The Musrara Mix Festival: all alone on the hill

The 20th edition of the arts fiesta spans its perennial broad sweep of artistic fields and mind-sets, taking in video installations, video art, shows and audio-visual projects.

JERUSALEM-BASED drone-rock trio Sevelle should intrigue Musrara Mix audiences.  (photo credit: ITAMAR GINZBURG)
JERUSALEM-BASED drone-rock trio Sevelle should intrigue Musrara Mix audiences.
(photo credit: ITAMAR GINZBURG)
When it comes to places with loaded emotive baggage, Jerusalem has most of them licked. The city that has been fought over, seemingly without respite, for millennia continues to spark dispute and to inspire in equal amounts. That delicate oxymoronic equilibrium lies at the heart of Kinnot for Jerusalem, a video work on the roster of this year’s Musrara Mix Festival (December 15 to 17, 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.).
The 20th edition of the arts fiesta, based at the Naggar Multidisciplinary School of Art and Society, located in Musrara near the Old City, spans its perennial broad sweep of artistic fields and mind-sets, taking in video installations, video art, shows and audio-visual projects. It will, naturally, be presented online. More’s the pity but, of course, Musrara Mix is not the only cultural venture to fall victim to pandemic-related constraints and go the virtual route.
Then again, as much of the festival is shown on screens in normal times too, perhaps Musrara Mix loses less of its immediacy via the Internet.
The aforementioned video-based creation by Antony (Tunni) Kraus pertains to the screened format. Kinnot (Lamentations) is an apt title for the work, which takes in the city’s protracted backdrop of strife and conflict, and serves as both an elegy and a paean to Jerusalem.
Kraus, who hails from Australia and has been ensconced in Tel Aviv for the past couple of years, clearly has a soft spot for the capital, and through his work, expresses a strong sense of identification with both its joys and beauty, and the challenges that continue to beset Jerusalem.
Kraus’s chosen form of aesthetic visualization principally focuses on script of some manner or other. He produced a diverse patchwork text that incorporates various biblical references, liberally spiced with an eclectic array of other sources, including Canadian-British blogger, journalist and science fiction author Cory Efram Doctorow’s How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism; Latvian-born Israeli intellectual Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s The Meaning of Redemption; the kabbalistic Zohar; and soul and jazz singer-poet Gil Scott-Heron.
“I love jazz,” Kraus says with a laugh, which may go some way to explaining his freely meandering creative path through the recesses of biblical Hebrew and biblical English, and more modern linguistic nuances.
“It is a bit like a stream of consciousness, like a feeling. I love metaphor, and going back to sources and breaking those rules a little bit.”
The idea for the work materialized during the second lockdown as Kraus considered the fate cloistered people across the country but also that of a city which, by all rights, should be celebrated peacefully and with nary a word spoke in anger, as some sort of universal hub for people of all religions and cultures.
The corporeal end product of the venture is a piece of parchment inscribed with the aforementioned melded script. In the video we see, and hear, Adiel Cohney – who “just happens” to be Kraus’s cousin – mellifluously orating the words, much as a cantor would recite a liturgical passage. In fact, if you don’t catch or understand what Cohney sings, you could easily conclude that he is reading something straight out of a Tisha Be’av service.
Kinnot is something of an all-in-the-family effort, with another relative, Bezalel Academy of Art and Design graduate Daniella Slonim, responsible for translating the multifarious fused Hebrew text into English.
“This was an amazing way for me to connect with two of my cousins,” Kraus says.
The biblically fueled copy is based on an acrostic form, as per the original Book of Lamentations, and works through the Hebrew aleph-bet, seasoned with contemporary ideas and expressions that Kraus uses to impart his own thoughts and feelings about the current state of play in the Musrara Mix host city.
There is a nice contextual-conceptual twist in the film, as Cohney reads from Kraus’s textual amalgam in a deserted synagogue in the Old City, with the women’s section partitioned off from the men’s area by social distancing-compliant plastic sheeting.
DUTCH ARTIST Melanie Bonajo's Nocturnal Gardening video work questions the impact of reality-bending drugs. (Melanie Bonajo)DUTCH ARTIST Melanie Bonajo's Nocturnal Gardening video work questions the impact of reality-bending drugs. (Melanie Bonajo)

