists receive is for the spectacle in the exhibition space; the support is for the encounter between the public and the artwork. And we tend to forget the process, which is the most important for the production of good artworks.

You critique the personifications of gods—the one king, the one genius, the one artist. How do you embody this critique in your work?

Instead of personifications of gods, I would describe it as the secularization of god, which leads to a culture of entitlement, flooded with supremacist feelings. And ‘the genius artist,’ ‘the great curator’,, or museum director are embedded in one body that we all forgive. This is bad, yet, a potent phenomenon in the art world, which is the heritage of monotheistic cultures; there are other models in our ecosystems that are not focused on ‘the one.’ 

The curatorial was reintroduced by people who wanted to gain control over the narrative and to protect their legacy in the history of exhibitions. For example, the emergence of institutional critique turned the attention and the discourse from the artwork to the exhibition and the context, and from the exhibition to the institution, then to the curator or the museum director. It is important to share our experiences and to learn from each other—and of course, to hold a critical approach—but we are facing something a bit different. The ‘curatorial room’ became the main topic of research in curatorial studies, which constantly investigates curatorial practices and much less knowledge from other disciplines. The art institutions constantly demand attention to what institutions think or what they do. In the last decade, artists have been invited to better the museum and to breathe life into it—and not the opposite.

We now have a movement based upon interdependency and care ethics challenging the myth of the male genius and the false culture of independence. Do you think this has any value, on a larger scale, outside of the art world? And does it have the potential to affect positive change?

If we are able to imagine a democracy, we will have a democracy. If we cannot imagine ourselves as a society or community, we will not become one. Therefore, we need more opportunities to imagine together, to imagine ourselves together. The legend about the genius male is not going to disappear overnight.  

How to Talk about Things that Do Not Exist is the title we chose for the 31st São Paulo biennial, and over time the verb ‘talk’ changed to fight, read, love, etc. There are several ways to interpret the title. One is to ask how to break the silence that lurks in the shadows of the past and present. These issues are not discussed or debated publicly, therefore they do not exist. Another interpretation is the ability to imagine collectively the things that we imagine together, such as god, money, borders, as well as art.

In his doctoral thesis [‘The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature’, 1841], Marx said:  “Real talers [or ‘thaler,’ a currency then used in Germany] have the same existence that the imagined gods have. Has a real taler any existence except in the imagination, if only in the general or rather common imagination of man? Bring paper money into a country where this use of paper is unknown, and everyone will laugh at your subjective imagination.”

We would like to hear more about your experience in Brazil. The 31st São Paulo Biennial happened at a politically difficult moment. There was also the problem with funding coming from Israel. As someone who also works as a mediator of sorts, how was it to curate something while being simultaneously involved in the issues that you could not control?

We arrived in Brazil in 2013, towards the end of the public demonstrations that broke out in several Brazilian cities. The 2014 World Cup took place a few months before the Biennial’s opening and the presidential election happened immediately after the opening. There were several issues that we noticed throughout the artists’ work that only later became visible in the local context.

When it comes to the boycott, it’s important to remember why there was a call to boycott. During the time we worked in the São Paulo Biennial, Israel attacked Gaza and more than 2000 Palestinians were massacred. The cease-fire started 10 days before the opening of the biennial and prompted many discussions among the artists. Without going too much into detail, it is important to mention that many artists refused through their works to give visibility to the state of Israel. 

The biennial is a private foundation that receives funding from the government and other resources. The foundation secured the total budget of the biennale from the foundation budget, but we had to raise money to cover most of the investment of the foundation in the biennial. All the money we raised was directed to the foundation budget and they decided how the money would be distributed. Even if the money was coming for a specific production, it went to the foundation budget. The state of Israel supported the Israeli artists participating in the biennial, and the foundation’s decision was that all support, private or public, would enter to the general budget, and not individual projects. Therefore, the funding from Israel did not go to the Israeli artists but the Biennial’s entire pool. The solution to the conflict between the artists and the foundation was to reverse the foundation’s decision, so that the support that came from Israel went to the Israeli artists, from France to the French artists, etc. 

