Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Road to Peace

This photograph of a separation wall in Jerusalem, seen from the Palestinian side, presents a multi-layered speculation on graffiti as political and cultural rhetoric. Graffiti are so rooted to the physical object on which they are painted that they always seem to have a local, rooted aura, and often make a territorial claim. This effect can occur even when the physically fixed graffiti move, as when painted on a train. Here the photographer slows the shutter speed, blurring the images of the Palestinians walking and running past, urgently, as if this were a dangerous spot, while fixing the street clutter and the surface texture of the wall, old enough that posters have come and gone, giving the wall a growing permanence that it is the object of the graffiti to protest, deny, and undermine. But even the protest and denial partly have the opposite effect, acknowledging the fact of the wall. The graffiti of a rail line seem to extend past the frame in both directions -- there is a lot we are not seeing.

What is it about? The caption in the New York Times publication of the photograph reads, "Palestinian children ran past a graffiti-scrawled section of Israel's separation barrier in the West Bank town of Aram, just outside Jerusalem. Israel says the barrier is necessary for security, while Palestinians call it part of a land grab." That reminds us of what we have heard about the separation wall, but it does not explain the graffiti.

The graffiti address the spectator in English and French, though it is not clear that tourists are likely to walk past this desolate and seemingly menacing spot, and even if they did, what are they to make of the appeal for a boycott of Veolia, whatever that is? It turns out that Veolia is a company hired to construct a light rail line connecting Israeli settlements in disputed territories to the core of Jerusalem. Such rail lines would presumably make the settlements more permanent. I am in no position to argue the merits of any of that. It is interesting, from a rhetorical point of view, how the graffiti exist to prompt a question ("what is Veolia?") but also seem to presume, or at least hope, that the graffiti will circulate beyond this location -- perhaps by the publication of a photograph in an international newspaper. And then the question "what is Veolia" can be asked, by any reader, of Google.

The appeal in English and French, oddly, speaks to the potential of the image to circulate beyond this spot, but also seems to portray itself, in its rootedness to that wall, as an outcry of the powerless, unable to themselves reach directly to the international audience.

(Photo: Muhammed Muheisen/Associated Press; New York Times, 2 May 2008)

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