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Matters of Conflict | Y. Stern

This essay comes as materialist intervention; an attempt to sensitize readers to some of the environmental, social and psychic economies in which conflicted matter circulates in Israel/Palestine. As part of a larger project of estranging the terms through which this ongoing political conflict is understood, this essay develops two propositions simultaneously. First, it works with body of theory and practice that challenges the assumption that materials and objects are passive. I argue that materials not only act, but act politically. They are, as Jane Bennett would phrase it, vibrant political actors – boldly and assertively involved in struggles of power – with both human and nonhuman actors around them. In particular, I pay attention to the labors of artists who are invested in listening to materials and pulling out their histories: in other words, to artists that ground how material has acted upon them.

Second, in attending to this notion as it manifests in these practices, I argue that the matter of conflict is entangled and interconnected to the complex ecology of the social, so much so that it demands a rewriting of its terms. I work against basic assumptions that attend the conflict—that there are distinct human actors, or distinct political perspectives that divide by nationality—because the matter itself reveals that such notions are primary agents of epistemological and material violence. Instead, I propose that, in respecting the active role of matter within social assemblages, reckoning with the effects and affects of the non-human on the human psyche, we get closer to languages and logics of relationality in the region. I reread the matters of violence in Israel/Palestine through three influential theorists –Felix Guatarri, Jane Bennett, and Karen Barad- that have devoted their literature and thought to promote multifaceted approaches that decenter the human.

In their collaborative work, Felix Guattari and Giles Deleuze develop a critique of psychoanalytic theory as a body of work that has cemented normative family structures in service of insidious capitalism. A crucial text in their post-structuralist perspective is Guattari’s 1989 publication, “The Three Ecologies”, where Guatarri evocatively characterizes the manner in which psychoanalysis has been coopted as “Integrated World Capitalism”; this created standardized and homogenous processes of subjugation, cultivating individuals who become manufactured tools for colonial violence rather than autonomous, critical and diverse beings. Guattari elaborates, as an alternative, a reading method called “schizoanalysis”: the starting point is a dislodged subject that understands its position within a wider assemblage rather than in a static and determined position. A foundational part of schizoanalysis is Guattari’s idea of providing a set of contexts—the “three ecologies” consisting of the mental, social and environmental—which he terms the “ecosophy”. By reconceiving the subject in an assemblage, Guatarri suggests that “The ecosophic problematic is that of the production of human existence itself in new historical contexts” (2008, Guattari, p.34). I am particularly interested in how Guatarri’s ecosophic assemblages can illuminate the way subjectivities are formed and performed under conditions of political percarity. I intend to utilize Guattaris aversion to singularities in favor of interconnection by conjuring these three ecologies: exploring how they amalgamate within, and produce a rhizome of connections between, artistic endeavors by both Israeli and Palestinian artists.

Jane Bennett, a political scientist in her training, merges political theory and materialist analysis in her groundbreaking publication “Vibrant Matter” (2010), where she masterfully exposes the political investment in the passivity of matter, as she highlights the political matter of matter, its force and ability to carry meaning and a life, regardless of a humanist intervention. “My goal is to theorize a materiality that is as much force as entity, as much energy as matter, as much intensity as extensions (2010, Bennett, p.20). Through my own intervention, I relate the ongoing occupation within Israel/Palestine to matters of materiality to highlight Bennett’s assertion that “these impinge on us as much as we impinge on them” (2010, p.115). Using Bennett, I wish to start with the matter of cement, as I demonstrate the manner in which this material, utilized by the Israeli government to erect unlawful borders, has seeped its way through individual and collective psyches, reproducing itself as a natural matter within the landscape.

From there I deconstruct cement from two additional material perspectives; first, a material that comprises it- particles of earth/sand/dust; and second, a material that corrodes and dissolves it- salt water. This move, positioning agents of construction next to agents of breakdown, comes as a direct influence from Karen Barad’s insistence on the interconnection of physics and queer theory in her publication

“Meeting the Universe Halfway” (2007). Barad elaborates a notion of entanglement, presenting the compelling notion of an agential cut, which she defines as “…a local casual structure in the marking of the measuring instrument (effect) by the measured object (cause), where ‘local’ means within the phenomenon. If the apparatus is changed, there is a corresponding change in the agential cut and therefore in the delineation of object from agencies of observation and the casual structure enacted by the cut. Different agential cuts produce different phenomena” (2007, p.175).

