Civic Performance Art

What role does art play in a state of emergency? What art forms are required to be able to engage with the situation? Ilana Salama Ortar invented the term »Civic Performance Art« as an artistic reaction and strategy to make erased memories, events, and identities visible within the geopolitical and socially heterogeneous landscape of the conflict – with the aim to open civic understanding between people.

Living in a territory that is under constant threat of geopolitical conflict (two communities claiming the same territory) and in a climate of social heterogeneity (a society composed of immigrants and refugees) I create interdisciplinary art that responds to this specific situation. My artistic practice links the notion of trauma to history and memory, considered at the individual, collective, and national levels.
Intervention in public space is inherent to my practice. As I am dealing with the scars left by States of Emergency (see below) resembling my own experience (uprootedness, migration, transit, isolation), on individuals, communities, cities, and landscapes, I try to create a dialectical constellation of past and present [1] in the public sphere in the form of participatory installations. I aim to generate dialogues among people and groups whose conflicting histories, memories, or social situations have blocked, undermined, or destroyed communication thus preventing an open, clear gaze toward their environment, their space, their world. I call this kind of intervention Civic Performance Art.

[A short note on the used images that show excerpts from the film Urban Traces, Villa Khury / The Prophets’ Tower by Ilana Salama Ortar, 1995: The mall as a common and daily expression of modernity and its globalised extension. All identities, all historic experiences seem to coexist in the same place –- or be forgotten, repressed, recovered by the screen of commodities. The destiny of the city (and hence of the entire Middle East) may drastically change in such a place. This location is the prototype for each community living an inner conflict: religious, ethnic or territory conflict. The shopping centre functions on the basis of a denied history, but nevertheless the living diversity of history appears clearly. Therefore, I decided to »sell my goods« in this place: using the precise data of repressed history to intervene, through models, maps, photos and videos.]

Civic Performance Art is a site-specific intervention in a State of Emergency or State of Exception. It aspires to create a new public space based on interdisciplinary performances and installations that include interaction with and participation of people. The interventions engage with basic human sensations and draw upon theoretical sources in the various fields of history, sociology, philosophy, psychology, and anthropology.

This combination incorporates different sources, layers, and disciplines. The projects are multicultural items that contribute to making visible erased and repressed memories, events, and identities. By enabling this mutual visibility, Civic Performance Art aims to open new channels of civic understanding between people – offering steps toward a partnership characterized by mutual responsibility and joint action.

The relationship between Civic Performance Art and Architecture of Emergency is hence an articulation of a multicultural crossing of disciplines. It exploits a whole range of perceptions and knowledge dealing with suffering due to uprootedness, migration, transit, isolation, war, occupation, and military deployment concerning individuals, communities, cities, and landscapes – all extreme situations of absence and invisibility that tend to transform people into one homogeneous, abstract category, easily dismissed, outcast, and isolated.

This project demonstrates how a discourse of art and aesthetics may be intertwined with political reality; how theoretical debates are realized in a State of Emergency or State of Exception and how theoretical ideas may be expressed by works of art, creating change as a result of an artistic intervention. The theoretical debates support the creation of new collage of ideas, applied in the world of art, in reality, not in theory, and thus create change via an act in the register of art which in turn acts in the world in a manner which reflects the theoretical arguments.

Civic Performance Art invites the individual or the collective to express his/their critical attitude/s toward the topic being staged. The performance depends on a movement back and forth between reality and fiction in order to bring memories hidden in deep strata to the surface. This dialectical relationship is performed between elements from real life, metaphorical representations, and spectators in a public space so that dialectic, emotional, and cognitive events are created and developed in the mind of the spectator. The spectator becomes a participant at the moment he decides to enter the performance. At that moment, he is transformed into an artist composing ideas from reality and fiction in a specific site.

Fieldwork in public spaces yields intricate, interdisciplinary installations and performances which strive to expose traces, and thereby to reconstruct memory and process information via critical architectural models. The modeling of architectural space as a technique of memory activation goes hand in hand with the distribution of questionnaires, inviting the public to take part in the work of art; publication of articles in the press; creation of documentary films; revised urban mapping with the aid of public games; intervention in commercial centers; collecting testimonies and exposing the materials to public criticism.

