The Artist as a Helpless Tourist


English translation of a review I wrote about Jack Segbars’ interesting book Inertia, published at De Reactor.

‘Writing this is embarrassing.’ These are the opening words of Jack Segbars’ Inertia, the artist and writer’s bilingual (Dutch and English, in a translation by Willem Groenewegen) travelogue covering two journeys to Israel and Palestine in 2009 and 2010. The first time he travels as an artist, as a member of a Dutch delegation visiting the Palestinian biennale on the invitation of its co-curator Charles Esche (Van Abbemuseum). On his second visit he travels alone. The embarrassment he feels is a result of what he perceives as the impossible nature of the journey.

Within today’s ‘cultural economy’, art has become a valuable material, and the biennale has developed into an economic catalyst of considerable importance. What’s more is that the Palestine biennale is also closely associated with a project of nation building and the promotion of Palestinian identity. As much as an economic instrument, art is seen as a co-designer of society here. This ambivalent position becomes painfully clear during the opening talk of the conference:

How can art contribute to the revitalization of both cities and villages, the first and foremost political, societal need, that is the question raised at the conference. How can they halt the flight from villages, how to offer a new economic perspective? Impossible questions. Within an artistic, cultural framework, that is. I feel embarrassed in my capacity as an artist. The only positions formulated are those of obligatory criticism of the oppressor or otherwise of the problematic of art in the light of this promise. Hopeless.

In short, art as a field in which social and economic policy are lumped together. In Inertia, Segbars ponders how he can overcome the lethargy – inertia – of this situation and break his own (personal and artistic) commitment to it. He advocates an investigative art, and this book is the hybrid product thereof. It is both a travelogue, a document and personal essay, and constitutes the written part of a video installation that showcases the film material he collected during his travels.

This hybridity seems to be a formal prerequisite for Segbars. As an artist, he is interested in the conditions and parameters of the production of art, and especially its limits. And these limits he continually encounters in Palestine. He is shocked to see how easily art is put to use as a means of propaganda, and by the overt ways in which ideological oppositions become apparent – oppositions that traverse the arts as well. ‘The university is like an island. The gate is guarded, lots of security people, gated community.’ The state of emergency seems to be a permanent presence.

At the same time, the artist registers how his experiences ‘on the ground’ fail to correspond completely with the representations that are forced upon us by media or the artist’s own limited outlook. The biennale (in terms of typesetting almost in a literal way) then becomes a footnote in a widening investigation of the possibilities and limits of artistic engagement, a quest that eventually leaves behind the proper domain of art.

Segbars takes pictures, films and tries to immerse himself into everyday life. Tellingly, his self-conscious role as an artist readily slips into the mode of a helpless tourist. Meta-reflections about art are juxtaposed with evocations of the biblical landscape and vivid analyses of the terrain’s architecture and political geography. He visits towns, interviews young people about their dreams and doubts, meets up with guides and press officers, and everywhere the bleak contrasts between the biennale mission and the social needs loom large.

The cool and direct style used throughout the book cleverly registers a whole gamut of contradictory feelings – from shame to paranoia, and from the dreary feeling of moving through an ‘atonal world’ to a genuine sense of connectedness and beauty. But the overall tone of the book is one of detachment and disorientation. This does not so much lead the artist into a safe ironic distance but rather produces a thick mist hovering between observer and reality, even – or more so – when that reality makes itself extremely present. His experiences show a terrible ‘reality deficit’, as Samuel Vriezen once called the gap between linguistic representation and reality.

The gap is already there at home: ‘The images gather into a lump, a lump of pressurized distance between here and there, the chair in front of the TV and the desolate landscape behind it. Complete silence amid the racket of violent explosions.’ Panorama Schism, the author dubs this split at some point, when he overlooks the settlements in Palestinian territory.

Segbars then does not write from the illusion of direct engagement, or a naive reality hunger, as can be found in the work of the Dutch author Arnon Grunberg, who traveled to Afghanistan as an embedded journalist to confront himself with the ‘reality’ of war. This text, in contrast, is saturated with the awareness that his visit to Israel has been under the ideological conditions of the facilitating bodies from the start, that assign to the artist the role of an outsider with so-called critical mass, an ideology that impedes one’s own experience of reality and ability to intervene in it rather than enabling it. ‘Inertia in the camera, in my mind, despite all the movement and new sensations. Registering. Not accounting.’ The bare registration presents the artist with an ethical problem. Does any of the documented material actually give an insight into the political situation?

Segbars wants to disentangle this knot and gather information on his own, outside any propagandistic mode, as he writes in the epilogue. Therefore he travels to Israel again, in 2010. Reading about an incident in one of the Palestinian villages in the papers – a boy having been shot to death by colonists – immediately arouses a sensationalist desire to visit. He travels there, not without scruples, only to find out that he has mistaken the name of the village for a nearby one. He decides not to stop looking for the ‘real’ village, and sets up his camera elsewhere. For a short moment, the gap seems capable of being bridged. ‘I know where I’ve been.’

But apart from that final, almost epiphany-like moment, Inertia is a text in which positions are always in need of revision, and in which stable referents keep shifting. Telephone equipment comes to signify militarization, and the threatening atmosphere permeates every look. Segbars keenly observes how dormant roadblocks and control posts can be activated at any time. The reader shares this experience of dislocation.

Inertia evokes some seriously important questions. How to act when the political environment authoritatively programs every move in advance? What to do when ideology is so pervasive that it becomes immune to the demystifying or critical pretenses of art? Segbars refers to the archaeological war of facts, that tries to substantiate territorial claims using historical ‘evidence’. It is a blatant example of what Hito Steyerl calls documentality: the use of documentary techniques to (re)produce a particular politics of truth. It is a battle in which the Palestinians are one losing side, and that places the investigative artist in an uncomfortable position.

Segbars chooses to include the discomfort into his work. After all, Inertia suggests throughout that we should also see the production of art in within this set of tensions. And that brings us back to the book’s starting point: the Palestine biennale, and its complex complicity with economic regimes and a politics of segregation and occlusion – tense relations that are typical of the artistic research undertaken by Segbars. That particular genre, designating the (mostly institutional) blend of art and research, too is an instrument of power, as Joost de Bloois rightly remarks in his introduction to the book. But also a form that, at its best, pushes art’s involvement with its environment to unforeseen results, as is demonstrated here.

Inertia avoids taking any ‘pre-cuperated’ stance, right in situations where that would seem like an easy thing to do. That makes this book into something more than an ‘engaged’ travelogue, or merely a treatise on the fraught relation between art and politics. The space this book occupies might just harbor a possibility to overcome the inertial situation in which every ‘critical’ position, and its critique not any less, has been fixed beforehand.