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The artist dissects the links between the American Christian right and Israel

by godlove4241
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Tali Keren’s multimedia practice questions the way in which the individual fits into national and transnational networks of power. From his various collaborative projects that undermine the limits and potential of political and legal imaginations in the United States to his video trilogy Thermal signature (2018), The big seal (2016-2018), and De-graph (2021-ongoing), which delves into the insidious interweavings of religious, political and military institutions across the United States and Israel (where the artist was born), Keren uses various modes of audience participation to alter the dialogue on politics and power.

For this interview, we discussed his most recent project, the film and the installation De-graphcurrently showing at the James Gallery of the CUNY Graduate Center in New York. Accompanied by a series of public programs – conferences and musical performances organized with Adam HajYahia, the New Red Order, Kite, Hadar Ahuvia and the Middle East and Middle East American Center (MEMEAC) – De-graph asks its viewers to pay critical attention to the destructive fantasies that have shaped US-Israeli relations. We talked about the sources and origins of De-graph and the artist’s hopes of destabilizing dominant Zionist narratives on both sides of the Atlantic.


Chelsea Haines: Your video installation De-graph brings together compelling historical and contemporary accounts of the Holy Land produced by Christians who projected their own messianic visions onto a landscape of which they had very little material knowledge. Self-proclaimed prophet Richard Brothers wrote his fantastic prophecies about Jerusalem in the 19th century, while members of the Faith Bible Chapel in Denver today travel to Israel on highly orchestrated trips to perform for the Israeli military. How do you see these characters and their stories relating to each other and to the current material realities of Israel/Palestine? Why did you want to collect these stories?

Tali Keren: De-graph is linked to my own movement between sites and political realities. I left Jerusalem for New York eight years ago. Since then, I have examined the shared colonial imaginaries that bind Israel and the United States, grappling with their interconnected role in state violence in Palestine and beyond. De-graph is the third chapter of a book that examines the manifestations of Judeo-Christian messianism through time, as well as the deep links between Zionism and Protestant Christianity. In this series – as in much of my previous work – I have developed projects by conducting in-depth research on two parallel tracks: studying historical archives and collecting documentary material and allowing connections between these sources to emerge.

Installation view of Tali Keren, De-graph (2021–ongoing), 3D animation, duration: 17 minutes, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (photo by Clair Gatto)

The political instrumentalization of biblical beliefs can be very seductive, indoctrinating and fascinating. I’m genuinely interested in the frighteningly effective political power of messianic zeal, and much of my work critically engages its use of aesthetics, emotional storytelling, music, and dance. This interest led me to document a dance troupe of evangelical teenagers from Colorado who visit Israeli military bases each year to perform a pastiche of Israeli “folk” dances dressed in Israeli military uniforms. I interviewed the troupe’s Israeli choreographer and director of American evangelism for the church in Israel and filmed the teen routine. This material remained in my computer for several years. I didn’t really know what to do with it.

Things fell into place when I came across the writings of Richard Brothers, which struck similar chords of projected fantasy, religious fervor and embedded violence. Brothers’ detailed map of a New Jerusalem literally flattens and erases the place he imagines to make way for his biblical vision of a utopian grid order. I see his colonialist visions resonating both with the Orientalism that underlies much contemporary evangelical rhetoric about Israel and with Zionist attempts at Palestinian erasure.

To come back to your question, the Brethren and Faith Bible Chapel participate in long traditions of projecting theological fantasies onto the “Holy Land”. But such imaginaries have very real effects on the ground. They support and are fundamental to real state-sanctioned violence – materialized in Palestine through Israeli occupation and apartheid and the dehumanization of Palestinians through the ongoing Nakba.

Today, many Israeli politicians have formed political alliances with conservative American evangelicals. They reinforce the fabricated and divisive myth of the conservative evangelical church of the so-called eternal enemy of Islam while conveniently ignoring the anti-Semitism that often accompanies this ideology.

