Displaced in Musrara

González will be in town next week, along with fellow Spaniard Marte Roel, to participate in this year’s Musrara Mix Festival, which takes place from May 28-30.

SPAIN-BASED BeAnotherLab team will offer Musrara Mix visitors a chance to experience another person’s life, using VR technology. (photo credit: Courtesy)
SPAIN-BASED BeAnotherLab team will offer Musrara Mix visitors a chance to experience another person’s life, using VR technology.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Ever wanted to be in someone else’s shoes – naturally in a figurative, rather than an actual footwear sense? Daniel González feels it might be a good idea to try putting ourselves in the other’s place, and that there are all sorts of added value benefits to be had from the exercise.
González will be in town next week, along with fellow Spaniard Marte Roel, to participate in this year’s Musrara Mix Festival, which takes place for the 19th year at Musrara-The Naggar Multidisciplinary School of Art and Society from May 28-30 (7 p.m.-11 p.m. daily).
Each edition of the growing event, under the aegis of perennial curator and Musrara school director Avi Sabag, focuses on a particular theme. This year’s central topic is displacement, which considering the history of the Musrara neighborhood, and one might say the Middle East in general, is particularly pertinent. Musrara came into being in 1889, when well-to-do Arabs, looking for more breathing space outside the cramped confines of the Old City, built spacious domiciles there. There were also a handful of Jewish families living there in the early days. In the 1970s, the neighborhood gained some notoriety as the cradle of the sociopolitical Israeli Black Panther movement, which railed against what it saw as discrimination against Sephardi Jews.
Hence, this year’s Musrara Mix, as the festival blurb has it, will “look at displacement in terms of dislocation, shift, mobility and migration through a plethora of discourse and research disciplines; conversion and nomadism, expropriation and deterritorialization, disassembly and reconstruction – concepts and thought patterns that play a key role in contemporary artistic discourse, media, science, philosophy and psychoanalysis.” Naturally, all of that will be filtered through innovative creative prisms: “The artists will bring their creative processes into the exhibition venues, spilling into the streets, courtyards and trails throughout Musrara neighborhood, with the aim of creating new possibilities for addressing and discussing the meanings of these notions and the critical and poetic understanding of their role in our lives.”
González and Roel are members of the BeAnotherLab team, an interdisciplinary multinational group dedicated to “understanding, communicating and expanding subjective experience.” They are coming here with their To Be Another Experience project, which utilizes state-of-the-art technology to enable people to switch places with someone else, almost literally and corporeally.
While deeply immersed in cutting-edge technological advances, González says he and his pals are very aware of the dangers of living in a world that increasingly interacts in a largely non-tangible manner. “We are very critical about technology itself. We don’t really connect. With social media we are supposed to connect, but in the end it is quite the opposite. We think about this.” That, he feels, is nothing new but that, overall, most of us just go with the technological flow. “We know about it, but people accept this [way of keeping in touch] as normal.”
DESPITE THEIR misgivings about becoming too far removed from physical reality, the BeAnotherLab guys are certainly no technophobes. Instead, they look for ways to exploit the magic of human inventiveness to actually enhance shared social experience. The team’s stated modus operandi talks about “focusing our work on understanding the relationship between identity and empathy from an embodied perspective.” The latter concept sounds thoroughly intriguing, especially as that collective ethos is channeled through artistic practices. Add to that the fact that the team members draw on a plethora of wide-ranging educational backdrops and areas of interest – which, inter alia, take in cognitive sciences and psychology, interactive systems design, digital arts, anthropology, cultural management, philosophy and conflict resolution – and you have yourself one multi-pronged line of attack.
And all of the above is in a good cause. “We want to focus on creating more empathetic behaviors,” González explains. “Then we can talk about things like compassion and forgiveness and altruism.”
Now that is interesting. Some of the “more enlightened” males among us talk about connecting with our more feminine side, to access some of the aforementioned positive forms of social conduct. And we may, indeed, do our best to imagine what life may be like for some of the downtrodden members of society, say, Syrian refugees, people forced to sleep out on our city streets, or people with special needs, but how far can we go with that? At the end of the day we live our own lives, with all its ups and downs, benefits and challenges.
Now, with the help of BeAnotherLab, we may be able to get an almost firsthand grasp of what other people’s lives entail. The Spanish-based team members talk about exploring issues such as mutual respect, immigration and physical disability bias, gender identity and conflict resolution. Visitors to Musrara Mix will be able to avail themselves of virtual reality (VR) equipment to, as it were, climb into someone else’s skin. “We will be coming to Israel with our project called ‘The Library of Ourselves,’” says González. That references a collection of personal stories from people across the globe from different cultural backgrounds, walks of life, and physical and emotional circumstances.
For their Jerusalem slot, ahead of the festival, González and Roel will spend some time with a local artist, creating a visual story for Musrara Mix patrons to feed off, react to, and possibly identify with. “We are going to be working with Hasan Masri,” says González. “He is a Palestinian Israeli multidisciplinary artist. He has worked with Sadaka-Reut [Arab-Jewish Partnership].” The organization, which was founded in 1983, says it aims “to educate and empower Palestinian and Jewish youth to pursue social political change through bi-national partnership.” 
“WE ARE going spend a about week with Hassan, sharing his normal life,” González continues. “We don’t direct people, about what they want to show other people, and say to them about their life. We don’t decide what people want to know. It is up to the person to decide.” The upshot of that preliminary work will be a short video that people will be able to watch and respond to by donning VR headsets. “People will spend around seven minutes in Hasan’s shoes. Hopefully, Hasan will be there so that after experiencing something of his life, people will have an opportunity to chat with him.”
While González says he and Roel have no pretenses about setting the Middle East on a new course toward conflict resolution, he hopes at the very least that visitors to Musrara Mix who take the opportunity to get to know Masri via VR technology may open their minds and hearts to the possibility of a different regional narrative. “That would be nice,” González chuckles. “You never know.”
Elsewhere on the festival roster there will be all manner of artistic endeavor on display, taking in live music, gallery shows and performance items, both at the Musrara school site and dotted around various indoor and outdoor locations in the neighborhood.
The musical fare takes in an eclectic array of sounds and textures, such as local indie band Tiny Fingers, which will join forces with Indian music-oriented composer-producer-instrumentalist Shye Ben Tzur, ethnorock act Yossi Fine and Ben Aylon, and Andalusian-jazz pianist Omri Mor with Ethiopian-born jazz saxophonist and vocalist Abate Berihun.
The exhibition side of the three-dayer features Chilean-born multidisciplinary artist Enrique Ramirez, who will work together with Italian guest curator Vanina Saracino on a new presentation of the acclaimed 2014 video work Un Hombre que Camina (A Man Walking). The fresh reading clearly references the cultural-social shift festival theme, focusing on a shamanic figure in Bolivia who is on a quest to reconcile the wide gaps that exist between the indigenous traditions and the materialism imposed by Western capitalism. A second video installation by Ramírez, called Cruzar un Muro (“Crossing a Wall”), will reflect on the challenges of seeking refuge and the condition of displacement as an ongoing life condition.
Over at the New Gallery, the Whispers exhibition, the result of a collaboration with the Fotogalerie collective photography facility in Vienna, and curated by Susanne Gamauf and Johan Nane Simonsen, offers us a close-up look at subconscious mechanisms, the transfer of emotions, memory, experience and perception. The exhibition title alludes to the emotional source of the works on display, which “are whispered from a position of fragility and intimacy.” The idea is to counterbalance the violence and tragedy in contemporary life through responses to feelings of disorientation and of being out of place.
Entry to all Musrara Mix events is free.
For more information: musraramixfest.org.il.