Beit Sahour, Palestine (2010)

Since establishing our home in Palestine, whether consciously or unconsciously, we have felt the need to foster communal forms of living. Particularly with the birth of our two daughters, Tala and Sama, we were determined not to confine ourselves to the confines of a traditional nuclear family. Sandi’s extended family played a crucial role in creating opportunities for communal living.

In Palestine, as the family expands, new members often build onto or alongside the original nucleus. Our house is situated on the rooftop of a three-story building where Sandi’s brothers reside, and where we also have our studio residency, a shared kitchen, and a garden for family gatherings. Given that the roof serves as a communal space, all aspects of designing the house extension revolved around preserving access for all family members to the roof. Simultaneously, it became a sort of internal semi-public thoroughfare where the old and new sections of the house intersect.

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From Permanent Temporariness (Art and Theory 2019), in conversation with Maria Nadotti

Maria Nadotti: Could your home in Beit Sahour and the idea to turn it into an open “residency,” into a research space for collective and temporary experimentation, perhaps also be considered as one of your projects to resist normalization?

Alessandro Petti:  Yes, the extended family of the residency, with people coming from all over the world, helped us avoid the trap of the bourgeoisie family. In 2006, the compelling reason to start a family and set up a home in Palestine was that we didn’t want to be reduced to the norm. Sandi’s extended family was also a guarantee against the suffocating paradigm of the nuclear family and gave us the opportunity to do things that would have been impossible had we lived in Europe. Here in Beit Sahour we started from scratch; there was construction instead of the deconstruction that was happening in Europe at the time. We felt like we were in charge. We went as far as conceptualizing a school for our daughters in an existing school cooperative where, along with other parents, we contributed to and established its “principles and vision.” We managed and ran it for over four years. After ten years of this, however, you become exhausted. Sometimes I wonder whether we accepted Palestinian marginality because there were
no alternatives.

Sandi Hilal: Perhaps ours wasn’t even a real decision. It all happened at a practical level. When we moved here we were surprised by how in both Italy and Palestine moving with
your children to a country under occupation was considered socially unacceptable. The parallel between our initial situation of the four of us living in a single room and the life of Palestinians living in refugee camps was a formidable drive for our practice. From the very start, we interrogated our own fear of accepting Palestine as a stable condition. And the practical and political answer we found was: if refugees who were forced to live in refugee camps oppose normalization by rooting themselves in tempo rariness, can we not also set up home here, despite our precarity and temporariness, and try to have a better life? This was a crucial passage for us: rooting ourselves in Beit Sahour became possible because of the conceptual understanding that came from our work in camps.



From Permanent Temporariness (Art and Theory 2019), in conversation with Eyal Weizman

Eyal Weizman: I find it exceptional and of great value when a project or a practice is able to serve as a reflection of its time. The situation in Palestine may seem like it’s static and hopeless, but if you look at your work and the work of DAAR (Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency) carefully, you can see that there are various moments we have gone through that demonstrate how much things have changed. The Road Map is basically a story about the Second Intifada, and the situation in Palestine is not like that now. We started working together at this time of huge violence, which is not the same type of violence that we live in now, one that has become more structural and bureaucratic. When we started, it was dangerous to drive through the West Bank. You would be shot at, either by the Israeli army or a Palestinian resistance group. There were gun battles day and night. Within all of this, and the shock of the collapse of the peace process, Alessandro, your book, Archipelaghi e Enclave, and my book, Hollow Land, were both works in between journalism and architecture trying to understand and analyze the situation of conflict. In 2007, when we started DAAR, the same year both of our books were published, it was still dangerous to travel through the West Bank, so the people who came were taking a great risk, and would stay with us longer. So the residency was a little bit like a refuge, a place to be together against all odds. I still remember how worried Sandi was when I would get a call from my sister and I would speak Hebrew, because the sense of danger was always there. During the Second Intifada, the international presence in the West Bank changed. International activism started, and the residency tapped into these energies.

alessandro petti: I remember the reactions of the people who visited us in Beit Sahour
at the time, how they were so surprised to find such a culturally active environment despite the surrounding violence. Ann Stoler wrote a very generous text that described a house filled with people from all over the world working on projects that embraced a notion of critique that allies with Foucault’s definition: not to be governed, not by these people, not at this time, and not in this way. Irit Rogoff recently told me that she always hated to be in Israel, but when she was with us in Beit Sahour, it was a completely different experience. I remember Adi Ophir sitting on our rooftop, absorbed in his own thoughts, and when I asked why he was so silent, he told me that he was trying to imagine how his writing would be different if written from here instead of Tel Aviv. What I feel is crucial in a collective practice is the ability to create a space and possibily of encounters that do not exist elsewhere in the present. The residency created a world in which a life in common became possible, and a place where people knew that they would find a unique space. Okwui Enwezor recently recognized that, as a sort of side effect of our practice, we created a civic space that constructed a reality, rather than simply being based on the analysis, documentation, and denouncement of a colonial regime. Looking back, I am moved by the generosity of all the people who decided to come and contribute to DAAR. They came and entered into a relation of reciprocity. I guess what attracted people was the possibility of being instantly plugged into an extremely charged situation, while at the same time being provided with effective conceptual and practical tools to challenge the status quo. DAAR offered a conceptual framework and a way to see the reality of the time, and in exchange, the residents offered their professionality, time, commitment, and experiences. In a hostile condition like the one in Palestine, where everything is about destruction, the residency offered grounded visions. This reciprocal exchange worked well until the moment the residency became structured and recognized. At that point, we began to receive people interested in a generic art residency, and not committed to the struggle and to the practice of decolonization. At the same time, as an organization, DAAR become known by both local and international organizations. We felt that this new situation was pushing us towards the world
of development and non-governmental organizations, where we would be forced to lose the critical and experimental dimension cultivated in the art world. The residency of course changed over time. It became more like an architectural studio, with projects that started to have material manifestations, like being built, and more direct engagements with the refugee community, like Shu’fat, Fawwar, and The Concrete Tent. All of these projects now have lives of their own beyond the residency. But we entered the difficult, limiting, and compromising terrain of non-governmental organizations.