Barad argues that any attempt to neatly assert a phenomenon is an attempt to contain it within some desired framework of reason. A cut, therefore, is something enacted on that desired perspective, one that captures a moment in time, where all actors and objects within this specific cut are aligned. Every cut will necessarily encapsulate different moments and actors, cutting into the entanglement by exposing all that is interconnected. Making cuts symbolizes an attempt to denaturalize a unified and objective perspective, and instead to insist that all matters are inherently entangled. Exploring constructed and corrosive actants on cement is not only a way of underlining cement’s performativity in this context, but also a way of highlighting how subjectivity is entangled in matters rather than merely produced by, or producing, them. For this essay, illuminating the entanglement of Guatarri’s mental, social and environmental contexts necessitates making multiple agential cuts to re-envision the vibrancy of matter as it forms and informs subjectivities.

Image 1: Naomi Safran-Hon, Defensive Shield, 2012


The occupation of Palestine by Israel, and the cyclical violence it encourages, relies on mechanical regimes that have seized, uprooted and sieged lives, territories and belongings. The starkest effect of this colonization—brute assertions of power by Israeli authorities on Palestinian corporealities—has had to be cemented and re-cemented. This has occurred through the erection of a pseudo-temporal, material, blockade. Named the Israeli West Bank barrier from one side, and the Apartheid wall from the other, the new construction exercised extreme and punitive sovereignty by Israeli authorities, dividing villages, houses and families in an arbitrary manner. This smooth grey structure spans a large topological arena, at certain points peaking to the height of 26 feet and a width of 10 feet. International forces have condemned this formation as a clear violation of human rights and universal law, and this has strengthened the Israeli government’s resolve to make its monstrosity appear natural. The legal question of its demolition is ignored over and over again by paranoid discourses of national security.

This cementation seems to have rooted itself, a material manifestation of the psychic and social engines of political violence. There is no nature/manmade distinction here: apposing matter seeps through this new continental rift.

“Now more than ever, nature cannot be separated from culture; in order to comprehend the interactions between eco-systems, the mechanosphere and the social and individual Universes of reference, we must learn to think ‘transversally’” (2008, Guattari, p.43).

In the spirit of the rhizome, the transversal, and the connections between the mental, social and environmental conditions of cement, I will focus on a “gentle deterritorialization” (Ibid, p.45), one that engages with matter as it slowly changes and subverts definitions, instead of exploding its material and symbolic meanings. I will enact a few agential cuts to the dense materiality of cement, as represented by Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar and Israeli artist Naomi Safran-Hon, as each engages with the matter of conflict through engagement with the matter of matter.

In the winter of 2012, Safran-Hon sent a male model through the streets of New York City wearing her new artistic creation (Image 1):“Imagine a dress, a garment, which you can wear, that will protect you from the world around you. It will guard you from all worldly activities, and will function like a shield, a fence between you and the rest of the world” (2012, The International Museum of Contemporary Culture). Incorporating two opposing materials, concrete and lace, Safran-hon fantasizes clothing explicitly as armor, “guarding” individuals as they walk through the streets, “shielding” body and society, “fencing” self from other. The piece was named Defensive Shield (2012) after the Israeli military operation that occurred within the Palestinian territories in 2002. What happens in the meeting of the two materials? The delicate, ethereal lace comes into contact and conflict with the residual, heavy qualities of the cement that is projected through it in order to create the garment. For a period of a month, the model walked around different times and areas, bearing the heavy construction on his body, finding the conflict bare on his corporal reality, weighing him down, transforming the protective qualities to oppressive ones. This moment of irony, of oppressive protection that weighs the subject down, is Safran-Hon’s moment of critique.

Image 2: Khaled Jarrar, Olive Tree Stump, 2013

I see Safron-Hon’s garment to be committing to the notion of process, as elaborated by Guattari:

“Process, which I oppose here to system or to structure, strives to capture existence in the very act of its constitution, definition and deterritorialization” (2008, Guattari, p.44).

