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Steve Sabella in conversation with Madeline Yale Preston

Madeline Yale Preston: Independence was born on an annual summer road trip that you take, which recalls for me the legacy of the photographic road trip in America following WWII, such as Robert Frank’s The Americans, Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces, and even Ed Rusha’s conceptual Twentysix Gasoline Stations. These bodies of work describe the sociocultural conditions of a specific nation – one whose principal ethos is regularly positioned as ‘independence’. The abstract visual forms in your series Independence seem divorced from these modernist photographic references. Is there a relationship between the history of photography, specifically the canonical photographic road trip, and this work? Is it a visual liberation from it?


Steve Sabella: To answer you I need to briefly take you through an earlier ‘road trip’ through exile and my liberation from it. I was born in Jerusalem, Palestine and started my visual journey from there. My project, Jerusalem in Exile (2006), led me to conceive that Jerusalem exists in an image state, especially because everyone has constructed differing and overlapping mental images of it. When I realized that I lived in the image of my city of birth, I felt entrapped, or to use my previous terminology, I felt in exile. I understood then that my struggle was to understand images in order to be free. Ultimately I liberated myself from exile, or the image of exile to be more precise, by resorting to the imagination. However, I soon realized that I became entrapped in other images too, such as the image of the artist, which I had to liberate myself from as well. Life is an endless process of liberation. We need to identify all systems and images that occupy our thoughts and imaginations so that we can think and imagine in our own way. 


Road trips present to us the notion of the linear progression of images. Ed Rusha’s gas stations are one good example. The Americans by Robert Frank is a look at life and the meaning generated by the symbols we associate with it. Stephen Shore’s work looked at the photographic image itself and offered criticism of photographic discourse. Photographers go out and hunt for images or hunt for the opportunity to transform people or things into visuals. But what if everything is already in an image state, and our hunt is actually a process of isolating images and differentiating them from others?


I do not perceive the world in a linear way. My stations are random and my quest is to understand images, their origins and their function in decoding the visual puzzle––the world we live in.

MYP: Several of your series’ titles – In Exile, Metamorphosis, Euphoria, Beyond Euphoria, to name a few – suggest states of being that are interconnected in sum. One interpretation is that these ‘states’ are autobiographical, referring to your own evolutionary psychological framework, largely in response to living in occupied Jerusalem for the majority of your life. The title Independence – also a state of being – is leading one. What is it independence from?


SS: In my catalogue essay for The Archaeology of the Future exhibition in Verona (Oct. 2014), I ask whether we can break ourselves free from our image. In my work I explore decoding fixed systems that are constantly at work to entrap people in bordered spaces. Over time this investigation led me to see the bigger picture. Each series I have created began with a search of how to explore and exit the state of mind I was living in. I transformed this state into a visual dilemma or a question, which, once solved, would lead me to a new state with a new visual challenge. Looking back at my work, I see that I was unfolding visual palimpsests that explore the multiple layers of my past, and the influence perception had on my ‘reality.’ Today my images gain their independence from my narrative. The narrative might still be there, but it will unfold itself in a different way. There are hidden layers in images that change perception all the time. It is time to engage further in the process of looking, where meaning resides only in the mind of the viewer. 


MYP: Since you began the series in 2013, the argument over who should control Gaza and the West Bank has once again erupted in horrific violence. Have the events in Gaza since July 2014 redefined your relationship to Independence?


SS: It seems inevitable that we feel inclined to tie the notion of independence to life events because of the meaning the word generates. During this war I declared my Independence and wrote, “All we need is the imagination to find who we are and what we are searching for. It is the responsibility of the individual to stand up and free him or herself from the new form of colonization that people are affected by yet are unaware of, the colonization of the imagination. Palestinians do not need the UN, the EU, the United States or any other country in the world, and especially not Israel, to declare to them that they are free. We are all born free. Every Palestinian should wake up today and say –– I am a free person. Freedom is not something that is granted, freedom is something felt. There can be no set date for the independence of Palestine. That independence day is today. Everyone should declare it.” In this way, the recent events do not redefine the work, however they present yet another context highlighting the urgency of self-liberation.


MYP: What is your perspective on Palestine’s recent actions to regain its sovereignty?


