Beitunia, Ramallah. Courtesy of Yazid Anani

Yazid Anani was both co-curator and a participating artist in Ramallah – the fairest of them all?, which was exhibited at The Ethnographic and Art Museum at Birzeit University and in public installations around the city of Ramallah. Using the exhibition as a starting point, we sought to trace the historical transformations of public spaces within the Palestinian context, with the aim of providing a better understanding of the forces and changes public art interventions has been responding to.

Shuruq: Ramallah – the fairest of them all? called into question some of the urban transformations happening in Ramallah, while the installation of the works prompted a discussion about the uses and regulation of public spaces in the city. If we think of public space as a formation site for the relationship between state and people, you would think that these would be of particular interest in a place, like Palestine, where statehood is the subject of an ongoing debate. What status do public spaces have in Ramallah and how have they changed over time?

Yazid: Public spaces have always been an arena of the struggle between economy, politics and society. In Ramallah, public spaces have no constant position of having always been utilized and governed as public spaces. Many of these spaces have been privatized and lost their public utility due to the changing hegemony of politics and economy in the city. For example, the Municipal public park was built in the middle of last century as a free leisure space for different social groups to enjoy. Today, it is restricted to those who can afford the prices of drinks and food.

Nowadays, political uncertainties and thriving neoliberalism have shifted the balance between economics and politics in the city, leading to economization and politicization of public spaces, prohibiting its use for collective assembly, collective political exchange, accessibility and self-criticism.

Shuruq: There are public spaces like Al-Manara Square in downtown Ramallah, which have a political function in the city. Both the architecture and use of Al-Manara has changed over the years; could you walk us through some of those changes?

Yazid: Al-Manara Square plays a major role in the demarcation of power relations in the city. The historical transformations of its architecture provide insight into how it functions today.

Al-Manara Square was established around 1905, when the Ottoman administration paved the road between Nablus (in the North) and Jerusalem (in the South), passing through Ramallah and connected the historic city centre with the neighboring city of Al-Biereh. Its radial form is typical of European postindustrial urbanism, first introduced by the Ottomans in the late 19th century. The square’s strategic position enabled whoever controlled it to dictate the transaction of imagery, symbolism, meanings and spatial politics to the masses. The growing architecture of curving buildings with balconies looking out to the Al-Manara facilitated its use for political speeches.

This changed in 1967 when the Israeli Military Administration transformed the roundabout into a complex constellation of street-islands with a traffic light system. The Israeli military’s panoptical control of Al-Manara, through their permanent mounting of the rooftops of the surrounding buildings, prohibited the political use of the space for resisting occupation. This political function has not been revived, even under the administration of the Palestinian Authority. On the contrary, today one needs permission from the Palestinian Authority to even demonstrate against the Israeli Occupation’s ongoing violence and aggression towards Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

Projection, -Abi Fawk El Shajara- film posters in Al-Manara. Courtesy of Inass Yassin, 2010

Shuruq: The introduction of billboards in Al-Manara and other parts of the city has also changed the transactions of imagery and messages in the public domain. Design companies like Zoom and Sky usually rent the facades from the building owners. What is the specific jurisdiction and municipal regulations over these spaces?

Yazid: There are several types of billboards with different ownerships and jurisdictions. Most commonly design companies like Zoom rent the facades of private buildings from their owners and use them as paid promotional spaces. These are strategically selected to overlook public spaces or streets that are vital for traffic and pedestrian movement. Media companies that construct billboard spaces on highways and vacant land pay a monthly or annual fee to the municipality.

Generally, anyone who can afford the rental fee can use the space to make announcements. In the past, these have ranged from political messages to commercials, social activism and art works.

There were a few incidents where particular billboards were altered and then were taken down. For example, in 2008, the Israeli Strauss icecream billboard campaign in Ramallah was altered with bumper stickers saying something along the lines “Strauss – an icecream with the taste of occupation”. In response, the municipality demanded that the advertising company in charge of the campaign immediately take down the billboards.

A more recent incident was the Takamol – NGO – billboards bearing the statement “One democratic homeland for two nations”. On the day they were installed, the billboards were spray-painted with phrases such as “Israeli Collaborators” and “One state for the Palestinian nation”. The next day the billboard next to Birzeit University was burned down.

Shuruq: The examples you mention cite a reaction to the content of the billboards. In the past year, there have been instances where people found the content of billboards problematic, without provoking a public reaction. The two most noticeable examples of this phenomenon were the un-authored visual billboards depicting notable Hamas leader Al-Qardawi shaking the hand of a Jewish minister, and the un-authored, text based billboard claiming that a Zionist businessman owns Al-Jazeerah. On its own behalf, Al-Jazeerah contested the latter, demanding that Sky design company disclose the identity of the author. Their request was denied but the billboards remained intact. Most people simply saw this incident as one of the many battles between Al Jazeerah and the Palestinian Authority. Silence also speaks volumes about what can and cannot be articulated publicly. To me it is not clear where the jurisdiction of the municipality begins or ends, nor how this may relate to power relations both politically and economically invested within the billboard industry.

This brings me to Al-Riyadh, a collaboration between you and Emily Jacir, which took the form of a billboard emulating construction site ads. You wanted to place these billboards in Al-Manara. The confusion about the placement Al-Riyadh billboards may in part be due to the lack of clearly articulated rules and jurisdictions. But I would like to discuss the content of the billboards themselves as they can be read as a critique of the current urbanization and development of the city.

