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Off The Wall

The Walls are Talking to Us

History Lesson

 

Intro

In 2004, armed with a camera, notepad, and a bicycle, I found myself across the Atlantic, cruising the streets of Berlin in search of the public but often overlooked dialogue called graffiti. Many view graffiti as a public nuisance, spending large amounts of money getting it removed and demanding tough punishments for transgressors, while others view it as art. Whatever the case – which no doubt will remain a subject of debate for some time - Berlin is viewed by some as the graffiti capital of the world, and its seemingly endless supply of huge, windowless blank walls and other suitable surfaces provide the perfect canvas for daring artists and ideologues to make their messages known to the public.

The themes of graffiti are many and varied, often mirroring the themes prevalent at the time in the society in which they are written. Of all of the different types of graffiti to be found, including the less interesting “tags” which act as territorial markings, I was most concerned with those images and messages that made a statement. As I made my way through Berlin, photographing everything of interest, I noticed the city begin to come alive. The walls began to talk to me, in a chorus of fascinating and thought- provoking words and images, and I was their eager audience.

At first the noise was deafening and unintelligible, like being in the center of a roomful of shouting people, some engaged in prolonged verbal attacks, some reading poetry, all at a very high volume, and all vying for my attention. Soon my senses adjusted to this onslaught of stimuli, and certain thematic patterns began to emerge. Opposition to America was a major theme, as were opposition to globalization, fascism, capitalism, war, and the situation between Israelis and Palestinians.

 

Some of the images I captured occupied my thoughts for quite some time, others did not; all of them made me think of Jenny Holzer, whose art must have been inspired by graffiti. The following essay is the result of my interaction with the messages found in public spaces. Of all the thoughts that this interaction has spurred, one deserves special mention here: it is interesting to observe how your perception of the outside world changes when you change the focus of your attention.

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Off The Wall

In big cities, paying close attention to the barrage of colorful messages inscribed in ink, paint, or scratched into all imaginable surfaces could be described as a kind of luxury activity. Most of us simply don’t have the time to indulge this simple pleasure. There are too many other things, like the roar of passing transportation, the armies of hurried citizens making their daily trek to and from work, and the colorful clusters of illegible “tags” that cover just about everything, that to not selectively block out all that doesn’t serve our immediate goals would mean certain disaster.

 

Think about it, every minute of every day we are presented with approximately 2,400 individual bits of information, an enormous amount of sensory input! Aside from the quiet whir of our internal machinery and the thousands of involuntary muscle movements, contractions and dilations, and electrical impulses that keep our bodies alive, we are also bombarded by five functional senses that are constantly detecting and sending a plethora of information on to our brains, all of the time. Of course the majority of this activity goes on under the radar of our awareness, which is why you probably can’t recall the last time you noticed your heartbeat or the feeling your feet have from touching your socks. If we were somehow able to absorb all of this information and bring it into awareness, the sheer quantity of it would overload our poor brains and we would cease to be able to function normally.

Always be nice! To everyone!

Blocking out, rather than tuning in then becomes an essential survival tool if we are ever to succeed in daily matters like, say, buying a loaf of bread or going to the movies. If we stopped to look at every message that we saw written or pasted on walls, bathrooms, buildings, and other public places we would certainly have difficulty doing anything in a timely fashion. That does not mean, however, that thought-provoking statements in the form of graffiti, posters, images, etc don’t exist all over public space and sometimes force their way into our awareness, whether we like it or not. In this sense, graffiti is one of, if not the most public form of getting one’s message out to a large number of people.

Those who choose to engage in this unorthodox presentation and exchange of opinions and ideas have taken the traditional idea of advertising and turned it on its head. Whereas big companies invest big money to expose the public to their logos, graffiti writers, among others, take the task into their own hands (and sometimes outside of the law), paying no one for the use of visible space but nonetheless achieving the same goal. The two methods share commonalities, namely forcing something into the public’s awareness, yet that something differs greatly. Big advertising is concerned first and foremost with creating revenue, while graffiti’s primary concern lies in making a statement.