The model walks around the streets of New-York city wearing the amalgamation of lace and concrete, but as it is exposed to the outdoor elements of the urban environment, it starts falling apart, chipping away. It is not a resolved matter, complete and enclosed, but an ongoing assemblage, that gains meaning while losing its integrity. Reading this piece using Gauttari’s notion of ecosophy, we can see that all three tiers of the ecosophic are incorporated to articulate Safron-Hon’s critique. There is the immense oppressive force of the cement on the body and the distance it creates with others (social); the pressure it puts on the psyche as it’s protective qualities deteriorate into threatening space (mental); and the new rich assemblages in the world created as cement falls off its support (environmental). Reading these ecologies off the changing and unstable surface of the coat gives us insight into the struggle of forming a singular, stable subject position.

This is not only true in the wake of Integrated World Capitalism generally, but particularly resonant with the conditions of ongoing political conflict. Guattari argues that a capitalistic subjectivity aims to evade or crush any challenge made to the singular apparatus, but through the new ecosophy it becomes

”…essential to organize new micropolitical and microsocial practices, new solidarities, a new gentleness, together with new aesthetic and new analytic practices” (2008, p.51).

Safran-Hon’s cemented coat is indeed a micro practice, as it attempts, through a use of the materiality that buttresses the order of capital, to transcend the impenetrable. It positions the subject in the suffocating and oppressive space of the wall, gently, quietly, and impermanently. The Israeli government, in Safron-Hon’s critique, bears the weight of this unstable materiality: its motives are exposed as deeply paranoid and vulnerable. I find the meeting of cement and lace to be allegorical. Not only that both materials fail to withstands the force of environment, exposing certain natural formations as constructed and unstable. But it is also an admission of material’s insufficiency as a tool of realizing blatantly violent motives in the name of protection. In this formation, the wall is nothing more than a life encroaching safety blanket.

In his first solo exhibition at Ayyam gallery in London, Khaled Jarrar brought with him actual pieces of concrete that he chiseled out of the apartheid wall, to be displayed as well as manipulated, reconstituted and reconstructed as a part of his show “Whole in The Wall” (2013). He explained such actions with the following instructions:

“Take all the anger from inside you, and you throw it at this wall. Which is good, we need to throw some anger against something, and to throw it against the wall, to show how ugly it is, is important, especially for me as a person” (2013, Jarrar in video from Medical Aid for Palestine).

Jane Bennett might explain anger and matter speaking for one another as an instance where “these material powers, which can aid or destroy, enrich or disable, ennoble or degrade us, in any case call for our attentiveness, or even ‘respect’” (2010, Bennett, p.ix). Jarrar states that the anger of the oppressed subject needs to find outlet, and the material object for him is the only location to deal with this aggression. In the confrontation and meeting of anguish and cement, a liberatory affect and sense transpires. A material that usually symbolizes the disproportionate confinement of Palestinian bodies due to Israeli authorities excessive and erratic use of the material to solidify loose borders, finds new meaning through Jarrar’s own bodily response to it. Jarrar not only repositions it, as in the above installation, but also aligns cement with nature.

In Olive Tree Stump (2013), Jarrar completes and complicates an uprooted and halved olive tree stump by reimagining and recreating it’s lost half out of re-appropriated cement (Image 2). The olive tree not only represents here a quality of nature, as nature and mechanic are indeed inseparable. Additionally, it represents a long history of disavowal, thievery and vigilantism. In the occupied territories, many Palestinians still count on the growth of olive trees, and the subsequent olive oil making, as a source of income. Israeli authorities and settler vigilantes often target the olive trees, instead of people, as a means of slow violence (2011, Nixon). The surface of the tree, its immediacy, doubles for and erases the bodies of Palestinians, with long lasting economic and psychic effects. The olive tree allegorizes a larger territory of ecological violence, in which vigilante forces made up of young and ruthless Israeli settlers uproot and burn down Palestinian sources of livelihood. While supplementing the missing half of the olive tree trunk, Jarrar apposes the natural and mechanic: they become one, entangled.

Guttari’s ecosophy of tiers can be explored through his commentary on psychoanalytic conceptions of part-objects, which the subject utilizes in order to take shape, as seen through Jarrar’s utilization. Guattari assert that these objects

“…were conceived by Freudians as residing essentially adjacent to the instinctual urges and to a corporealized imaginary. Other institutional objects, be they architectural, economic, or Cosmic, have an equal right to contribute to the functioning of existential production” (2008, p.56).

