Galit Eilat: …It’s a part of the collective narrative in Israel, and it’s hard to ask questions about this narrative from inside the country. I think that when Yael left the country, when she took some distance from it, it became possible for her to look at herself and the society of which she was a part. You don’t see yourself as different from the society in which you grow up, so when you leave it, it’s like looking at yourself in the mirror, like the Lacanian mirror stage. You start to see yourself separated — from your mother and from the world. But in Israel, there is an extra step of separation: from the nation, because in Israel, the nation is really like a family.
Yael Bartana: I think the trauma is not just individual, it’s collective. If something bad happens, then it is seen as collective punishment. It’s no longer the individual…
Galit Eilat: It’s always collective trauma. We are one body.
Charles Esche: But I have to say that I recognize this from my own biography, too. There’s a profound difference in the conversations you can have with someone who has lived his or her whole life in the Netherlands and somebody who hasn’t. When I was in Sweden, I felt the same thing. I mean, I understand the exceptionalism of Israel, but…
Yael Bartana: No, it’s not special for Israel; it’s true of every society. Eva Hoffman said that every immigrant is an amateur anthropologist. You’re always an outsider as an immigrant; you look at society in a different way. The same thing can partially happen when you step outside of your own nation and then look back at it. When I was about twenty, I experienced this in another way, when somebody from my family refused to serve in the occupied territories. At that time He was serving as an an office in Jenin, when he decided that he can’t do it anymore. He was convicted 4-month captivity and I had to drive him to jail.
Charles Esche: Did you experience this new perspective as a liberation or as a trauma? As though suddenly you needed to criticize something you didn’t have to criticize before?
Yael Bartana: First of all, I felt privileged, because I have a place to put my feelings: in my work. I think any creative person would deal with it like this, and in that way, I’m lucky. Lucky, but then again, I suffer because I’m trapped in between. That is, it is you’re home, you cannot be free of it, but you’re constantly criticizing it, aware that you don’t want to represent what it stands for. If you come from Israel, you are often seen as its ambassador, and you have to be very clear about your position.
Charles Esche: I think that in my life, it has become increasingly difficult to feel represented by a democratic government. This is partly because we all move through different countries but also because, ever since the recent wars that the British government has involved “me” in, it is not so simple to feel that the government on my passport represents me in any way. The wars are not politically or ideologically justified; they are national or Western crusades. Yet I can hardly just choose a better nationality. Maybe that’s another way in which Israel is a kind of laboratory of the former West. Today, politics is more defined by nationality or culture than by ideas, and you cannot change your nationality or cultural background as easily as your mind.
Galit Eilat: What you’re describing is quite interesting, because you take responsibility for your state. It means that you are a citizen, and that you recognize the state as an authority, as an entity.
Charles Esche: For sure, which is maybe different in Israel. The works that interest me from Israel are very conscious of their position with relationship to the state. I don’t think that’s true for the vast majority of British or Dutch artists, even the interesting ones. Yael was describing how, in her education, people ignored the fact that they were Israeli and aligned themselves with some universal Western art history. I think that became increasingly unsustainable in Israel, but it is also unsustainable here in Europe.
Galit Eilat: But both you and Yael are doing the opposite by accepting the nation-state, by accepting the situation and the responsibility that comes with it. However, why should we accept the nation-state? We are, in general, against the nation-state. So why do we take the responsibility and the blame for it? When in another situation we might say, “The old system is over. We want to build a new system,” when it comes to guilt and responsibility, we feel like citizens. It’s a question of identification: when you take responsibility, it means that you are identifying yourself with something. You don’t take responsibility for something you don’t identify with.
Charles Esche: I think there’s a kind of mythology of cosmopolitanism, and on a certain level, this myth operates in the art world. We can all work in the same institution and none of us are Dutch and this doesn’t interfere much with our working lives.
Galit Eilat: At least we would like to see it that way.