Yazid: For Al- Riyadh, Emily and I wanted to accentuate already lived predicaments of the ongoing urbanization and economization of Palestinian cities, especially as magnified in Ramallah. The billboards propose two fictional projects to the public. On the one hand, you had Al-Riyadh Tower; a modern Dubai-style tower promoting a clean business environment and spaces for foreign trade exchange, which would replace the old vegetable market in al Biereh.

Al-Riyadh Villas, on the other hand, proposed an Israeli settlement-style gated community that threatens to wipe out the architectural heritage of the historic centre of Ramallah. The gated community depicted, complete with walled borders, surveillance cameras and private security personnel emulates the proliferation of housing projects around Ramallah. Such projects both segregate Palestinian society by restricting these housing provisions to rich and upper middle class Palestinians, while copying colonial style architecture without exploring solutions and modifications that could preserve Palestinian social and cultural values.

I want to stress that we see urbanization as an important component of state building. Our aim, here, was to draw attention to already existing concerns, and vocalize the need for the regulation of economic and political policies around urban planning, with the hope of helping to produce a city structure unique to Ramallah and Palestine.

Al-Riyadh Billboards. Courtesy of Emily Jacir and Yazid Anani, 2010

Shuruq: The Ramallah Syndrome deals with the psychological and social impact of Ramallah; a city that is still under occupation yet both enjoys a strange sense of normalcy and a growing metropolitan status. The intervention took the form of a series of questions such as “Is Ramallah the capital?”, “Is Ramallah Dubai?”, “Are you a Ramallawi?”, which were then hung in different cafés and bars across Ramallah. Given the nature of the questions and their location, is it wrong to assume that the Ramallah Syndrome intervention was targeting a specific class of people in Ramallah?

Yazid: For this edition of the project, the group wanted the questions and discussions of Ramallah Syndrome to circulate within the public domain. Coffee shops and restaurants presented an interesting alternative for public discussions, as they are places where groups of people sit and discuss while eating, drinking or smoking.

We produced 30 canvases with 15 questions in both Arabic and English. These were then hung in several coffee shops and restaurants around the city. Generally, restaurant and coffee shop owners tend to keep their vicinities politically neutral. So it is actually unique that in Ramallah, we could display artworks raising critical political and social questions in commercial spaces. This would not be possible in cities like Rome or New York.

It was much easier to deal with popular restaurants and coffee shops. The shop owners would even acquaint us to neighboring shops to hang our questions. They were more involved in debatably answering the questions through their personal experiences, rather than changing the questions to provoke milder answers that they’d feel more comfortable with.

Shuruq: For this exhibition, Inas Yassin projected the soundtrack of Abi Fawk Al-Shajara film on to the street from what used to be Cinema al-Walid, a space that is now being remodelled as a private business building. Deemed socially or morally inappropriate, some of the film posters were removed by people on the streets. Do you interpret this as a sign of the effectiveness of the art intervention?

Yazid: With the two examples of the billboards I mentioned earlier (the Strauss icecream and the Takamol political billboard) there was an immediate public reaction to the visual and semantic content of the billboard; burning it, altering its content or taking it down in one way or another. In the case of Strauss ice cream, a very important benchmark was been set regarding intolerance to the advertisement of Israeli products, while the Takamol billboard showed the dominant ideology in the political environment.

In my opinion, the removal or altering of a billboard intervention is of great importance to the success of the motives driving their installation. The billboard or poster becomes a means of social investigation rather than an end product. Therefore, I found what happened to Inas’s film posters very appealing. It enabled us to draw a comparison between the public values and tolerance at different eras. The same film poster was hung all over the city in the 1970’s, when the film was first released in Ramallah. The removal of the same poster in 2010 was a protest against its content, namely public intolerance towards the depiction of iconic Egyptian singer Abd-El-Halim Hafeth almost about to kiss Nadia Lutfi.

Most interestingly, it was those who had seen the poster and film in -70’s who most objected to it. The film poster has become a ‘mirror’; a means of seeing society and reflecting on its ethics, values and autonomy.

Projection-Abi Fawk El Shajara- film posters. Courtesy of Inass Yassin, 2010

Shuruq: Is it enough to stage the intervention if there is no space to discuss the reaction to it?

Yazid: It is very important to register the impact of public interventions on the public. We have informally managed to do that for both Ramallah Syndrome and Projection. However we have not yet been able to do so with Al-Riyadh, due to the complications of its installation.

I think Ramallah Syndrome has succeeded in provoking discussions among people. In several locations such as Andareen Bar, Snowbar and Beit Aneeseh Bar, people wrote back on the canvases expressing some of their thoughts. There were also a few responses on websites such Real Times in Palestine.

Overall, the process of making and installing the artworks uncovered issues around the administration of public space and power relations involved in it. We noticed varying degrees of acceptance and resistance to the projects among different social classes. Mostly, we enjoyed listening directly to peoples’ reactions to the imagery, semantics and values presented in the works. And finally we have learnt more about the transition of the city and its political, social, spatial and economic realms.

Shuruq: Thank you Yazid for this thought-provoking discussion. There were several interesting ideas and issues raised that I hope will be picked up as the Trail continues.

Published September 7, 2010.

Ramallah-the fairest of them all? was co-curated by Yazid Anani and Vera Tamari, exhibited at the Ethnographic and Art Museum at Birzeit University in partnership with Ramallah Municipality and Wein a Ramallah Festival.