It is Autumn 2013 and Omer Fast’s ‘5,000 Feet is Best’ is showing at the Imperial War Museum in London.

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I watch a preview clip* on a website before going to see it. The view seems to be that of a boy cycling across a desert track. It reminds me of my childhood- cycling across desert tracks and then an adult voice is heard saying ‘5,000 feet is best….you have more description…at 5,000 feet I can tell what type of shoes you’re wearing…’ Its quite beautiful I think to myself. That sentence is also said by one of the drone pilots interviewed in Fast’s thirty minutes looped video. That sentence ‘It’s Quite Beautiful’ makes me realise that Fast is playing games with us…

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‘5,000 Feet is Best’ recounts what it is like to be a drone pilot. Fast wants us to think he has used interviews with pilots. In some cases the interviews seem staged, like the one in the dark hotel room, who tells his interviewer as he shifts in his seat in front of the camera, answering the question ‘what would you like to talk about?’ with ‘you’re paying’ implying that he will answer specific questions. But at another point the same drone pilot, who seems to suffer from PTSD also says to his interviewer; ‘you’re not a real journalist’, leaving us wondering what is going on- is this an interview or not? We, the viewers become disorientated in other places in the film, when narratives shift and the plot thickens as the drone pilot interviewed in the hotel room, becomes a masterful story teller, throwing us between a hotel room in Las Vegas preparing for a scam to a train drivers sob story of obsession and intimidation, to the suburban family’s holiday gone wrong (which can be viewed here). But all the stories are about the power and horror of visual perceptions and the drone pilot’s perspective keeps re-surfacing and coming to the fore- even when we think we are watching something else entirely.

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There are also ‘talking heads’  type interviews with the ubiquitous blurred out faces of the pilot speaking to the camera. Its as if Fast is saying: if you don’t believe the dramatized version…here is the ‘documentary’. The fact that the ‘documentary’ is all blurred is yet another way for Fast to play with us, his audience. Some of the speakers pass on technical information- much of it about modes and capabilities of vision. Others recount the hardships of daily life behind the console or work station, such as the need to ‘separate work life and home’ or ‘its not like playing a video game – you cannot switch off’ and ‘you cannot call the stress virtual’. 

The film is best described as a clever and striking study of film as media, especially in times of war. It is a masterful and kalaidscopic collage of truth and fiction, artistry, horror and beauty. And what I found most striking is the way Fast plays clever games with us the audience; we think we are watching a drone pilot in hotel room and then find ourselves  see something horrific and then realise it’s quite ‘beautiful’- which leaves one feeling very uncomfortable to say the least.

P.S. While writing this I realise ‘5,000 Feet is Best ‘ has an interesting relationship waiting to be explored with ‘Letter to a Refusing Pilot‘ which I wrote about in my last post but I will write about that another, maybe next, time…

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* The link is for the Guardian review- its the only place I find it as it has been a while and the IMW in London is undergoing renovations, which seem to include their online archives too. You need to skip the ad (or not- as it is suitably playful in a macabre sort of way)

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I visit ‘Letter to a Refusing Pilot’, by Akram Zaatri at the Lebanon Pavillion in Venice and I am moved to tears as it stirs up memories and recalls the light and blight of the middle eastern landscape, where we grew up.

As one enters a darkened space, a lone old fashioned theatre seat is dimly lit from above, facing a screen with a 16mm film depicting bombings on hilltops.  Behind the theatre seat is another screen, which faces the viewer as she approaches the space. Here an HD film is screened, where images alternate and a narrative is masterfully constructed. The viewer is being pulled into the space and must choose which screen to watch. When I visit – I catch possibly a rare instance, whereby a man chooses to sit at the lit old fashioned seat and view the 16mm ‘bombings’ film. His son standing beside him (slightly embarrassed, as children are, by his father’s audacity) and facing the other screen, chooses to watch images which include boys running, school bell ringing and paper planes flying. I stay on and watch both of the films for a long while. I become fascinated with the way people respond and move around. No one else sits down on the lit seat and I realise that the way the additional stools are anchored to the floor – just behind that seat – means that choice is a a crucial player here.

