Interviews:

> Quarries of Wandering Stone

Judy Price / Quarries of Wandering Stone

April 2017
Interviewed by Christiane Monarchi

Judy Price is a lens-based artist whose current exhibition in London’s Mosaic Rooms presents a unique and complex body of work focused on Palestine. Two multi-screen installations and a photographic piece reflect in very different ways on Palestine’s colonial past and the current lived experience of occupation. This exhibition’s subject is timely; 2017 marks 100 years since the Balfour declaration, the British colonial policy between 1917-1948 which resulted in the mass displacement of the Palestinian nation and people.

Price’s exhibition includes multi-screen audio-visual installations Within This Narrow Strip Of Land, including films drawn from archives in London’s Imperial War Museum which document the British Mandate period in Palestine (1917-1948), and Quarries of Wandering Form exploring the stone quarrying industry in Palestine’s West Bank. Composed of film and photographic work, the film White Oil is installed here as a double screen installation for the first time. The film, made over a three year period, is a subtle examination of the impact and workings of the occupation, where much of the material quarried is expropriated by Israeli authorities, used to build settlements and exported as Israeli stone. 

Below, Christiane Monarchi recently asked Price more about her film White Oil, which can be seen at Mosaic Rooms for the duration of the exhibition. (A short clip of this 50 minute film can be seen on this link. ) The work can also be seen in Bergen, Norway at Stiftelsen 3,14 (Foundation 3,14) until 2nd June 2017.

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CM: I confess that, as a daughter of a geologist, I look at the quarries in White Oil with awe, akin to looking at a cross section of geological time in abstract striations laid bare.  In your compelling film, the viewer is taken gently through layers of understanding of these particular quarries, where economic and social relationships enmesh the local residents dependent on the continual harvesting of rock. My first question would be, what lead you to these quarries as a departure point for your research and enquiry?

JP: There are a number of things that led to this research and enquiry. I had made another body of work called Within This Narrow Strip Of Land (2008) which used archival footage from the British Mandate in a Palestine and shot footage on the ground in both Israel and Palestine, so I had already spent some time in the region. Then in 2009 I set out in search of some photographs Franz Kafka had either taken, or commissioned, as evidence into the conditions of quarries in former Czechoslovakia in 1911. As part of his research as an employer of an insurance company into the accidents that occurred in these quarries Kafka subsequently wrote about the images as landscapes of ruin and devastation. The photographs were rumoured to be in private collections in Jerusalem and I was initially interested how these images could be read within the context of Israel and Palestine through their dislocation. Although I didn’t find the photographs, what I did discover, while I was teaching at the International Academy of Art in Palestine and on my Friday walks through the craggy hills in the West Bank with the Palestinian walking group Sha-shat, is that quarrying of limestone is a major industry in the West Bank. My focus shifted from the Kafka photographs engaging with the present-day quarries in Palestine. With over 350 quarries in the West Bank it was absolutely necessary that these vast and multiple spaces of absence took centre stage as they epitomised so many aspects of a geography and geology of disaster that are the result of a region ravaged by ethnocide, colonialism and globalisation.

 

CM: I’ve been interested in how you got to know the people in your works, as the gentle evolution of narrative from their histories adds veracity and also poetry to the imagery presented.  You mention ‘intersubjective relations’ as an important part of your practice, could you tell me a little bit more about this idea?

JP: In the first two years my time was spent predominantly encountering people from different social groups and organisations in Palestine that were connected to or invested in the quarries (Ramzi Safid, Alshalaldaha brothers, friends and colleagues at the International Academy of Art Palestine, Workers Advice Centre, Unions, etc.) with filming commencing two years later. In this sense, my research into the quarries draws on local and consensual knowledge engaging in the particularities of the quarries and the West Bank, as well as situating my research within collective interaction. Encounters in the landscape, listening and attending to the workers’ day-to-day lives without imposing or articulating an already formed creative vision was the way I started to understand the complexities of the quarries and narratives of colonialism, expropriation of land and mobility. There has been very little textual or visual work done specifically on the quarries so this was really the only way I could generate knowledge about this subject.

The quarries are situated around Hebron in the south of the West Bank, Nablus and Jam’een in the North, as well as Ramallah and the periphery of Jerusalem and is one of the main industries. One of the important things to note is that many of the quarries fall in what is know as Area C. The West Bank is divided into three areas known as A, B and C and each area is controlled in different ways by Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Area C is controlled by Israeli security and administration and makes up 70 % of the West Bank and affects the extent to which Palestinians are able to use space. The quarries are poorly regulated and are often located in close proximity to residential areas, where a high concentration of dust and particles can be found. In recent years there has been an increased level of asthma in the environs of the mining, particularly amongst children.