Tali Keren, De-graph (2021–ongoing), 3D animation, duration: 17 minutes (image courtesy of the artist)

De-graph brings together Christian messianism and Zionist mythology precisely because their connections and effects on the Middle East are today often overlooked. One need only look at the current far-right Israeli government to see the dangers of a racist, messianic and militaristic settler policy. However, it is important for me to be clear that the violence these ideologies engender is structural for Zionism, not an aberration of the current parliament. But I also refuse to believe that these structures are impossible to dismantle. The accompanying programming will engage these interconnected global threads, highlighting alternative revolutionary imaginaries based on liberation, true equity and solidarity.

CH: Let’s talk about the aesthetics of De-graph. Although Brothers wrote about his visions of a New Jerusalem in the early 19th century, the way his prophecy is rendered in Un-Charting sounds like science fiction. How did you come to this way of visualizing these stories?

know : THE movie De-graph is set up as an immersive game simulator, placing the viewer in the eye of the storm of an ideological state apparatus. Brothers wrote his utopian vision of Jerusalem from a mental asylum in Britain, having never been to the Middle East. A 180 degree curved screen draws visitors into its colonial hallucinatory space. The film begins with a sea voyage reminiscent of the voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492 or the crossing of the Atlantic by the Puritans in the 17th century. Gradually, the gridded map of Brothers emerges from the water, becoming a neon-lit futuristic city — equating the European conquest of the “New World” with the colonization and partition of the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The film talks about them as interconnected world historical events. But beyond that, I am interested in the aesthetics, contradictions and erasures inherent in imperial and nationalist temporal assemblage as mythical ahistorical pasts leading teleologically to a specific political present and an imaginary future of end. the times. It made me think of sci-fi tropes like time travel and terraforming. I felt the 3D animation and gamification would tie together the militaristic and orientalist themes of the material and worked closely with the film’s animator Ayelet Shoval and playwright Nir Shaulof to create an engaging sensory experience.

Tali Keren, De-graph (2021–ongoing), 3D animation, duration: 17 minutes

Reading the Brethren’s text, I was struck by the resemblance between his messianic vision and the writings of Theodor Herzl. Herzl, a founding father of political Zionism, used speculative fiction to articulate a colonial ethnocratic logic as a solution to entrenched anti-Semitism in Europe. I ask: if much of this logic is other people’s fiction, can we hire fiction to break it? Although my film uses a sci-fi aesthetic, it is also a documentary, using interviews and original footage. Fictions constantly resonate with (and in) material realities.

CH: Participation has been a key part of your practice, as The big seal (2016-18) in which you invited participants to recite a speech given at the annual conference of CUFI (Christians United for Israel). The public experience in De-graph feels different – it feels like a coercive, almost involuntary form of participation. Was it intentional? What effect do you hope the installation will have on the viewer?

know : I am always interested in the complex dynamics between witness And participant. I don’t know if I agree with the word involuntary in the case of De-graph. I see participation as a multi-faceted word. The forms of participation that I explore in De-graphand in The big seal And Thermal signature, ask about levels of participation and complacency in state violence. My work asks: What are the coercive mechanisms that perpetuate evil at the societal level? And how are the media, rhetoric and aesthetics “recruited” in the service of this evil? In De-graph, there are different registers of participation; some are contradictory. The immersive nature of the exhibition and film design is meant to draw you in like a video game or a clever advertisement. Then there are the participants in the film: the indoctrinated American teenagers – in my opinion – sent to perform in front of soldiers, the Israeli and American interviewees overseeing this enterprise, and myself as an artist. Showing that work here adds an extra layer to questions of complicity and participation: American taxpayers’ money literally funded the construction of the military base referenced in the film; it is part of the three billion dollar package sent each year by the United States to Israel, which supports the occupation. The film may center the stories of individuals, but as the layering of choral voices throughout suggests, these individuals are part of larger systems of violence.

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