Critical of the processes that cemented psychoanalytic ideas to capitalism, Guattari asks that we look for part-objects around us, beyond breast-like or phallic shapes. This puts Jarrar’s investment in the materiality and malleability of cement into context as a form of subject shaping and remaking, as all of his artistic undertakings respond to the weight and presence of cement. At once, the trunk of the olive tree, chopped off and rootless, stands in for Jarrar the artist, who metonymically stands in for the Palestinian people. The part object Jarrar chooses to supplement the uprooted tree is the material that Palestinian subjects encounter and collide with on a daily basis. The meeting of nature and the manmade offer to supplement each other, to create a whole out of two halves, but Jarrar’s supplementation rather points to the impossibility and perversity of a whole. As long as the wall is entrenched, Palestinian lives will not be complete, as the two materials becomes glaringly oppositional; cement cannot grow new subjects and yet it is part of all subjects.

Following her reading of Jacques Rancière notion of politics and democracy, assigned exclusively to human subjects, Jane Bennett positions a materialist approach which takes into account both the human and non, both subject and matter:

“a vital materialist theory of democracy seeks to transform the divide between speaking subjects and mute objects into a set of differential tendencies and variable capacities” (2010, p.108).

In a place where the concept of democracy is invaded by fascism, it would be impossible to disregard objects, because they are not mute but noisy. Cement is an active political force, and the way it sediments leaves all unsettled.

Both Safran-hon and Jarrar illustrate how from both sides of the wall, the cement is not a stable matter, but rather one that through its solidity, seeps through the ecologies that constitute the subject. It speaks about continuity within an ongoing paranoia of national subjects on both ends of this violent experience. Cement not only physically binds these traumas together, but its material concretizes the psychic valences of this entanglement. To continue to challenge the reasonability of the subject that emerges, I wish to make more cuts as I focus on particles that make cement, and particles that corrode it.


I turn to a component of cement, the materiality of dust, a miniscule substance, which can be found and located in almost every location. Truly a beautiful compound, it is made up of the human and nonhuman, as pollen, animal hair, soil, sand and skin cells come together and get transported across countries, borders and continents. This unique mixture is a representation of the complexity of ecology, it is a testament that our bodies are entangled with nature and are never separate. Just as cement was able to highlight the violence’s of psychic continuity, dust highlights a continuity of laboring. I will be highlighting Israeli photographer Tal Shochat and Palestinian multi-media artist Raeda Saadeh as each responds to tasks of dusting explicitly in their work.

Jane Bennett devotes a chapter to the life of metal, and within it she meditates on its dissolution and distribution. She comments not only on its independence as a matter, but on its constitution by other matters:

“… metal is always metallurgical, always an alloy of the endeavors of many bodies, always something worked on by geological, biological, and often human agency” (2010, p.60).

Similarly to metal, I wish to situate dust with its unique mixture and allegorical tendencies in an attempt to unsettle its singularity, show its political substance as entangled within the complex matter of conflict. As one labors to dust clean a compound made distinctly from the human and nonhuman, what is dusted away, concealed and maintained?

Image 4: Raeda Saadeh, Vacuum, 2007

Tal Shochat plays with the idea of the real, as she contrives nature photography to seem as though it has been taking inside a professional studio (Image 3). In strong contrast to Safran Hon’s dissolving coat and to Jarrar’s divided trees, Shohat’s Rimon (2010) [Hebrew for Pomegranate] features a black backdrop that is drawn behind a tall pomegranate tree, the red fruit hanging from the tree glimmer in an almost fake manner, as the lighting boldly hits its branches. But this is not a mere nature shot, an outstanding tree found and captured; rather, it is a tree labored to look its best, one deliberately cultivated to be aesthetically pleasing. Shochat handles each tree she captures as a glamor model. Treating it with delicate care before taking any documentation of the tree, she slowly wipes every leaf and branch, shining each hanging piece of fruit on the tree, making sure it pops like a manufactured image and piece of advertising.

On the one hand, this can be seen as a move to make nature, in all of its complex matter, somewhat presentable. By cleaning and making the pomegranate tree neat, by wiping off of the dust and placing a black backdrop behind it, the tree is out of context, positioned out of nature. It seems dislocated, almost fake. The photograph and the labor of Shochat can be read as simply commenting on a state of artificiality. She compels the viewer to question any photo as possibly handmade, not simply a passive documentation. Both Shochat’s labor and the photographic outcome put into question the matter of presentation, and they connect directly to Barad’s notion of an agential cut. Shochat presents a moment that is not representational but intricately constructed; as certain elements are included others are purposely excluded. The process of making the tree spotless is naturalized. But in so doing, Israel’s status in Zionist fantasies as a utopic Eden is denaturalized, connected instead to the ongoing occupation. Eliminating dust and dirt cleanses a Palestinian insistence to be connected and related to the land of Israel, to its soil as well as its political horizon.