Ramzi Safid, who is one of the main narrators of the film, I first got to know when I visited him at the quarry in Rafat, on the periphery of Ramallah in 2009. I was taken there by a good friend of mine Issa Freij, a Palestinian filmmaker and cinematographer, who knew about the quarry. It was a Friday afternoon and Ramzi invited us for coffee in the porta-cabin he stays in as a security guard at night for this quarry. His day job is as a plumber for the municipality. Ramzi is a very articulate and intelligent man and a great storyteller with a lot of knowledge about the quarries. He started to tell us about the industry and it was very moving and upsetting as neither I nor Issa at this point knew the impact of the quarries on the region, and what I describe as one of the invisible sides of the occupation.

I then started to visit Ramzi, regularly on my own as his English is very good. First we just chatted and I would sound record our conversations. We hung out and shared life stories. His family is from a small village that was where Ben Gurian Airport now is. Arrangements to meet were normally quite open. Ramzi would tell me which evenings he was working and at what time he would be at the quarry and I would visit after a day’s filming in another quarry or after teaching. It’s interesting to contextualise Ramzi’s relation to me as a woman within the history of the Palestinian liberation movements, in which he played a part in the 1980s and 1990s, and the role of Palestinian women in those movements. I like to think that Ramzi’s openness with me may well have had to do with the historical background of Palestinian women as activists and resistance fighters.

Ramzi showed me new maps, both literally and metaphorically, in regard to the political, historical and economic implications of the quarries. What was important was that I listened and learned about life under occupation and in the quarries first. With Ramzi, my listening gave him what appeared to be a much-needed space to speak about and vent his frustrations, anger, disappointments and anguish, and demanded a level of intersubjective vulnerability. Sometimes he took quite a pedagogical stance in our conversations, aware that he was ‘educating’ me about the absolute violence of the occupation on the day-to-day lives of Palestinians. This dynamic changed as he got to know me and realised that we shared very similar political leanings, not only in regard to the Occupation but also in our views of the world at large and criticisms of the capitalist global economy. Where we differed concerned how we grappled with the geopolitical and historical narratives that have been imposed on the Israel/Palestine conflict, and in our analysis of Jewish-Israeli identities. Our dialogue became a matter of ‘collaboratively generated insights’ revealing the multiple perspectives and power relations that permeate every aspect of living under Occupation.[1]   In the film his stories are about changing human values and how communities have been divided as a result of the Occupation.

The Alshalaldaha Brothers and their associates I met when I visited a neighbouring quarry near Birzeit owned by a wealthy Palestinian entrepreneur who owns lots of quarries, a stone cutting factory and willingly sells to Israel. His business is vast and his treatment of his employees is very poor both in terms of payment and the conditions in they work. Sadly neo-liberalism has left no-where untouched and the effects of this in Palestine coupled with the occupation makes life in the West Bank very difficult for most. There is a union that is trying to bring in regulations both for wages and the conditions of work but so far they have not been successful for a number of reasons that there is not really time to expand on in this interview.

The brothers, at the time of filming, rented land to excavate the stone as they are from a small village near Hebron in the South of the West Bank. They spend five nights a week camping out in a metal shipping container in the quarry as their journey home from Birzeit to Hebron through Jerusalem takes over three hours as a result of the checkpoints and the Separation Wall. Unlike Ramzi who is a generation older the Alshalaldaha Brothers and their associates don’t speak any English so one of my students at the time at the Art Academy in Palestine, artist and filmmaker Khaled Jarrar, accompanied me and acted as mediator and translator. With the brothers I am never addressed directly in the film, but referred to and links to this issue of language and the fact that my time with them is mediated. We spent five nights over a period of four weeks, bringing meat for the Zarb, a traditional way of cooking in a stone and mud oven, and hung out with the brothers for five to six hours at a time. It was a wonderful experience full of laughter and warmth. Khaled and the brothers knew what my concerns and interests were regarding the quarries and life under occupation so many of the conversations centred around this but often went off course which was also interesting. When I returned to London I spend over a year translating the recordings with a Palestinian friend in London Alaa Owaineh, and this was how I scripted the film. There were so many insights and references to things that I could never have envisioned and that would never have surfaced in a straightforward interview context so this lengthy way of working paid off. There was also is a lot of preforming for the camera by the Brothers as from the outset they know that the film would be shown in a western context. One of my favourite scenes is when they play with the politics of representation and one of the brothers is framed to represent one or another of Palestine’s divided political and religious parties, Fatah vs. Hamas, as a way of provoking representations of Palestine by the West. It’s done in a jovial manner ending with a nod to the ‘Guevara bunch’.

