Three hundred and sixty degrees of separation

The following words articulate some of the ideas that underpin Three Hundred and Sixty Degrees of Separation. 

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EXIGESIS > The Master of Fine Arts dissertation > DOWNLOAD PDF

This is a 12000 word essay written for my Master of Fine Arts. It contextualises the theoretical and philosophical interests that connect to the art work. If you do read this work I would love if you send me an email to let me know.

 

General Project Statement

Three Hundred and Sixty Degrees of Separation is an ongoing project about identity and difference. As the title’s circularity suggests, the work encompasses both poles of this dichotomy within its wide embrace. On the side of difference live the other and the stranger. The stranger is also a sojourner. But the stranger is never strange to himself. Present to himself, he is strange to another. In this way the movement between strangeness, otherness, and the presence of identity produce a journey. This journey moves through three hundred and sixty degrees - a movement in which the conditions of separation and unity coexist.

I am no stranger to this journey. During the 7 years I have been working with this project I have lived in diverse places. These have been: Israel, Byron Bay, Sydney, Singapore, back to Sydney, Darwin, back to Israel, back to Sydney, Melbourne and back to Darwin. These movements have given me a good dose of both the experience of difference - feeling strange to a place, to a people, and identity - identifying with a place, and with people.

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Three Hundred and Sixty Degrees of Separation began in 2000, with a series of etchings depicting 360-degree views of two sacred sites in Jerusalem: the Wailing Wall, and the Dome-of-the-Rock. As I was creating these images, the second Palestinian Intifada began and images of these sites covered our TV news screens. I began to research the history and politics of the Israel-Palestine situation. This research was fuelled by a fascination with my Jewish heritage, and how my family’s personal story connected to the impersonal sweep of history.

The result of this research has culminated in a number of works in etching, drawing, animation and video. During the last few years my main focus has been researching and producing the animation “One Another”. A number of other narrative works have developed out of this process. Together, these works re-imagine contested sites, and identities born in crisis. Traversing discrete, continuous, still and moving imagery, Three Hundred and Sixty Degrees of Separation establishes an aesthetic and polemical experience that faces the harsh politics and social conditions of a seemingly intractable conflict.

As the conflict waxes and wanes the mainstream media continues to perpetuate a narrative that gives the impression of two warring sides caught within endless cycles of self-referential victim-hood. This kind of representation reinforces the dynamics of separation while denying the side of unity. Three Hundred and Sixty Degrees of Separation offers another kind of narrative to cultural conflict. It searches for alternate ways of story telling that visually reframes the conflict, as a means of re-imagining sites and self.

Much of this work was produced for a Master of Fine Art thesis. In the exegesis to the MFA project I analysed how my position as a secular Diaspora Jew has allowed me the privilege of engaging imaginatively and aesthetically with the harsh realities faced by those embroiled in the conflict. This exegesis offers an explanation of my work through the lens of post-colonial social theory and philosophy, particularly the ideas of the philosophers Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida.


The Jerusalem Etchings Statement

The iconic Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall are the two sacred sites in Jerusalem that are at the symbolic centre of the Middle East conflict. They have become the intense focus for political, religious and cultural identity. The history of these sites predates the Temple of Solomon (957BCE), which was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The Dome of the Rock (and later, the adjacent Al-Aqsa Mosque) was built on this site in the 7th Century CE. Inside is a rock that is shrouded with religious mythology. It is considered to be the site referred to in the Torah where Abraham built an altar on which he prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. It is also believed to be the site featured in the auspicious "Night Journey" from the Koran where, in a vision, Mohamed ascended to heaven.

When I first realised that these sites exist side-by-side I was struck by the symbolic relevance in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The work that sprung from this realisation begins to articulate connections between multiple aspects of this imbroglio. As a starting point I made a series of etchings of two 360-degree panoramic views of these sites, described as discrete spaces in a "naturalistic" style.

These etchings are developed into an artist’s book where the two views are printed onto two sides of one piece of paper, and concertina folded. This becomes a way of talking about ‘two sides of one story’, and introduces into the project the idea that two is one, and that one is two. The book also introduces the overturning of the concepts ‘inside’ and ‘outside’; the book has no fixed inside or outside, can be turned inside out, and can be read from left or right. The book has 30 pages, opens out to 3 meters and can be paged through or viewed as a sculptural piece.

