Artists challenge the blockade by building a virtual bridge between Gaza and London
"Art is a threat because it's a non-violent form of resistance and even non-violent forms of resistance are a threat; sometimes actually they are a greater threat."
At Home in Gaza and London is a digital, cross-border art project that offers an intimate look into people’s personal lives. In one video viewers watch friends sit around a kitchen table, reading, working, bickering and laughing as they would anywhere in the world. But the difference is that the kitchen is in London and the people around the table are in Gaza City.
The project’s creators, Station House Distributed, have used digital technology to transport artists in England into the homes and lives of artists in Gaza and vice versa. Artists on either side have set up live video streams which are then superimposed onto each other to create the effect they are in the same place.
For artists in Gaza, the siege means their ability to collaborate with those from outside the Strip is limited. The blockade on Gaza has had a devastating impact on freedom of movement for Palestinians and in this context At Home in Gaza and London attempts to transcend physical restrictions and political borders by offering a virtual bridge between the two countries. As Taghrid Choucair-Vizoso, who came up with the idea and is co-directing the project, puts it: “We explore the power of the digital to transform artists' mobility.”
A collection of videos takes us inside a living room, onto a rooftop and outside a theatre. Sometimes it takes a few moments to realise whether we are looking at England or Gaza and which of the characters are really there and which are superimposed.
“I think this project allows both audiences to see into the everyday lives of a group of people inhabiting these two places at once; what it might feel and look like to be in the other city. How identity and language are negotiated while moving from a kitchen in Gaza to a living room in London. And to witness moments of intimate relationships - a lover at each end of a table between the two cities - but that looks like it's in a single space,” says Choucair-Vizoso.
Under the broad theme of home the artists spent hours talking to each other through this video connection; having lunch and dinner together, whilst exploring different aspects in their daily lives such as the lack of electricity and water or censorship and the blockade. Because of this, says Choucair-Vizoso, the line between the art show and real life became blurred: “In those cases it’s not just video trickery… we all got to know each other a lot.”
“What I’d like to highlight is that it really did feel like we were all one company in one space even though we weren’t,” she continues. “We got to know each other so well and it felt like you would any other working relationship for an artistic project because we were all in one space.”
“Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing you do feel like you’re in a totally different world. You’d come out of the studio after being there for 14 hours and we’d just feel like, oh, we’re in London. I really did feel like I was in Gaza a lot. It did feel like we’d created this whole different place together, a mixture of London and Gaza, but more importantly was these people’s lives and stories, we talked about everything and anything and then it came into the work.”
“It’s not just what my life would be like if I was in Gaza or if they were in London but what life would be like if we were together,” she adds later.
One of the techniques adopted by the artists was to mirror each other’s movements as though they were one person. Julian Maynard Smith, artistic director of Station House Opera who has been researching this technique for years, calls it "dissolving".
Gaza-based artist Walid Tafesh asked Tara Fatehi, an Iranian dancer based in London, to dance at the same time as him using the dissolving technique. Walid has part of his arm missing and there are moments as they move together when Tara’s arm completes his. Choucair-Vizoso recalls Walid saying: “I feel whole in my soul, in my mind, but my body isn't. Now I have an arm… this is what the dissolve technique is about.”
The performance material that has been created so far is part of the research and development stage of At Home in Gaza and London that was commissioned by LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre) and Watermans Art Centre. On 17 January, At Home in Gaza and London had a public sharing at the Watermans Art Centre with a live audience and both sets of artists present.
The next stage of the project will be in June when the artists are considering running live streams from multiple locations in Gaza and London so the audience can follow the lives of different characters as they go in and out of public and private spaces. The final piece will be a full-length theatre production. One idea in the mix is that Aya Abdelrahman, one of the artists involved in the project, will have one of her paintings hung up in a living room in London: “keeping this idea of home and living in each other’s spaces but also doing something else at the same time, which is showcasing her work and imagining that one of her paintings could be bought in London,” explains Choucair-Vizoso.
“Why do we get to see American and European artists all the time and not Middle Eastern and specifically Gazan artists?” she asks.
The project has not been without its difficulties. Even doing it in the West Bank would be easier, says Choucair-Vizoso, given that there are stronger international links and more youth and art programmes. Not a huge amount of thought is given to art in Gaza, she adds, because people are thinking about their immediate survival and where they will find work, water and electricity. “Of course it’s not going to bring electricity and water in,” she says of the project. “But art can also create jobs.”
“I think it’s so important to keep up culture otherwise your whole life is just about electricity and water and Gaza then just becomes what they [the occupation forces] want it to become. Gaza has amazing artists and they deserve for the world to see them because they can’t leave and they can’t tour their work,” she continues.
“I’d say psychologically I think art is an essential part of a society, of a society’s development, of a society’s form of expression. It’s just such an important part of culture. I think it is a very different way of showing people what is happening and I think it can work. Definitely this project has the ability for an audience in London to see and meet Gazans and see the effects of war on them. I think the colonial forces, the oppressive forces – Israel – they target artists all the time and you wonder why,” she says, pointing out The Freedom Theatre as an example of this.
The Freedom Theatre, a Palestinian drama troupe based in a refugee camp in the West Bank city of Jenin, often produces work that is critical of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Founder Juliano Mer Khamis was shot dead in 2011, members have been arrested and equipment inside the theatre broken. “Art is a threat because it's a non-violent form of resistance and even non-violent forms of resistance are a threat; sometimes actually they are a greater threat,” concludes Choucair-Vizoso.
At Home in Gaza and London deserves to be considered “an artistic project in its own right” and should sit alongside works in the Tate, the Southbank Centre or the Young Vic, says Choucair-Vizoso, rather than being appreciated only for being Palestinian. She hopes the audience see the work as a way to challenge the status quo for Palestinians: “I think the immediate effect is to witness how we are, in a way, defying the blockade by bringing Gaza to London and vice versa. It's about creating visibility of the places, the people and the artists that we don't usually see. It's to diversify theatre by breaking down barriers that shouldn't be there.”
Video credit: Filmed by Jem Kelly, Station House Opera, and participants in Gaza and London.
Published in Middle East Monitor