Comments on The Novel of Nonel and Vovel

[This is a paper I gave at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in January 2010 to present the work, The Novel of Nonel and Vovel, created by artists Oreet Ashery and Larissa Sansour.]

One central question that Oreet Ashery’s and Larissa Sansour’s The Novel of Nonel and Vovel poses is to what degree is political engagement and artistic practice related either antithetically and/or concomitantly.  Can the artist through her work effect real political change?  Or, must political change be devoid of artistic content and practice?  I would say the ontology of this work of art already answers this question, at least for now–that indeed yes, the artist can produce her work and effect real political change.    And certainly, more directly, Nonel and Vovel demonstrate this in the section entitled “Intergalactic Palestine”.  These two characters learn through their superhuman powers that all power itself is irreversible and we are all “infected” with it.

However, there is a wider dilemma for both the artists and their fictive superheroes, Nonel and Vovel:  how do we negotiate the problems and contradictions in the varying processes of art and politics, of past and present, and of words and artistic praxis?  The artists’ solution was to include the conversations surrounding these very perceived “problematics” and as such we are witness to an Israeli and Palestinian having English roast in a land which is paradoxical to their situation:  Leicester and Northampton as having been these cold, damp spaces of inhospitality in their young adulthoods and yet this very country is also the current host of their warm meeting and creative designs.  Likewise, the United Kingdom is one of the major historical players which set up the stage for future occupations, controlled violence, the segregation wall, and settlements and the paradoxical geographic setting of artistic and political recuperation in this international/”intergalactic” artwork.

One aspect of interest for me about this piece is how the artists remain conscious of the implications of their actions and words, rendering alive the notion of “possibility” simply through questioning the very plausibility of the possible.  Indeed, the force of this work lies in its contradictions since it is only through contradiction that this novel realises  the very spaces in which we find the resonances of true meaning:  the metaphor of “foot and mouth” disease that questions the very pretence that words and actions might not at all be antithetical or non-complimentary, but they might be a disease perhaps because we conceive of the word and action as separate.  Might they be more united than we think?  This work puts into question the rhetorical separation of art and politics:   might we be the actors separating words from action pretending as if there were no or little interconnectivity?

Indeed, through Skype which initiates this project both practically and narratively, we see the artists in written and oral communication, the word rendered as planning tool, the word as virtual, the word as virus.  It is through the virtual world of Skype that our narrators bring themselves (and hence us) through the terrain of consciousness, of viral uses of language–typos and all.

 Language is no longer sacred or pure, yet its force remains so inasmuch as it is a tool of creation and communication through which power is recognised and through which Sunday roast is eventually agreed upon.  Language becomes a tactical tool for organisation of the artwork itself –the artists share their thoughts and we read their discourses as outside, long-distance participants.  This tertiary space of London and the “ritual” of the Sunday roast in this culture which is not “theirs” likewise serves as the scene for learning about the artists and for understanding how contradictions unfold into creative dialogues, even how contradictions are themselves constructions in a language which they make their own.  Disease as fatal, untreatable; yet these protagonists take this prognosis and turn it into promise, as they look forward towards a hopeful future.

Normalisation is the section of the work I find most interesting in that it deals head-on with the ways in which the artist is disempowered by the institution and whereby “intermingling”, even in the scope of artistic/terrorist “collaboration” is questionable.  Hence the elaborate questionnaires whose force does not lie in “information collecting”, as this form could be said to resemble that of a grant application or an immigration card query, but rather the force of these questionnaires lies in what is not answered, what is implied.   The questionnaires force the artist to ask what she is doing in her collaboration with the other and to justify it.   “Normalisation” treats the polemics of collaborations as both potentially dangerous and productive.  This collaboration therefore defies the notion of a “normal situation” and likewise it implicates, via the linguistic levels of the word “collaboration”,  a language which discriminates collaboration–in both the terroristic and artistic senses of the word.  The vagueness of the term retains the force of the word and the possibility of action.  The question, “Have you ever collaborated  with a Palestinian?” of course can be read in several ways and indeed, we are witnessing the collaboration of an Israeli and a Palestinian.  Words have power to render this collaboration as merely artistic or as terroristic. But what if collaboration might simply mean both, art as praxis and political praxis as art?  The force of this linguistic choice between one or the other, between terrorism or creation,  is obliterated through the photographic image of Nonel and Vovel riding the bus in London together, smiles on their faces.

Yet, I am left to wonder if this normalisation might be one of Foucaultian proportions in which normalisation (along with individualisation) leads to governmentality whereby the population is rendered more controllable?  Is there really a perception of control by such artistic and political collaboration?  Or, does this normalisation of Vovel and Nonel seek to challenge the notions that, for instance, an Israeli and Palestinian cannot collaborate and likewise that any such collaboration does not diminish or obfuscate the political inequalities?  Indeed the effective use of normalisation in this text provokes both comfort (for the possibility and dialogue) and discomfort (for the threat of never undertaking anything more than dialogue whereby action is left on the level of constant planning and assessment, never realised).    Certainly these forms and boxes to check render the artist neutered at the point of creative conception and even survivability–her income is dependent upon her ability to answer, to fill in forms and to predict the spectatorship of her work by certain audiences.  The artist rendered media manager, she is slated as trivial and valuable only at the point of her own economic return.   The following image in this section is the  “Crossword Puzzle from the Holy Land”  which further alters the political by subtly making artistic and political enunciations banal:  18 Across:  “Three smart men who visited Bethlehem sometime ago”.