As you can tell intersubjective relationships are an important part of my practice where the work is developed through embodied and situated listening and exchange. Dialogical aesthetics, a term that Grant Kester coined and borrowed from Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian philosopher and literary critic and Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator and philosopher unpacks what is at stake with intersubjective relationships. Central to all projects that employ a dialogical aesthetics is a focus on the particularities of a specific place or social group, rather than any attempt to uncover universal experience. It’s a ‘provisionally binding’ practice, generated by ‘local consensual knowledge’, and situated within collective interaction. Another important concern is that the relationships between artists and their co-participants are developed and extended over time, allowing for what Kester describes as ‘a decentering, a movement outside self through dialogue’. In this sense it is the artists’ commitment to dialogue, no matter how self-reflexive, which creates common systems of meaning in which co-participants speak, listen and respond. Discourse is understood dialogically, rather than in terms of a fixed, hierarchical system of a priori meaning. This involves questions of identity formation in that Identity is understood in terms of how it is transformed through our encounters with the world and with other human subjects. In dialogical aesthetics the process of making art is defined in terms of an openness, of listening and a willingness to accept a position of dependence and intersubjective vulnerability relative to the viewer or collaborator.

We also need be aware of the degree to which those with more or less cultural capital are able to speak and be listened to and the different cultural and social frameworks from which different voices speak with the hope of opening up real exchange through listening. Easier said than done but I think this is often the challenge for so many artists whose practice involves field research. This way of working often requires negotiating the space and territory of other human beings and therefore recognising and appreciating the openness and generosity of participants in granting us access to their intimate and personal worlds. This was certainly the case in making White Oil, but very different in the earlier work I made in Palestine, a nine screening installation Within This Narrow Strip of Land which is also in the exhibition Still. For artists working in contested environments like myself it’s not about giving legitimacy to art by co-opting the social sphere but about becoming actively engaged with the issues and thinking though what art can bring to various collective struggles.

In the case of White Oil this meant that an experimental-embodied practice was essential in encountering the landscape of the West Bank and the quarries, wherein a certain openness to contingency and chance provided one of the main methodologies in the production of this work. In reference to Hal Foster’s work on the ethnographic turn, the political site of transformation is not posited elsewhere, in the repressed other, the Palestinian quarry worker, but in my embodied experience as a filmmaker, which finds its articulation in the film itself and a practice -that I hope- supports some sense of veracity rather than adherence to documentary or realist models of representation. And, to use Patty Lather’s words, ‘where we do what we can while leaving a place for what we cannot envision to emerge’.[2]

 

CM: Turning to the visual communication of your film, I’m entranced by the many explorations of duration, of slow time and also repetitive tasks in the lives of the quarry and its workers.  Could you tell me a bit about these considerations in your film making process and aesthetics?

JP: The static frame, highly composed and durational images are partially a legacy of my photography background. Each image is a tableau that can be read not only in the timeline of the film but as individual images where various dynamics and forces are brought to bear in regard to the landscape I am working. In many ways the film is like a series of moving photographs. This relationship between the still and the moving has always been a key part of my practice where I use the precision of photography with a pensive slowness to reduce the subjectiveness of the image which creates a distanciation and allows a certain critical distance. Also framing in this way distils the different connections and relations in the landscape as a way of drawing out time in the image rather than movement. Very little happens in the images in the way of action, but the observation of detail and relationships in the images are really important. The film theorist André Bazin writes about how filming in this way opens up time for thought and affect in the viewer with a more active mental attitude required to create meanings in the images. In this sense the images in White Oil are not strictly ethnographic but mobilise a different visual language that can also be framed within the discourse of photography and what the anthropologist Christopher Pinney calls its ‘transcriptional excess’ and ‘incapacity to fix any image’. The durational moving image intensifies this with its time-image, in which a shadow, a flutter of a plastic bag or a sound marks out a contingency in the image.

