Drawing Palestinians and Israelis Together, With the Stroke of a Video Paintbrush

Blake Shaw's 'video painting' project in Israel-Palestine uses cutting-edge technology to build bridges.

Late on a recent Thursday evening in Tel Aviv, passersby strolling along the Mediterranean boardwalk gathered in awe as a man with a paint roller seemed to paint, stroke by careful stroke, a video of a young, blinking Palestinian girl onto a wall.

"How does it work?" asked one teenager gawking nearby.

The girl scanned the area for clues. There was a laptop nearby, and a generator humming loudly alongside it. The Palestinian girl in the image blinked her eyes again, and then magically disappeared to expose a blank wall with no markings.

The medium the passerby had just seen was video painting and the message is a renegade new media art form that puts a modern twist on old-fashioned street art. Using an electronic LED paint roller, artists can "paint" video images onto flat surfaces, leaving behind no permanent impressions.

Leading the LED way in this field is Blake Shaw, a Berlin-based new media artist who came to Israel-Palestine hoping to empower Palestinians and create real-time collaborations across borders. His project, which is called "The Bridge," is an interactive multimedia platform that seeks to create – you guessed it, a bridge – across cultural and physical divides.

He came to the West Bank and took portraits of Palestinians living in refugee camps, which he then set out to "paint" on walls across Israel. Symbolically, he says, his videos put a Palestinian presence in the Jewish state.

“The goal is to empower communities that are disabled of movement, which is a basic human right,” Shaw says.

Shaw started experimenting with new mediums while in art school in the U.S. with the goal of pushing public art into new and unforeseen arenas.

Video painting is one example of urban media that is incorporated into “The Bridge” platform, which will use ‘Nomad.OS’ - a live-streaming software Shaw is currently developing.

Painting without a frame

Shaw may live in Berlin these days, but the fluidity and lack of permanence found in video painting has pushed him to create socially conscious guerilla art installations all over the world. Major monuments that have been touched by his paint-free brush include the Berlin Wall and the ancient walls of Jerusalem's Old City.

In the Old City, Blake and his accomplice Jay Haze did a video painting of Palestinians on the Zion Gate, provoking the ire of a man who identified himself as a settler. In Tel Aviv, however, the response was more enthusiastic.

Shaw chose the Etzel Museum, which commemorates fallen soldiers of the pre-state Irgun militia, as his canvas to symbolically transport Palestinian faces back into the architectural structure of Tel Aviv. Shaw and Haze set up their equipment at 1 A.M., as urban traffic buzzed by on one side and the peaceful Mediterranean waves crashed on the other. The Shalom Tower loomed in the background. Viewers gathered in awe and a few cars honked with appreciation.

A video passport

"The Bridge," Shaw says, can circumvent the borders of communities that are otherwise restricted.

“Palestinians, who as a nation are not internationally recognized, can write messages and post videos and even collaborate with others throughout the world with images in real time,” he says, explaining that the art allows participants in Ramallah, Tel Aviv and Berlin, to collectively tag government buildings simultaneously, using large scale video projections. In one giant, global act of video-fueled creativity, artists in Mexico and Texas, for example, could remix the feed over a live-stream and in Washington D.C. it could be displayed on a wall. The possibilities, he says, are practically endless.

On tap for future installations, Shaw says, are cross-border collaborations between Kosovo and Serbia and between Mexicans and Americans. Shaw also plans on visiting and perhaps video painting in Sri Lanka, Kashmir, and Kurdish territories. But despite his focus on the fault lines of some of the world's most fraught spots, Shaw is adamant that the project is both political and cultural.

After spending time in the West Bank, specifically Balata, Jalazone and Am’ari refugee camps, Shaw became cautious about the implications of his goals. “I don’t want to show Palestinians shaking hands with Israelis and paint an image of false solidarity. The goal is to get people communicating across borders without the rhetoric of a specific or written language, getting people to interact on a purely creative level.”

After his time in the Middle East was up, Shaw rushed back to Berlin for a conference at the Goethe Institute entitled "Reclaiming Public Space," which focused on social media technology and its influence on the Arab Spring. The footage he gathered in West Bank refugee camps were painted on the walls of the institute, allowing Palestinians to be present in another part of the world, piercing the firewall of borders, and more generally, connecting people and cities.

“If you look at art history, every new movement comes from the advent of new technology,” Shaw said when explaining what inspires him as a new media artist. Perhaps the same can be said for political, maybe even peace movements, as well?

Blake Shaw
Blake Shaw