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Much has already been written on the narrative content of ‘Letter to a Refusing Pilot’. Its focus is a story I think I remember from the days of the first Lebanon War- whereby an Israeli pilot had refused to bomb a building, which being an architect he recognised could only be a school or a hospital. I am not sure now, with hindsight, if it was just a rumour but I do know I was not aware at the time these events unfolded that the pilot was an architect. I do know that he will have been one of very few others, who refused at the time and raised their objections, becoming our heroes.

Across the border that my country has consistently violated, I, Like Zaatri, had at that time started my life as an artist. I idealised the arts, sharing his belief that ‘cinema, like the arts, was outside geography and outside citizenship’. It was probably that same  war, which brought to the fore for me, issues of nationalism, duty and free will, which continue to trouble. This is probably one of the many reasons why I found ‘Letter to a Refusing Pilot’ so pertinent and striking. The story is also extremely timely as whistleblowers pay dearly for exposing the truth and the world led by the US and UK,  prepares for yet another air strike. As Zaatri  (quoted in the NY Times) says “This comes at a really important time…It’s the story that perfectly represents a conflict between an individual’s ethics and the orders that he’s getting.”

The narrative on the HD film weaves together fact and fiction, art and architecture, sounds and textures along with paper planes and real ones, construction and destruction. Zaatri’s previous preoccupations with archiving and memory are played out and brought vividly to the present, in crisp and poetic imagery. Opposite it – the images of bombs being dropped over Lebanon play over and over are as compelling as they are repelling.

However, what I found particularly striking with ‘Letter to a Refusing Pilot’ (and is as yet uncommented on by reviewers)  is less to do with the narrative itself – albeit beautifully constructed – and more to do with the way it is installed, within the space of the Lebanese pavilion, eliciting a choice by the viewer as to which film to watch- the 16mm one- of Israeli bombings of Lebanon in 1982, or the narrative constructed in HD opposite it. Of course many people do watch both- but as far as I can see – and I linger for a long while – never at the same time. One’s eye and soul can only engage with one side of the space at any given time. We are made to choose between the archived past on one side or the story of growing up within the sound and the fury of war.  We are made aware that both co exist within the same space but time plays its role too as we have to move around the space to capture as many of the visuals, as we can. Maybe ‘Letter to a Refusing Pilot’ is probing us, offering a subtle and powerful reminder that we have choice, whether we engage with art or with war? ‘Letter to a Refusing Pilot’ makes us realise that war and art do not exclude each other – quite the opposite – as they clearly co-exist in the same space and they echo and reflect on each other. Crucially, it reminds us that we have ‘choice’ – like the refusing pilot. Whether or not we exercise that choice is up to us….

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In the Autumn of 2011 as part of my Seven Walks in a Holy City project, in the neighbourhood of Musrara, I came across an artwork by Gavri Guy, called ‘Landmine’. I took a photo and was told that it is an interactive artwork. Buried around the sign in the ground are sensors that when stepped on, will trigger an online search for the word Land. I find the work striking for many reasons. It offers a powerful reminder (if one is needed) that the conflict started over land and the opposing sides claims over it. The title playfully recalls children squabbling over a toy or a sweets (the familiar ‘Mine! no its mine!), simultaneously reminding us of the potentially bloody consequences. More importantly, as a site specific work it is a reminder that temporality is an equally powerful player in the conflict. As there are fewer and fewer people who walk these streets and still remember the area as one, which in the years preceding 1948 had been shared, the less likely it is that it will be shared again, in an egalitarian way.

In stark contrast to the evocation of children squabbling over a coveted object- be it land or a toy- I watch with horror the childish smirking faces of the Israeli soldiers as they bombard civilian protesters marching in protest against the wall in Billin, with tear gas that can maim and kill (and has done on many occasions before). I cannot help but think that despite being allowed to use deadly ‘toys’ (for they do treat their  launchers as toys) they cannot be allowed to see the ‘bigger picture’- their vision blinkered by nationalist and colonialist rhetoric that in most cases they do not know of, let alone question.

