Designs on Jerusalem

When a new cultural event kicks off, artistic directors generally note that they are starting “a new tradition.”

Fictional Collective, Billy Regev (right) and Aya Bentur (photo credit: ITAY BENIT)
Fictional Collective, Billy Regev (right) and Aya Bentur
(photo credit: ITAY BENIT)
When one thinks of arts pacesetters and global nodal points in the design sphere, the names of London, Paris, New York and Milan tend to emerge. In our neck of the woods, it is Tel Aviv and its environs that normally grab the headlines. But it seems that Jerusalem has plenty to offer, too.
When a new cultural event kicks off, artistic directors generally note that they are starting “a new tradition.” That, at least in a purely linguistic sense, is a contradiction in terms, but you get the intent. And, as Jerusalem Design Week is due to take place for a seventh successive year, there are adequate grounds for claiming that “the tradition” is already an extant fact on the national ground.
This year’s event – which takes place under the aegis of the Jerusalem Development Authority, the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry and the Jerusalem Municipality – will run June 8-15 and is based in the Talbiyeh neighborhood.
When it comes to locations, artistic director Anat Safran and curator Tal Erez could have done far worse.
For starters, there is the incomparable Beit Hansen, with its 150-year-old edifice and sprawling grounds; and the currently vacant former Bezeq facility, across the road from the Jerusalem Theater, will also be pressed into display service. Beit Hansen is the anchor site for the festival, which this year focuses on the theme of islands.
The idea of a piece of land surrounded by water, or some isolated entity, seems a little incongruous in Jerusalem. Erez explains the thematic choice by way of deductive reasoning, referencing some of the world’s design epicenters. “If you look, for example, at Milan, you see that the design work there came out of the very strong industrial base they had there. In Vienna, in recent years they have gone strongly for local craft work, and in the Netherlands they have a long history of very precise aesthetics.”
OK, so what do we have to offer? “Israel is clearly none of those three things,” Erez continues. “What we do have is very particular human circumstances that are very natural. People have always said that Israel is 10 years behind in fashion and culture and that sort of thing, and that when it comes to conflicts we are 10 years ahead. In this context we noted that we have all sorts of situations that can be relevant for the world.”
The Design Week reasoning plot appeared to be thickening, but the logic waters were still far from clear. Erez eventually got to the point. “Last year we focused on the lack of public funding for design, and how designers have to invent their own ways in order to cope with creating their own content.”
This time around, the central issue for the week feeds off a global problem, which has been a staple of this country’s evolution from the outset.
“This year we looked at a world that is constantly closing and becoming isolated,” Erez continues. “If you open newspapers you see all the discussion in Europe, for example about the refugees, and the dramatic events in our geopolitical domain. That leads to issues of identity – look at Brexit, or Trump with his Mexican wall – and people saying we need walls in order to define who we are.”
Hence the Design Week island theme.
“That happens on the Internet, too – we are constantly feeding off echo chambers, for instance with Facebook groups, whereby we are constantly hearing our own opinions. The idea of shutting ourselves off in little islands and very clearcut identities greatly interests us.” That will be conveyed in Talbiyeh June 8-15.
Like each year, the week’s program takes in a range of art forms and associated fields of aesthetic endeavor, including technology, science, culinary art, fashion and the plastic arts. There will be jumbo-sized exhibitions, discussion panels, conceptual installations, interactive facilities and workshops for visitors of all ages.
All the above events will be within easy walking distance of each other, with the locations taking in the Jerusalem Theater piazza, the Natural History Museum, the Museum for Islamic Art, in addition to the aforementioned Beit Hansen and abandoned Bezeq building.
The latter also takes in the former post office, and there will be some Design Week activities taking place a little further afield, at various commercial premises along Azza Street.
The topic of identity, says Erez, is particularly pertinent to Jerusalem, its physical and human topography, and the way it has evolved over the last century or so. “If you look at the master plan for the city, made by [British town planner Henry] Kendall, you see it is based on islands on hilltops.”
The curator says that little has changed in the interim seven decades.
“In Jerusalem, you can see how communities cling to their identity. I was just in Salah a-Din [Street in east Jerusalem]. You don’t hear a word of Hebrew there. And then, if you go into a haredi neighborhood, suddenly everything is black and white, and you have enormous signs telling you what to wear. There’s a lot that is connected to identity, and to design.”
Design Week addresses that. “We feel that identity and design are strongly related, and the week we have planned is an opportunity to examine that, for designers to consider whether to break down the barriers or to sustain them.”
It is, indeed, a fascinating topic in the design world. On the one hand, surely the essence of marketing is to target a product at a particularly niche sector which, naturally, offers advantages of economies of scale. Safran says that is no longer necessarily a major consideration.
“Today you have all sorts of technologies that enable you to target very specific and even small audiences.
“You can get away from scales of mass production, of the past,” Erez continues. “There are things like 3D printing. For us that is a very interesting topic, and the combination of a burning temporary issue in the world, with something for which we can serve as a living laboratory, can generate new insight. That all channels through a lot of approaches, most of which are research-based rather than commercial.”
With that in mind, Erez and Safran created a slew of projects that see Israeli designers joining forces with counterparts from around the world. All of that will follow the “island” theme, with the individual and joint efforts treading the fine line between clearly demarcated identities and exploring areas that leapfrog thematic and cultural boundaries.
“We are bringing the question of identity, and what connects us all, to the fore, and we’ll see what the designers have to offer in that regard,” says Safran. “I am curious to see how the public reacts to that, too.”
Aesthetics have, indeed, been an integral part of life in Jerusalem, at least since the days of the First Temple over two-and-a-half millennia ago. It will be interesting to see whether this year’s Design Week continues to resonate and impact on the city, further down the line.
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