 

In this sense graffiti can be thought of as functioning as a public forum where different ideas and opinions get expressed and exchanged. We can all probably recall one or two interesting conversations that we have seen written in public bathroom stalls, the content of which may or may not have been appropriate for the present discussion. Nonetheless, ideas get presented in public spaces, which move some individuals to respond to those ideas. The dialogue that evolves over time reflects the opinions of an anonymous cross-section of society.

Without advertising, With advertising

In this forum there are no moderators or membership requirements, no rules or specific topics that one must address. The dialogue that ensues, therefore, as with the space in which it takes place, is boundless. The result is quite literally an interaction between the public and the space in which it moves. Although most of the time we are oblivious to this silent discourse, every now and then something we see on a wall catches our attention and succeeds in making it’s way through the mechanism of consciousness, which acts as a funnel that reduces the overflow of sensory information we are presented with down to a manageable trickle.

 

The practical implications of such a re-direction of our attention are that we as individuals internalize the dialogue that takes place on tangible surfaces, and in effect extend the “space” in which this forum takes place to include our own minds. In this “annexed” space the interaction that takes place does not necessarily have to be interpersonal, as anyone who has experienced the chain-reaction of thoughts and associations spurred by the encounter with a particularly engaging image or phrase can attest to.

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The Walls are Talking to Us

If walls could talk, one would need earplugs in Berlin. In the German capital it almost seems as if there is more space that has been sprayed than spared. One doesn’t need to walk far or search for hours to come across one of the thought provoking statements that are the subject of this essay. They are everywhere, and graffiti writers go to considerable lengths, presenting their ideas on rooftops and high on sides of buildings to ensure that their messages reach the largest possible audience. One message common not only in Berlin but in other European cities, is opposition to the United States of America.

Since the U.S. led invasion of Iraq, statements opposing war, George Bush, and America in general have erupted in the European graffiti scene. Some of the statements offer critical insight into perceived failures in American leadership and foreign policy while others promote violence and aggression towards the United States, without differentiating between political and socio-cultural spheres. The rise in anti-American sentiments across Europe since the start of the Iraq war is mirrored in the dramatic increase of anti-American graffiti peppering European cities.

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Two machine-gun toting soldiers frame a call to arms to defend against U.S.   aggression. Although at first sight this graffiti seems to be a direct response to U.S. led military operations, the exact form of aggression against which we are supposed to defend is left up to the public to decide. In a Europe where American music, movies, T.V. shows, fast food, and name brands generate multi-billion euro yearly revenues, the possibilities of interpreting American aggression outside of a solely military context are clear.
In this variation we see the Palestinian, Cuban, and North Korean flags with a call to “participate.”
 

History Lesson

On my first trip to Berlin in the summer of 2003 I remember walking along the East Side Gallery – the largest portion of the Berlin wall left standing – and stopping at the last section before it ends at Warsaw Street. There, on one of the very last panels, a large mural consisting of a German flag with an Israeli flag superimposed onto it caught my attention. I found this to be one of the most telling images I had seen in Berlin, incorporating the three major components dominating the past half- century of German history. Here was in image that said it all; the Israeli flag was incorporated into the post-war German flag, reminding Germany that its own history will be forever bound to the horrors of the Holocaust and World War II, and similarly, the German flag was incorporated into the Israeli one, reminding Jews and the state of Israel of how inseparably intertwined their history is with that of Germany. This powerful image was painted not on a canvas, but on the physical barrier defining one of the eventual results of the war, namely the division of East and West Germany.

When I returned to Berlin one year later, I noticed, as I walked along the same stretch of the East Side Gallery, that the image that had spurred so much thought one year earlier had undergone a transformation. Now, instead of just the interplay between the Israeli and German flags, a third flag, that of Palestine, appeared on the left half of the mural. Thoughts and associations began to flood my mind once more. What message did the artist of this new flag want to convey? What were his/her motivations?