THE ARTIST sees Jerusalem as being “introduced in her state of lockdown, a deep, digital media induced depression,” he says, referencing the coronavirus zeitgeist as the world hunkers down to weather the health crisis and/or politically induced storm, and the effect it is having on our capital.
Kraus has clearly done his homework, with the opening stanza echoing the wording and sensibilities conveyed in the first section of the biblical content.
“How she sits alone. The city once great with people. She has been cheapened to an addict. Great among nations, sweetheart among provinces, reduced to a digital product.” As the Book of Lamentations is said to have been written by the prophet Jeremiah, following the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, it is safe to say there were not too many “digital products” around on the market back then. That, clearly, is designed to introduce some contemporary spirit to the project fray.
While not coming across as particularly religiously inclined, Kraus has ultra-Orthodox familial roots and found himself drawn to Torah scroll script.
“I have been studying calligraphy, self-taught. I have been finding apprenticeships around the world.” That involved dipping into different cultures, too. “I studied a Chinese pictographic language, called Dongba, with a scribe in Hong Kong. And when I lived in Akko [Acre] I learned a form of Arabic calligraphy. And the video was shot in a synagogue where another scribe teacher of mine works now.” The tutelage provided Kraus with handy access to the location which, in its current state of pandemic fixture addenda, imbued the exercise with a little more drama.
“It is a beautiful synagogue. When I saw the plastic dividers, and the way they caught the light, there was this bizarre feeling about it,” he says with a chuckle.
That is also a neat fit for this year’s festival theme of transfiguration. The topical anchor, say the organizers, feeds off “transitions between the internal and external spheres of the consciousness... and the expanding consciousness through the healing process, in a period of global disease which permeates every field.” The Musrara Mix credo also talks about developing a new relationship between spirituality and art, and “the ceaseless changes taking place within us and in the world around us.” In this crazy time, the latter is a given.
Being a product of their physical, cultural and temporal milieu, quite a few of the artists on the Musrara Mix bill include pandemic elements and vibes in their offerings. Rafi Balbirsky’s Personal Jesus video art creation, for example, takes in sound performance, an interview, and a meditative video work. Each relates to Jesus, whom Balbirsky terms “the most internationally-successful Israeli,” with some hints of Judaism and Israeliness along the way.
Being an online venture facilitates the inclusion of foreign contributions, such as Night Soil – Fake Paradise video work by Dutch artist Melanie Bonajo who incorporates a traditional Amazonian “psychedelic brew of various plant infusions” called Ayahuasca. She also wonders why people from Western civilizations began using reality-bending drugs and how the ancient practice fits in with contemporary Western life.
Music is always a significant component of the festival agenda and provides the centerpiece of The Return of Those Who Went Back by Zohar Shafir, Luciana Kaplun and Rutie de Vries. The 11-minute musical-sculptural performance is based on the interactions between the characters and their physical and natural surroundings as three human-bird-like creatures walk the streets and back alleys of Musrara and learn how to sing.
There are actual musical performances to be had across the three-day program, as well, including Jerusalemite drone-based trio Sevelle. The nature of their 43-minute slot suggests online viewer-listeners will either be summarily turned off or thoroughly engaged as guitarist Shaul Kohn, drummer Daniel Treystman and improvised bagpiper Niv Gafni “draw a line between [an] ancient religious meditative museum [ambiance] to energetic 20th-century Krautrock. The outcome,” the festival blurb suggests, “is a shamanistic rock and roll ritual that leads the listeners to sonoric ecstasy.” For the past 19 years, Musrara Mix has tended to push the artistic boat out there. This year’s festival should be no different.
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