Interdependent curator for contemporary art, who is dealing with the present and acting normally and founding director of the Israeli Center for Digital Art in Holon, Galit Eilat curated expositions that defeat borders and limits imposed by political structures.
Her project, the trilogy ‘Hilchot Shchenim‘, from 2003 to 2005 has created a cultural platform for artists and art centers in the the Mediterranean Basin, the former Eastern European bloc and the Balkans. In 2007 Galit Eilat initiated, together with Eva Birkenstock (Kunstverein Hamburg), ‘The Mobile Archive‘, a project that has traveled for 10 years, in more than 17 art centers and art academies; at each stop the inviter of the archive could add five new artists, up to 25 video works in total, having in the end a collection of over 2500 titles, that eventually stopped at the customs of Russia. The initiative facilitated dialogue and intercultural exposure in a personal way, always changing, always dynamic. In the same timeframe, from 2006 to 2009, the Israeli curator created together with Eyal Danon, Reem Fadda and Phil Misselwitz research seminars in the field of arts, named ‘Liminal Spaces’. The project is about Road 60, the road that connects Jerusalem to Ramallah. The research is based on the question of how can art and culture pass beyond the political, social and physical barriers created by the Israeli occupation in Palestine. Artists, intellectuals, activists, and students were invited to have a dialogue and to discover ways of interfering with the bureaucratic system that governs Israel and Palestine, creating also a window for young artists to start new experimental projects in the area.
Galit Eilat is now living in The Netherlands and is among the founding members of the Academy of the Arts of the World. She is recipient of the Keith Haring Fellowship in Art and Activism at Bard College, 2017-18. Since 2018 she is director of Meduza Foundation. Her projects seek to develop conditions that enable collective encounters and experiences, underpinned by a critical view towards the status quo.
Presently, she is developing together with partners from Amsterdam, Istanbul and Thessaloniki a new research project titled The ‘Syndrome of the Present’. The first of the project’s site-specific seminars took place in 2018 in Thessaloniki. The research aims to develop environments that permit debate in different frames — topics that have collided for millennia are subject to debate: theology, society, national state and history.
I had the unique opportunity to meet Galit Eilat and to be part of a discussion that would illustrate a present that we rarely look so sincerely in the eyes.
During the seminar I have written down some key points of the ‘syndrome of the present’ and the research that you are running and those are: Religion, Manipulation, History, Economy, Capitalism and its influences, Access to knowledge/information and fight against poor. Do these topics reflect truly the present?
Galit Eilat: Yes, although for me they have signified a lot more than merely the current moment. Reality is changing quickly and while I cannot guarantee that these themes will remain always actual they are an extensive preface to our current times. There are several conditions which have never changed; for example, how is it that the population of one of the most richest continents is also the ‘purest’ in the world?
However, such correlations are not coincidental — they’re the result of planning, of orchestration, and we need to expose this — we can’t ignore it anymore, because it will ultimately affect all of us.
Has this to do with religion looked at, as an institution?
Galit Eilat: Religion, I try to look at it as so: I cannot say anything about faith. What I can say is that religion without the figurehead of God doesn’t work, yet the figure of God can exist without religion. So, what we are examining here is the institutionalisation of God, the institutionalisation of a myth. We can talk about universal values, examine such values and discuss the logic of their evolution — for instance, when we consider human rights we often recognise what one may be inclined to name ‘religious values’ at their foundation. These values, however, emerge from a certain kind of imposed power.
You don’t believe in God as such, but in the governing authority structure that is predicated on the premise of God. Such a structure is imposed and everybody needs to obey. Who says so? Well, it comes from a certain way of envisioning and understanding the world. We presume that ‘our’ comprehension of the world is a standard — a set of norms that is universal — but there is no such thing.
We are entering a field called political theology and the paradigm of this authority structure fundamentally remains the same throughout multiple, ongoing political iterations. We can see through the process of secularisation the shift of power from God to the Caesar, to the king and to the prime minister , alongside which there arises the conception of the State. So, God — as the governing power — punishes you and then nourishes you. Remove the superficial of ritual and other such adornments and you see that the structure is fundamentally the same.
When you think about law, where does the law come from? From whom? Who wrote it? The law is presented as a secular concoction, but if we examine further it is apparent that it is very much the product of a religious system — it operates largely under the same set of norms and presuppositions.
For example, take the notion of human rights. Consider how such rights are negotiated in different geographies — consider where and how are such rights respected and where and how are they not. Tell me. Look at a map of the world.
Eastern Europe for example?
Galit Eilat: Eastern Europe — consider what is the kind of religion there. Whether Orthodox or Catholic – while certainly distinct, both models bear a similarity in comparison to the Protestant trajectory, particularly in terms of the proximity — or lack therefore — between God and Man, and the limit of Man’s ability to comprehend God. But consider, where would we say that human rights are better maintained?
Central Europe, America.
Galit Eilat: Yes. The Netherlands, Sweden, Norway. Such places follow closely Human Rights legislation. Abortion, for example: where is it allowed and where is it not allowed? Such a stance is prefaced by religious doxy — and I would say both sides of the debate derive from an underlying religious mentality, both the ‘for’ and ‘against’ positions. See, it is the proximity between Man and God that is pivotal in how your rights are allocated. You can actually split it in a simplistic way to best understand it. You can check one country after the other and, according to the system of belief, the delegation of rights are not coming from one Man to the other, but from God.