Charles Esche: Yes, perhaps we’re kidding ourselves. But once you step outside of this little world, which has permitted a bit of cosmopolitanism, and look at immigration politics or education or military decisions, you see the nation-state is absolutely present. Then this idea of some breakdown of the nation-state looks laughable. Twenty years ago, there seemed to be more of a possibility for international cooperation than there is now.
Galit Eilat: Yes, but the British passport is not you — and this is also a question for Yael: Why, then, do you have this over-identification with the state? For example, your last work Wall and Tower is about the establishment of a state — not just the Israeli state, but the state in general. You build a wall, and you build a tower — and establish yourself!
Yael Bartana: Establishment and its consequences. What happens after the establishment—
Galit Eilat: Yes. But you didn’t address any other kind of establishment. You address a very specific establishment: a state with a flag. And this seems like over-identification, repeating the rituals that you criticize.
Yael Bartana: I’m not repeating. That’s not true. True I am repeating or even mirroring the mechanism.
Galit Eilat: You’re documenting?
Yael Bartana: In the past, I never documented the actual ritual. I always document the side effects. For example in Trembling Time, I documented the complete halt of traffic on a roadway during the minute the commemoratory siren sound and not the military and state ritual. Wall and Tower is staged.
Galit Eilat: But with Wild Seeds, you almost create a ritual, or at least you make something that is basically a children’s game into something else that marks a historical moment. It even takes its name from a particular Gaza settlement — Gilad’s settlement. Is Wild Seeds a kind of pivot point in the work?
Yael Bartana: Yes, in the sense that the camera does not just document but rather actually creates the situation. Wild Seeds is the first work in the exhibition, which feels like a statement.
Galit Eilat: Can Wild Seeds be seen as your self-portrait?
Yael Bartana: Hmmm, I am too old! I do feel connected to this generation. I feel empathy for them. They’re so young and so sharp. They’re a step ahead in their ability to understand, and to see the kind of mistakes that are being made. Wild Seeds is almost like a parody of what they do, because they understand the system; they understand that something is going wrong and they “flip” it. I think the work mostly refers to the third generation, one that is not very connected to a straightforward Zionist heritage or the spirit of the ideology, or to what it meant to build a country from scratch, what it meant to resist the British mandate. The second generation experienced a series of wars. Then came the third generation: they are much more interested in globalization. For them, Israel is not such an island anymore. They travel from an early age, so they are potentially much more open. They’re more educated in the sense of having seen other movements of resistance, and I think they have different sensibilities toward society — I’m not saying all of them do; we have to remember this is a particular group of kids who are privileged and supported by their parents — but still, they play this game with a high awareness of what they are doing.
Charles Esche: Just to clarify, Wild Seeds is a real game that these kids play, based on the media coverage of the evacuation of the Jewish settlements in Gaza. You then set up a group to play the game while you filmed. Is that right?
Yael Bartana: Yes.
Charles Esche: But it is also a very sexy film. They treat the politics with a beautiful playfulness. Sometimes it seems that the politics become a vehicle for this very close contact with each other.
Yael Bartana: Where else in the world you would have such a weird game to get close to each other? It’s connected to the settlement idea, but it is also a mechanism to resist the police, the authorities.
Galit Eilat: It reminded me of the first time that I was sitting on the road with young Israelis, young Palestinians, all of us in very close bodily contact. We were fighting for an idea, but we all were sitting in two or three rows, hugging each other.
Yael Bartana: I think Wild Seeds is really a game about building community. The kids didn’t know each other before, but immediately they have an enemy, someone to resist, and they unite really quickly. And that’s what’s happened. I introduced these people to each other and I said, “You’re all going to play this game and get to know each other”. And then, in no time, they became a group that was playing against the authorities. Suddenly, they were in the middle of a collective experience.
Galit Eilat: This will happen with the resistance, you know — you have somebody to resist, so you become one body.
Yael Bartana: It’s social and self-made, though, instead of the state creating this ritual. It’s a self-made way to connect to each other. The strange thing is that some settlers felt that this was a portrait of their lives while others really got upset — the “stupid-leftists-they-don’t-know-anything” attitude.
