Students Respond: Michael Rakowitz
in conversation with Anneka Lenssen, Associate Professor of History of Art, and graduate students Alejandro Múnera, Tausif Noor, and Anna Riley
By: Olivia Bischofberger, Rahul Keyal, Hannah Klakeg, Sajdah Nasir and Olivia Pole, November 3, 2020
This semester, our director Julia Bryan-Wilson is teaching a class intertwined with our Visual Activism series, also called “Visual Activism.” Instead of generating our own account of Michael Rakowitz’s recent ARC talk, we’ve decided to feature five unique responses from students in the course.
As Michael Rakowitz began his talk, I was not sure what to expect as I have never seen his work before. Differing from the Alfredo Jaar and Favianna Rodriguez interviews, I noticed that Rakowitz appeared to be reading from a script. For me, his utilization of a script made his presentation all the more poetic with his inclusion of beautiful alliterations and abrupt, evocative sentences to describe his journey as an Iraqi-American Jew. In what he likes to call “the haunting”, Rakowitz’ canon consists of his attempts in trying to articulate the “ghosts” surrounding his multifarious identity and history. The constant internal tension Rakowitz lives with really resonated with mine and my family’s identities as Swiss-American Jews. I was reminded of a story my grandma once told me about her first visit to my Swiss relatives. As a Jewish woman whose grandparents fled persecution in Ukraine, my grandma felt very vulnerable, even scared when she landed in Bern, Switzerland. All the signage, trains, loud speakers, and people spewed high German, which to my grandma’s ears was the language of Nazi’s. Though the times had drastically changed, and my grandma knew that Nazi’s were not upon her, this ghost, this haunting was enough to spook my grandma pretty well. I cannot even imagine Rakowitz’ internal struggle as the two halves of his persona are actively so disparate in the modern moment. Luckily, he is able to wrestle with this personal turmoil through his artistic practice.
Even though I previously raved about how much I appreciated his use of that eloquently written script he prepared, I think my favorite part of the talk was the freeform Q&A at the end. I especially appreciated how he answered one of the PhD student’s questions. All questions were very thought provoking, but this specific question pondered what he could have gained or lost once he decided to transform his Leonard Cohen film into so many different forms of media. Considering we just had a midterm question almost identical to this query, his answer was very satisfying. He addressed how transforming the film into a book, replacing the audio of the film, muting the concert etc., really allowed the audience to pay more attention to some of the more covert elements of the piece. More than they would have if the project would have been released as originally planned, as a film. One reason Rakowitz pinpointed why some of these more “invisible” elements of the project would have been glossed over in the film portrayal, is due to the desynchronized audio of the latter renditions. This focusing and defocusing method that desynchronized audio applies to a piece got me very excited in thinking about our final project. I have never made a film or music before, but perhaps I’ll try thanks to these new techniques I learned from Michael Rakowitz’ talk!
It was a great pleasure to listen to Michael Rakowitz’ talk, hear about his wide-ranging influences, artistic endeavors in a wide range of media, and see how these efforts continue to grow and evolve, such as through the verbal accompaniment provided by the Berkeley faculty who co-hosted the talk.
I was most fascinated by the way Rakowitz charted the journey that inspired his The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist project – the way a simple can of date syrup could be the seed for such an expansive and ambitious project to me was inspiring, even more so in the ways that said can informed the aesthetic of the project. Rakowitz’ description of a “veiled provenance,” which he assigned to the date syrup that was processed in Iraq, canned in Syria, and labeled and shipped from Lebanon, seems to resonate throughout, and is ultimately unveiled by, his work. I think especially of the lamassu that was taken by the British, destroyed by ISIS, and was then “reappeared” (to use Rakowitz’ vocabulary) in Trafalgar Square through Rakowitz’ rendering created with the very cans that served as the inspiration for the work.
The other aspect of Rakowitz’ work that I was very interested in was the way he thought about and conceived of different media, both existing and newly created by him. From the incorporation of video, narration, world events, and mixed media such as action figures into The Ballad of Special Ops Cody, to song, narration, video art, and more in his series on Leonard Cohen. Especially in the latter work, the way that medium evolved and changed for the artwork, both due to the artist’s changing perspective and also external constraints, made the series feel like a living, breathing project (much like Invisible Enemy) rather than a static, complete one.