Using these same etching plates I have then used the duplicity of the printmaking process to layer, mask and obscure, as a way of exploring how land, culture, conflict and identity are inextricably linked. I produced a series of unique state etchings known as The Jerusalem Etching - Paper Masks. This work incorporates other dimensions of imagery into images of the sacred sites: religious and corporate symbols; figures in conflict; a human procession; biblical text. If images of place can be understood as a metaphor to identity, then this work becomes a way of talking to the ideas that identity is constituted through relations with others, and, in the context of cultural conflict, that opposing sides define one another.

For exhibitions the Paper Mask series is installed as a continuous image wrapped around the gallery walls. For the 2007 exhibition the work was installed on both inside and outside of a hanging ring.


Historical Statement

Excerpt from an end note of the Three Hundred and Sixty Degrees of Separation Exegesis

The Temple Mount (Haram al Sharif in Arabic) is an ancient site that is sacred to both Judaism and Islam. Two iconic structures exist at this site: The Wailing or Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock. The Dome of the Rock structure is built around a rock. The site of this rock, known to Jews as Mount Moriah and to Moslems as as-Sakhra, and the rock itself, are considered highly sacred. The origins of the sanctity of this site probably came from an ancient Semitic myth that stated that the rock on top of the mount was held in the mouth of the serpent Tahum, and that this place was the intersection between the underworld and the upper world. Certainly the rock is considered to be the site in the Biblical story (Genesis 22:2) where Abraham built an alter on which he prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. The First Temple of the Jews was constructed on Mount Moriah during the reign of King Solomon. It was completed in 957 BCE. In the 7th century BCE the Babylonians, lead by Nebuchadnezzar II, invaded and most of the Hebrew population went into exile. The temple was destroyed in 586 BCE. Shortly after Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon and allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem. Reconstruction began and the second temple was completed by 515 BCE. Over the next five centuries Jerusalem was captured and controlled by Hellenistic, Egyptian and Seleucid empires, as well as brief periods of Jewish autonomy. In 74 BCE the Roman Empire gained control of Jerusalem, which it held for several centuries. After decades of Jewish revolt and struggle against the Romans the second temple was finally destroyed in 70 ACE. Today all that physically remains of the second temple is a sandstone wall that formed its western boundary. This iconic site is referred to as the Western Wall. It is also known as the Wailing Wall because religious Jews who pray there can often be heard chanting and wailing in cathartic abandon.

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Over the next seven centuries Jerusalem was controlled by Roman, Byzantine and Persian empires. A Roman temple and then Christian church were built on Mount Moriah. In 638 ACE the capture of Jerusalem by the Moslem caliph Umar heralded several centuries of Ottoman and Muslim rule. The Dome of the Rock temple (Qubbat As-Sakhrah in Arabic) was completed in 691 ACE. This spectacular structure was built around the rock on the site of the Jewish temple for political and religious reasons. Islam, as well as acknowledging the biblical story, has its own story about this rock. The seventh Sura of the Koran, the auspicious “Night Journey”, links the prophet Mohammed with Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. In this story Mohamed, in a vision, ascended through the seven heavens into the presence of Allah, from whom he received instructions for himself and his followers. The site of this ascension is thought to be the rock of As-Sakhra.

In recent history these sites have been under the control of the Ottoman and then English empires. When Israel became a nation in 1948 the sites were controlled by Jordan as Jerusalem was divided East to West and the sites lay on the East side. After the 6-Day War in 1967 Israel gained control of all Jerusalem (and the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Sinai). This was a momentous epiphany in Jewish history as Jews have not had autonomous control of these sites since the era of the Temples. Further, Messianic mythology purports that the Messianic age will come when Jews re-inhabit the Temple Mount.