I often wonder about the lack of vision of the bigger picture…. – the bigger picture is even bleaker that the ones we see on the specific youtube clip, and many of the others for that matter – it is described by Sari Hannafi as ‘Spacioside’, which is :

‘… ‘not urbicide. It is more holistic, incorporating ‘sociocide’ (targeting Palestinian society as a whole), ‘economocide’ (hindering the movement of people and goods) and ‘politicide’ (destroying Palestinian National Authority (PNA) institutions, and other physical embodiments of national aspirations) … The Israeli agenda … has been to induce what one Israeli minister called ‘voluntary transfer,’ i.e. to get rid of the Palestinian population by transforming the Palestinian topos into atopia, by turning territory into mere land.”  

This is the bigger picture – it does not offer much hope but requires our attention to the way things play out over time in a territory where land-mines, though no longer of the physical kind, abound…

An image of children crouching by the lego bricks and surrounded by the rubble of what could be their homes in Syria has been circulating in the media. They recall the ones of childhoods in ruins from Gaza several months previously. These images offer a somewhat voyeuristic peek into the intimacy of the reality on the ground for the millions of children caught up in war zones.

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Prof. Derek Gregory talks about war’s ‘Deadly embrace’ in relation to ‘ distance and intimacy ‘  and countering the idea that war is something that happens far away, describes various mechanisms put in place, over the centuries, to bring the war closer to home- to tell people the story. In todays media saturated world we view things in real time, we have access to thousands of images and commentaries.

And as for the soldiers who are in charge of the planes that drop the bombs or the rifles that shoot the bullets that cause the havoc and utter distraction- even they are not necessarily miles away- as often claimed by those who link contemporary warfare to the video games-even for them- as they sit in front of the screens that separate between them and the ‘reality on the ground’ – the ‘zones’ are just there- are several inches away from the screens and the destruction they cause in great detail, is viewable as close up as anyone might wish.

So although wars take place for many of us in the Western world- over the hills and far away- it is nevertheless completely within our sight- lines- if we care to look that way – and caring to look that way – coming closer in turn raises questions on ‘why’ and ‘how come’. And if we think the spectacle of war is repulsive – then the politics behind it are even more so as Hans Haacke pointed out :

‘Lets not be fooled. Behind the spectacle politics continues, as hard nosed and real as ever. And if a policy is built on fiction, its results are nevertheless felt in the world of reality.’

One of my favourite images, that I often show when talking about  ‘art of play in zones of conflict’ is Carsten Holler’s ‘Hard Hard to be a Baby’ Which I photographed on the rooftop of the Museum on the Seam in Jerusalem several years ago. It swings in the air right above ‘seam line’ which slices through the city. The swing literally ‘plays’ and mocks the binaries we grew up on (and the Museum still relates to) of East and West, Religious and Secular, Them and Us.

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I guess I like the swing because it reminds me of my childhood in the city, on which I have written before in Play I Saw Today as well as in Seven Walks in Holy City. The image often provokes questions from viewers, who comment on the danger aspect of the work with its obvious links to the ‘dangerousity’ of the city itself. Danger was part of our childhood, no doubt, more feral and wild than would be allowed today, certainly on the Jewish side. The city we grew up in had horizons that expanded almost literally over night (during the six days war)  -the same horizons now filled with settlements, walls and barriers. And these days the city is dangerous only for Palestinian children, who get arrested daily and whose childhoods are very different to the ones enjoyed by those playing only streets away.

“Most are ripped from their beds in the middle of the night. Others are taken while playing in the street, or leaving school. Many are blindfolded and shackled on their way to interrogation, which lasts for several hours at a time, all without a lawyer or family member present. Many are beaten, verbally abused, and pressured to sign confessions for crimes they didn’t commit…” – Read full report here.

And the expression in the title, which has always intrigued me as a non native english speaker- means – that what you gain on the swings, you will lose on the roundabouts. And what that says about the Israeli state’s constant abuse of children has very little to do with swings but alot to do with roundabouts.