Memory, culture, and a shared history. Rakowitz conjured all of this through an intimate conversation of his work’s life as being a mechanism for the reincarnation of its heralding culture’s trauma and dignity. He described a reincarnation of the object’s spirit, an aura in the most Walter Benjamin sense, to operate within liminal spaces that insist on a life beyond their inherent form. I get this feeling that his work cannot, and does not want to be, simply one thing. They do not overtly subscribe to one notion of justice over another, but instead play with juxtapositions of time, material, and a thematic sense of belonging or, more simply, finding what it means to be ‘home.’ The Lamassu uses found materials, materials of Iraqi culture, that make political and social statements to reincarnate its ancient stone form through this new context of politicization with Iraqi food packaging and Arab American newspapers. As it stands on a pedestal looking towards British Parliament and simultaneously towards its home in Nineveh, the Lamassu evokes a literal memory of the past’s abuses, while at the same time garnering a future pretense of hope in returning home; quite literally looking in the same direction but simultaneously beyond the borders of time. It is in this moment of positionality between its composition of form and its spatial direction that the Lamassu addresses the lives lost in war while confronting their oppressor. It lives in this position of floating between two worlds that shaped a shared Iraqi story, a shared Iraqi memory. Each of his works evoke this sense of memory in the material and social culture of their composition, but what that memory prescribes to the viewer is an attention towards why that memory is returning. In the video, “Ballad of Special Ops Cody” encountering votive statues, Cody is this outside viewer, a contemporary votive figure of war. As Cody discovers these ancient statues for the first time, his dialogue begs at these questions of purpose in the museum – their ultimate purpose in the world. It begins slowly with his intimation of curiosity, but quickly rambles into sentences that seemingly have no periods, sentences that he is beginning to understand are his new reality as well. “We were all created, sold, and stolen, stolen then sold to a destination unknown that’s not our home. We shouldn’t be here, we have stories to tell to our family and friends in our own native tongue. We have stories to tell. What’s your story? I just keep talking, I guess to myself… Why are you here?.. Don’t yall wanna go home, be free?” As we watch Cody lose himself to these perpetual circles of rationalization, he too is shut in with these ancient figures. He too has lost his home and freedom. Rakowitz seems to posit the viewer as one to question the return of this overt memory to the object itself. As with the Lamassu, and now with Special Ops Cody, these works live between spaces in time. Times that seem to be of the ancient vs modern and abuse vs freedom of the object as representative for the larger culture it emerges from. In doing so, positioning the viewer as the one to question, Rakowitz is simultaneously posing a proposition to the viewer. One that encourages a pushing away from this liminal state between two worlds, into the beginnings of awareness of the concrete reality for which Rakowitz’s works respond to and reveal the reality of culture, loyalty, and belonging. To me, this is where Rakowit’s intentions come to fruition in his work. It poses these cyclical questionings of a collective memory and purpose at the viewer, but never wants an answer. The final moments of Rakowitz’s thoughts were dedicated to the repatriation of artworks from museums. In this he describes how “Restorative practices have to engage more than just simply returning the object, there has to be something that restores the dignity of the people who have been parted from their cultural heritage.” It is in this moment that I realized his work was about reincarnating the dignity that arrives when there aren’t concrete answers. The dignity arrives in intangible qualities that cannot be quantified, but only continually searched for, contended with, addressed, and readdressed; Rakowitz’s works live within a liminal state, transcending time, borders, and space to insist on cyclical fashions of reframing, and reincarnating, cultural dignity.
Throughout this talk Michael Rakowitz narrated a series of images, connecting them to his familial history of Arab-jews in Iraq, his resonance with dates as both a cultural symbol and a consumer item, his experience of Leonard Cohen through his wife, and his overall critique of processes of loss and violent erasure of the people in his country of Iraq as well as Palestine. Rakowitz sequenced through photos documenting his various creations of visual activism that included imported consumer products, performance pieces, still life animation, and sculpture. His narrative style of explanation strung these seemingly dispersed mediums together, banding them under his artistic prowess. He reclaims the history of economic, human and ecological disasters that accompany war, and in each of his pieces aims to critique the whitewashing that results. I enjoyed the way he pushed the conventions of artists’ presentations further. He often dramatized and placed more thematic weight on the photos included through both his expressive voice overs and the repetition of images in consecutive slides, that zoomed further and further into the images. Throughout his presentation, including his video installations, image, sound, stillness/movement, and zooming in/out exclaimed his assertions. I also enjoyed the elements of collaboration with people in the Comparative Conceptualisms class. I felt the way that they partook in the voicing over, paired with questions for him, stretched the often dry powerpoint then q+a format into a much more interesting stratosphere.
In his lecture at the Arts Research Center regarding the inner and outer workings of the art world from his perspective as an Iraqi-American professor and creator, Michael Rakowitz’ underlying themes of cultural return allow for amazing reflection upon how to resist colonialist methods which violently deem one’s ethnic identities as erased into the past. While he seeks to remind people inside and outside of museum spaces how easily Capitalism’s establishment of nations makes one forget about marginalized peoples, this reminder in turn reappears the community’s cultural aura as still persisting within many relational scales of today.
Perhaps the work that most illuminated this theme for me was the Return project, in which the establishment of an aesthetically specific shop creates conditions necessary for the return of 40-years-lost Iraqi dates, a life sustaining commodity that was inextricably linked to preserving the culture of Arab Jews in Iraq. As one ton of dates traveled across borders and finally into his hands, Rakowitz supersedes the suppression of cultural autonomy that free trade creates — his resistance of involving convenient, monopolized dates in his sphere of trade and relations brings art practice into the larger entanglement of business. Whereas Western business often strips art practice away from producers for maximum profit, the addition of specific Iraqi box design and hard boundaries on trade relations for art resists this inherent erasure and actively shows that culture is a powerful weapon of resistance against violence.
Rakowitz continued to emphasize the theme of return and resistance throughout his lecture. Notably, his Lamassu which points to the English Parliament makes a grander statement of the cultural violence enacted by modern Capitalism, as the remnants of Iraqi loss in small art spaces are formed together to confront the totality of cultural loss produced on a systemic scale. “The fate of art” in the midst of conflict reveals the personal sadness resulting from small losses of goods like dates, and yet these relational experiences ripple out to provide an object lesson about a larger liberation of peoples. To grapple with the question of self and group identification amidst both persecution and joy, returning to the handmade and the institutional presents a fuller art history of tension between erasure and exposure.
This lecture was live streamed and recorded, and is available for viewing anytime here.