Security to these sites is always high priority for the Israeli government. One of the most ominous threats comes from within the extremity of Orthodox Judaism. It is a Jewish messianic belief that the Messiah will manifest when the Jewish Temple is restored on Mount Moriah. Some Christian sects also hold this belief. There are always those fanatic elements within these groups that plot to destroy the Dome-of-the-Rock building in the belief that this will herald the Messianic Age. Aside from this threat, the Israel Defence Force and Mossad keep tight surveillance and control on who enters and leaves these sites. Generally it would be difficult (or impossible) for an Arab to enter into the Kotel site and (these days) like-wise for an Israeli to enter into the Haram-al-Sharif site. The limitations and difficulties of movement in and around these sites increased greatly since the intifada began in September 2000. During my later two trips to Israel in 2001 and 2004 I have either not been able to enter the Haram-al-Sharif site, or have done so with great difficulty.


Ways and Means

This essay describes the material and technical development of the work I have produced for the MFA.

I began working on Three Hundred and Sixty Degrees of Separation as an Master of Fine Arts (MFA) project in March 2002. Throughout its course I have relocated several times to diverse places. These moves have been at times disruptive, at time progressive. In the first and last semesters I have been in Sydney, working at the National Art School studios. In between I have been working in Singapore, Bondi, Northern NSW, Darwin and Israel. During the first semester I was considering developing a series of etchings that developed the theme of the wall and the edge as a metaphor for identity. For a long time I had an image in my mind of two men walking towards each other and a wall growing between them. I felt that still imagery was limiting my potential to explore the narratives that I was imagining. Towards the end of this semester I decided to try my hand at moving images and stop motion animation in the style of Kentridge’s Drawings for Projection.

In July 2002 I deferred from the MFA program for 1 year to work as a printmaker at the Singapore Tyler print InstituteTowards the end of that year I began to make the first rudimentary tests with drawing and erasure animation. This way of making an image move involves the following materials and technologies:

  1. Paper. I have been using white canvas paper, mostly 48 x 68cm.
  2. Charcoal. I mostly use vine charcoal as it erases easily.
  3. Erasers. Kneedable and regular.
  4. Camera to capture the frames. I use a digital camera Canon Powershot G2
  5. Computer. I use a Macintosh.
  6. Software to sequence the frames together, and for editing and post-production. I have used QuickTime Pro, Adobe Premier, Adobe After Effects, and Final Cut Pro.

The process of making a charcoal drawing and erasure stop motion animation involves setting up a stable relationship between the drawing and the camera, and a stable light in the studio. One then draws, redraws, erases, redraws etc, etc, capturing each drawing with the camera, which becomes a frame. These frames are downloaded to the computer and then sequenced together with video editing software. Stop motion animation is usually sequenced at 12 frames per second. I have been working at 10 frames per second. That means that 600 drawings makes 1 minute of moving image, though often only small changes are made to the drawings between one frame and the next.

From these very first tests, and right through to the last animation I have made, I have found it excruciatingly difficult to get started in the drawings for this process. It is a matter of getting into the action of the story. In the beginning there is the sense of making marks against a resisting matrix. If I continue working against this resistance, eventually the paper becomes receptive to the marks and the narrative opens itself to the process. I feel that this struggle is evident in the look of the work

After leaving Singapore I returned to Sydney for one semester and continued working on animation tests. I began to understand how difficult and time consuming it would be to work with the figure in motion. I experimented with drawing from my imagination, and also drawing using references of inkjet prints from a video of myself. At that point I had developed a script for 3 scenes of the animation. I made 3 more tests for these scenes. I had made some progress but I felt discouraged by my drawing abilities and the time it would take to make a few minutes of moving image.

At the end of 2003 I attended a 10-day silent meditation retreat. During this time the rest of the storyline for the animation came to me. I realised then that I was not going to be able to realise everything that I wanted to say in this story within the MFA program, because the figurative action had become too long and complicated for my abilities and resources. This is when I had the idea to combine video with drawing so that the figurative action could be video of myself and the background could be drawn.

Back in Sydney I consulted with John Hughes, an animation lecturer at College of Fine Arts. John convinced me of the possibility of combining video with stop-motion animation. Together we set up in the blue room at the COFA studios and shot the first 2 scenes for One Another. A blue room is an enclosed studio painted blue. Footage shot in this room can be used in video editing software to separate the figurative foreground from the blue background, the premise being that blue is the colour pigmentation found least in the skin and therefore able to be separated out from the moving figure.

