Roy Brand

Left: Maayan Levin and Harel Schreiber, exhibition poster for “Experiments in the Techniques of Awakening,” 2012. Right: Ministry of Dub-Key performing during the opening of “Experiments in the Techniques of Awakening,” Yaffo 23, July 15, 2012. (Photo: Yael Sloma)

Yaffo 23/Jerusalem is a center for research, production, and presentation of contemporary art and culture. Founded by the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, the nonprofit space is situated just above Jerusalem’s main post office, near the Old City. Dr. Roy Brand, a philosopher and the director and chief curator of the space since its establishment in 2010, here discusses the goals and challenges of Yaffo 23 and what it takes to make contemporary art in a historical city.

I FEEL THAT YAFFO 23 is making a change by providing a space, both physical and mental, for more openness, experimentation, and curiosity in Jerusalem. This goes beyond the relatively small local scene. In this city, if you move a stone everyone will know about it; it is like an echo chamber for the world.

Our last show, “Experiments in the Techniques of Awakening,” just concluded and it was about the varieties of awakening: spiritual, sensual, individual, and collective. We invited Palestinian bands from Jaffa, Haifa, and East Jerusalem to the opening event; conducted workshops on “political curating”; and ended with a potluck party of the African refugee community in Jerusalem. We moved beyond the usual suspects for art and had many visitors from the mostly segregated local neighborhoods. Somehow we gained their interest and respect, which is not an easy feat in a city that is built on age-old suspicions and a delicate status quo.

A contemporary art space is somewhat of an anomaly in Jerusalem, as the competition here is not between the different art spaces but rather with religions and history. How can we compete against the Wailing Wall that promises a direct connection to God, the Dome of the Rock where Muhammad went to heaven, or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher that is, according to trustworthy accounts, at the very center of the universe?

We will open the new season in October with a solo exhibit of Amnon Ben Ami, who just won the Bezalel Ilana Elovic prize for painting, followed by a short project by Larissa Aharoni on religious jokes in Jerusalem, titled “A Jew, a Muslim, and a Christian walk into a gallery . . . ” For 2013 we are planning a zeitgeist kind of show called “the new sensitivities,” referring to a current posttraumatic form of experience that is blunt, overexposed, and fragile. There is a new generation of artists working in the region who seem to reject pretense and ideology and adopt a matter-of-fact approach that is sober and engaged. Their work is clinically precise, intimate, and sharply critical. The title echoes the “New Objectivity” of the Weimer Republic, a time of relentless and disillusioned self-probing between wars.

Our projects are very local, but when successful, they open a larger context. The team here—including Sagit Mezamer, curator and program director, in addition to Eyal Vexler, gallery and production manager—like to mix academia and art, politics and creativity, and experiment with new ways of communicating knowledge. Our yearly conference, which is happening next in March 2013, will be about mythographies. We fused this term to capture the projection of mythic narratives onto concrete geographies. Mythographies follow the lines that connect collective fantasies and physical realities, and Jerusalem is a great place to start such mapping. Bill Drummond’s live vocal performance, for example, will challenge the usual physical boundaries and the city’s common paths by creating an audible circle composed of one hundred local residents making a two-note call from rooftops across the city. The conference will later evolve into an exhibition led by British-Israeli artist Karen Russo and other artists who work on the margins between fact and fiction. It’s the kind of art that helps us grasp truth in its concreteness by first re-fictionalizing the real.