Capturing Toxicity: Archiving Palestinian Social Worlds

Description

In my examinations of the use of new media tools and technologies in and on Palestine, I have come to see the significance of social media in capturing the devastating consequences of militarization and occupation. As a transnational feminist scholar, I am particularly invested in how such sites reveal the complex ways in which gender intersects with the settler-colonial project of erasure. As a result, I am interested in exploring how visual artefacts-- including art, infographics, and photojournalism-- posted to social media sites such as Instagram make legible Palestinian social worlds otherwise foreclosed by the logics of erasure, militarization, and occupation. My goal will be to produce a living archive of visuals that document the gendered and toxic consequences of water and land expropriation. This project seeks to make legible the experiences of Palestinian people devastated by infrastructure destruction, water contamination, and land defacement.

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Found Image: “In Pictures: Gaza Water Crisis Worsens.”

Substantive Caption: This image comes from a series of photographs by Gaza based photographer Wissam Nassar for Al Jazeera published in May of 2014. One of ten images in the photo essay, Nassar captures the Mediterranean sea from behind the silhouettes of two young appearing boys standing atop a sewage drainage structure. The boys appear to be looking off into the grey sea waters as seagulls fill the sky above them. Just beneath them, and in immediate view of photograph, the viewer’s vision of the sea is obstructed by the toxic debris, trash, plastics, and other contaminants pulled through the drainage structures out into the Mediterranean. Beneath the image reads the caption, “More than 30 percent of households in Gaza only have access to running water for six to eight hours, once every four days” (2014, Nassar). Accompanying the photo series is a short article outlining the “Gaza water crisis” and its worsening conditions.

Design Statement: I selected this visual of toxicity captured by Gaza photographer Wissam Nassar for the following reasons:

  • The image captures the simplicities of youth and joy in the wake of visible toxicity, degeneration, and contamination.

  • Given the geographical specificity, the occupied Palestinian territory of the Gaza Strip, the image reveals a specific context out of which toxicity emerges.

  • Toxicity must be examined as a utility of militarization and occupation.

  • Situated as part of a journalistic photo essay, the image invites an multi-sited  ethnography where the image along with text make legible otherwise discarded social worlds.  

  • Gaza is often discussed in terms of Israeli bombings, targeted killings, and other spectacular forms of violence. This image, however, a mundane toxicity and a banal violence.

Captured and published in 2014, Wissam Nassar’s photo essay, “In Pictures: Gaza Water Crisis Worsens” reveals Gaza’s other war: a war of human degeneration. This particular image, while not spectacular in any significant way, captures a mundane toxicity reflective of Palestinian life. Two young boys stand atop a concrete beam connecting two sides of a sewage drain. They, like many other folks, are perhaps drawn in by the calming ripples of the sea in their distance. On the left, a young hooded boy stares out into the distance, his back to the audience. Rather, his gaze is fixed on the waters of the Mediterranean sea in front of him. To his right, another boy-perhaps a friend, relative, sibling- has his right foot propped up on the beam’s edge, with his left foot is firmly planted on the lower surface of the concrete slab. His gaze is shifted closer to where they stand, to what is directly beneath them. The calming sea waters appear to be hitting against large boulders creating small waves. Whether in the distance or crashing up against the boulders, the sea offers the boys a leisurely moment, perhaps one of joy.

While the sea appears to be commanding the full attention of the boys, the viewer’s attention is hijacked by the toxic debris, trash, plastics, and other contaminants front and center of Nassar’s photograph. The boys are situated above the toxins spilling out from the sewage drainage site, we, however, the viewers, are immediately confronted by the accumulation of contamination. The toxicity at this drainage site reflects systems of degeneration that have become central to Israel’s control over Palestinian life (and death) in the Gaza Strip. And, this toxicity is captured here by Nassar as the banal backdrop of the photograph. Various accounts have highlighted Gaza’s ongoing suffering due to cataclysmic water shortages, run down sewage facilities debilitated by a decade-long Israeli-Egyptian blockade and Israel’s repeated bombing of water and sewage infrastructures, and harmful salt, nitrate, and chloride levels in water sources. According to the short article linked to Nassar’s photo, “90 percent of Gaza’s main water supply is unfit for drinking, and unsuitable even for agricultural use” (2014, Nassar). Here, we are challenged with the banality of toxicity. Water, a source of life and sustenance, has become a utility of power. The inability to access and adequately treat water produces a condition of toxicity that emanates beyond the frame of Nassar’s image. The logics of militarization and occupation require toxicity to leak into all aspects of life. The debris and trash accumulated and visually caught by Nassar’s lens are just reminders of the systems of degeneration forced onto Palestinians in Gaza (and elsewhere). Children, like those pictured here have become at risk of water borne diseases such as gastroenteritis, kidney disease, paediatric cancer, marasmus and "blue baby syndrome" (2018, Tolan). Thus, in capturing the two children entranced by the sea, Nassar offers up an alternative to Palestinian sociality otherwise degraded by toxicity.

