In recent years the Israeli Center for Digital Art (CDA) has been undergoing a process of change that includes examining virtually every aspect of our work and building a new work program, central to which is an attempt to redefine the roles and spheres of responsibility of a public art center. This process commenced in 2010 when we began working in the Jessy Cohen neighborhood, and continued more intensively in 2012 when the CDA relocated to the neighborhood. The Jessy Cohen neighborhood is situated on the southwest boundary of Holon, which is located to the south of Tel Aviv. The neighborhood was built in the early 1950s with funds donated by American-Jewish philanthropists Max and Jessica Cohen in order to provide a public housing solution for new immigrants who came to Israel in its early years from Eastern Europe and the Arab states.
We at the CDA embarked on this process of change out of a profound sense of exhausted possibilities and of being at an impasse. This feeling that reality mandates different work methods was attended by feelings of dissatisfaction or doubts concerning the role and relevance of the art field in general to the society in which we live, and doubts that emerged in us, as people managing and operating a public art center, concerning the way we work and the methods we employ.
These feelings stemmed from the fact that the art field likes to imagine itself as a subversive-political space due to its very engagement with content of this nature, but its structure runs counter to the content that many institutions and individuals within it seek to advance. In practice, the art field is founded on hierarchies and distribution of power and authority that are frequently determined in accordance with ethnic origin and status. Art enjoys freedom and autonomy, but it is unclear by virtue of which right it does so, and the question is whether it is not in fact an accurate reflection of the existing order.
We came to the Jessy Cohen neighborhood with a limited toolbox that was not suited to the reality we discovered there. Our principal privilege, which is itself a direct product of the special status of art, is what is known as “artistic freedom.” However, one of our main understandings during this process is that artistic freedom possesses no value when it is detached from the objectives it serves. Art should—ideally at least—be free and autonomous to serve the society in which it acts, rather than those engaging in it.
When we began working in the Jessy Cohen neighborhood we came armed with an arsenal of ideologies and beliefs concerning the role of art. We believed in the need to disengage art from life that has become enslaved to money and work, from art being turned into a commodity, from its terminology being co-opted to serve commercial needs, and from using its tools and modes of action in service of the neoliberal agenda. We believed that artistic freedom is the ability of art to be detached from utilitarian commercial and economic considerations, its ability to propose an unplanned and uncontrolled space and time, and its ability to be inefficient and impractical. That, in our view, is the public and political importance of art: it is a force with a potential for resisting market logic, a force that enables the creation of communities and new human, social, and community connections that act counter to this logic.
But in practice we realized this arsenal primarily in exhibitions. In other words, we engaged in mediating values and art, as well as artists’ actions, for a mostly bourgeois audience that is extrinsic to the neighborhood in which we are located, and which remained a passive observer.
When we relocated to the neighborhood, we were compelled to ask ourselves if our regular and familiar practices and work methods and the CDA’s artistic program indeed serve our worldview.
We began a process of self-reexamination whose aim was to understand how an art center seeking to work in this way should operate. What should be the role of an art center that seeks to create a possibility of place and time together with the community?
Much has been written on the artist’s role in these contexts, and numerous exhibitions presenting products or documentation of such processes have been presented in recent years. However, it is only rarely that these discussions touch on fundamental questions concerning the role of an art institution in general and, as in our case, the role of an art center. The purpose of the move that we at the CDA have been advancing in recent years is to expand this discussion in order to understand what kind of art center can serve as a home for artists and the kind of processes mentioned above. How can an art center become a place of belonging both for the community in which it is located and for the art community?
We began in effect by building a new art center—one that endeavors to shatter existing conventions and boundaries in the field in order to be effective and essential in the community in which it is situated. An art center that attempts to liberate the culture and language from the economic logic that has taken it over, and endeavors to achieve this by forging genuine alliances with different individuals and institutions—not necessarily from the sphere of art.
A number of questions stood at the basis of this project: is the role of an art center, radical as it may be, to reinforce the existing power configurations in the field? Is our role to identify young talents that have yet to make a breakthrough? Perhaps to formulate curatorial directions so that in the future the larger bodies in the field—institutions and collectors—can enjoy the economic translation of the values we have identified? And the biggest question of all: whom are we serving? When we present contemporary art exhibitions of the best artists from Israel and around the world, and bring the Israeli art public to the Jessy Cohen neighborhood, are we advancing the neighborhood residents or constituting a catalyst for future gentrification processes?
It took us time to understand that even when the content of our activities is fundamentally sociopolitical—even when we promote projects and exhibitions engaging with current sociopolitical issues that are relevant to our neighboring communities and create a genuine connection with genuine communities—the very choice of conventional tools from the art field, from working with artists to mounting exhibitions and publishing catalogues, preserves the field’s existing conservative divisions and boundaries. This means that appearances are at least as important as content. Consequently, so long as the art field, and the CDA within it, continues to speak in the “coded” language of contemporary art, irrespective of the topic of conversation, we are excluding anyone who does not speak the “language.” That is to say, the tools of art that are familiar to us create segregated spaces, not community ones.
This insight led us to challenge the point of departure that had always seemed self-evident to us: to be relevant to society and the community we must keep one foot firmly in the art field, and preserve our identification as an “art institution”. This perception was undermined when we understood that our identification as an art center is precisely what prevents the community in the Jessy Cohen neighborhood from viewing us as part of the neighborhood. Put differently, the language of art on the one hand, and the aesthetics of clean, white art spaces on the other, are not neutral tools for the “correct” presentation of an artwork, but first and foremost a means for an effective screening of anyone who does not speak or understand the language. Such gatekeepers are possibly relevant for an art space somewhere else, but for us who inhabit a building that until just a moment ago served as the neighborhood school, they are tools that we must abandon.
