Film In Conversation
PEGGY AHWESH with Rachael Rakes & Leo Goldsmith
Peggy Ahwesh has been a film and videomaker since the 1970s, working across genres, styles, and approaches throughout. More recently, she has been making work during her stays in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, filming and teaching at Al-Quds Bard College. Her solo exhibition Kissing Point, recently on view at Microscope Gallery, brings together a collection of works Ahwesh has made there: two multi-channel video installations, a video made for an iPhone, and a collection of artifacts Ahwesh mailed back to the United States during her various visits. We sat down to discuss these works with Ahwesh, as well as the exigencies of working with multi-channel installation, and living and filming in Palestine.
Rachael Rakes and Leo Goldsmith (Rail): Is Kissing Point traveling anywhere after Microscope?
Peggy Ahwesh: I would like it to, but I have a few more pieces I’d like to finish first. It’s kind of a trilogy, I guess. Unless there’s four projects. [Laughs.] It’s kind of a trilogy—that sounds really good, doesn’t it? A trilogy.
Rail: So what is still to come?
Ahwesh: The second piece is kind of an essay movie about the right of return. It’s based on this guy, Jalal Toufic, who’s this amazing fellow who is Iraqi, grew up in Lebanon, and now lives in Turkey. He wrote a book many years ago about vampires in the movies, which has this whole undercurrent of Arab politics. Thinking about the undead, the unsettled Arabs displaced, who can’t get back to their own soil—all the vampire thresholds, the checkpoints, these kinds of borders. He doesn’t talk about these things that explicitly, so I’m making them explicit. I’m using quotations from him amid what would otherwise seem like pretty quotidian footage.
Rail: What’s the footage?
Ahwesh: It’s all footage I shot. I shot in the camps, around construction sites and around the wall, and visiting people—like interiors of people’s homes. And then there’s the third part, which hopefully I will get to. I met this guy Charles, who writes his proposals and kind of activates EU policy in relation to Palestinians and the Israelis about trade issues, customs. He worked on policy about Israeli products from the settlement in the ’90s.
Rail: Oh wow.
Ahwesh: But he’s not into the boycott movement. He thinks it’s a drag because it makes people angry. If EU policy states that the EU recognizes the ’67 borders and that stuff like Sodastream is made in a settlement, then basically they’re just breaking their own rules. He’s more interested in sculpting the EU to abide by their own regulations. But he’s also kind of an artist. I was trying to explain to him about relational aesthetics. He inherited a lingerie factory in the ’80s. So he was like, the amazing thing to do would be to export. He went through all the paperwork and registered himself as a business. And in Europe the labels say, “Made in the West Bank.” And then, in the United States, they would say, “Made in the Occupied Israeli Territories.” So he made like very fancy lingerie for two seasons, but then the whole thing crashed. It’s a long story—the military came and trashed his place. He did it for two seasons—to me that’s like an art project. I was trying to explain Michael Rakowitz and people like that to him. But he just did it as way to test the limitations, really, on these kinds of issues of trade and borders. Other people have done it since, but this was in the mid-’80s. It’s like a crazy art project: how to make a point of getting these materials out and how to get noticed. Anyway, I’m doing a project about him and his so-called art project—about his activities from the earlier days.
Rail: It’s so funny how when it’s an artist doing it, it becomes relational aesthetics, but it could just be an activist project.
Ahwesh: Yeah, exactly. Like a community board would invite someone in to clean up a river or something and it’s an art project. And they have some reading group or they’ll talk about color or something, but really they are helping to clean up the river. Anyway, that’s Charles. I have all kinds of funny things planned around that. And some drawings, and some performative pieces.
Rail: So you’ve been teaching at Al-Quds, but you’ve been going to Palestine for a while?
Ahwesh: Well, I’m half-Syrian. I’m Syrian and Irish. So I’ve been to Syria to visit my relatives—maybe that was part of my interest early on. But on one of my trips I went to the West Bank during the First Intifada and something just snapped. I was in Jerusalem, somewhat naively, just being a tourist. I met these young women from this media collective who were Palestinians from Jordan. And I speak English and I had a camera, and they were like, “Come with us.” And I was like, “Sure! Let’s go, this is going to be fun.” I don’t know what I was thinking. But we went to a couple refugee camps and they translated for me and I recorded some material. I wasn’t prepared for that and I wasn’t there for that purpose, but something really snapped with that visit. I’ve been back there a number of times. I have a friend who’s a midwife from Pittsburgh, and I went with her once. She had a three-month gig in the West Bank working with midwives. That was in 2009, I think. And then later I went and lived there.
Rail: How did you get involved with your co-cinematographer, the Palestinian-American artist Nida Sinnokrot?
Ahwesh: I had recruited him to come teach at Bard Al-Quds the same semester I was teaching. He lived with his auntie down the hill. And I lived with some Bard people at the top of the hill, and we would often get together and go shoot. We have a lot of similar sensibilities about how to spend your time or how to get into a little bit of trouble, or a lot of trouble. You know, that kind of dérive sensibility—we both have that, intensely.
Rail: And I guess that comes through in the film that you were talking about: the construction sites and the disco and the wandering through these different spaces.