Created Image: “Toxic Topographies” from images collected and published in an article by Nigel Parry for Electronic Intifada (September 2005).

Substantive Caption: The seven images I have organized on this single slide are photographs from the occupied Palestinian territory of the West Bank. The photographs are of graffiti art painted on to the separation barrier, jithaar al ‘aazil, Israel is constructing on Palestinian land in the West Bank. In the article accompanying the images, Nigel Parry looks at the work of Banksy as a response to self-proclaimed “design critic” Nathan Edelson. In 2003, Parry, cofounder of the Electronic Intifada, received an email from Edelson requesting images of the barrier being built by Israel on Palestinian land. In his email, Edelson explained he was writing an article on the barrier, “the premise of my article is that one can argue about the desirability of a wall, and certainly where it runs, but if it is going to be built it should not be an aesthetic monstrosity” (2005, Edelson qtd. in Parry). As a result of this potentially “aesthetic monstrosity” Parry highlights the work of Banksy as a call to action against the fundamentally illegal wall itself. Rather than making beautiful this toxic site of monstrosity, Parry explains the significance of Banksy’s artwork as a critique of the wall entirely. Parry writes, “Banksy’s the kind of guy who prefers to draw a 20 foot high arrow pointing at the ugliness to encourage us to ask why the hell it’s there in the first place” (2005, Parry). The title of Parry’s article is “Well-known UK graffiti artist Banksy hacks the wall.”

 

Descriptive Statement: I chose to highlight the images of Banksy’s art because:

  • Erected borders and barriers are inherently sites of violence, land confiscation, and natural resource expropriation. Toxic in their existence.
  • Erected borders and barriers are also inherently toxic views.
  • Elbit Systems Ltd. is the Israeli private defense contractor responsible for building this barrier in the West Bank and in 2014 they retained a bid to build the “wall” on the U.S.-Mexico border.
  • Borders produce what Glora Anzalúa calls “borderlands.” These borderlands are discursive sites of contestation where power can be re-imagined in ways meaningful to those experiencing the realities of borders.
  • The graffiti art offers Palestinians hope and the possibilities of positive affective alterity.

 

While Banksy may have set-off alarms earlier this year when a framed piece of his artwork auctioned off at London’s Sotheby proceeded to self-shred seconds after being purchased, his graffiti work has been giving new life to the slabs of concrete being erected on Palestinian land in the West Bank since the early 2000s. Operating under anonymity, Banksy’s graffiti paintings on the “separation barrier” offer, figuratively and literally, new ways of seeing and thus being for Palestinians.

 

Banksy’s canvas for a series titled the “Wall Project” was a concrete structure. This “wall” is estimated to reach approximately 403 miles (605 kilometers) in length when completed and stands at 25 feet high (8 meters). According to B’tselem, an Israeli human rights organization in the West Bank, the barrier denies approximately 150 Palestinian communities from their farmlands and pasture lands (“The Separation Barrier,” nd). As a result, Israel has effectively blocked thousands of Palestinians from freely accessing and cultivating their land, producing a condition of economic and environmental occupation predicated on Israel usurping Palestinian land. According to data presented by B’tselem and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied Palestinian territories (OCHA-oPt), Israel has installed 84 gates in the completed sections of the Apartheid wall, however only a fraction are in operation. In 2016 for example, only nine of these gates were opened daily; ten were opened a few days a week and during the olive harvest season; and 65 gates were only opened for the olive harvest (ibid). Effectively, the “wall” has produced a condition of continual degeneration. Palestinian communities, farmlands, and sources of sustenance have been fractured by the concrete cutting through their land. These damaging effects can be understood as a form of toxicity rooted in degeneration, where all aspects of life are splintered off, denied any semblance of wholeness.