I want to enact an additional agential cut here. Rimon (2010) is a part of a larger series of photographs, all focused around trees. Shochat’s choice of trees in deliberate: each has loaded significance within Jewish tradition or Israeli history. She captures a palm tree, an apple tree and an olive tree, giving them the same treatment as the pomegranate, attending to each leaf, dusting each limb, and blocking its natural surroundings by quarantining it in front of the same black screen. In the way that each specimen becomes interchangeable, chillingly the same, Shochat’s labor can be equated in particular to the labor of the right wing in Israel, the ruling political force for the past decades, as it attempts to present Israel and its colonial project as a clean and guilt free. Dust as material, with its entanglement to matters human and non-human, becomes an erasable material, undesired, that points to a lack of upkeep, neglect and lack of movement. If Israel often tries to minimize the atrocities of the occupation, denying and disregarding basic human rights from Palestinians subjects while also denying such a disregard ever occurs, the stubbornness of dust and soil denies both denials. As I have demonstrated throughout this essay, where a lack of engagement with the matter of conflict is sensed, one must enact a cut that denies its inseparability, shedding light on and re-sensing matter’s interconnectedness.

Image 3: Tal Shochat, Rimon (Pomegranate), 2010

Where Shochat tries to make dust disappear, concealing it from her manufactured image, Raeda Saadeh deals with and parodies its overwhelming burden (Image 4). In her video Vacuum (2007), Saadeh is seen standing in a desert as she is attempting to vacuum away the sand and dust. This is an endless task, marked by its impossibility: the image turns little piles of dust into mountains, and mountains into little piles of dust. Again, there are a few available readings for this action. The attempt to vacuum clean an entire desert connects to the patriarchal expectation of women as homemakers, assuming the task of presentation and aesthetics to the realm of the feminine. If Saadeh is the domestic cleaner, the desert is an impossible mess to face and make sense of. This performance of femininity is deeply entangled in the matter of conflict. Dust unearths Saadeh’s intersectionality politic, connecting not only the impossible tasks of womanhood but also the impossibility of being a Palestinian subject under an Israeli regime.

Often exploring the notion of fairytale in her work, Saadeh constructs scenes from various fables and tales as the conflict with the impossibility of Palestinian livability under a government of occupation. In “Vacuum”, Saadeh’s engagement with the matter of dust allows us to engage with its multiplicity, with its overabundance, with its overwhelming and complex potency. More a nightmare than a fairytale, her insistence on accomplishing this impossible task confronts its viewer with questions about the Sisyphean matter of oppressed subjecthood, as well with a desire to wipe clean the existence of the oppressor. As the Palestinian subject holds the vacuum, a phantasmal obsession for order can be seen as an attempt to wipe the slate clean, erasing both Israel and Palestine with their heavy-handed meanings. Saadeh embodies an Israeli fear of annihilation, but this does not vouch for that fear’s authenticity: it reiterates the labors involved in constructing that fear and locating it in the oppressed subject.

Repeatedly and absurdly Saadeh continues the motion of vacuuming, exposing it as labor that can never be resolved; dust is everywhere and everything. Looking at this work through Guattari’s three ecologies, we see how intricately Saadeh positions the psyche of the burdened subject, the social expectation for flawless presentation that avoids colonial clutter, with the ecological as the site of this meeting. This task is also seen as one that is out of human hands. A unified version of these ecologies sensitizes one not only to the continuity of labor, but to its highly gendered dimensions, as Guattari explicitly proclaims:

”We need to ‘kick the habit’ of sedative discourse…in order to be able to apprehend the world through the interchangeable lenses or points of view of the three ecologies”(2008, p.41-42).

Artistic responses to the ways that particles of dust surround us allude to the individual as deeply embedded in the multiplicities of its surroundings, ecological and political. While Shochat stays loyal to the Israeli national ethos, wiping and hiding the matter of dust, Saadeh is overwhelmed by the vastness and weight of this matter as it surrounds her in its copiousness. This dichotomy of lack and excess is united by a shared feminized labor: by a sense of the inescapability of Integrated World Capital.