SS: In my opinion, the Palestinian struggle for Independence shifted from one that aimed to free occupied land to one that aimed to free the self. Israel has never before exerted such enormous control over the lives of Palestinians, causing them to constantly feel physically and psychologically occupied. I have understood for a long time that we need to differentiate between our struggle to liberate the land and our personal feeling of freedom. Colonizers always aim at making the occupied feel inferior, trapped and that his/her destiny is tied to the Occupier’s decision. Therefore differentiation between land and personal freedom is necessary. We are all born free and we should all feel free. Achieving this will inevitably lead to the liberation of the land.


MYP: You have long since experimented with photographic abstraction. While the compositions are abstract representations of human forms in Independence, they are remarkably different from the fragments and collages that came before and after this series. One could argue that Independence is a turning point in your artistic practice. How do you perceive it in relation to your other bodies of work?


SS: Collage allows for endless experimentation and discovery. I am intrigued by working with cut images because they can reveal hidden realties or ‘mentalscapes’ based on the imagination. Though its form represents a departure from collage, Independence is interconnected with my other works. Just like my collages, I aimed at revealing a visual that had never been seen before. The choreography needed to create Independence reminded me of the way I have thrown cut images together on my canvases to unveil unique visuals. To avoid getting entrapped in one way of looking at the world, I found a need to explore other ways of looking and researching. I liberated myself from medium and technique. People assume that I only do collage, but collage is just one form I explore the world with in order to discover hidden realities. I need to look at the world through other forms and in the future I intend to create works that have nothing to do with the photographic medium.


MYP: Distortion is central to Independence. Pixilation and ‘noise’ are constant. This makes me think of Hito Steyerl’s concept of a ‘bad image’, which describes the materiality of a low resolution internet file in motion; an image that increasingly distorts and deteriorates with each reproduction. In this series, is deterioration symbolic of the quality of visual imagery today, in an era of information sharing?


SS: Even bad images have an aesthetic. What intrigued me about these images was their unique grain that looked neither like noise or pixilation and when seen up close exposed a whole mesh of colors.


Usually an artist develops a concept, searches for its form and then implements it. The images of Independence came from a moment in time, before the concept. For this work in particular, the visual came first. What you describe above is your legitimate interpretation. Anyone should feel free to develop and imagine concepts for the work.

MYP: The faceless human forms appear to be floating, sometimes in gestural conversation. It makes me think of a mother and youthful daughter. Are these images representations of your personal memory?

SS: Memory is not on my mind. After I finished this work, and especially since I divorced my narrative from my art, I always referred to the people in the images as figures. In Abed al Kadiri’s text on my work in the catalogue for Layers, he mentioned that my wife and child were depicted. I asked him if it was possible to simply use the word ‘figures’ instead. His reply ended the argument when he said, “Why do you refuse, when in the past you never hesitated to expose your life, including your family members’ lives?” He was right. A few years ago, I would have turned this story into a work of art. I would have fixed other mental images to my Independence images. But these are my mental images! What about the images you as a spectator want to fix to the work? This is what makes the process of viewing a much more intriguing experience, and why we sometimes find ourselves immersed in a work of art. This can occur when the artist has left room for interpretation and imagination.


The journey of life is a journey of images. Some images and works of art affect us deeply because at that exact moment in time they mean something to us. The viewers feel a connection with the images because other images seem to pop out from their own visual libraries. Our memories make up part of the visual language by which we interpret new images.


MYP: Photography has an overburdened and fraught relationship to reality and representation. You have said before that photography conceals more than it reveals. Can you expand on this?


SS: Photographs represent a turning point in our visual history. However these images become problematic when we begin to focus solely on rationalizing their indexical relationship with reality. Pictures create a consciousness of the world of their own. We need to jump into that world and experience it from within. This may allow us to discover the infinite possibilities that are hidden in images.


We are still at the very beginning of discovering the power of photographic images. When we disassociate what we see from what has been photographed, we engage in a more profound way of looking. If every person on Earth looked at the same image and offered their interpretation of it, the list would be literally endless. Photography is (another) medium that creates endless visual palimpsests. Think of the photographic image as a shining star in our galaxy that has not yet been explored but seen from a distance. All that we know about the star comes from our interpretations of its shiny surface. But there is so much more to see and discover. In brief, my relationship with the image is like being on a space odyssey, in search of understanding image formation. And since an image is part of the imagination, unlocking the visual code will allow us to see beyond our own reality.


