During the summer of 2014 I traveled to Israel for six weeks under the auspices of an Artport curatorial residency to work with artist and historian Dor Guez. It was a rather open-ended visit as far as a concrete collaboration was concerned. We had met before, both in New York and Israel, and decided we should do something together without determining the precise form. As an independent curator, I tend to pick my battles based on my interests. Building a curatorial framework (and finding a venue) often comes later, after spending long periods of time researching and talking with artists. This is perhaps a counter-intuitive approach, but one I’ve consistently found rewarding. My work as a contemporary art curator, and a modernist art historian, has lead me to artists who don’t quote history, but actively and self-reflexively reveal the process of history writing in their work. I was intrigued by Guez’s unique voice as an artist and a storyteller, and wanted to find new ways of presenting his work to American audiences.
My 2014 visit eventually resulted in two major—and quite different—projects in the United States. The first was an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) last fall, “The Sick Man of Europe: The Architect,”[i] a video and photography installation, which told the story of a Turkish architecture student turned soldier in Ankara during the last days of the first President of Turkey Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s life in 1938. The selection of this project on “the architect” and his great hopes for the new Turkish Republic specifically for audiences in Detroit was intended to reverberate with the city’s relationship with the complicated legacy of American modernity and nationalism. Opening in April 2016, the second project that we are currently in the final stages of planning is a presentation of Guez’s work for the James Gallery located at The Graduate Center, CUNY, a nexus of multidisciplinary scholarship in New York. The intention this time is to develop a project that will speak to the art world, researchers, and the public, not through a static exhibition, but instead a dynamic presentation of photographs, videos, and archival documents as well as numerous events and calls for participation.
This Spring Gallery, the curated section of the ArteEast Quarterly, stems from the New York presentation revolving around the Christian Palestinian Archive (CPA), an initiative Guez started in 2009 after he discovered a suitcase under his grandparents’ bed filled with old photographs of important family events and portraits of relatives now living across the world. Today, much more than a family album, the CPA contains thousands of digital images from Christian Palestinians across the world with the prospect of expanding this participatory project through an open call in New York this spring. Despite their very small numbers in Israel-Palestine,[ii] Christian Palestinians represent more than half a million individuals spread over a diaspora stretched across the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas.[iii] The CPA is at its heart a participatory project, exploring stories of the community members who wish to participate. So far, individuals from cities like Ramallah, Berlin, London, and São Paulo have all contributed their families’ photography collections to the archive over the past seven years.
The origins of the CPA, however, are indebted to one particular collection, that of Guez’s grandmother, Samira Monayer. Through her photographs the artist tells the story of her childhood and deportation from Jaffa in 1948 during the forced Palestinian exodus from territories claimed by Israel (known as al-Nakba, “the catastrophe”), her family’s global dispersal to Lydd (Lod), Amman, Cyprus, Cairo, and London, and eventually, her life in the new Israel. These events are mediated through a series of videos and digitally manipulated archival materials the artist calls “scanograms.”
Scanograms are works that result from Guez’s digital manipulation of scans from previously existing visual materials. A loose historical precedent for this process is the early 20th century photogram experiments of Man Ray, László Moholy-Nagy, and Christian Schad, who placed existing, often mundane, objects on photosensitive paper and exposed them to light, in the process creating abstracted and frequently surreal compositions visually akin to an x-ray. By producing a photograph without a camera, these artists circumvented the supposedly “natural” relationship between referent and image, forcing the viewer to question the veracity of mimetic representation. Rather than photosensitive paper, Guez uses scanning machines as his medium. Each scanogram is made by multiple layers of scanning, with each scan programmed to feature a different aspect of the material. Since most scanners are automatically designed to smooth aberrations and imperfections, Guez relies on scanners of different commercial qualities for different layers, each layer selected to highlight a different aspect of the original document: its composition, background and foreground, color, framing, and physical condition. The layers are combined into one high-resolution digital image that is often printed on a large scale that magnifies the details of the original composition.
Guez’s new digital image paradoxically emphasizes the original photograph’s material history as an object of historical evidence. The original document’s tears, creases, and evidence of handling over time meld with the composition to produce a work that sits on the cusp between digital and material, image and object. Each image the artist works with shares at least two authors. They are the photographer or owner of the original document, and Guez, who shapes this document following his own aesthetic strategy into a work of contemporary art. One could potentially add to this list of authors the viewers of the archive, who become witnesses to the project and thus participants in its process of making history.
Scanogram #1 (2010) is a series of fifteen scanograms based on photographs of Samira and her family from 1938 to 1958. Several scanograms document Samira’s wedding in Lod exactly one year after the Israeli invasion of the city: July 13, 1949. The wedding photos are some of the only surviving visual documents of Palestinian life in the city in the early days of Israeli occupation.[iv] By recovering the visual and material traces of this time and place, and making it publicly available, it can be argued that Guez enters his scanograms as evidence in this ongoing debate over the historical record.
The testimonial potential of scanogram hinted at in Scanogram #1 is emphasized in another series titled 40 Days (2012). The works derive from amateur photographs taken to open an investigation into vandalism of the Christian cemetery in Lod. After police, failing to find the culprits, returned the photographs, they were kept in a kitchen drawer and exposed to heat and condensation, causing them to congeal together. Separating the photographs left tears, leaving ghostly streaks around their edges. The resulting scanograms document both the desecration of the graves and the human remains contained therein and the destruction of the photographs themselves as objects of discarded evidence. Their large format, which emphasizes the physical damage of the photograph, simultaneously abstracts the original composition and draws attention to the multiple levels of real and metaphorical violence the image represents.
Guez is astutely aware that evidence, like history, can never be self-evident, but must always be constructed and presented under specific conditions. In other words, evidence must be made legible to a system in order for it to be recognized as evidence.[v] Guez appropriates unofficial or amateur images, often from family albums or other informal collections, and reformatting them, places them in the context of an archive and a history. At the same time, Guez’s scanograms subtly critique circuitous systems of representation and the unstable categories of evidence and history, while also acknowledging and taking part in the vital importance of recognition for the Christian Palestinian community.
The stories that Dor Guez tells through the CPA are both deeply personal and noticeably—and importantly—always incomplete. They remain the traces of a history of a family and a community, in multiple senses of the word. Always careful to avoid the easy story or the complete picture, Guez continuously and self-reflexively flips representation and narrative, much in the same way he occasionally turns the photographs of the CPA on their backs to show the marks and personal inscriptions usually hidden from view. Much more than the sum of its parts yet never a complete history, the Christian Palestinian Archive is a poetic and poignant argument about the nature of history itself.
Christian Palestinian Archive: A Project by Dor Guez will be on view at The James Gallery, The Graduate Center, CUNY, from April 8–June 4, 2016.