All this led us to reformulate our role from a new understanding of the question: who are we here to serve? Who spends extensive time at the CDA every day? Who formulates the CDA’s content with us? Who extends its range of possibilities and potential every day anew? The answer is that our neighbors, who maintain continuous, daily contact with us, and most of whom are not artists, are our principal partners in formulating the CDA’s new role. Thus, the CDA is gradually shifting from being exclusively maintained by the people operating it and working in it, to being jointly maintained with the community in which it is situated. This does not mean that other communities are not invited to come through its doors, or that the art community is not part of it, but once we learned to recognize who our most basic partners are, there was no alternative but to reach new conclusions concerning the way we work and operate.
The CDA’s new work program was built in accordance with this new point of departure, and is now founded on the perception that an art center is the contemporary community space, and is suitable for this purpose due to its flexible structure as a space in which trial and error are possible, and because it is a unique public place whose primary resources are time and space. But to this end we had to relinquish our pronounced appearance as an art center, as well as many of the artistic practices to which we adhered, and we especially had to stop being apprehensive about resembling institutions that are considered “dangerous” in an artistic context: a community center, a school, and so forth.
We wanted to recreate the CDA as an art center that has regular “residents,” not only viewers. An art center that can be sufficiently flexible to change its designation from time to time: an art center that can be a school, a community center, a laboratory, a restaurant, and an exhibition space—all according to need. We wanted a center that no longer serves as a cover for preserving the traditional power relations in the art field, but a space that enables them to be shattered, and recognition that knowledge, experience, and ability are not the exclusive domain of those who have undergone transparent professionalization processes that are ostensibly detached from any ethnic, class, or political context. Alongside this flexibility, we strongly believed—and continue to believe—in the basic principles of this new art space: principles whose purpose is to ensure equal access to all, freedom of thought and opinion, and as far as possible, genuine, equal partnership.
The first project created under the new program at the CDA was “The Complete Jessy Cohen Museum,” which was initiated by artist duo Effi & Amir together with Igal Ophir, Yaakov Erlich, Haviva Barkol, Pnina Barkol, Dvora Harel, Malka Cohen, Ruti Mizrahi, Tikva Sedes, Rachel Polet, Mimi Rosenberg, Ada Rahamim, and many more Jessy Cohen neighborhood residents.
The project’s first phase comprises two main parts: the first is a timeline of the Jessy Cohen neighborhood describing the main events that took place in the neighborhood, as remembered by the residents, from the 1950s to the present. This part is displayed as a permanent exhibit on the ground floor of the CDA.
The second part proposes a spatial reference to the neighborhood residents’ self-perception, central to which is a map of the Jessy Cohen neighborhood as it is perceived by its residents. In other words, it is not congruent with the neighborhood’s official boundaries. This part presents various materials pertaining to specific areas in the neighborhood, and is the first in a series of planned temporary exhibition projects.
The Complete Jessy Cohen Museum is the realization of our vision regarding the role of an art institution operating in a community or neighborhood. It allows the flexibility and uncertainty of art to become an advantage. By means of this project, the CDA is enabling a redefinition of the community’s identity and history, and creating time for experimenting, for creativity, for pointless activity or, in short, for anything outside the rules of the consumer and market culture in which we live. With Effi & Amir’s project, the CDA offered the community a possibility for leisure, imagination, and even boredom, all in order to enable it to reformulate itself, to get to know itself, to recreate its identity and belonging, and to make time for creativity. A central part of the possibility for the community to reformulate its identity is also associated with time and how time is translated into the community’s history. In many immigrant neighborhoods, where there is a high rate of population turnover, there is no sense of community, and consequently there is no continuous community narrative. Consequently, they have no history but rather an experience of a fragmented, arbitrary present. In this context, art plays an important role since it facilitates practices of documentation, collection, and archiving alongside study and presentation of local knowledge and memory. This knowledge enables the community to reshape its memory, process existing knowledge, and tell its own story independently of national, political, and economic narratives that subjugate the community’s narrative to their own logics and changing and fluctuating needs.
Alongside these artistic tools, which by means of the project became the tools of the Jessy Cohen neighborhood residents who participated in it, new connections were formed between the participants and the CDA, and in effect a group of residents assembled that is gradually becoming the project’s curatorial team working alongside “professionals” such as the CDA’s curators and artists Effi & Amir. This group of residents-curators meets every few weeks to discuss various topics associated with the professional program of the Complete Jessy Cohen Museum and the CDA. Thus, the group decided that the subject the museum would engage with in 2017 is the neighborhood school that closed down in 2012 and that now houses the CDA. The group was also involved in publishing a call for artists to propose new projects on this subject, and it is due to hold interviews with the artists and select those who will go on to realize their projects.
The group also participated in the roundtable discussions leading up to the CDA’s Third Annual Conference that was held in January 2017.
Gradually, through various projects and actions, we are striving to open the artistic directing of the CDA to partners from the Jessy Cohen neighborhood who do not necessarily have a professional background in art. We believe this is a significant step on the way to realizing the various ideas in which we believe, and to reducing the gap between rhetoric and action. We believe that in the coming years the CDA will constitute a new model for a site-specific art center whose professional program is co-managed by residents and art professionals, and is relevant to many and varied communities and audiences.
Eyal Danon is Director and chief curator of the Israeli Centre for Digital Art, Holon. He has curated and co-curated different exhibitions and projects including the Hilchot Shechnim series, Liminal Spaces project, Free Radicals, Weizman Rally, the Jessy Cohen project, and more (www.digitalartlab.org.il). He is co-editor of the online art, culture, and media magazine Maarav (www.maarav.org.il).