MYP: The field of art photography increasingly requires artists to qualify their work with words, and historically more so in comparison to other mediums such as painting. I think this is a double-edged sword. You have spoken about the construction of meaning relative to much of your work. In a recent interview, you mentioned a desire to release your art from the written word. You have deliberately chosen not to accompany Independence with a statement (other than this dialogue). What is your philosophy behind this decision?

SS: How often do we go to an exhibition at a museum or gallery and look at the didactic text, the context and theory, first thing? What about looking at the art first, after all it is visual art. Art needs to be freed from text sometimes. Any statement I wrote about my art in the past is already irrelevant today. Can you imagine its relevance 100 years from now? The same applies to all artists’ statements. Exhibitions with minimal text trigger the viewer’s imagination. Reading text first temporarily loads the artist’s intentions into the artwork, but those intentions are mainly only important to the artist. When an artist creates an image, it becomes divorced from any intention the moment it becomes apparent to the eye. It has a life of its own, and its meaning depends on the visual literacy of the observer.


We must separate the old narrative from the image, and start looking from multiple angles, from our own unique vantage points. Consequently we need to create our own personal interpretations of the world.


I am learning how to unveil new readings beyond the original intentions of my works (intentions that had more to do with context rather than the images themselves). I started to understand that my work, like other images, is a visual palimpsest, where what is hidden is far more than what is visible.


MYP: Considering the discourse of art photography as a discreet entity, albeit one that often functions within the related fields of visual art, journalism, and anthropology, it has been argued that the history of photography is now dead. In the last decade, the singular model of a history, as it was constituted in the West, has become pluralized to histories. This has been in consideration of the global underrepresentation of both emerging and established photographic practices from regions once framed as subaltern, like the ‘Middle East, in both critical and commercial contexts. Relatedly, the study of photography has been rebranded as the study of visual culture or visual studies.


Perhaps idealistically, I would like to think this is a desire to embrace the notion of multiple realities, but I do not think we are there yet. What is your perspective on these recent shifts in photographic discourse? Do you think it is possible for the discourse to become untethered to its hegemonic foundations?


SS: I can relate to why some would argue that the history of photography and by extension that photography is dead, but I believe this way of thinking may be too chronological and linear. Photography is not dead, in fact I believe photography is still in its infancy. As long as we keep connecting photography to life, the medium will continue to be static. We should explore photography from within and see how images generated by photography add to our understanding of the world we live in. Perhaps the quote by Georges Didi-Huberman is the new world order. “We need pictures to create history, especially in the age of photography and cinema, but we also need imagination to re-see these images, and thus, to re-think history.”


Photography must be uprooted from its original conception––the fixing of images and the human obsession in truthfully recording its image. Maybe we have entered an era where images can be unfixed, bound no longer to paper or screen, liberated from time, floating freely in our imaginations. 


MYP: What trajectories do you propose for the future of the image?


SS: Human consciousness has always been obsessed with image and imagination. In my essay for Archeology of the Future I mentioned my next project, which I think theoretically sums up this interview well. I intend to spread light sensitive photographic emulsion onto a wall in one of Jerusalem’s Old City caves, and project an image of the city onto it. I will use a chemical process to fix the image to the wall, but one day the image will most likely wither and peal off. Even though the image will physically disappear from the cave, it will survive in an infinite number of alternative forms such as photographs, films, and even in memory. The image never dies, it simply changes form.


We need to research the genealogy of the image by asking what came before the cave. The visual history of that image did not start with my projection of it on the cave wall. The projection is an image. The source of that projection is a photographed image of Jerusalem. Did what the image depicts ever exist in a physical form? What guarantees that Jerusalem is not an image that was created or revealed, just like the one on the cave’s wall? What is the source of all these images? Image and perception are multilayered, and we might be living in a world with an infinite number of visual palimpsests. 


It is time to engage further in the process of looking at the connection of images to visual history. We should stop thinking of time and history in a linear way. Images can transport us to the past, present, future and beyond. We create our own journeys, journeys into the imagination where everything we imagine becomes a reality.





Steve Sabella: Independence (2014) Dubai: Meem Editions.



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