…places of intimacy despite the tumult prevailing in a public place.
A huge building.
On the outside it looks all the same, a palace, a jewel.
The architects have done a wonderful job

The process of Civic Performance Art involves composing the whole apparatus of the items discussed and allowing the spectator/participant to see, to feel, to listen; to decipher the multiple layers behind the exterior façade or ground surface fabric of a site in conflict; to enter a state of mind which may promote understanding of »The Other.« The emotional involvement of the spectator/participant is a crucial component in the Civic Performance Art. To quote Jacques Rancière:

»The distribution of the sensible reveals who can have a share in what is common to the community based on what they do and on the time and space in which this activity is performed … It is on the basis of this primary aesthetics that it is possible to raise the question of ›aesthetic practices‹ as I understand them, that is forms of visibility that disclose artistic practices, the place they occupy, what they ›do‹ or ›make‹ from the standpoint of what is common to the community.« [2] Jacques Ranciere

A State of Emergency and Architecture of Emergency

A State of Emergency or State of Exception – a camp [3] situation – is a state in which the rule of law is temporarily suspended on the basis of an actual state of danger [4] .

Architecture of Emergency materializes and characterizes the suspended situations and environments inherent in the State of Emergency, in the culture of Western society. It deals with the situations of displaced populations (immigrants and refugees) and displaced architecture, removed physically (from their indigenous space), socially (in rundown districts), and politically (by war and occupation), at sites where an ambient State of Emergency exists or has existed. Such public spheres operate as platforms from which Civic Performance Art may be activated. My work process involves interpreting the word »camp« as a State of Emergency with the activation of remembrance through site-specific architectural fabric and the reconstruction of memory via critical architectural models or environments.

Israel/Palestine is nothing but a camp.

Villa Khury / The Prophets’ Tower project combines the two zones Israel and Palestine into a single camp emphasizing the fact that the two groups, Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, lay claim to the same piece of land, which contains historical memories for each group. Thus, the land they struggle over is a camp that encompasses them both.

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  1. Jump Up In defining the term »dialectical,« I refer to Walter Benjamin: »It’s not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, an image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words, the image is dialectics at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: it is not progression but image, suddenly emergent. Only dialectical images are genuine images – that is, not archaic – ; and the place where one encounters them is language. Awakening.« Walter Benjamin 1999, p. 462.
  2. Jump Up Rancière underscores the fact that in order to participate in a common space one must be available and in the right place. »Being Available« means not to be monopolized by paid activity and having time for politics. »The right place« is in the Agora, in the public space of the Ecclesia. /Greek, Ekklēsia: »gathering of those summoned,« Encyclopaedia Britannica 2007 Ultimate Reference Suite/. Today this »common« space or time is disappearing and my Civic Performance Art seeks gently to coax it into reappearing, in the interstices of the anomic – referring to a breakdown of social structures, ungoverned by law spaces of shopping malls or recreational sites/amusement parks, public gardens/. I aspire to enhance visibility and practicability around political issues, such as the memory of the 1948 war. /Visibility and practicability are issues which we treat as politics inasmuch as politics deals with the constitution of a common space/. This will give sense-based substance to the common, even before we talk about any plastic or aesthetic – and in that sense sensible form. Subsequently, I extracted possible work methods from my projects. Typically, they involve installing some sort of site-sensitive and thus receivable device that is acceptable in the surroundings, which is both efficient – allowing me to meet people and render the common visible – and usable. Everyone can partake in this common space, which is not a simulacrum. It does not mimic what has already been done in the political realm but makes it possible to see the sensible common latent in any man or woman who agrees to play with me. I displace individuals to a time-space of leisure and exchange, in order to find – or reinvent – interstices of common political space.
  3. Jump Up The camp is used as a figure for a situation in which people who have been displaced physically: immigrants, socially: in rundown districts, or politically: by war and occupation find themselves. The camp permeates all historical, cultural, intellectual, social, and political strata. Agamben characterizes the camp as the space that is opened when the state of exception begins to become the rule. /Agamben 1998/. In the camp, the state of exception is given a permanent spatial arrangement. Such, indeed, is the condition of the people with whom this research is concerned: Those who live their lives in a state of constant emergency and exclusion that is typical of life in a transit camp.
  4. Jump Up Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, Chicago 2003.