Decolonizing Architecture/Art Residency, Common Assembly, 2011–12, plywood, steel, aluminum, nylon cable, video. Installation view.

Decolonizing Architecture/Art Residency, Common Assembly, 2011–12, plywood, steel, aluminum, nylon cable, video. Installation view.

“Decolonizing Architecture/Art Residency”

Decolonizing Architecture/Art Residency, Common Assembly, 2011–12, plywood, steel, aluminum, nylon cable, video. Installation view.

WHAT WOULD AN ARCHITECTURE of decolonization look like? And how might it shift the terms of debate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? These are among the ambitious questions addressed by the Decolonizing Architecture/Art Residency, an art and architecture collective based in Beit Sahour, a town outside Bethlehem. The group—which now has dozens of collaborators, varying from project to project—was founded in 2007 by Sandi Hilal, Alessandro Petti, and Eyal Weizman, all of whom operate in the nexus of architecture, theory, and political representation. Strategic and utopian at once, DAAR speaks of decolonization as implying “the dismantling of the existing dominant structure—financial, military and legal—conceived for the benefit of a single group.” To this end, the group deploys an expansive architectural imagination as a critical and transformative force against the present political deadlock.

DAAR’s projects typically propose alternate uses for existing structures as a form of creative intervention and as a means of investigating the conditions of Israel’s occupation. In this show, organized by Nottingham Contemporary’s Alex Farquharson and Nadine Zeidler, several such projects are presented within an architectural, discursive mediascape. One gallery features two architectural models on white tables, separated by a waist-high, zigzagging black wall. This rendition of part of the border separating Israeli and Palestinian lands as a result of the 1993 Oslo Accords is an element of a larger project, DAAR’s examination of the space of the border itself, titled The Red Castle and the Lawless Line, 2010–. Here, it functions more pedagogically than politically, inviting inspection rather than determining opposing national territories. On one table, DAAR addresses the Jewish settlement of P’sagot, located north of Jerusalem in the West Bank, where (as shown on the model in red-painted sections) the group proposes “unroofing” the buildings—now in the service of single-family dwellings—to create interconnecting social spaces at the top-floor level, and “ungrounding” the private yards in favor of collectivized land. Videos presented on wall monitors flank the project, offering short interviews with various stakeholders, including a Palestinian former mayor of the area, residents of the nearby Palestinian city Al Bireh, and an armed Israeli settler. The Palestinians generally express nostalgia for common land, while the settler advocates Israeli control of the area through military strength. In this presentation of the debate from the perspective of those most directly affected, DAAR’s stated desire to offer a decolonial alternative emerges as anything but neutral.

The second table features a proposal for returning a former military base to nature. Oush Grab (the Crow’s Nest) was abandoned by the Israeli army in 2006; its concrete, bunkerlike structures could, DAAR envisages, be perforated to create a nesting site for migratory birds. As we learn from a large notebook accompanying the model, more than five hundred million currently pass through the area, which is a staging post between Europe and Africa. The birds—including the black kite, lesser spotted eagle, and white stork—here appear as the exemplary agents of a differently imagined community, one originating in the idea of a borderless migration transcending the geopolitical conflict for which the military complex was built.

In the second gallery, the installation Common Assembly, 2011–12, offers a large model in black lacquered plywood of a cross section of the Palestinian Legislative Council building, aka the “Palestinian Parliament,” on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The structure here ascends on both sides into a series of steps, with black cords extending from surface to ceiling, suggesting the space’s interior volume. As one learns from an accompanying video, the building’s construction began in 1996, in hopes of a Palestinian state following the Oslo Accords, but ended abruptly before its completion, with the second intifada in 2003. In another video, Ahmed Qurei, a PLO member and erstwhile associate of Yasser Arafat’s, explains that the site in Abu Dis was chosen to be as close as possible to Jerusalem, the Palestinians’ preferred capital. But DAAR also present their own research findings, which reveal that the existing building is actually intersected by the Palestinian-Israeli border. It is this discovery that underlies the group’s decision to reconstruct a thin sliver of the structure, also alluding to the true width of the border once it is scaled up from the millimeter-thick line as which it was originally plotted on a map.

It is this space of legal and political exception—who owns the space of the line?—that DAAR appropriates as an arena of possibility. In a text accompanying the exhibition, the group identifies the border zone itself (the “lawless line”) as a place “to re-imagine the building as an assembly that is able to represent all Palestinians—those living in Israel, under its occupation, and in exile.” Such inclusivity would expand the limited representativeness of the Palestinian Authority, as the activist Fajr Harb observes in one of the videos. Yet while provocative, DAAR’s proposal may not go far enough. One wonders whether such a politics tied to ethnic representation actually echoes the same type of logic the group questions elsewhere. Why not propose an assembly for a binational state, for instance, which would create an even more inclusive commons? Indeed, perhaps more could be learned from the birds. Yet DAAR ultimately welcomes such questioning: The nomadic installation—appearing in Nottingham as if dropped from the sky—is also intended as a platform for discussion. By inventing provocatively unfinished alternatives for potential futures, the group constructs a politics that would otherwise be inconceivable in the present.

“Decolonizing Architecture/Art Residency: Common Assembly” remains on view through Apr. 15.

T. J. Demos is a reader in the department of art history, University College London.