From April to September 2018, I worked as a DAAD grantee under the participatory artist, Kristina Leko, at the Institute for Art in Context of the Berlin University of the Arts. There, I first seriously developed a practice I would come to call “durational contemplation,” the extended physical intellectual devotion to a site of excessive meaning that subsumes the borders between performance, site, object, artist, and archive. Concentrated on the intense intersections of social contact, historical processes, and spatial proximity, durational contemplation necessitates the meticulous selection of a site. The walking body collaborates with the site over an extended time to co-create an archive with/in its spatial bounds. Here, in this time I worked with/in the largest intact and active Jewish cemetery in postwar Europe, to perform Lost in Jüdischer Friedhof Weißensee. An overgrown, vast walled-in burial ground, the genocided arc of European Jewish modernity is grafted everywhere upon it. The cemetery’s peopled mass of communities, nevertheless underground, the stones that represent them, and the names, dates, and statements in German, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian engraved upon them, subsumed me within a transgenerational Jewish collectivity I had not experienced elsewhere in Germany. It was my work’s intention to be lost there, in Jüdischer Friedhof Weißensee, and compose an action or series of actions that could articulate something back to it, from within it.
Beginning with the daily act of walking to and from or not walking to and from the cemetery, I began to study the separation of my experience between being inside and being outside of its walls; a practice conjoined with rabbinic law, which places a boundary of ritual and ways of thinking between quotidian life and burial space. I held this tension of being between among the buried or among the living everywhere across Berlin, moving through the former center of power which had orchestrated the permanent erasure of my family’s civilization. My primary but perhaps underlying attention was directed toward race construction, the historical mechanism by which the Shoah could have only occurred. I sought to work through this daily immersion in or exclusion from Jüdischer Friedhof Weißensee to encounter my implicit, embodied participation in a racialized and racializing collectivity and what that I could think about and remember within such sustained encounter as a member of diasporic, genocided, nationalized, and apartheid traffic.
I formed my own law from nervousness, lethargy, fear and intense concentration: “The Unstable Perpetuation of Daily Law” or “Spleen.” I rapidly envisioned, dramatically committed to, and then forgot ritual actions and corollary constraints: I collected hundreds and hundreds of stones in the streets of Berlin while singing, and hauled them in great numbers to the cemetery to place on individual graves or entire fields of graves; I “sent” people I met into the cemetery, or accompanied them, and afterward presented them with a series of questions to answer in writing in their mothertongue; I tracked a recurring pain in my spine and searched for its representation in recurring gravestone images; I found a rusted-off car exhaust pipe while walking to the cemetery and archived and lived with it; I collected trash in the cemetery and recorded the names of the person buried nearest each piece, and archived and lived with it; I kept the hair that fell from my face and head into books I was reading and archived it; I wrote inside the cemetery upon specific paper sheets, using the words and names from graves to induce statements, lists, poems, public actions.
On May 14th, I was returning to Berlin from Warsaw, Poland, the city of my great- grandmother’s birth, when sixty-two Palestinian protestors were massacred marching against their exile and mass incarceration in Gaza. On the train I started to envision a public intervention I would eventually call “Counter-Ruin,” sourced from an image I had co-manifested with/in the cemetery: people picking up stones around the ruins of Anhalter Bahnhof, a Nazi deportation site, then carrying them in each hand en mass to the cemetery. The concurrent Great March of Return and retributed massacres purged and sharpened the image. In so far as I could be read or read myself as Jewish in Berlin, Gaza was written on my back. I wished to make this anxiety public—to ritualize and provoke its intensity within the larger project’s embrace—and thereby insert my body physically and symbolically into the racist transnational discourse that justifies it, vilifies it, and pits traumatized communities against each other because of it.
On three respective days in the following months, I walked carrying stones 16 (“Counter- Ruin 1”), 22 (“Counter-Ruin 2”), and then 26 kilometers (“Counter-Ruin 3”) between the cemetery, an Arabic-Palestinian commercial district, the US Embassy, the Israeli Embassy, and ruins of Nazi deportation sites. “Gaza” painted on my shirt across my shoulder blades in the Latin, Hebraic, and Arabic alphabets and the rusted car exhaust pipe tied to my chest, I placed the stones as I walked and where I ended; on graves in the cemetery, on an empty gravel lot behind the sheered off arch to Anhalter Bahnhof, on the ground before police guarding the US American embassy, and shoulder-to-shoulder with a policeperson on the sidewalk before the Israeli Embassy. A companion handed out paper slips to passersby during each of the three walks. The text became progressively essentialized and multilingual, following each experience and subsequent one-on-one dialogues as well as a few large counsels with other artists and activists; including the Israeli dissident performance artist Adi Liraz, Palestinian composer Dirar Kalash, and Lebanese performance artist Nahed Mansour. After a series of dialogues between “Counter-Ruin 1” and “Counter-Ruin 2,” I canceled a planned collective walk, in which fifteen were to participate. It should only be my body, for now, doing this, calling attention to itself in this way, marking and chronicling these spaces, I decided, with much help and difficulty. On the third walk, we distributed thin slips of paper with two lines of text in German, Arabic, and English:
This Jewish body walks in solidarity with Palestinians’ right of return. His ancestors are from eradicated communities of Warsawa, Chișinău, Dnipro, and Seirijai.
يسير هذا الجسد اليهودي متضامنا مع حق العودة الفلسطيني. يعود أصل أجداده إلى المجتمعات اليهودية التي تم محوها في وارسو، تشيسناو، دنيبرو وسيرياي.
Dieser Jüdischer Körper laueft in Solidaritaet mit Palestinaesischem Recht auf Rueckkehr. Seine Ahnen stammen aus den verschwunden Gemeinschaften Warschau, Kischinjow, Seirie, und Dnipropetrowsk.
In this third and last act of Lost in Jüdischer Friedhof Weißensee, I meant to communicate geographically and socially in real time the terror of lineal entanglement, in the fact of my body moving in relation to other bodies in Berlin. I meant to be ambivalent. I moved without stopping my reference.