Ahwesh: We shot mostly at night, so a lot of things were closed. You’re just looking for things to shoot maybe or just to see who’s out and about. But there’s really high unemployment there, so there are a lot of people with not much to do. So we would encounter all kinds of helpful interesting people, or people out, people working at night, or just kind of around. So [what we were doing] wasn’t so unusual. But we were interested very early on—we would be in a car and drive and you come to a roadblock. So I got very interested in that and that landscape that’s somewhat unrecognizable to me, very hard to decipher, and for people that are even from there it’s hard to decipher.
I got very interested in how you could circulate and what that had to do with your well-being and your sense of home, and your sense of belonging, your sense of imagination—it really affects all that stuff. Just the last time I was there I was with two of my ex-students and we’re leaving Ramallah, and we’re going down to Birzeit which is a big Arab university. We go down this sort of valley, and up on a hill they’re building a mosque, which is unfinished so the big dome and the spire are lying on the ground. We drive up there and there’s this little Arab village. And at one point I see that on the edge of the Arab neighborhood there are a couple of buildings that are abandoned, and then there’s a big grassy area off to the right and then a bunch of buildings, and I’m like, “Oh, what’s that?” And they tell me, “That’s a settlement, that’s Beit El.” And I’m like, “Oh,” because I’ve seen the settlement from the other side, but from this side it’s this encroaching thing and there’s a big meadow that nobody goes into because they’d get shot. It’s this huge empty space which is a buffer, and then the very first couple of houses that used to be populated are now empty. This is very much my experience of how the landscape operates: muscular power moves all over the place, but at first it seemed like, “Oh, big empty space, couple of abandoned buildings—so what?” You know there’s a settlement, but maybe they can go to Jerusalem and these people can stay here, but also it’s an environment that’s continually in flux. The of it is in the architecture, it’s in the soil, it’s in the roads, and that’s completely fascinating. Bizarre, but fascinating how it operates.
Rail: This description is reminding me a lot of Eyal Weizman. Do you read him?
Ahwesh: I have. I read Hollow Land, I’ve read all his stuff, and I’ve heard him talk. I was thinking of him while editing the footage. He’s an amazing thinker. He wrote this piece called “The Politics of Verticality,” and I think it’s an early piece that maybe he wrote before Hollow Land, and I read that while I was editing. But also when you experience these things on the ground then you get so many ideas: when you’re actually in an underpass, or sitting there with someone who says, “I have to stop” or “I can’t go through” or “Bring me back something” or “I’ll meet you tomorrow.” Or my student is like, “I can’t come to class because I’ve been waiting six months for a pass to go visit my girlfriend.”
I built the piece around the tunnels, and this place called Bidu, which I’ve been through, now, like a hundred times. There’s only one way in and out of Bidu: you have to go through this tunnel, so the bypass road goes over and the Bidu tunnel goes under. This is also classic Eyal Weizman: the Israelis are above and the Arabs are below. The Israelis control the sky above, the planes, and under the ground, the water, the archaeology. So the Arabs get this little kind of shortened three-dimensionality on the ground level.
Rail: It’s an internalized border. In some ways, the U.S. and Mexico border is much clearer: we’re over here and they’re over there.
Ahwesh: There’s a river there in the middle.
Rail: Exactly. There’s a very clear buffer zone. For a Palestinian or an Israeli, the border could be anywhere. It’s internal to every moment and shifts depending on who you are.
Ahwesh: Yeah, that was something I was very interested in. Everyone carries it around with them.
Rail: So, the other pieces in the show—Lessons of War, which consists of a stack of monitors. Those images were taken from animations from news recreations? And the other one about the exploding iPhone, too?
Ahwesh: Oh, I made that in the gallery on the day of the show. That was my phone there. After the opening, I said, “That piece is just for the opening.” And they were like, “No, no. You must leave it here.” And I was like, “Shit.”
Rail: What if somebody buys it?
Ahwesh: That would be really funny.
Rail: It’d be like, “$99 down, $40 a month.”
Ahwesh: I need to be able to pipe into it to check my messages. Lessons of War is from a Taiwanese news agency. I love this: they don’t have any reporters and they don’t go anywhere. But they read news items and they make these animations. They’re really tacky. They do a lot of current stuff, but their main focus is people getting blown up, scandals, dead people found in strange places, people with skin-eating diseases—and they love the South African guy who killed his girlfriend.
Rail: Oscar Pistorius.
Ahwesh: There was so much coverage of that. It’s incredible. They make these like 45-second animations. I was teaching this class on reenactment, and I found this one that they did about a JetBlue guy who quit his job and freaked out on the plane and went down the emergency chute to get off the plane. So I showed that in my class, and I was like, “What else do these people do?”
This is interesting. Basically, it’s all reenactment, but I like the quality of the animations—it’s simple. So I must have used 60 or 70 of those. In a way, I made them too good because it kind of looks like I just downloaded some videos, but I cut them extensively to make my own little stories. Lessons of War is interesting because you can read it horizontally if you want and follow the episodes, or read it vertically like the chaos of daily news or the chaos of impressions of things—so it makes other narratives. So I was like, “I think it’s kind of cool that way.” Because, linearly it makes sense, too. It’s more like how you would explain to a child some episode of the Gaza War. But as a stack it fulfills multiple functions. And I like the audio bleed-over. That’s super important.