Charles Esche: I can imagine. But how did you feel about the settlers seeing it as a portrait of their lives?
Yael Bartana: I found it amazing. It becomes more about the politics of human behavior, how people function. I like the idea of wild seeds as seeds that are not able to grow on cultivated land. They plant themselves and decide where they grow. This could be the third generation of peace activists, but also the unwanted Gaza settlers.
Charles Esche: Why did you separate the subtitles from the image?
Yael Bartana: Because I wanted to force the viewer to decide what to look at — the game or the language. You’re much more intimately engaged in the physicality of the film. Sometimes I really like the text without the image, because then you must try to imagine what you would see.
Galit Eilat: But you can read body language, too. It’s stronger, I think, than the written language.
Yael Bartana: But you know that the subtitles are not a literal translation. They have their own logic, their own order and meaning. For a Hebrew speaker, this is obvious, but I also wanted it to work for those who don’t speak Hebrew; that’s why I separated the subtitles.
Galit Eilat: The idea of ritual reoccurs in A Declaration, this strange act in which you filmed and act of removing a the Israeli flag and replacing it with a planted olive tree.
Yael Bartana: Why is this strange?
Charles Esche: Because it’s a ridiculous island, no? So small and lost in the Mediterranean with this sad flag waving…
Galit Eilat: I find it very expressive. Yael lived on the sea; she saw this island and the flag and thought, why not replace the flag with an olive tree.
Yael Bartana: It’s a very emotional piece for me, an expressive piece. Walking on the pedestrian promenade next to the beach and arriving in Jaffa and seeing this flag out to sea… It made no sense to me. The work is a reaction, in fact. It’s what I think everybody should do if they don’t like something; they should do something about it. Many Israelis are really upset when they see this work.
Charles Esche: Because you took the flag down.
Yael Bartana: Of course, the holy flag. How dare I touch the flag! A collector from Holland bought the work. He’s Jewish and American, but he’s proud of this piece.
Galit Eilat: Because he associates the olive tree with peace?
Yael Bartana: No, I think he understands exactly what it means, but he found that it was a good suggestion — to denationalize.
Charles Esche: Yeah, but the olive tree has almost become a national symbol, no? For Palestine, and that’s a —
Yael Bartana: It is, but it can be read in two ways.
Charles Esche: Okay. But you ridicule the idea, claiming this stupid little rock for a nation, be it for Palestine or Israel. It’s nicely ridiculous.
Galit Eilat: It is not just any rock. It’s called Andromeda. It’s already like a statement built on this idea of a mythological story of sacrifice and rescue.
Charles Esche: And then there is this beautiful specimen of humanity doing the action, the boy who goes out to the island. Did you choose him specifically?
Yael Bartana: Well, he’s a seaman; not every person could do what he does. You really have to know the sea to understand when to row and how to dock. And he knew all the police, because you cannot just remove a flag. He assured them, “It’s ok, it’s ok, it’s on me, I’ll take care of it.” So they left us alone and we could film the action.
Charles Esche: You see his power. You know, maybe it becomes another kind of ritual…
Galit Eilat: No, it’s not a ritual — it’s related to an author, to a gesture.
Yael Bartana: It’s a concrete, physical and direct act and proposal to take the flag down and plant the olive tree . It’s not just the gesture. In this way, it’s like Summer Camp, which also has a concrete element of actually restoring a Palestinian home.
Galit Eilat: Summer Camp began when you met Jeff Halper, correct?
Yael Bartana: Yes. I met Jeff Halper [Founder of Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, or ICAHD] through you in “Liminal Spaces.” I’d wanted to make a piece about a house for a long time, so I contacted him and explained that it wasn’t going to be a documentary about his activities, but an artwork where I would compare his work to a Zionist ethos. I was very transparent. I didn’t want to do a film that would be a surprise in the end. I interviewed him to get to know a bit more about his activities and his personal background—how he initiated the committee and so on. He’s an American Jew and he studied anthropology. He’s driven by this notion of “facts on the ground” and a desire to make things visible. Reconstructing a house is very visible and it also shows how many houses need to be rebuilt. ICAHD always does this action in collaboration with local communities, so it’s not as if they come from the outside and decide, “We want to be good citizens. We want to resist the state by doing this.”
