Dialogue of the Deaf

When Galit Eilat says, "If art can't change society, it can at least take an active role in it," she is not mouthing a cliche. Ever since founding the Israeli Center for Digital Art in Holon nine years ago she has worked hard to make this idea a reality. But in the wake of Israel's military operation in the Gaza Strip last year, Eilat explains, she can no longer bear the responsibility that stems from being an Israeli citizen and has decided to work abroad. She will continue as director and head curator of the center through the end of the year but has already begun a new job, as curator/researcher at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. Eilat divides her time between Israel and the Netherlands, and from May she will be based primarily in Holland.

Eilat began her romance with curating 16 years ago, as she neared the end of her studies at Tel Aviv's Kalisher Art College. For their final project she and fellow-student Max Friedman created an installation, "Curatorial Discourse." They invited five mainstream and anti-establishment curators to sit down together to discuss the burning issues of the day. A camera was placed behind each participant, and the meeting was recorded. The installation included the table around which the curators sat, video monitors that showed the proceedings from various angles and earphones through which visitors could listen to excerpts of the discussion.

The work was not received positively by critics. "There is no real interest here in the conversation of artist-curators. Instead, the cynical position is taken that such a discussion is trivial," curator Tali Tamir wrote in Haaretz. The newspaper's art critic, Smadar Sheffi, said that Friedman and Eilat had pulled a public relations stunt, and that the two "exhibit a kind of sobriety, a belief in power structures and in public relations."

Nevertheless, one can see in this installation the seeds of Eilat's more radical efforts to define the nature of dialogue. In retrospect it can be said that it was the beginning of her path as a curator who for the past decade has led one of the liveliest and most radical cultural institutions in these parts. Now, as then, the relationships between artist and curator, curator and exhibition space, art and society, plays a major role in her work.

Eilat, 44, founded the center - also called the Digital Art Lab - in 2001, after city manager Hana Hertzman approached her about opening a home for art in Holon. Eilat was in Holland at the time, in between her master's and doctoral degrees. "I wasn't thinking about returning to Israel, but I told myself I had to write a proposal," Eilat recalled.

When her proposal was accepted, she decided to return. The center was supported by the municipality from the very beginning. It was given space in a building in the city's industrial zone that already housed an interdisciplinary center with workshops and community activities. In the first two years, operating in a basement bomb shelter, there were 20 exhibitions. They were curated not only by Eilat but also by Eyal Danon, who was hired after the first year, and by guest curators who included Michael Gdaliovitch and Idit Porat. When the interdisciplinary center moved out, the Digital Art Lab expanded.

Eilat says she always knew what she wanted to do with the center. "I came from media studies and criticism, and the first thing that came to mind was that Israel was an exporter of 'national security' and of visual technologies. My idea was to start a critical conversation about these technologies with local artists."

LP records and the intifada

The first exhibition she curated at the center was Gebhard Sengmuller's "Vinyl Video," which introduced the ability to store videos - moving images and sound - on vinyl records in order to create 'mixes,' like a music deejay, in real time. It was not a coincidence that the artist was from abroad. "A decade ago there weren't many Israeli artists working in multimedia; the field was in its earliest stages, even more so multimedia art criticism," Eilat said.

Eilat cultivated ties with foreign artists and cultural centers, with a particular emphasis on the region - including the Palestinian territories, Turkey, Greece, Syria, Egypt and the Balkans. She noted that the second intifada, which began in September 200, helped to shape the center's role. In light of the high price that it exacted, Eilat explained, it "was a subject I could not ignore."

Eilat believes that educational activity is a vital link between art and society. "One of the things I understood in my talks with the municipality was that we would work with a community, not just an audience. Moreover, we would work with groups that have their own defined characters, and not with large groups of people, but on an individual level, in a profound, extended process."

One of the center's largest projects - one of the biggest ever funded by the Holon municipality - will take place this year in the city's disadvantaged Jessie Cohen neighborhood. Artists will be invited to work in the neighborhood, in addition to activities funded by the center. "It is a project that goes forward step by step, over a long period, and that will not culminate in a biennale or other spectacle," Eilat said by way of explaining the special character of the project.

This project joins others, such as Liminal Spaces, initiated by Israeli and Palestinian artists who are against the occupation and its negative effects on the Palestinian population. A 2006 conference near the Qalandiyah checkpoint, outside of Jerusalem, generated the creation of more than 20 works of art that were later exhibited in Leipzig, Germany.

In addition, Eilat and Gdaliovitch began a magazine, Ma'arav ("ambush"). For the past two years the center has operated an Internet radio station, Hallas ("enough" in Arabic), as well as various artist-in-residence programs. The center also boast a large video art archive and library, with 1,750 works from Israel and abroad.

What do you say to criticism that the center focuses mainly on the international scene, not the local one?

"I don't make these distinctions," Eilat responded, "and I don't want to view art from a national perspective. The attempt to understand place through nationalism is wrong from the start. To create an exhibition solely of what is called 'Israeli art' would, I think, do damage to the artists too. They are artists in their own right; they don't represent Israel. Do I want to see artists as ambassadors of Israel? Am I willing to accept a dictate that forbids me from associating with artists from enemy countries?"

Blind solidarity

Three months ago the center, in cooperation with the municipality, held an exhibition of posters. The right-wing Im Tirtzu movement demanded that the interior minister remove posters that is said portrayed the Israel Defense Forces as "cruel and unethical" and that those responsible for the exhibition be fired. Eilat immediately came under fire even though she neither influenced the content of the exhibit nor selected posters to appear in it. The matter led to heated deliberations in the Knesset, but no action was taken.

Eilat, for her part, was pleased: "I'm glad that art has influence. Until now these people [who protested] had not attributed any importance to art; the minute it reaches a public hearing, this means that art is powerful."

Did the incident influence your decision to work abroad?

"The decision was made slowly, over a period of two years, and the main catalyst was the military attack on Gaza. It stems from a very strong feeling that this society is undergoing a very large change. I'm not sure that this is the society I want to work from or in. Politicians' statements reach the street and undergo a kind of transformation. The journey from violent statements to violent actions is a short one. There is near-blind solidarity with the state's justness, and a dramatic lack of compassion for the other. There was a break, and I said to myself that I don't want to be here."

What about the responsibility of cultural figures and artists?

"I think that art reflects society. I don't think that society's and artists' disregard [for the situation] is going to last much longer; it can't go on. Israeli society tends to put responsibility on others rather than accepting it. I think that the place of responsibility is an active one. In the Knesset there was talk of we and them. What we, what them? We and the left, we and the Palestinians? This distinction is always being made. Who we are and who they are, and how many of us and them there are, confuses me a little. After all, everyone is them. No one is taking responsibility for what happens here internally, what we as a society generate. We have to look at who we are, what kind of a society we are, how we live and how the people around us live."

Isn't it important to stay and exert influence? "I think that I did that for nine, nearly 10, years."