The Dead Sea produces one of Israel’s most notable exports and thriving economies in the form of mineral soaps and mud masks harvested from its bottom. Known as the sea of salt in both Hebrew and Arabic, the basin holds some of the highest and most unique concentrations of sodium, sulfur and potassium. It is also the lowest place in the world, as close to the core of the earth as one can get. The sea shares its shores both with Israel and Jordan, and its natural borders set sovereign borders. To visit the Dead Sea is truly a unique experience, salt and sulfur are sensed and smelled in the air kilometers away from the actual water, and as body and water meet, it is a sensation like no other. The salt water is dense with minerals, to the point where there is an oiliness and weight to the water, and as the body becomes submerged, the salinity of the water begins attending and healing any exposed opening of the body; any cut or scratch, pore or crevice, begin to transform and heal, to sting and cure, as a result of the convergence of body and mineral. As one enters the water it becomes clear that sinking is not possible. Bodies float, suspended on the surface, balanced in an absorption and rejection by the earth.

Given the uniqueness of this site, it is not surprising that many have attempted to engage with the distinctive materiality of the Dead Sea. From performance to photography, the natural resource has been a crucial component for artists who engage with ecology and its relation to the human. As some occupy the physical space of the enriched mineral sea, others point to the disastrous effects capitalism and industry has had on the habitat. As the oil and mud industry thrive, the Dead Sea and its natural minerals begin to slowly vanish. As some artist try engaging with the slowly disappearing material and site, others, due to lack of access, can only imagine this space of possibility. Artists engage the Dead Sea’s materiality to point to a desire to preserve and to posit, rather than bodies at a stand still, a transformative potentiality that preserves violence in addition to healing.

Image 5: Rehab Nazzal, A Dead Sea, 2010

There is a historically dense and sensual vibrancy to this location, one that compels the human body to surrender to its own materiality. Here, I find Bennett’s provocation to be invaluable, as she states:

”The point is this: an active becoming, a creative not-quite-human force capable of producing the new, buzzes within the history of the term nature. This vital materiality congeals into bodies, bodies that seek to preserve or prolong their run” (2010. P.118).

Bennett points to an ontology of nature as never silent and still, but as buzzing, moving and moved, a nature that affects bodies as they encounter and entangle in all its faceted multitudes. The Dead Sea, with its power of remedy, connects to the skin. Like the cement, it seeps through, but it promises to offer, in its violence, a rejuvenation-- as minerals and organisms constitute and rebuild one another.

In 2015, Or Gallery in Vancouver, opened an exhibition called “#saltandwater”, a materialist intervention by Palestinian artists engaged with oceanic matter and conflict. Salt and water refers not only to the Dead Sea, but to the only things that Palestinian prisoners consume as they participate in hunger strikes. They preserve their life but highlight its precarity in a state of captivity. This references a more wide scale violence, as the different artist that engage with the matter of water point to the inhumane control of Israeli authorities. In the Palestinian territories desalinized drinking water will often be rationed, while in the Gaza Strip, access to water and fishing is only permitted within limited parameters. Photographer Rehab Nazzal attempts to highlight this notion of barrier as she demonstrates the difficulty of her body to meet the saline enriched water of the Dead Sea through her photographic documentation from 2010, A Dead Sea (Image 5). In a series of six photographs, she captures two vantage points. Three photographs capture Nazzal perspective as she approaches the shore of the Dead Sea from the Jordanian side of the border, documenting what looks like an endless sea of blue, as it vibrantly meets the bright yellow of the sandy shore. Adjacent to these three photographs, which capture the beauty of the Dead Sea, are three dehydrated images: the engulfing blue is out of sight. Endless desert reigns, with small breaks within the yellow that appear in the form of antennas and army posts. To highlight the inability to encounter, Nazzal photographs from the border of the West Bank, located only an hour or so from the Israeli shore of the Dead Sea.

In order to pass through the military checkpoint, and lawfully enter the self designated boundaries of the state of Israel, a Palestinian subject must offer a valid reason and paperwork, such as a work permit or a dire medical condition. Nazzal cannot gain access to the shore closest to her home, and instead has to travel to Jordan to come in contact with the water source. If Jarrar and Safran-Hon, through their engagements, witnessed an unavoidable entanglement with the matter of cement, Nazzal’s desiring body, though it can potentially reach the water by crossing borders, finds itself entangled primarily with matters of inaccessibility. Barriers become integral parts of assemblages in all these pieces: and it is right to read, at one level, that the matter of conflict greatly restricts mobility, stopping Nazzal from fulfilling a desire for ownership and fulfillment. But there also something in the pairing of the photographs, and in the shifting horizon line, that indicate an always impossible reaching toward. Land, sea and sky are interchangeable between the two different vantage points introduced by Nazzal: each has a role to play in cataloging violence and in precipitating healing and fantasy.