The last few days have seen the beginning of something excitingly new in the Israel Palestine landscape. Bab Al Shams (which means ‘Gate of the Sun’) had burst onto the hills of E1 to protest against the illegal Israeli settlements planned for the lands owned by Palestinians, in the first place. As pointed out by Abir Kopty of the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee, who initiated the action, Bab Al shams is not a ‘version’ of the Israeli outposts – “We are building on our own land unlike the settlers who are occupying and grabbing land that isn’t theirs.’

Social media reported widely on the events and images of hope for a changing of the rules of the game were re-enforced by a moving letter of support from Elias Khoury, the Lebanese author whose novel by same name inspired the activists.

There was even a moment when the New York Times stated that the area was ‘Israeli occupied’ land, only to withdraw the headline, within hours, following the usual preassures. As Ali Abunimah states in his blog post  detailing the turn of events ‘A key goal of Israeli propaganda is to eliminate the term “occupied” from media coverage of Israel’s, well, occupation. Many media have adopted terms like “disputed” that grant false legitimacy to Israeli claims to the land which are totally null and void in international law.’

As the words count so much and the propaganda war is ferociously ongoing behind the scenes, it is not surprising that a ‘fair play’ campaign group operates out there whose aim is to ‘bring together those committed to opposing anti-Zionist activity and boycotts that target the people and supporters of Israel.’ The use of the term fair play is shrewd but only to a point – after all- who decides what is fair in play? the players themselves. And as the Israeli state uses more and more power against more and more people, its defenders need to claim ‘fairness’ as theirs and appropriate ‘play’ to belittle the issues at stake.

However, Bab Al Shams and many more actions and campaigns that make their way into public consciousness as theatrical, non violent and worthy of attention are indeed slowly and surely changing the rules of the game, just as they set out to do and you can’t say fairer than that. As Elias Khoury writes in his letter to the activists of Bab Al Shams ‘“I see in your eyes a homeland born again from the rubble of the Nakba that started 64 years ago, and continues to happen, I see the words, I see you growing in my consciousness, I see you flying high reaching out to the sky” – The activists have opened a gate to the sun in the midst of a harsh winter and they are not playing games, after all who wants to play with bullies?

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Today I read an interview with Agamben saying he was ‘having a conversation with Guy (Debord) which I believed to be about political philosophy, until at some point Guy interrupted me and said: ‘Look, I am not a philosopher, I am a strategist.’ Not only do I wish I could have had a conversation with Guy Debord but I also feel like shouting, as I toil over my research; ‘Look, I am not a philosopher (either), I am an artist’.

Having spent the day reading about `Grey Cities’ for a paper I proposed on Art and Geography conference I am reminded of a comment made by my tutor, when I first came over from sunny Jerusalem to grey London as I showed her a sketch for a stage set (I studied theatre design back then) – I think it was for Macbeth (aka the Scottish play- there’s another Grey link). My tutor questioned me about my choice of a grey colour. ‘Its just plain grey!’ I said (somewhat impatiently as I wanted to discuss other aspects of the play.)  She looked at me bewildered and said ‘Surely,  you must have realised by now that in this part of the world we have many many shades of grey’.

Many years later I design games and playful interactions instead of stage sets. In Hegemonopoly (2008) the winners and losers are determined by the colour of their pawn as I turn the traditional game of capitalist strategy (with luck and chance thrown in) into a dismal participatory experience for the gallery visitors. The game depicts the political landscape of Israel Palestine, complete with checkpoints and settlements where  the colour of one’s ID determines the freedom or lack of, to move freely.

Many of the works I make and others’ that I discuss as part of my research seem to use the colours and shades to lure viewers in, to engage and take part, they are a strategy…

DSC_0061 Above : Hegemonopoly – A board game for gallery participation

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Above: A spice shop in Jerusalem’s old city. The Harem Al Sharif at the peak of spice mountain- clearly designed for maximum effect to lure customers (and it works!)