Keep Your Eye on the Wall, ed. Mitch Albert and Olivia Snaije, is a book that knits together photos and prose about the Separation Wall that snakes through Palestine. Photos from the book are currently exhibiting in France, where the book is already out. It’s forthcoming from Saqi Books in September. Meanwhile, Albert and Snaije answered a few questions:
ArabLit: Can you tell me how the project started, how you decided what to include? What were you aiming toward?
Mitch Albert and Olivia Snaije: The genesis of the book emerged from discussions between Olivia and Mitch about developing a project centred on the Separation Wall, but we were initially interested in the fact that the wall was being used as a canvas by artists from all over the world. We envisioned a book that would curate a selection of wall graffiti past and present, from the great names in the form to young Palestinians who sprayed their initials. However, a handful of books that had already come out on the same subject or that were in progress were brought to our attention, and we decided to refocus our endeavour. That came easily when we considered that the writers of these other books were all Westerners, and that much of the art was Western-derived as well. We decided to argue for a more original (and photographic) perspective on the Wall, from the people whose lives were most affected: Palestinians themselves. Fortunately, there are many renowned and hugely talented Palestinian photographers on the scene, so we set about contacting them and enquiring into their interest in participating.
AL: It’s a wonderful short-short from Adania Shibli, on closing down of vistas and views. Why in the middle of the book, along with Yael Lerer’s essay “Crossing Walls”? How do you, in a photography book, encourage people to read the words, too?
MA & OS: The story occurs in the middle of the book, amidst the more overtly didactic essays and the photos themselves — therefore, it might be considered a lyrical interlude, if not quite fully a pastoral one.
It was important for us to include text in the book, not to leaven the photographs as such, but to help articulate the underlying issues: the very act of making these strong and beautiful images has a powerful context and subtext, and we felt that skilful writers could only help illuminate this fact whilst still allowing the images to carry the book and the reader.
AL: There is such amazing texture, for instance, in Taysir Batniji’s photographs; Steve Sabella’s have both jumble and pattern; Rula Halawani’s have a great combination of movement and stuck-ness; Raeda Saadeh’s are so startling and surreal. How did you go about finding the photographers, and finding a balance of photographers who would bring completely different things to the project?
MA & OS: The photographers’ reputations speak for themselves. We are both considerably engaged with Arab arts and culture, so it was not difficult to come up with a longlist and a shortlist of artists whose participation we deemed essential to a book such as this one. We also knew that the photos should not only consist of straightforward documentation, that they should also be, by turns, playful, provocative, unexpected, and challenging. That said, when you have a group commission, you never know how it will turn out, but we are very happy with the result and feel that the variety of the photographs compliment each other.
AL: It’s great that you include an essay by Malu Halasa on “Against Aestheticising the Wall,” which was a debate I also heard while visiting with PalFest. Did you feel that there was any danger, in doing this book project, of aestheticizing the Wall?
MA & OS: The very act of representing an object in pictorial space is an act of aestheticising, so it would be a contradiction in terms to express any worry about doing so. It is possible to argue that the visual depiction even of atrocity risks making the recorded subject ‘beautiful’. But we believe in the power of photography to provoke strong, instinctive responses, and to stimulate discussion and debate, and it is this philosophy that guided. At the same time, we were aware of the discourse that, as Malu so deftly illustrates, holds that making ugly artefacts of oppression ‘beautiful’ weakens the possibility of resistance, and we knew we had to give voice to this counterpoised argument.
AL: Can you say something about: What next? So first it’s published in French and you have a photography exhibition, and then it appears in the UK….
MA & OS: It will be published by Saqi Books in London and will be available in September 2013.And then we hope it takes on a life of its own and engenders further exhibitions, curated by Monica Santos and Sandra Maunac, of Masasam Curatorial Projects, talks, etc. both in the Middle East and abroad. We would also hope for take-up by publishers in other languages / countries. There will also be an exhibition from 12 September – 2 October 2013 at Photoquai 4,Espace Central Dupon Images, Paris Montmartre, 74 rue Joseph de Maistre, 75018 Paris.
It is then scheduled to be shown at the Empty Quarter gallery in Dubai during Art Dubai 2014 and then will move to the Contemporary Art Platform in Kuwait. As with everything we are still fund-raising for what is to come and would appreciate any generous donors!