 

The wall, as a method of control and isolation, has dualistic function in Banksy art: it is both canvas and prop. In the seven examples I have highlighted here, the viewer is forced to contend with the uncomfortable realities impeding Palestinian social, cultural, and economic worlds. The wall acts as the citational index from which Banksy’s images come to life. As Parry aptly notes, “familiar images...are given a dark twist designed to wake observers up from the 9 to 5 rat race” (2005, Parry). Images of farm animals, children, beachscapes, blue skies, balloons, living rooms, scenic panoramas are all confronted with the reality of inadmissibility imposed onto them by the separation barrier. The viewer is forced to take pause and perhaps tilt their head from side to side in focused observation studying closely the images as if to make sense of them. Simply put, however, they do not make sense. The horse (image 1), whose body appears to be stretched like a rubber band, peers its head out  through the small square opening near the top of the barrier while its hooves are visible through a square window towards the bottom of the barrier- a distance that is factually impossible, yet exists, much like the wall itself. In image 2, the viewer sees two obstructions: the wall and the pile of rubble, rocks, and trash immediately in front of the barrier. Almost as if emerging out from the rubble is a child atop a sand castle, with a small yellow pale in his right hand. In a sea of grey, from the wall and rubble beneath it, the child emerges perched on a sand castle in the middle of a bright blue sky. Here Banksy does not alter the geography to make way for his work. Rather, all toxic elements become part of the art installation. The trash and rubble immediately in front of his painting are worked into the art piece. In an act of continuity, the child in image 2 is present in image 3, this time with a friend, also carrying a his sand toys. Their little bodies are situated beneath painted lines which give the effect of a break in the wall, revealing a beautiful sandy beach destination, with palm trees, and blue skies. According to Parry, “much of the art he produced on the Wall visually subverts and draws attention to its nature as a barrier by incorporating images of escape” (2005, Parry). Windows, new landscapes, ways out, are all techniques used by Banksy to reveal new worlds to those imprisoned by the barrier. Take for example Qalqilya, a city in the north of the West Bank. Qalqilya is entirely bottle capped by the separation barrier, with one main entrance in and out of the city. According to Environmental Justice Atlas, an online resource documenting and archiving environmental (in)justice issues around the world, the virtual sequestering of Qalqilya has led to a loss in biodiversity (wildlife and agro-diversity), contributed to food insecurity as a result of crop damage, aesthetic and land degradation, soil erosion, waste overflow, deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, water pollution, and decreased water supply (Gamero, 2017 for EJAtlas). The barrier thus functions to erode the natural resources and life forms in its path, producing topographies of toxicity. These topographies become the canvas sites for Banksy’s work where the sheer violence of the barrier is called into question and recast in new ways.

 

Images 4 and 5, for example, offer exit strategies. In both paintings, Banksy uses children to signify the possibilities of new ways of being and existing. At the borderland- that material and discursive site where real borders and barriers are confronted with affect and experience- we see a little girl being carried away by balloons (image 4) and a little boy at the foot of a tall ladder (image 5) extending the length of the wall- both making their exits, beyond the obstructions of the barrier. In both instances, the children carry the possibility of breaking down the border plaguing their existence. Banksy’s installations on the wall “invoke a virtual reality that underlines the negation of the humanity that the barrier represents” (Parry, 2005).

 

Sources:

Parry, Nigel. 2005. “Well-known UK graffiti artist Banksy hacks the Wall.” Electronic Intifada. September 2, 2005. https://electronicintifada.net/content/well-known-uk-graffiti-artist-banksy-hacks-wall/5733.

 

2017. “The Separation Barrier.” B’tselem. November 11, 2017. https://www.btselem.org/separation_barrier


Gamero, Jesus Marcos. 2017. “Orchards affected by the Annexation Wall surrounding Qalqilya, West Bank.” Environmental Justice Atlas. March 31, 2017. https://ejatlas.org/conflict/impact-of-the-wall-surrounding-the-city-of-qalqilya-affecting-orchards

 

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Created date

November 27, 2018