 

One could interpret the inclusion of the Palestinian flag in a number of different ways. Perhaps the artist wanted to make the statement that the history of the Palestinian people is also inextricably linked to the relationship between Israel and Germany - that they too suffered as a result of the outcome of World War II - or, given that the current situation between Israeli’s and Palestinians is a hot topic, that they continue to suffer as victims of Israeli occupation.

Freedom for Palestine
 

Regardless of one’s interpretation, it is clear that the main intention of this addition was to connect the three peoples and to make a statement about their overlapping histories. What that statement is will naturally vary from person to person, depending on what information or prejudices they bring to it, mine included.

 

But what if we were to leave varying personal interpretations aside and look to history to provide some answers as to how exactly Palestinians fit into the history embodied in the mural? Doing so reveals some damning information about Palestinians and the Arab world in general that to my better judgment was neither the intention of the artist to bring to light, nor is it connected to first associations that enter the viewer’s mind when presented with the work in question.

As noted Middle East historian Bernard Lewis writes: “The close and at times active relationship that developed between Nazi Germany and sections of the Arab leadership, in the years from 1933 to 1945, was due not to a German attempt to win over the Arabs, but rather to a series of Arab approaches to the Germans,” and “The principle architect of the wartime alliance between German Nazism, Italian fascism, and Arab nationalism was the mufti of Jerusalem Haj-Hamin Al Husseini, leader of the Palestine Arab Higher Committee, who made his first approach to the German consul in Jerusalem in 1933, soon after Hitler’s accession to power. His immediate aim was to halt and terminate Jewish settlement in Palestine. Beyond that, however, he aimed at much vaster purposes for a holy war of Islam in alliance with Germany against world Jewry, to accomplish the final solution of the Jewish problem everywhere.”

The mufti of Jerusalem was also responsible for the creation of an SS volunteer division among Muslims from Bosnia and Herzegovina that were partly responsible for the destruction of Yugoslav Jewry. The Arab world was after all fighting the same enemies as the Germans; namely the British, the French, and the Jews, and particular hostility towards Jews and the Zionist movement was emphasized in both German propaganda to the Arabs and in Arab appeals to the Germans. At first it might seem strange that Nazi Germany would ally herself in any way with people whom it considered Semites, and who shared the inferiority ascribed by Nazi ideology to the Jews. In a speech in 1939, shortly before the outbreak of war, Hitler himself refers to the peoples of the Middle East, among other non-Europeans, as “painted half-apes, who want to feel the whip.” In the end, practical considerations won out over ideological opposition, and the Arabs enjoyed some German support and a minor role in the war raging on the European continent.

Even after the final defeat of the Third Reich, pro-German sentiment was so strong that not only did it not fade away, but no attempt was made to conceal it. “The militant leaders of Arab nationalism, both right and left, saw in Hitler’s Germany the model of successful nationalism and an inspiring guide and helper in the struggle against their two great enemies, the West and the Jews.”

The close ties between the Palestinians, the Arab world and Fascist Europe are well documented, and it is not my intention here to delve into a deeper discussion of the role of the Arab world during (and after) the Third Reich as bearers of Nazi ideology. I hope only to provide a historical framework that could be unknown to the viewers confronted with the three flags presented in the painting.

Solidarity with Israel, Germany never again

In this light there is a certain irony being played out on that particular panel of the East Side Gallery. Although it is impossible to say without actually finding and asking the person who painted the Palestinian flag, my guess is that he/she did not do so with the intent of alluding to the Palestinians’ past collaboration with the Nazis. Similarly, people passing by probably have no trouble associating Germany with Israel through the Holocaust, and Israel with Palestine through the recurring suicide bombings and retaliations reported ubiquitously in the media. The last side of the triangle, however, the relationship between Palestine and Germany - equally important for understanding current troubles between Israelis and Palestinians - probably receives little if any attention compared to the obvious associations brought forth by the other two sides.

 

This whole situation then begs the question: who bears responsibility for providing the historical framework? Does it lie with the viewer or with the artist? Is it even necessary that art be presented within a historical context, and if so, how would this be done?

Whatever the case may be, the discussion certainly stimulates inner dialogue. Perhaps the answer lies therein.

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