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Friday, November 21, 2008

A Rock, a Tree, a Cloud

© Rimi Garbua, "Following the Home," Jaffa Photography Project.

In Carson McCullers' short story of that title, a young girl learns the practice of love: before she can have a pet, she has to bend her emotions and attention to "a rock, a tree, a cloud." In a sense, there is a cultural equivalent: by learning to love a novel, a photograph, a film, even a blog, the reader/viewer can be moved to embrace the detail and magnitude of a person or of a people.

What prompted this wave of humanist fervour? Three online discoveries: a blog, a manifesto and (best of all) a photography exhibition. First up, the Body on the Line blog by radical writer and activist Marcy Newman, which is not only eloquently written, impassioned, thoughtful and intensive, but has one of the most comprehensive Links sections I have ever come across, which led me to discover young Palestinian-American activists and writers like Remi Kanazi, who created Poetic Injustice and poet Suheir Hammad, as well as Mizna, a fantastic journal of Arab-American literature.

As for the manifesto, it could speak directly to and for the creative and political work done by Marci and many of the writers and artists on her links list. Written by cultural researcher/artist Brian Holmes, the Affectivist Manifesto is the culmination of the "Continental Drift" geopoetics seminar and loosely a response to the Yes Men's prankster issue of the New York Times. Responding to the way that art practices have changed, and wondering what it is art can do (and does do) in the face of globalisation and cultural imperialism, Holmes notes:
What we look for in art today is a different way to live, a fresh chance at coexistence.

He discusses the scales of art and of aesthetic experience: from the "thin layer" of the global network, to shared local knowledge, down to
the scale of intimacy, of skin, of shared heartbeats and feelings, the scale that goes from families and lovers to people embracing on a street corner or chatting in a sauna or a cafe. It would seem that intimacy, in our time, is weighted down, burdened with data and surveillance and seduction, crushed with the determining influence of all the other scales. But intimacy is still an unpredictable force, a space of gestation and therefore a wellspring of gesture, the biological spring from which affect drinks.

So I want to end with an event characterised by the "interplay of scales qualifying each other." Following the Home is an exhibition of photographs by six young women, from underprivileged Arab and Mizrahi Jewish communities in Jaffa, who participated in the Jaffa Photography Project developed and facilitated by Leila Segal, who has charted the process of the project on her blog The Other Side. The exhibition opened in Jaffa in May this year, and is currently on show at Rosie's Cafe in Brixton (which has delicious olive oil & almond cookies).

But back to the "interplay of scales": many of the photographs in the exhibition are intimate. They show the young photographers' families, their neighbourhoods, their friends, their houses. But they also speak of a political urgency that is immediate and intimate: there are photos of demonstrators being arrested, of political graffiti, of crumbling buildings: local, everyday details that register as intimate and local -- but also global. These moving photographs, each accompanied by a story, compress a great weight of feeling (as in Leila's post about Rimi's photographs) but they also expand outwards and outwards: through local politics of class in Jaffa, to national politics of oppression in Israel and Palestine, to the global crises of war and poverty.

The tiny details in these photographs speak out about global power, and about intimacy as a (the only? the most powerful?) resistance to it. In the love with which they are taken -- and often, the love in the eyes of those accepting the camera's gaze -- these photographs are profoundly affecting, as portraits, which unfold intimate landscapes, which in turn unfold intersecting stories, epic in scope, where what often passes us by as ticker-tape on the news channel is present and alive in every pixel of the image. They show a rock, a tree, a cloud, a grandmother, the whole world.

Updated 1 December 2008:

You can read (and hear) more about the project and about Sama's visit to London on Leila's blog. I was privileged to hear Sama read some of her work and see the photographs -- and listen in on some of the conversations they inspired. Sama said that what had affected her most about the project was the opportunity not only to listen, and to speak out, but to be heard, to feel that people - even and especially people who didn't share her background - who was willing to listen to her stories.

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