So, the construction of rights, of human rights, has a religion construction behind it that allows you to claim superiority over other species —the world order of human in the centre, better than the other species.
This is a very interesting perspective in the context of the political-religious structure nowadays in Eastern Europe especially as you can see that the tendencies are to go back to past values.
Galit Eilat: It has always been there. Just it hasn’t been given a name. This is the blueprint that secularisation intends to hide. Basically, it is just the replacement of figures, representing the same dynamic. The cardinal has become the mayor — you replace one with the other. You see that you have the same pyramid of power, but we don’t talk about God, we talk about the State.
What influence does cross cultural dialogue have?
Galit Eilat: I think on the one hand it is more than cross cultural — it is about learning.
With one culture you cannot learn anything about this culture because you don’t have anything else to learn from, to compare with. When we meet another that is different than ourselves, it tells us something about ourselves, about oneself. We alone cannot learn. It is like an echo box. By the difference you learn about yourself that can better you or not. So, I think that the idea to learn about different cultures is important but we need to understand that culture is not monolithic, it is not one thing. Culture changes over time, it never remains exact or inert. Culture is an invention — something that functions in the domain of our imaginary — like money, the bank note as a representation of currency — or art, for that matter.
The value of a bank note does not exist outside of our imagination — we give it a value, otherwise it is only a paper note. This is culture, it’s not only about music or arts. For example, this is a table that exists because somebody invented it, but the material is not invented. Plastic is culture, wood not, in this respect.
The fight against the poor. Did we loose it or do we still have the capacity to work together, to communicate, to agree?
Galit Eilat: I believe people are people and we always have the possibility but we need to choose for it. And we need to recognize and understand the way power is negotiated or imposed. Power over others depends on invented fictions in society, which creates sectors and compartments. We can see it clearly in Israel, in the United State and Brazil. What we see now has happened before — I don’t believe the world is very different than yesterday, the big difference maybe is that now the power structure is less hidden. There is no need for it to hide now, when you have Big Brother kind of TV programs. Who will be the winner of the competition? It is the one who cheats, who manages to manipulate everyone, he or she are the ones who are rewarded. So, what kind of model do we have? If this is the model that we choose to have, it says a lot about society – the cheater, the misogynist — this is the one who everybody is happy with. Quite twisted, strange, if you ask me. But if you look around this is the kind of leaders we have. This is not coming from nowhere — we can’t shirk our responsibility and say it is out of our hands — we chose this.
I see this as a continuation of the same logic system, the system of monotheistic belief — it can only be one man, one God, a central figure of power. We don’t actually need this mono system, mono structure — we have other religious systems, such as polytheistic ones, which present alternative routes, or other values setup. Why one God? One God, one king, one man, one genius, one artist. This ‘ONE’, the genius, is also reflected in the art world.
It is interesting how people react and interact in certain situations, forgetting about differences that are imposed to them – the images of Art without Borders for example.
Galit Eilat: People manage to go beyond something and act as a community, whatever that thing is. And this is what is happening. I think that the construction of the state is cracking now and maybe there will be another construction. We can create different kinds of models. People need to have an organizing structure but it doesn’t need to be the same one as before and it doesn’t need to be the nation state. I don’t have a vision about how to change the world. I want to see a change in the world, but I want to understand it first.
How do these things translate into art?
Galit Eilat: I don’t know, I am not an artist.
Yes, but you are a curator for art.
Galit Eilat: Yes, I translate it to an exhibition, a context, but I don’t produce the artifacts. Exhibitions are one format of editing — it’s not the art, my role is to translate the art, not the opposite.
Is the museum a public place?
Galit Eilat: The museum is a medium that communicates to society, the horn of the state. I grew up in Israel and attended an art school at the end of the 80’s, beginning of the 90’s, and the museums were considered as a state apparatus; as in center of Europe, the museums in Israel were and are still supported by the state — or, to say it otherwise, supported by the tax payer, the citizens. Today the museum has become a kind of church, a church of a sculler state. Diversity, refugees, LGBTQIA+ are part or the core of many museums presentations. What does it do for the visitors? Particularly for the visitors for whom such demographics or communities are not a part his or her life? For me, it is very close to the role the church had in the past: to render your conscience. Art or artists who are engaged with social or political issues moved quickly from the margin to the center of the art world and market and have been used to create this church structure. Art is doing good in society and we are the good people since we recognize it. But art was not always ‘good’. The artists were the bandits, the ones that fooled around etc. Now they have become saints who going to redeem and save the world. You have a problem in your city/country ? Then send in the artist — it has become part of the policy. And we also contributed. Diversity and inclusion stays only in the representation, but the power of what will be shown, who will be collected stays in the same hands, as before. So, I will say this is, to me, something hypocritical. If you want to change you need to be ready for a change and it means that it will not be the same. You cannot talk about a change and keep everything in the same order. You cannot promote democracy or diversity when a gatekeeper runs the system, one who decides who will be in the collection and who not. It is very basic. What to preserve and what not to preserve — an expert to tell us what is culture and what we need to keep and what not — this doesn’t work.
If you go to a museum it should be like going to a library, you have the right to demand to see certain things. You choose what you want to see, the librarian doesn’t choose for you but she, he or they are there to index and preserve the books. This is kind of a museum that I would like to see.