Image 6: Sigalit Landau, Salted Lake, 2011

With the Dead Sea, access and relation are political matters of privilege. The ability to submerge oneself, to exist in the state of flotation granted by the strange and distinctive compound of the Dead Sea, is the benefit of not being subjected to the Israeli occupation. Like the floating horizons of Nazzal, this complex is somewhat unavoidable in depictions of the sea; but as a Baradian “agential cut” will demonstrate, artistic entanglements do not stop at a desire fulfilled or denied, a desire for resolving or cementing the meaning of violence or politics.

Artist Sigalit Landau has used submergence as a way to ground the engines of desire. She chooses items such as a flag or a dress, a violin or fishing net, and suspends them deep within the Dead Sea. As time passes, the matter of the object and the extreme compound of salinity and water begin to entangle, and the object crystalizes into gleaming treasure. In 2011 (Image 6), Landau took one of these objects- a shoe heavily shimmering from the compounds that formed with it, and transported it outside of the boundaries of Israel/Palestine, positioning it on a frozen lake in the city of Gdansk, Poland. In an attempt to comment on collective memory and pain, Landau orchestrates for the acidity of the crystalized salt to burn through the frozen water. A video recording demonstrates that slowly, the shoes begin to melt and gradually sink into the snow that surrounds them, to break the ice and

“…dive downwards burdened with history and gravity” (2011, Landau).

Poland is not an arbitrary location, as it clear that Landau is referencing the haunting of the Holocaust.

I find this specific object to be a part of a wider and more complex assemblage. Guattari claims that in order to not reduce an object merely to its intentionality, one must come to

“the apprehension of a psychical fact as inseparable from the assemblage of enunciation that engenders it, both as fact and as an expressive process” (2008, p.37).

I offer an alternate reading of the piece, one that is not burdened by the history of persecution, but rather, by a current state of occupation. Landau might try and reference the atrocities of the past, but in doing so she actually points us to the current state of affairs, which insists that this burdensome weight is truly inexorable- that the present is preserved in all attempts to preserve the past. Like the series of photographs taken by Nazzal, it is helpful to open up Landau’s series of engagements with the Dead Sea to further understand how she achieves this.

Image 7: Sigalit Landau, DeadSee, 2005

In an earlier video art from 2005, DeadSee (Image 7), Landau uses her own body as it meets the miraculous surface of the water. As the viewer observes a spiral of 500 watermelons skewered over a 250 meter long cord slowly unravel, the camera slowly zooms out. Landau is lodged between the layers of watermelons, locked and floating in a gravitational pull. Landau’s hand is stretched out, pointing towards a patch of watermelons that have been torn open, their redness burning amongst the green and blue shades of the sea, symbolizing a wound in the formation, a sensitive opening, which Landau states “is wounded and exposed, like me, to the sting of the salt” (2005). As the spiral unravels, the body slowly gets ejected from its confines, and as Landau floats out of the frame, the viewer is left with a circular formation slowly disentangling.

Image 8: Sigalit Landau, Barb Hula, 2000

This disentanglement might free Landau from the her constraining position, but as she floats Rehab Nazzal’s longing for the Dead Sea still lingers, longing for the chance to sting and heal within the water. Landau encourages this reading as she restages this work. In Landau’s 2009 show at the Pompidou Center in Paris, side by side, Landau presents works that incorporate barbed wire as a material. In “Barbed Hula” (2001), a naked Landau stands on stormy beach, hula-hooping with a barbed wire hoop (Image 8). The video plays this spirited action in slow motion, as the hoop revolves around her body, cuts manifest and the wire violently penetrates her skin. The playful game becomes a sadomasochistic test of endurance, as the matter of the body proved susceptible to the harsh materiality of conflict. “Barbed Salt Lumps” (2007) hangs adjacent to the playing video, as loops of barbed wire, which have been crystalized in the bottom of the Dead Sea, hang shimmering with their saltiness (Image 9). Barbed wire is a violent material, and another component of Israel’s cement wall. It literally entangles any who dare to try and engage with it or pass through it. Showing both the disastrous meeting of body and wire, as well as its crystalized state as a machine of conflict, Landau consciously or not exposes the inherent interconnectedness of materiality: the way violent encounters between flesh and metal are suspended at the surface of all healing attempts. Like Nazzal’s photos encourage us to see, submerging into sea is inseparable from land, as healing and desiring are inseparable from histories and presents freighted with violence.