In February 2004 I moved to Darwin to work as a printmaker at Northern Editions, and continued the MFA part time. I worked together with a video editor, Kate Rendel, to learn about combining the video footage with the drawn frames. We used Adobe Premier to drop out the blue background. With these tests I began to understand how I would be able to combine video with drawing. The idea was to project the video figurative action onto the drawing, then move the video forward frame by frame, as I would draw, erase and redraw, frame by frame. This way the video foreground and drawn background could be registered together temporally and spatially. After all the frames were drawn the two layers could be combined in video editing software.

In Darwin I set up a small studio and made another test for the Heartmap sequence. I made a second Heartmapsequence, at the end of which I set the paper alight. I found that the paper burned in strips upwards, and slowly enough for me to capture frames as it burned. This sequence became the third scene in One Another.

During this period in Darwin I was deliberating a great deal between the two techniques; weighing the pros and cons between pure drawing-erasure and combination video, drawing-erasure. My thinking between pros and cons hovered around technical and aesthetic issues and also considerations about how the work may be received by a critical audience. At a technical level, looking for ease and efficiency, pros and cons seemed to negate each other; drawing/erasure would be simple technically but time consuming; combination would be faster but more complex technically and rely on the expertise of others when it came to set up, editing and post-production. Aesthetically, each method seemed to speak with its own language, significantly different from one another. I felt satisfied with both potentials so comparison at an aesthetic level did not provide clarification. The look of the combination video drawing however did seem more unique and innovative; I could not recall seeing this look elsewhere. These aesthetic considerations were tied in with my thoughts about how the work may be received; primary I was concerned how my work may be seen to relate to William Kentridges’. I was, and am, conscious of being judged as too derivative of Kentridge. My mind oscillates between two hands around this issue. On the one hand I accept and even embrace the charges; it is good to appropriate the style and methodology of another who one admires. On the other hand I guard against the accusation, searching for an argument to signify my departure from Kentridge. This issue remains happily unresolved. Along the way I showed my tests to friends, associations and professionals, gauging responses and engaging these issues as best I could. Many people agreed with me that I best pursue the combination technique.

After 6 months in Darwin I came to an impasse with the MFA project. I felt it was not possible to engage sufficiently with the subject while I was becoming more absorbed by the issues of that place. I knew I had either to give up the MFA, or to leave Darwin. I made a decision for the MFA. In October 2004 I travelled to Israel with the intention of developing the animation and continuing my research for Three Hundred and Sixty Degrees of Separation. I decided to work on only the first three scenes out of the narrative that I had scripted, as this seemed reasonable and achievable.

In Tel-Aviv I set up a studio in the ex-apartment of my cousins that was planned for demolition. I had one month rent-free in this apartment. Within one week I had the studio set up. This involved setting up: the drawing; the camera; a projector and computer; isolating the natural light and setting up artificial lighting. I began the first tests to check if my system would work. From these tests I could see that my system needed significant tweaking but that fundamentally it worked, and could produce the results I was looking for. I felt excited and amazed how quickly and easily all this came together as I hadn’t assumed such easy success, (not least because Israeli life is high pressure, and complex). And then things began to break down, one by one. First the camera broke; I had it fixed. Then the lens on the used projector broke; I rented a new one. Then my computer broke. This was a big problem because the service for Macintosh in Israel was minimal and I had to send my machine to France for repair. For a fortnight I was at a loss, not sure how to proceed and ready to give up. During this time I began drawing Flagmen, Hope and Despair.I realised that all the drawing I had done in the tests and storyboarding had significantly contributed to developing my skills, and that I could begin to approach drawing figuratively from my imagination. These drawings begin with paper completely blackened with compressed charcoal. I then proceed making marks with an erasure, feeling, almost willing the figure to emerge out of the darkness, from the inside out.