There was no boycott in the end. Usually, there is no boycott but a call for a boycott. Boycott works as a campaign, and it is a very important campaign because it brought Gaza to the minds of people. Before the BDS movement, people were not aware of what is happening in Palestine, especially in Gaza.

You’ve also worked with Balkan artists and in the Balkans, a region marked by war. Drawing parallels between two different areas affected by war and conflict is often criticized, but the parallel between what was happening in the Balkans and what is happening in Palestine and Israel is undeniably felt by many, at least on an emotional level. On that note, what was your experience working in both contexts?

The time I worked in Israel I endeavored to challenge the Israeli canon, often through indirect tactics, namely through reference to other conflicts that could be projected onto the situation in Israel. This included work with curators and artists from Kosovo, Albania, Croatia, and Turkey. Artists from these regions were invited to exhibit, thereby sketching analogies between Israel and these loci in regard to conflict, ethnic cleansing, territorial struggle, violent nationalism, denial of the freedom of the individual, and control of citizens’ mobility. The emphasis was to generate empathy for the victims of other wars or conflicts, and to sketch an analogy between these conflicts and our reality, without confronting, at first sight, the exhibition’s audiences, as a direct confrontation might have led to a rejection of the views and messages of the exhibition altogether. 

The main question for me was, how can you create empathy and awareness of what is going on in Palestine? Not by confronting, because by confronting, I will not have audiences. Nobody wants to hear “I know better than you,” and I do not know better than anybody else.  

In 2011, together with Alenka Gregoric, I curated the 52nd October Salon – It’s Time We Got to Know Each Other [at Belgarde’s Museum of Yugoslav History]. The project was conceptually a continuation of the exhibition “Evil to the Core” (that I curated together with Ran Kasmy Ilan), which was held in 2009 at the DAL [the Israeli Center for Digital Art in Holon, south of Tel Aviv]. Both had a similar concept, which is dealing with disobedience and obedience to authority, individual responsibility, or social responsibility. 

The initial question was about responsibility; ‘response-ability’ and who has the power to respond. This question followed the reading of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who claims that responsibility and response are based, like religion, on debt, i.e. on the economic cycle in which a promise is given in exchange for tribute. But, true responsibility differs from the economic one. Namely, it is responsibility toward what cannot be calculated, the responsibility to another.

In present times, we live with the conviction that the main premise of democracy is the possibility of choice and, among other things, that we decide on our own how and when to react. The power of state apparatuses lies precisely in the individual’s belief in the infinite possibilities of participation, in the illusion, the pseudo-activity that the individual with his or her signature, by circling options or voicing opinions at different forums, can demonstrate resistance and make the world a better place. 
The power of alternative ‘other’ voices, be they environmental, feminist, or anti-globalist, rests on undermining the state apparatus by forming parallel narratives and opening the field to other, different truths. The biggest threat today really is pseudo-activity. That is why I think the issue of (civil) disobedience is even more current because it is necessary to find the right way to get out of this closed circle. In other words, to cause a provocation, to upset the civil norms, change reception and behavior, to point out the importance of taking responsibility, responsibility for the another. However, in order to act responsibly, we must know the truth, which is not an easily definable term.

Europe often addresses racism outside of itself or tends to consider it in a way that includes, for example, South America or Africa but forgets places like Kosovo. Do you think that the next Manifesta taking place in Kosovo will help balance this issue, or is it more likely to end up being another case of exploitation or looting?

Manifesta could face a similar situation to what happened with Documenta in Greece, which is mistrust between local actors and Manifesta representatives, which could lead locals to miss what Manifesta is good at; media visibility and agency to establish things locally, that are costumes to big art events. To benefit from Manifesta locally, trust needs to be there on both parties. I can imagine that it is not easy for Manifesta to work in Kosovo and for Kosovars it could be challenging as well. If trust could be built between Kosovars to Manifesta, both sides can benefit much more from the project. 

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