December 10, 2018

Getty symposium considers a ‘New Walled Order’

Walls are erected to keep people out, to keep people in or to keep people apart. 

From the Berlin Wall to the West Bank separation barrier to the Mexico-United States border, walls can simplify complex problems, and often do more harm than good. And they only add to people’s desire to get around and over them.

These were some of the conclusions of the noted architects, scholars and photographers who gathered for a one-day symposium called “New Walled Order: The Aesthetics and Politics of Barriers,” organized in connection with the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of “Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful” at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

While the Berlin Wall looms over much of the discussion of the political and social impact of barriers, it fails to accurately represent the many reasons why modern walls are built — to keep out suspected terrorists, undocumented immigrants, drug traffickers and others. Instead, the Berlin Wall was created to keep residents of communist-controlled East Berlin from crossing into West Berlin.

The news images of Germans taking sledgehammers to the Berlin Wall and celebrating unification are still clear in our minds, but not the many deaths associated with the Wall. And contrary to public opinion, the Wall did not come down quickly and immediately. Even the terminology of walls and borders and barriers and fences is fraught with difficulty. 

“Growing up in [East Germany], if you said the word ‘wall,’ you were sent straight to the principal’s office,” said Ines Weizman, an architect and theorist based in London, and the editor of “Architecture and the Paradox of Dissidence.”

People have re-created the Berlin Wall numerous times, according to Julia Sonnevend, assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan, out of dominoes, out of illuminated balloons, even out of people holding hands and stretched in a long line. “Why do people rebuild the Berlin Wall?” she asked. “Because you can’t tell its story if it’s not there.”

The focus of Sonnevend’s research is the way people recall the Berlin Wall, not just in Berlin but around the world, and “how it gets recycled through contemporary reference points, even if they’re not totally accurate,” she said.

For example, segments of the Wall now stand in cities around the world, including 10 panels on display on Wilshire Boulevard across the street from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Together, the local installation by the Wende Museum forms the longest stretch of the Berlin Wall in the United States. The remnants of the Wall are often seen as tributes to the fall of communism and closed economic systems. But, asked artist Christof Zwiener, “Are pieces of the Berlin Wall really symbols of peace?”

The fall of the Berlin Wall did not quench the desire to erect walls between people or along borders. The difference between a wall and a border, explained Alexandra Novosseloff, author of “Walls Between People,” is that walls are unilateral constructions and borders are the result of a bilateral agreement.

“This means that there’s always a good side and a bad side of the wall,” Novosseloff said. “A good side that has built the wall, that minimizes its effects, and a bad side that suffers from its effects and tries to denounce its mere existence.”

The Berlin Wall panel discussion was followed by a conversation about the West Bank separation barrier and the impact it has had on both sides of the border.

The panel included Gilad Baram, a photographer, video artist and filmmaker, whose film “Koudelka: Shooting Holy Land” was screened as part of the discussion. Baram served as assistant and adviser to Koudelka, the acclaimed Czech photographer who memorably captured the 1968 Soviet invasion of Prague, while Koudelka worked on the book “Wall: Israeli and Palestinian Landscape.”

For several decades, Koudelka has been documenting landscapes affected by human activity around the world. In 2008, he was invited to Israel to see the separation barrier. He’d said he never imagined he would ever again become involved in photographing conflict zones, let alone Israel and Palestine, but seeing the separation barrier changed his mind. In one scene of the film, Koudelka rests in front of a particularly beautiful area where the wall abruptly cuts through the terrain. 

“The landscape can’t defend itself,” Koudelka lamented as he steadied his camera. “The dream about this beautiful landscape is not valid anymore.”

 In one scene, Koudelka photographed an Arab man standing atop the rubble of his home, which he claimed had been bulldozed by Israelis. He looked forsaken amid the mess of concrete and rebar. In another scene, the photographer shot three lone panels of the separation barrier, standing forlornly in the middle of a desert and pockmarked with scars, drawing an undeniable parallel to the Berlin Wall.

The next speaker, Eyal Weizman, asked the audience to think of walls not as objects, but as forms of practice, suggesting that their construction and removal should be thought of as “walling” and “unwalling.”

He is an architect, professor of visual cultures and director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths College, University of London. The author of “Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation,” he co-runs the Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency with Palestinian architect Sandi Hilal and Italian architect Alessandro Petti.

In his talk, Weizman recounted a courtroom scene in which Palestinian farmers, human-rights lawyers, Israeli military officials and judges crowded around a 3-D model of proposed routes for the wall, with Palestinian activists advocating for “the best of all possible walls.” It was “a curatorial moment,” he said, as the Palestinians argued successfully to push the wall back 400 meters. Thus, he said, “The community is asked to participate in designing the very mechanism of its incarceration.”

The wall is often the site of protests and demonstrations, and sometimes those uprisings turn deadly. In several cases, the families of Palestinian activists who were shot and killed at the wall asked Weizman to help them reconstruct the shooting and determine who was responsible. In 2009, Weizman and his team of “forensic architects” used closed-circuit television recordings and 3-D models of the site to determine who was responsible for the death of a 17-year-old Palestinian boy.

“At the time of the war in Gaza, so many people died around us that we felt that the kind of care we could give in investigating the killing of one child is important,” he said. “Nothing should just be left as if nothing has happened.”

 Walls can also be seen as permeable, he argued, as in the case of Israeli soldiers bulldozing homes or dynamiting through walls to surprise suspected Hamas militants. Weizman played a video interview with an Israeli commander, who explained how soldiers move through people’s living rooms to avoid being trapped in streets or alleys.

“Walking through walls is part of the practice of ‘walling,’ in a sense,” he said. “This is what allows what he calls ‘the reinterpretation of space.’ ”

Weizman was followed by Miki Kratsman, the head of the photography department at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. He showed a photo of a European landscape painted onto the wall, as if to offer a window to another place. 

Still, Kratsman said, “It’s impossible to take photos of the wall and not show the brutality of the wall.”