Resolving not to give up the animation project I found a solution by borrowing my cousin’s laptop. I had one more week in the Tel-Aviv studio and had to work nights because my cousin needed his computer during the day. I made a few more tests to fine-tune my system and got underway. I proceeded thus:

  1. Lights are turned off allowing me to see the video projection.
  2. The video is projected onto the drawing.
  3. Lights are turned on allowing me to see the drawing.
  4. Drawing, erasure and redrawing.
  5. Projector is tuned off.
  6. Lights are turned on to the drawing.
  7. Drawing is captured to the computer via the digital camera.
  8. Lights are turned off.
  9. Video is projected onto the drawing and moved forward one frame.
  10. Etc, etc

In this crazy walk between lights, drawing, computer, projector and camera, I completed all the frames for the first two scenes of One Another over 6 nights. After finishing I returned the projector and computer and made the short animation Burns Down My Arm in a day.

Later, I found some work at Har-El Printersin Jaffa. This enabled me to stay on in Israel and collaborate with Avner Shaked on the editing and post-production. Using Adobe After Effects, Avner made a significant contribution to the look and outcome of the project. The elements we worked on with After Effects were: fine tuning the registration between the video and drawn layers; making the paper prayers yellow; disappearing One and reappearing Another; reflecting Another in the reflective plane; putting the beating heart in the paper prayer; the titling and credits; and all importantly, the sound.

In January 2005 the visual part of One Another was complete. Since the projects inception I had been thinking of Middle East folk music for the sound track. Jewish and Arab folk music share the same modes and scales. It is an easier co-existence than the imbroglio over shared space. I approached Yair Dalal, who comes from a lineage of Jewish-Iraqi musicians. He kindly gave me his music to use. I used cuts from two compositions: Tzur Mishalanu Achalnu and Sumai. Avner downloaded sounds from the web: desert wind, a beating heart. Together with Yair’s music we put the soundtrack together.

Returning to Sydney I set up a studio at the NAS in which I worked during 2005. I continued making charcoal drawings. At the same time I began developing an idea for another drawing-erasure animation that features a desert space occupied by continuously morphing towers, rocks, walls and villages. I drew the frames for Tower in one week and edited them in Final Cut Pro.

The narrative from the Tower animation became the basis for the narrative for the Tower etching series. Ever since working with drawing-erasure animation I had been curious to transfer the technique to a printmaking process where-by I would take a series of images through various states on the one continuously transforming matrix. Offcourse due to the labour intensiveness of etching it would not be possible to produce as many frames as drawing-erasure so I was curious to see how to achieve a balance in the process which would still impart a sequence to a narrative.

Tower, the etching series, was made from 1 aluminium plate taken through 25 states. Initially I planned to produce about 10 states, but my ambitions grew after I realised that aluminium is very soft and thus easy to work with a roulette, burnisher and scraper. The first images were made with a copper-sulphate mordant however I decided it was easier to just work with dry-point, and completed the series that way. The narrative changes from one state to the next were worked out partly from a storyboard, and partly at the site of the plate. At each state I printed 8 proofs in two different formats. One artist’s book has been made. I hope to use these prints in collaboration with other artists and/or poets in future artist’s book project.

On completing these etchings I captured each state with a digital camera. These frames were sequenced together in Final Cut Pro, cross-dissolving one frame to the next. In this way a short video was made from the etchings. For me this represented the movement of double rotation within my project. Three Hundred and Sixty Degrees of Separation began its life as a series of etchings, evolved to moving images and returned again to etchings, only to be moved once more.

Another cyclical movement in my project has been realised by the Site Projections video series. In these I utilise the same strategy as in the original etchings of the sacred sites, layering images of the two sites together. Again, this video series represents an evolution from still to moving images. In these works I have used Final Cut Pro to cut, edit and play with video clips I shot in Israel. Together with clips of the sacred sites I have added clips from a market place near the sacred sites and the desert south of Jerusalem. To begin with I placed clips together in arbitrary ways. Experimenting with transparency and luminosity filters I delighted at the chance convergences between the layered sites. These produced some beautiful passages and eerily abstracted scenes. I have made 2 video pieces that develop this layering, playing with speed, repetition, transparency and luminosity. I have used Yair’s music for the first piece and an original score by Maja Petrovna for the second.

This accounts for all the work produced for the MFA portion of the project. My next project is to develop One Another, into which I may combine the narratives of Tower and Site Projections. For this I have the assistance of an Australia Council New Work Grant.