Galit Eilat: From Summer Camp on, building really becomes a part of your work, but building as a point of resistance. Usually building is something that is for the future. But, in this case, it’s kind of the opposite.
Yael Bartana: That’s what’s so fascinating for me about this organization: the act of resistance is something constructive. Normally, resistance evokes destroying, breaking down a house…
Charles Esche: But it is also simply about making one’s mark on the earth, on the world, on the canvas, or whatever, isn’t it?
Yael Bartana: I think one of the things that I’m interested in is how you can take an ethos, for example, or a symbol, and turn it upside down. You take the same ethos of Zionism and you flip it—flip it so that it works against the same mechanisms that constructed it.
Galit Eilat: Is this why after Documenta you started showing your film together with Avodah?
Yael Bartana: I felt like I needed to give more context to the film. And then I slowly came to the solution of showing the two films back to back. Maybe it can be read as didactic, but the reference to the work is clear: I’m showing you what happened in the ’30s when Zionism wanted to create a belief that you can build a home on the land of Palestine (the reason the film was made was to recruit people to build Israel). Summer Camp uses the same ethos but with a different meaning.
Charles Esche: The ideology of Avodah is an ideology of resistance. It starts with this strange, dramatic music, the word “Palestine” and this British flag. In this way, it speaks about occupation, about imperialism, about domination, about a clearly foreign force. You know “Palestine” and the British flag. At that time, Zionism was in favor of liberation. It was an emancipatory movement that became, through a long history that we don’t have to go into here, something else. It started with these high hopes: the kibbutz, socialism in Israel, new land and a new architecture and society — an experiment for which I still have a huge amount of respect. Of course, at the same time, ethnic cleansing was part of the foundation of the state, and so for a long time there was an ambivalence about Israel. In the recent past, with Lieberman, the Gaza war and so on, this ambivalence has completely disappeared. It was dream-nightmare that became just a nightmare.
Galit Eilat: Yael is now reading Altneuland, Theodor Herzl’s story, you know? People usually refer to Herzl as the founder of Israel, but the book is really a novel, a kind of fiction that became fact. Unfortunately, few people are reading Altneuland today in the spirit in which it was written.
Yael Bartana: I realized that, looking at the film, you can recall that it’s connected to a historical moment because of the music and editing and the style. But if you are not interested in Israel, you could take it perhaps as an act of settlers in general.
Charles Esche: Why this particular film?
Yael Bartana: Avodah was just a fascinating film, so beautifully made but with a brutal relationship to the land. You see the influence of German and Soviet cinema as well, which might lead you to question the uniqueness of the whole Zionist movement and how much it is connected to other movements at the time.
Galit Eilat: At this time, most of the filmmakers came from Poland to Israel.
Yael Bartana: Helmar Lerski, the maker of Avodah, is Swiss. He also worked on Metropolis. You can see in his camerawork his understanding of light. His way of sculpting the figures in light is something that I think is still amazing today.
Galit Eilat: Yes, of course, you gave up on Riefenstahl, so—
Yael Bartana: I gave up on her?
Galit Eilat: Yeah, you gave up on her so you found—
Yael Bartana: I never gave up on Riefenstahl…
Charles Esche: So, what made you move from the foundation myths of Israel to Poland? Why Poland first?
Yael Bartana: I think it is very much connected to Israel, but I wanted to create a new laboratory. A new place to explore, experiment What I initially felt is that Poland and Israel have a lot in common. We have to deal constantly with our reality and history; so does Poland. Perhaps many other places do, too, but these issues are quite specific in Poland. So many Jews had lived in Poland since the 15th century. And I have to say that when I went to Poland, I felt very connected to the place on some strange level. It’s something I never felt in the Netherlands or in Sweden.