Image 9: Sigalit Landau, Barbed Salt Lump, 2009


“A chord is struck between person and thing, and I am no longer above or outside a nonhuman ‘environment’…this material vitality is me, it predates me, it exceeds me, it postdates me” (2010, Bennett, p.120).

This essay comes as an intervention to the ongoing understanding of political conflict as an exclusively human project, as I illuminate through artistic endeavors and engagements the entanglement of the human and nonhuman through a meditation on the matter of conflict as it emerges through a conflict of matters. By focusing on Israel/Palestine I was able to demonstrate how matter is political, as a vibrant actor in the ecosophic contexts of the social, psychical and environmental. By enacting Barad’s agential cuts, exposing matters of interconnectedness, I have established the inescapability of intersubjecive, human and nonhuman, cementation.

But if cement reveals a psychic continuity, a paranoid reality that binds both sides to each other in a way that exceeds subjectivity, it also asks us to be sensitive to how these subjects are split open: open to the components that construct and destroy them and that blur those very distinctions. Sometimes, as in the case of dust, these components reveal how the burdens of gendered labor are a crucial mechanism of violent capitalist assemblages. Representing them inherently denaturalizes them; as dust is unsettled, it settles somewhere nearby, asking us to look for continuities across multiple forms of oppressions. Other times, as in the case of salt water, these components dissolve the possibility that violence is not always preserved. But this preservation of the irreconcilable turns desire back onto its own mechanics. Subjects cannot be stilled or distilled anymore, and healing through submerging comes with a merging through the sting of violent histories and presents.

By assigning myself to the ecosophical goal set out by Felix Guattari and taken up in a form by Jane Bennett, I wish that this essay assists in developing

“a collective and individual subjectivity that completely exceeds the limits of individualization, stagnation, identifactory closure, and will instead open itself up on all sides to the socius…” (2008, Guattari, p.68).

By putting pressure on the erroneous assumptions that maintain a divide between national subjects within a conflict, I was able to give attention to these local subjects and their attentiveness to matter. This essay is a strives against static closure of subject positions and the necessary liberation of the social as it connects across boundaries and borders, across divides of human and nonhuman.

By offering agential cuts to various works of art, from photography and documentation to video art and instillation, I demonstrated how the three layers of ecology are present and vivaciously active in the work of artists on both sides of the cemented apartheid wall. Working against the common notion of the passivity of matter I was able to validate both how the social is of matter as well as how matter is of us, as an inability to dust away this interrelation is established. Lastly, I was able to work beyond a definition of a consciousness in which meaning is established singularly, offering a plurality of interpretations to artistic actions, corroding the ironclad clasp of a fixed and standardized subjectivity colonially manufactured by capitalist interest. Within a precarious political climate, an exploration of the rhizomatic connectivity of Israeli and Palestinian subjects through an aesthetic engagements necessitated that we reconnect to political possibility through the conflict of matters: to the ecological as more than site of struggle, but as one of our most valuable and ethical actors.

צילום: יעל מאירי

Yarden Stern

Is an independent curator and a PhD candidate in the Department of Performance Studies at New York University. Starting in October 2023, he will begin his postdoctoral research in the Women's and Gender Studies program at Tel Aviv University. His academic and curatorial work revolves around the politics of gender non-conformity as they intersect with discourses of nationalism, as well as contemporary queer art.

His dissertation, "Bodies Without Borders: Queerly Performing Israeli Citizenship," concentrates on cultures of masculinity and heteronormativity in Israel/Palestine and transgressive responses by local and diasporic queer subjects to those conservative conventions.


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Landau, Sigalit. Sigalit Landau .|. Barbed Hula + Barbed Salt Lamps .|. 2001-07. 2009. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

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"Naomi Safran-Hon". N.p., 2016. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

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"Sigalit Landau". Sigalit Landau. N.p., 2016. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.


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