Book review by Elisa Medde
Disruptions, a new book from Palestinian artist Taysir Batniji published by Loose Joints, collates two years of glitched video calls with his family in Gaza while living in Paris. In solidarity with the struggles of the Palestinian people during the latest act of devastating destruction and erasure by the state of Israel, all proceeds will go towards the NGO Medical Aid Palestine providing critical medical care and support on the ground. Elisa Medde considers this evocation of the emotional and physical separation that occurs across borders.
The lives and paths of images are often elusive. We perhaps should approach them suspiciously, certainly with hesitation, wary of what they could be carrying: power, meaning, even truth of their own. Evidence. The understanding that they actually contain none of these in themselves, but rather tend to reflect, expose and manifest the contexts, meanings and evidences that we build and consign into and about them is sometimes liberating, sometimes confusing and most regularly confronting. Confronting is an apt word: it implies reflection, which is something images are very good at. They reflect well, and they reflect back.
Between 2015 and 2017, Palestinian artist Taysir Batniji assembled a series of images titled Disruptions. Forced in a condition of displacement because of the difficulties in travelling to besieged Gaza from his Parisian residency, Batniji maintained contact with his mother and other family members via video calls on WhatsApp, which were constantly disrupted and interrupted by poor and shaky line connections. Network issues would destructure and dismantle faces, streets and rooms into clusters of pixels, blurred lines or solid blocks of colour. Initially interested in the formal phenomenon, Batniji started taking screenshots on his mobile device. Curious about these glitchy, seemingly random effects, he transformed them into an archive, noting their dates and ordering them as an inventory.
Being displaced, being exiled, being far away means, first and foremost, being absent. This condition carries a shift in time, in how the flow of life is experienced. One’s life is split in two, between the lived space, which flows through the present tense, and the other, distant space, which flows through the narrated tense. Life happening in the latter is mediated by accounts and recounts, filtered by phones, letters and screens. It depends on a means of communication, and is deferred from real time, compressed into clusters of time and forced into synthesis, fragmented in interrupted flows. In Batniji’s long-distance relations, one end lives a life in waiting, split between two conditions while the other lies in an occupied and besieged land in which communication infrastructure is itself subjugated to dynamics of power, apartheid and retaliation. The mere existence of such infrastructure is just one of the fragilities excruciatingly trying to keep together life itself in spite of all, in spite of the constant attempt to erase it altogether. The very idea of real time communication feels like an impossible privilege, with the present tense constantly postponed and prevented.
Disruption became a series of 86 screenshots, taken between 24 April 2015 and 23 June 2017. In 2019, it was exhibited at MAC/VAL in Vitry-sur-Seine in the group exhibition Lifelines – an Exhibition of Legends, which proposed reflections on identities and their processes of construction and legitimation. Installed as a chronology-based grid of 16 x 24 cm ink-jet prints, their impact was described by curator Frank Lamy: ‘A possible connection is established between the disturbed conversation and the violent events taking place simultaneously in Gaza. The artist thus delivers a part of this common intimacy that stretches between two territories.’
The series has now been published in photobook form by Loose Joints, representing an act of solidarity with the struggle of Palestinian people during the latest act of devastating destruction and erasure by the state of Israel, which has produced, at the moment of writing, about 26,700 Palestinian victims, of whom an estimated 40% are children. Approximately 70% of homes in Gaza have been demolished, and its complete education and health system has been wiped out. The surviving population in Gaza remains with no access to basic survival level of food, water, electricity, health care or shelter, all while the silence and connivence of larger part of the international community threatens the very existence of human rights, and of the agencies and systems created for its protection and guarantee. Batniji’s family itself, as we learn from the book dedication, has been decimated by Israeli bombings, together with all who sought refuge in their family home in the Al-Shijaya neighbourhood of Gaza. All proceeds from the book will go towards the NGO Medical Aid Palestine, which provides medical care and support on the ground.
Batniji is an artist who has kneaded his own story with the histories of his motherland, Palestine, constantly shifting back and forth between private and public, pointing his sharp eye towards the absurdities and idiosyncrasies of dominance, control and survival in the face of colonial violence. His work ultimately revolves around consequences: he detaches himself from the narration of events to look at the effects they produce and force – on bodies, souls, landscapes, memories, connections and communications. His whole artistic production functions as an inventory of traces, a testament to the irreversibility of events and their remains. The dates, stretches of time and recurrences become crucial elements of a life and an artistic production that also takes the shape of a ‘chronology of displacement’, as writer Taous R. Dahmani powerfully describes in her essay, included in the book in English, French and Arabic.
The book sequences the images chronologically, with the dates setting the pace of the narration into sections. The almost unreadable photographs initially confuse and frustrate the viewer into searching for visual anchors and understanding, forcing one to slow down, to go back and forth. The sequence powerfully transmits a growing, helpless tension, with the pace of looking increasing as the pages turn, compelling the eye to almost frantically search for something that is not there – anymore.
These images inevitably resonate differently today than they did in 2019. Whilst war and destruction and disruption were always the backdrop and the filter through which we experience them, they assume a different weight, a different meaning, a different evidence in early 2024. Our visual context has changed: we now see them after having spent the past four months helplessly watching the sheer horror live streaming from Gaza, witnessing the real time destruction of an entire city: houses, bodies, cars, trees, animals, streets and children. Looking at Disruptions today even more powerfully recalls what is behind these interrupted conversations: these glitched images scream shattered buildings, torn bodies, disintegrated lives, missed last goodbyes. They are images of war. To quote Dahmani: ‘Digital tension grips his attention – a screenshot would have been a mere portrait a few minutes earlier. Glitches are errors, defects that shatter the quality of an image. The pixelated screenshots engage our mental images of what war does: images of destruction, the ruins left by combat zones, the elimination of persons, and disappeared loved ones.’
The images in this necessary, urgent book leave their latent imprint in our brains and keep haunting us, as probably Gaza will. Their abstract nature feels like the only way to fathom the unspeakable, to make sense of the unbearable. They arrest us, confront us and reflect on us our responsibility in all of this – the passive spectatorship we all will have to reckon with. ♦
All images courtesy the artist and Loose Joints © Taysir Batniji
Disruptions is published by Loose Joints.
Elisa Medde is a photography editor, curator and writer. She has a background in Art History, Iconology and Photographic Studies, and currently serves as a lecturer for the Photography MA at ECAL, Lausanne, Switzerland. Medde has nominated for prizes and chaired juries, including the Luma Rencontres Dummy Book Award, Prix Elysée and MAST Photography Grant on Industry and Work, and her writing has appeared in FlashArt, PhotoEye, Time Magazine, Foam Magazine, Something We Africans Got, Vogue Italia / L’Uomo Vogue, YET Magazine, the Aperture PhotoBook Review and artists’ books. Between 2012–23, she served as Editor-in-Chief of Foam Magazine, twice the recipient of a Lucie Award for Best Photography Magazine. She is the recipient of the Royal Photographic Society Award for Photography Publishing 2023.