Charles Esche: What about in America?
Yael Bartana: In America, on some level, yes, but in a different way. In Poland, it was a really deep, metaphysical, emotional link. I could feel the place. If I couldn’t feel connected on that level, I wouldn’t have stayed there working for four years. There was something there that attracted me so much that I really wanted to open all the wounds. On an intellectual level, it was also about knowing that this place was used by the state of Israel to such a large extent. It was connected to this whole machinery of Zionism and the Holocaust.
Galit Eilat: I think Polish artists also relate to this question quite a lot of work by Arthur Żmijewski or Pawel Althamer that reflects on the Israeli question.
Yael Bartana: and the Jewish question.
Charles Esche: Yes, on the Jewish question. How Poland deals with that question of loss, which is a European loss. You know, this absence is a gaping wound even in Eindhoven. But it is not really addressed in the old Western Europe.
Yael Bartana: Once I talked about it with joanna Mytkowska and Andrzej Przywara at Foksal Gallery, I felt like the floodgates came open instantly (snaps fingers). The discussions went on night and day. It was really an amazing reaction. And when I said I want to make a propaganda film asking the Jews to return to Poland, Both Joanna and Andrzej were completely taken by the idea. It was fascinating to see such an immediate reaction. I started to learn about the Polish intelligentsia, who are so occupied with this absence. They feel a real need for Jewish culture, which I didn’t know was the case before I started to work on the piece.
Charles Esche: Then you met Sławomir Sierakowski from “Krytyka Polityczna” who appears in both “Polish” films.
Yael Bartana: Yes, and once again, we made an instant connection. We met in the morning in a cafe, and we fell in love. I saw this young man coming, and I was completely shocked. He’s so smart, this guy, and it really didn’t take much to get us going. We came up with this slogan: “Three million Jews can change the life of forty million Poles”.
Charles Esche: He wrote the text for Mary Koszmary, right?
Yael Bartana: He and Kinga Dunin. (She’s an activist with a background in literature, and she’s also connected to “Krytyka Polityczna”) It was a long process, but eventually I asked him to be the writer. I told him a few things I wanted to talk about, and then he came up with the text because he also believed in it; otherwise, he wouldn’t have performed it so well. He understands his position and how to perform to the camera.
Charles Esche: I often show the film in lectures and there’s always a silence that falls after it finishes. You just can’t talk immediately after it; you have to simply take it in. There’s very few videos, or artworks, or even films that I know that generate this sort of reaction: What actually happened? What does the ambiguity mean?
Yael Bartana: The speech is in the tradition of propaganda and pedagogical speeches — very emotional, using the techniques popular culture. Like Menachim, who delivered these amazing speeches in 1950s that spoke to the people.
Galit Eilat: What about the location? You chose the old Olympic stadium…
Yael Bartana: I knew very soon after starting the piece that this would be the location where he would deliver the speech. Because it’s abandoned, because speeches in stadiums are connected with Nazi propaganda films. The stadium and the camp are two architectural elements of Nazi Germany. That’s also why Wall and Tower references them. But clearly, it’s absolutely not suggesting a perfect, powerful fascist architecture; the stadium is abandoned and in ruins. So it has this ghostly feeling — of something that was there but is gone.
Charles Esche: …and Wall and Tower feels like a continuation of the story.