For example in the opening sequence of White Oil a single shot is held for four minutes of a piece of stone being compressed, cracking and bursting. I filmed this a laboratory and the shot acts as a metaphor and in many ways is a summation of the entirety of the film. It also stands apart from the rest of the film functioning as a prologue before the following scene where we hear the digital sound of the Azan, the Muslim call to prayer, which animates the title WHITE OIL as a performing text. This is followed by another long durational wide-angle shot of a quarry showing a desolate landscape with residential houses and industrial buildings in the half-light of the early morning. A piece of discarded paper falls like a feather from the top edge of the quarry into the cavernous space and then out of frame, animating the space. This scene is then filled with the sound of Ramzi’s voice, his vocal chords thick and dried out from chain smoking and the dust from the quarries:

This is not a garden but it’s calm.

We are not living in the lights, we are in the darkness, always!

We got used to this life…the first two days were very difficult… and then one gets used to it.

It’s exactly how when you enter a cell for the first time…

It’s like having a seizure, but then you adapt.

That’s the beauty of the human mind…things that were unimaginable you bear, you adapt.

For example, you go to the Himalayas and you adapt…after 2–3 hours; it’s as if you had been there for 100 years.

Framing also abstracts and enlarges by lifting something out of the background so that we can look more closely, distilling and making connections between things that might otherwise have been lost or disregarded. In White Oil abstraction delineates scale, borders and boundaries revealing the precariousness of the landscape and imbuing the image with a politics. This occurs in the framing of the landscape where people are employed to register the scale of the quarries, its borders, transitions and proximity to residential areas. The framing is often very tight, with the landscape leaking in and out of shot, as a way of describing a peripheral landscape, like the green of the grass, the flowers and the olive trees that are soon to be eaten up by the grinding, insatiable appetite of the quarry machines. What is left out in vision is as important as what is seen, implying that there is a greater depth, a more complex narrative, other tragedies, a greater environmental disaster, a deeper humanity that cannot be portrayed which exposes the limits of film and photography. Anna Grimshaw the visual ethonographer talks about the partiality of vision in that ‘what we see is inseparable from how we see’. How our viewpoint or vision is inevitably affected by who we are, by the social and cultural landscapes we have been brought up with and the systems that inform our gaze, which we are never completely separable from.

An example in White Oil is a long durational image of a cobbled together stone-cutting factory, perched on top of a hill with a view of the West Bank, which is then followed by an image of a settlement. In my PhD thesis I write about this image and how this is both an actual image and a virtual image evoking a landscape that is gradually being dismantled, a premonition of what lies ahead as well as what is actually happening in the here and now. Perhaps because of my Jewish background, the constructivist lines resemble the modernist constructive architecture of Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish museum in Berlin. His architecture has come to represent both the physical and psychological architecture of Jewish history, housing the memory and trauma of the Jewish people’s persecution and displacement. However, here in the context of the Palestine the architecture of these histories and memories imposes itself violently onto the landscape of the West Bank literally cutting out the landscape and another people’s history, unable to incorporate the multiple histories and narratives of this region unless it conforms to Zionist ideology. The following image of a settlement, with its unified house and red-pitched roofs constructed as part of the Jewish Agency plans, is meant to set apart the Jewish settlements in the territories from Palestinian houses by literally seizing their locality. As Eyal Weizman has written about in his book Hollow Land, during the 1980s, the Israeli military recommended that all settlement councils have red-tiled roofs as part of settlement-planning bylaws so that the houses can be distinguished in the landscape as Jewish houses and not Palestinian houses for ‘security reasons’ and so that settlers can orientate themselves within the landscape. Coming back to the quarries, the stone from the West Bank is also bound to the history and visual vernacular of occupation through bylaws. In 1918 during the British Mandate period a bylaw was put in place that specified that buildings in Jerusalem should only be made of the local limestone. This bylaw was later extended by Israel in 1967 and the stone used as a conveyor of emotional messages around notions of a sacred city and ‘homeland’. The bylaw was also used to ensure the unification of Jerusalem though military outposts in the West Bank and which are the origins of the settlements that we see today.