Rail: Yeah, sound is usually the one major hindrance of the gallery and it feels like no one ever gets it right, but I liked the way the sound from the main video threw, and the punctuation of the smaller pieces.
Ahwesh: Something that I find very exciting in the gallery is the contrast, how things bounce off each other. The big piece is more elegant, and shot with a really nice camera, and shown with nice projection. But then the stack is this other, sort of off-kilter, cartoonish, smaller thing that’s kind of noisy and cranky. In the installation space you have a certain kind of freedom there to walk around and find the point where the audio tips, or you can change that point, or where a person’s peripheral vision catches from each direction. Installations are really fun in that way. You can in a very playful way orchestrate a person’s movement like a dance.
Rail: I had a question about the split-screen. Obviously, it’s not like you had two projectors running synchronously—the two images are very precisely cut together. Rather than having two independent images or video loops that kind of bounce off each other in different ways, it is obviously very important that they are synchronized.
Ahwesh: The stereo-effect.
Rail: Yeah, do you have different feelings about that, the synchronization of the two images, versus having them play independently?
Ahwesh: Originally a lot of it was shot from the car. So originally I was thinking it was going to be like two screens as if you were the driver, and could see out the windows. I like the stereoscopic vision of it. We certainly didn’t shoot anything just to make this piece, it just was some footage that I separated out to edit, but the relationships have to do with stereoscopic vision and also work spatially, to allow you to feel like you’re in two places at once. Like the tunnel shot, one’s going one way and one’s going the other. I don’t know—I kind of edited it intuitively. It doesn’t have a beginning or end to it. I like the synchronization because it’s not just looping randomly. The sync-points in it are really important, I think, to keep you in the flow of it. But it goes inside and outside. You go into town, and then you go back into the countryside. And then you’re at the wall, and then you are in the tunnel. It’s a little bit of a tour through that area.
If I were making a single-channel piece, some of the pieces would not be so long. The length of them has to do how they sync up. But technically it’s not so hard. It’s fun. It’s like a puzzle to get things to line up so they are interesting. I mean I have so much footage that I didn’t use that has so many people in it, for example. Because I shot a lot on Ramadan and there were just too many people which is so messy, the frame was so messy. I can’t have that. I was just looking at the footage and I realized I just had so much of this circularity in them. And so, it’s almost like gears of wheels rotating against each other. And you are never in the same place at the same time, but it becomes machine-like. I like that quality, too. The place has this very old, industrial quality. I’m from Pittsburgh, so I have this old, industrial thing very deep inside of me. But I like the grating industrial wheel quality. And a little bit maybe trance-inducing that I think for the piece that’s very appropriate. More screens and it starts to be arty and distracting. But with two, it still relates to bodysize—body and eye coordination, so you almost feel like you’re in the space. You feel like you’re in the car.
Rail: And the set of packages in the show—Souvenirs?
Ahwesh: Yes. I mailed a whole bunch of stuff back to myself—like rocks and newspapers and trash, basically, in these packages. I mean getting in and out—I have such privilege, I can come and go—and it’s difficult even for me. It’s difficult for anybody to come and go there. Some people can’t move at all. So, I was just interested in the porousness of the border and the functionality of the border. People were like, “Go to Jerusalem and mail it from the main post office.” And I was like, “No, no. I want to mail it from here and see what happens.” So, I got back three packages out of about eight. Not so great. No clue, no notice, no nothing.
Rail: And the three were intact?
Ahwesh: Those three came at different times, from different trips. But, yeah, they were pretty much intact. And I don’t know if people x-ray them and say, “Oh, that’s a rock.” I don’t even know. If I want to mail myself a rock, who’s to say I can’t? I don’t have documentation. Someone may have documentation of themself mailing the thing or something. But, for me, the ephemerality was interesting. I would just kind of wait at home and see what showed up. So six weeks later, either I would get a package or I wouldn’t. And it’s a little serendipitous, as things are there.
It’s kind of an existential engagement with the places, the political landscape. I hadn’t expected to show those—they were just kind of cool as another element. Emily Jacir did a great piece (“Where We Come From,” 2001 – 03) where she talked to people about things they couldn’t do because they were stuck there. They were there, and they were like, “Go visit my sister and give her a falafel sandwich.” Something very Palestinian. All these little episodes, and she made a documentation of them. She did these little tasks for people. That was a pretty good piece. Like, you know, “Watch the sunset over the ocean.” And she would go do these things. Wish fulfillment. Because when you are there, you’re there. For me, I didn’t really go into Israel proper much. I have friends there and I love to travel and I was very interested. But somehow it was too emotionally difficult for me. Once I got very invested in being in the Palestinian territories the shock of going into Israel was very confusing and it was kind of a bummer. I got depressed. I just want to stay where I am, this will be my perspective. So, also, I did make an “us versus them” piece. You know, like someone doing a thing about the bypass roads, you could easily go to the settlements, and you know—there’s a lot to film.