But there is another way to understand this normalisation of the artist here:  might this be a wake up to normalisation, a conscious rendering of the trials of the artist today?  Her means to live, her health, her body…  Is normalisation a choice that one is forced to make by the art institutions, or is this the inevitable reflection of power and creativity that one must make when confronted with questions such as: “Do you [make art] because it is trendy?”  Indeed, art perceived on this level of  trendy, elitist and the drive to get laid, renders art immediately apolitical. Hence the tautology of what to do when what you do is already a trend (that and bisexuality).

So we are brought to “Imperial Trivia” and colonialism as Nonel and Vovel stand in front of the phallic guns of London’s Imperial War Museum.  This photo poses the paradox of colonial conquest now maintained behind the marble pillars of this war museum, its subjects standing beneath its canons.  It is in the following chapter “What Shall We Do?”  in which dialogue deconstructs the assumed status quo of political inactivity:  the political is re-activated and the superheroes are born as our protagonists decide to save Palestine.  Artist as thinker, participant, observer and mover.  This section then turns to the chapter entitled “Orientalism” in which we observe the artists’ cogitations in the spaces of cliché  wherein this passage of the text realises that the pretence of separation is its own political infection.  Nonel and Vovel assume their role as both artist and superhero:  the text and image imbue all the colonial stereotypes of the painterly harem, Disney’s Aladdin and the blurred space of this collective belonging with images of Oreet’s family photos from Jerusalem 1920s, which could be easily misread as photos from a Palestinian heritage.  Identity is seemingly collapsed, but we are made aware who is empowered, who is stateless with the returns from the “real life” of the artists to the very real-life situation of a stateless Palestine and our superheroes who must create the real from cartoon image.  The tone of the text again shifts as we are brought suddenly to jokes about Mizrahi Jews, with interfaces of the stereotypes of superheroes, an Arab in dishdasha and a Hassidic Jew; images of the artists smoking shisha, flying in a stuffed pita, portrayed in colonialist era postcards and individuated as cut-outs with which to dress and play:  “Your own cut out Palestinian doll with authentic Palestinian gear”.  A Palestinian we can “know”, dress, and re-possess.


The study for this work takes up just over half the novel and I find it holds the weight of the work even before arriving at the comic strip,  “Intergalactic Palestine”.  The “The Peace Process” section of the novel shows the artists at the Segregation Wall and it lists the terminology of this “conflict”.  Even the word “conflict” is convoluted for it effaces the differentiation of power that is radically skewed and turns the mental and physical violences, the Apartheid, and political injustices into a “minor issue”.  And hence the force of this novel which uses language and image to redefine the pornographic language of peace.  The introduction states:

Nonetheless, outside spectators can think of nothing more appealing than a dialogue between a Palestinian and an Israeli. The face-to-face encounter between two presumed antagonists gives people the comforting idea that there are good people on both sides…For many, the blind pursuit of dialogue – be it political, academic, or cultural – often runs the risk of obscuring the nature of occupation. It creates a dangerous aura of moral equivalence between the occupier and the occupied (7).

Hence the problem of “normalcy”, that often results in statements that run from “Why can’t those people just get along?” to evocations of the “blame” somewhere lying “in the middle”.    The problem with both sorts of enunciations is that the normal assumes a compromise almost for the sake of the masses which see things in facile terms such as “sides” and which infantilises a serious situation of political repression as behavioural (ie. getting along has absolutely nothing to do with Israel’s long-standing oppression of Palestinians).  Moreover, the facile treatment of the abuses by the state of Israel towards Palestinians results in a form of consensus whereby terms like “Middle East Conflict” replace “colonial conquest”;  where “Security Barrier” replaces “Segregation Wall”;  and where Palestinians always act out of “terrorist instinct” while Israelis are always reacting, alway in “self-defence”.  Yet Nonel and Vovel’s return to this subject of normalisation underscores the very real implications of artistic and political collaboration:  that of a perceived violence or a recreation of a very real dialogue that seeks political action.

Ultimately there is a negotiation of this perceived conflict between politics and art and likewise between the possibility of collaborative efforts resulting in change instead of a condition of stasis.  Hence this novel’s political action remains locked between the present debates of these artists and the space of the final fantasy of political change which occurs in the section “Intergalactic Palestine”.  But I would go even further and suggest that the political action has preceded this last, more formalised comic strip which is filled with scenes of our heros and their acetone-toting, foul-mouthed ninja.  The real political force of this novel lies in all the chapters which  precede this final comic strip through its polysemous narratives which takes real life questions of Palestinian autonomy and creates a mixture of visual and narrative genres.  Through the use of comic strip, photo story boards, photography, painting, drawing, textual narrative and low-budget science fiction cinema, these artists are able to query the possibilities of how to tear down various walls:  both the  metaphoric walls (which separate art and politics) and the Segregation Wall (which separates Israelis from Palestinians).  For the present reality is that there are no superheroes and there is no toppling this 8 meter high Segregation Wall.  As such, the most unexpected fiction–that of superheroes and intergalactic travel–becomes the only vehicle for realising possibility, imagining change, and necessitating action in the real-life liberation of Palestine yesterday, now and tomorrow.