a conversation about yarl’s wood

Megan & Shahir chat about yarl’s wood, engagement, nostalgia, and the burden of unruliness….

and some video reference…



James C. Scott has me thinking.

He has me thinking about my friend in Hebron who, despite his propensity to get arrested, continues to provoke the Israeli forces who occupy his city with silly pranks. When I told him that I couldn’t understand why, as someone already with a target on his back, he chooses to keep irritating the soldiers, he said “it just keeps me sane.”

He has me thinking of the family I met outside of Bethlehem, whose land has been under threat for the last 25 years. When Israel launched its effort to seize the hilltop farm they also ordered a stop to all further construction that the family was carrying out to build an eco-education program – the first of its kind in Palestine. So instead, the family built caves underground, invisible to those who keep constant surveillance.

He has me thinking of a guy I once saw in San Francisco. I walked past as the police spotted him doing graffiti in broad daylight. They hassled him and began writing up a ticket but the artist’s polite demeanor and profuse apologizing managed to convince them to simply drive off with a finger wag. Not two minutes after they were gone, he pulled out a black can of spray paint and scrawled “FUCK PIGS” thickly over the colorful art he had just completed. He sprinted away shortly after.

He has me thinking of my former colleague, who I worked with at a cinema when I was young and he was old and a single father with 3 children to care for. Our manager would overwork him and keep him on shift well into the evening on a minimum-wage salary. Because my colleague couldn’t afford a babysitter, he’d often sneak his kids in on the days when the manager wasn’t around and let them watch movies. He’d steal them some popcorn and candy too because, “the big guy can’t have it all. He just can’t,” as he’d say to me.

James C. Scott has me thinking that resistance isn’t just protests and revolutions and mass coordinated campaigns. He has me thinking that there’s a lot more in the underbelly of daily politics than meets the eye, that power is constantly being challenged in ways I had always overlooked. He has me thinking that all of these little things – these weapons of the weak – are more valuable than I ever gave pause to consider.

Unruly Borders: Revisited

Exactly a year after it was first posted, I’d like to take a moment to respond to some of the points made in HCHUDSON’s “Unruly Borders” piece on this blog. Namely, I want to offer a brief critique of their understanding of art on Israel’s Apartheid Wall as the creation of a subversive political language that turns the wall’s “function on its head.” While I agree with the assertion that the wall, “speaks as a visual symbol of constrains and control,” I find the subsequent analysis to be a startlingly romanticized interpretation of the art’s effectiveness. Let me explain why:

Firstly is HCHUDSON’s problematic argument that art on the wall serves as a way to reclaim space previously occupied by oppositional power. To state simply that art has allowed the wall to be “reclaimed by Banksy, visitors and Palestinians themselves,” only scarcely acknowledges a perpetual problem within Palestinian solidarity. That is, HCHUDSON fails to point out that the vast majority of art pieces on the wall are done by non-Palestinians, many of whom visit for only brief periods of time and have little interaction with the wall and its consequences on a regular basis. How, then, can these artists reclaim a Palestinian space that was never theirs to begin with? Are they doing so on behalf of Palestinians (and what are the ethical implications of this?)? While it is true, as HCHUDSON notes, that some Palestinians criticize the wall’s art for simply beautifying something horrific, my personal experience has led me to believe that a much more widespread criticism is aimed against the sort of tokenistic activism that foreign artists adopt through painting on the wall in the first place. What is it to paint and leave? Who is the art really speaking to when written in a tongue foreign to those who face it every day? In fact, drawing on the wall has been reduced by some to total commodification, where people across the world can even pay to have a message of their choosing scrawled across the vast cement canvas. Does the transformation of Israel’s wall into a mass billboard really give the space back to Palestinians? Where is their role in this whole process?

Secondly, HCHUDSON claims that the wall’s art provokes conversation, writing:

The looming presence of the wall speaks a political language of separation, warning those within the West Bank to stay away. The graffiti artwork subverts this language, inviting onlookers to come closer and observe.

But again I would challenge this assumption as one that overplays the impact of [this particular] art. Having passed by the wall nearly every day since 2011, I can attest to the simple fact that with each day more, the various murals grow less and less visible. Rather, for most “onlookers,” I would contest that the murals are hardly noticeable at all. As Akshay noted in a 2012 article,[1] “a given act cannot stay unruly for long.” Hence, even if a convincing argument was put forth of the unruly nature of the wall’s first paintings, the effect 14 years later is minimal. The conversation – at least amongst those in the West Bank – that HCHUDSON refers to is therefore essentially nonexistent.

I don’t mean to belittle the work of artists who seek to make a political statement through their craft. Some of the art on the wall is remarkably moving and thought-provoking when you experience it for the first time. But if we’re examining this through an unruly lens, we must call into question the issue of ownership. Art on the wall is largely made by privileged outsiders and designed to speak to privileged outsiders. The people who have “the ability and the talent to speak”[2] through this medium are thus primarily the same people who have always had those opportunities.

I wish, instead, that HCHUDSON had talked about some of the ways Palestinians have challenged the power of the Apartheid Wall.[3] It’s true force, after all, doesn’t come from its dull greyness or its symbolic nature but from its very real capacity to divide, fragment and barricade an entire community of people. What about those who smash sledgehammers through it to make gaping holes? What about those who climb rickety ladders to overcome its 8-meter height? To me, those are the people who are changing the way in which the wall is sensed, experienced in the everyday. Those are the unruliers who deserve acknowledgement, yet who sadly remain overshadowed by the appeal of a pretty painting.

[1] Khanna, A (2012), “Seeing Citizen Action through an ‘Unruly’ Lens”, Development, 55(2), pp. 164.

[2] Ranciere, J. (2000), “Distribution of the Sensible” in Politics of Aesthetics, pp. 13.

[3] Of course, recognizing that a few Palestinian artists have also contributed art pieces to the wall.