Regarding the repetitive tasks in the quarries and the lives of the workers, again time is crucial as a way of exasperating the workers predicament. Palestinians are not permitted by Israel to use explosives for quarrying for stone so its takes them much longer to produce a livelihood from this industry than in other places in the world where using explosives are standard procedure. Also time in the image acts as way of alluding to the impending waiting and stasis that is experienced by Palestinians and the sense that nothing is changing. This is also important in regard to the strata, the layers of stone that we see in the quarries which recalls a deep geological time. What is this strange human obsession with our place and our time in the world in the midst of a far greater and more profound impending sense of environmental catastrophe that we are all faced with, and this obsession with borders, ownership of land and states? In the case of Israel and Palestine the battle is literally over time- with the Jewish people convinced that returning to this region after 2000 years gives them right to boot another social group out. Both Jewish archaeologists and architects have sought Jewish history below and above the ground as a way of symbolising their presence in the landscape as a way of trying to define Israeliness ‘as a local native culture’, taken over by the latecomer Palestinians. When visiting and living in Israel for short periods of time in the 1980s and 1990s, I was struck by the way that one’s attention was consistently drawn to the Old Testament and Jewish history in the landscape and in nearly every visual or textual document, whether newspapers, a guide book in a hotel, a map, with very little or no mention at all of Palestinian history. In many ways this is perhaps not surprising for a state that was established on volatile foundations. However, most Jews in Israel at the time were from the Diaspora and either Ashkenazi Jews, Northern European Jews which is my family background, whose history was embedded in European ideas, history and culture, or Sephardic Jews, Spanish and Middle Eastern Jews, whose history was embedded in the ideas and culture of Spain and the Middle East. In Israel the complexity of these identities was repressed in the early stages in order to unite all Jews under a ‘Hebraic’ status and install a strong sense of national identity based on links with ancient Jewish history in the bible. Under Israeli sovereignty’ the absence of respect for other histories and cultures is tragic, particularly in light of Jewish history and the systematic erasing of Jewish life and culture by other groups in pogroms and the Holocaust.

Coming back to White Oil another important aspect is how the viewer is drawn into the film and becomes a referent within the work as I didn’t want to make a film where the spectator was just a passive observer. This is particularly evident at the beginning of the single screen film in the installation with the Alshalaldaha brothers when we hear, but don’t see, the brothers muttering and agitated calling out into the velvety blue abyss that frames this scene before we are made aware of the soldiers in the following image. Built up by a single durational landscape shot at sunset with a settlement in the distance and a valley below, the surveying of this landscape sets up a number of dynamics. We are also asked ‘Who watches the watchers?’, which creates what Elizabeth Cowie identifies as the un-canniness of looking back. The viewer is positioned as the referent and made to feel uneasy about whom they, being both the viewer and the soldiers, are searching out and for whom and where they are looking in this landscape. Foucault speaks of the idea of surveillance as not being about a specific look at a specific time by an actual gaze or camera but as a generalisable surveillance: one could be being looked at anytime, in any place, from any direction. This can turn into an internalised fear in which one becomes one’s own surveyor. This scene in White Oil sets up the idea of a permanent surveillance, behind ‘any rock’. The time of the shot is not specific. However the context of this landscape, set up through the proceeding shots and unfolded in the dialogue and images that follow, creates an encounter with the soldiers in the quarry that redistributes the image in a number of other circuits, exposing the surveying, military and controlling features and architecture of this space. As we attempt to orientate ourselves in this darkened landscape by listening for sounds that are in keeping with the landscape, the silence creates a disturbance, a sign of trouble.

Because of the fragmented nature of the script which alludes to, but only partially touches on life under occupation and what is happening with the quarries, the viewer is left with many questions. What I hope is that White Oil is resonant enough to arouse an embodied emotional response through images and sound as well as operating on an intellectual level so that the viewer becomes more engaged and asks more question about what they are seeing and hearing.

 

 CM: Thank you for your time, Judy, and for sharing these insights to your work. 

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[1] Kester, Conversation Pieces, p. 95.

[2] Lather, ‘Against Empathy, Voice and Authenticity’, p.21

 

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Judy Price works across photography, moving image, sound and installation. A primary focus of her work is how art can produce different ways of thinking about contested landscapes and engage with collective struggles. She often draws on images and sounds from archival sources and the sustained study of places that are resonant with overwritten histories and redrawn boundaries. Palestine has been an enduring focus in her work for over 10 years. Price is Course Director in Photography (MA) at Kingston University and a Senior Lecturer in Moving Image (BA) at the University of Brighton. From 2008–2014 she was a visiting lecturer at the International Academy of Art, Palestine and initiated a series of student exchange programs between Palestine and UK institutions.

Her work has been exhibited and screened internationally including; UK (Imperial War Museum, Barbican, Curzon, Goldsmiths, Mosiac Rooms, Danielle Arnaud Contemporary Art Gallery, Cambridge Film festival and Tent Gallery, Edinburgh), Norway (Stiftelsen 3,14 and USF Centre, Bergen), Canada (Galerie Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Montreal), Germany (Kunsthaus Cinema, Nürnberg) and Palestine (Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre, Ramallah and Al- Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art, Jerusalem).

For further viewing:

Judy Price’s solo exhibition Still will be exhibited at The Mosaic Rooms, London from April 7 – June 18, 2017.