Yael Bartana: Yes, for sure. Wall and Tower is really about creating historical mirrors by way of repetition. It’s about displacements, about how the same act takes on different meanings when moved to another geographical area. It is also about nostalgia, not in the sense of a passive emotion, but as a way to enable an alternative way of thinking. What does it mean to build a Kibbutz in the area of the former Warsaw Ghetto today? The new Kibbutz was erected on the site where the future Jewish Museum of Warsaw will be built. But for me, this project is not about memory and creating a museum out of something, but about establishing a relationship to contemporary Israeli politics. Jews coming to Poland today would not constitute a Diaspora anymore, but would be closely linked to a specific nation-state, to the militaristic rhetoric and politics of Israel. That’s why the “The Jewish Renaissance Movement” that I founded in Poland even has a flag combining the Polish eagle and the Star of David. The reverse perspective on history, which the film is set to explore, positions it on a new, subversive level. The film juxtaposes reality and fiction, encouraging the viewer to reexamine constructed ideas of historical events. For me, it has actually become more and more interesting to create proposals rather than counter existing narratives. That is, to create proposals for solutions or to create situations that make people think differently.
Charles Esche: There are many powerful moments in both films, including the description of the quilt in the beginning of Mary Koszmary and this moment when Sierakowski says “Citizens, Jews, People,” and then you pan across these empty terraces, which is such a powerful image of absence and the open wound of Europe.
Galit Eilat: Wound of what?
Charles Esche: The absence of the Jewish community from the heart of Europe.
Galit Eilat: Why don’t we stop talking about it like that? We’re not talking about the absence of Jews — we’re talking about the absence of three million people.
Charles Esche: But three million people who represented some sense of community. It wasn’t that there were three million, and then there were forty million left. It was that the community was destroyed.
Galit Eilat: This is something that I think that the film deals with — the symbolic, and how we are attached to feelings that accompany our dealings with the state, ideology, religion. What makes you different from others? Because if we push away all ideology that contains religion and the state and other things, we can just say that three million out of many more millions died in Poland during the Second World War.
Yael Bartana: But they saw themselves as different, and so did the Nazis.
Galit Eilat: Together with other groups, like the Roma.
Yael Bartana: They wanted to make a homogenous society, to give a clear direction to it. You can’t say they just killed people without remembering that.
Galit Eilat: But the point is, saying “we are missing our Jewish community in Europe” sounds very awkward to me. Why only the Jewish community, and not many other communities that are gone, or were reduced, during the Second World War?
Charles Esche: Perhaps, but remember that with the loss of the Jews, the Russians and the Germans, the whole idea of Poland as a cosmopolitan culture was lost. It became 98% Polish, which it never had been in the past.
Galit Eilat: But this is also the idea of Israel: to be ethnically clean. The existence of Israel is also predicated on turning cosmopolitan societies into homogenous societies. If you say, “We need more Jews in Europe,” it means that Jews are different from others, and I don’t like that idea. Judaism is another kind of ideology, like Zionism, Communism or Christianity or… it’s the same. In this sense, I don’t like that kind of a vision.
Charles Esche: But the idea of a cosmopolitan culture, the idea of mixture, the idea of immigration, are based on some measures of difference. I am saying that this mixing is at the heart of this Asian peninsula we call Europe. Homogeneity doesn’t belong in Europe; it’s a consequence of the great wars of the 20th century.
Galit Eilat: It’s not about a choice between homogeneity or difference. You can have difference that is not in terms of religion, the state or ideology.
Yael Bartana: Can I suggest something? Let’s read this project of asking the Jews to go from Israel to Poland as a new proposal, a possibility for some movement, a new shift in life. An event in history. Something else that could happen. Just an idea. Just a fictional idea. The Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland has a manifesto. You don’t have to be a Jew. If you want to join, you can: it’s a proposal, a new movement. Just like Zionism, which had this idea of finding the solution for the Jewish problem in Europe by moving everyone to Palestine, without considering what was (already) there… So, this is a proposal. I’m playing the same game.
Charles Esche: Yeah, exactly! It’s Neualtland ! (laughs)
Galit Eilat: (laughs) “Neualtland”… You know, in Tel Aviv, there is a question about the name “Tel Aviv”— that is, what is “Tel Aviv”?…
Yael Bartana: It’s the same: it’s Altneuland.—
Charles Esche: — and now: Neualtland.
Yael Bartana: Neualtland!
Galit Eilat: Yes, the competition is not with Avodah, it’s with Herzl. (laughs) Who can write it?