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Mapping surveillance technologies at Qalandiya International

October 15, 2016 at 11:41 am

The third Qalandiya International festival has brought artists together from across the world with the aim of putting Palestine on the cultural map. This year’s programme is organised around the theme, “This Sea is Mine”, encompassing narratives of resources, rights and return, in which the sea has come to play a crucial part. As part of the London programme, filmmakers Judy Price and Sarah Beddington showcased three short films in a screening and discussion held at the P21 Gallery in London this week.


Sarah Beddington’s ‘The Logic of the Birds’ (2015), was shown as part of Qalandiya International III at the P21 Gallery.


The screening opened with Assemblage, in which Price cut and compiled archive footage from the Imperial War Museum showing the launching of a surveillance balloon over the Palestinian landscape. The strict regimentation of the military routine on-screen is somewhat at odds with the fluidity of the vocal score that runs throughout and the calm image of flight we see in the balloon’s launch. However the soundtrack has a metallic edge that hints at the mechanical rhythms of colonial surveillance and control. As the balloon is released into the air, a sigh ran through the audience, in hopeful anticipation of a release from the constraints of earthly borders, or possibly a lament for the beginning of a mapping mission that continues to this day through developments in drone technology and advanced aerial surveillance techniques.

The dirigible’s shadow stretches out across a desert that one could be forgiven for imagining to be empty, emblematic of the now infamous chorus of the settler-colonial project: “A land without a people for a people without a land.” Price’s considerable editorial skill comes into focus through the jittering entry and rapid exit of an indigenous Palestinian village into the scene, interrupting a landscape that is ripe for settling. The lingering image of the film is undoubtedly the aerial view from the balloon’s basket, looking out over an empty landscape. The suspension wires that hang in the viewer’s eyeline between balloon and basket project themselves onto the land, in clean, straight lines that cannot help but recall the artificially imposed borders of today.


In Reel, Price carefully curates the odds and ends of archive material to preserve fragmented memories of Palestine. Frames disappear before one has a chance to grasp their meaning fully, only to be replaced with fresh scenes that appear in time with the chiming notes of Johann Johannsson’s haunting score. Single frames are cut and reassembled, returning us to the title of Price’s opening film Assemblage. The images feel frustratingly familiar and yet always just out of reach. Graffiti in both English and Arabic is reversed on-screen, creating an almost comprehensible new language and calling us to revisit how we read and understand the received Palestinian narrative. Price’s skill in Reel is in unsettling the audience’s identification with the images of Palestine. These documentary-style reels are familiar to us from history and yet are disrupted by the intrusion of accidental archival marking, itself potentially a form of graffiti.


The Logic of the Birds

Taking inspiration from the 12th century Sufi poem Manteq Al-Tayr and religious processions from Jerusalem to Nebi Musa near Jericho, which took place for 800 years up to the 20th century, Sarah Beddington’s short film The Logic of the Birds interrupts ancient rituals and an insistent modernity that is perhaps best encapsulated in the actors’ striped trainers and jeans peeking out from under their wing-like cloaks.


Birds are central to Beddington’s artistic vision; the Jordan Valley serves as one of the most important trajectories for bird migration in the world. In the Q&A that follows, Beddington remarks wryly that the “only thing to have brought down an Israeli F16 was a white stork.” With this in mind, looking past anthropocentric narratives might be a way of configuring alternative approaches to the Palestinian issue. The “birds-eye view” that surveys the desert in Beddington’s work both resists and recalls the imperial gaze employed in Price’s films. The metaphor of bird migration warns of the dangers of returning to the Promised Land. One bird-narrator hints: “Although the birds reached their destination their wings were in tatters.” It’s a grimly prophetic reminder of the perils of return for those who have been displaced forcibly.

It might be tempting to read the ornithological metaphor as a release from earthly constraints, much like the balloon launch in Price’s film. However, as Beddington recounts her research with Israeli and Palestinian scientists, we learn that birds are captured, categorised and biometrically tagged. Animal metaphors in Israel/Palestine are often reduced to crude dehumanisations, but Beddington’s mission is to reclaim the figure of the bird from both science and fiction, into a true embodiment of resistance.

With 2017 marking the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, Qalandiya’s project remains to invigorate the representation and understanding of Palestine through innovations in art and design, enabling new possibilities for resistance and solidarity. Through their revisitation of Palestinian history and cautious anticipation of a future in which refugees are granted the right of return, both Price and Beddington refuse to shy away from the complexities of representation and authenticity on the ground.

We finished the screening on a note of hope that unsettles the neo-colonial bio-politics of the occupation’s attempt to claim birds and their airspace as a mechanism of control. An audience member recounted documentary footage that appears to show birds in flight adhering to road signs and roundabouts on the ground below. What if, she posited shyly, the migrating birds of the Eastern Mediterranean do see the borders, impediments and restrictions of occupation… but continue on their ancestral aerial routes anyway?

Qalandiya International III runs until the end of October at locations across London, Jordan and Palestine.

Editors note: Minor factual errors have been corrected in this version on 19/10/2016 at 18:16