sandi hilal Since we moved to Europe in 2017, it has become ever more evident how crucial the creation of public spaces is and how we need to address the questions of who has the right to use them and who owns them. Since the first projects we did on the decolonization of settlements in the West Bank, we understood that we were not just dealing with colonial settlements, but with the expropriation of Palestinian public space. The Israeli settlements in the West Bank were built partially on the remains of the vast majority of Palestinian collective land. The question of decolonization therefore became how to decolonize Palestinian public space? What would a Palestinian public look like, particularly in the absence of the state? Similar questions were posed later on, regarding Palestinian refugee camps. What is the notion of public space in Palestinian refugee camps? Is it even a legitimate question in a place that should never have existed in the first place? What is the political meaning of thinking about public space in Palestinian refugee camps, and how is this connected to the Palestinian right of return? In our P’sagot project, we concluded that return can be possible only if we are able to imagine how a collective return might take place. This made us realize the centrality of the commons not only in the reality of refugee camps, but also as an essential pillar for the right of return. These realizations led to the recognition that the residency in our home, DAAR, is essentially the creation of a collective space where the public does not exist. This creation of a quasi-institution in our own private space was a response to the lack of public space in Palestine.

ew I think there is a triangle of projects: there is the house residency as a form of a civic
space, and the two sites of action that somehow mirror each other: the Israeli settlement and the Palestinian refugee camp, both of which are extraterritorial and define common space in a different way. These two are, in a sense, mutually constitutive: the settlement as a place from which you are banned, an island that you cannot enter, an exclusive public that needs to be decolonized, and the refugee camp as a site for the commons. I still want to insist that DAAR’s projects are rooted in a history; it was a sort of transitional period between one form of violence and another. At the same time, it prefigured history. It was ahead of its time on the map of other institutions. I think what helped it become what it was is a particular, fundamental characteristic of architecture that does not exist in art or other kinds of residencies. Architecture requires collective work. It’s not like each person can come and do their own individual project. This is the reason why there are no architecture residencies. A residency is a place where you go to cut yourself off from your habitat and work on your own thing. DAAR is a residency existing in a situation, it was a space of immersion, rather than
removing you from the world. It rooted you in a civic space that was larger than the
office. It is a model of a shared world that art does not allow. I believe that the residency worked based on the notion of friendship. The residents of DAAR built strong relationships that continued beyond the period of the residency. I find this kind of intensity very hard to replicate nowadays, especially in more institutional settings. Palestine, with its kind of radicalism, creates very intense, emotional

eyal weizman:  I think it is quite interesting that DAAR also coincided with our life projects, our children. It is very interesting for me today to see how Sama and Tala developed, because they grew up in a very special environment. On the one hand, it was very enclosed, almost claustrophobic, in the sense that it is very hard to move around, but on the other hand, the residency provided them with incredible exposure to so many different people. They were always around, they were always exposed to all these languages of different people coming from all over. So now they speak four or five different languages with an incredible level of adaptation and ease. The way you openedyour life, the breakfasts you had in the morning, the dinners in the evenings… In the way that Alessandro is speaking about it, in terms of friendship, we can also speak about it in terms of family, the way the residency entered into and effected it. You can
say, well, this resident married that resident, but Sama and Tala are also a product of
that form of life that you decided to have.

Sandi Hilal: shAnd not only them. I think one of the major issues we had when we got married, especially for Alessandro, was how to avoid becoming a petit bourgeois family. He was really worried about this, all the time saying, “I don’t want to live just the four of us,this is not the form of life I want to have.” So, the residency was a form of escape from certain ways of being within a family. It was a similar strategy of profanation to when we decided to baptize Sama and Tala in the camp. This was the moment that I felt the refugees we had been working with really opened up to us. It was a gesture that said, we can share the most intimate things of our life with the camp. We were both open to sharing our family, not in the sense of a kibbutz or communitarian experiments, but simply that we could both say that we have no problems with sharing our life with others. Maybe Sama and Tala understood, instinctively, that we have what I call a public family, not a private one. The residency was also part of the desire to get out of the isolation of a nuclear family.

Eyal Weizman: The residency became entangled with the space of your extended family too.

Sandi Hilal: And now that we’ve moved to Sweden, we ask ourselves what it means to have a
public family, to have one there. This dimension is what I miss most about Palestine.

Eyal Weizman: Because of the house? The residency in your house in Palestine was based around
the kitchen and the living room as spaces for discussion. It was a way for the residents not only to talk about projects, but to live in them. It was always the family house, which was extended to encompass, to become something else, which really means that it was about finding and living an intimacy within it. It is also interesting to see different moments in its transformation. The years leading up to 2010, more or less, were years of struggle. They were years of violence and precarity, but there was also an idea of a political project that could grow out of this violent struggle. There was a revolutionary energy. In these types of situations you say okay, this is it, we’re living with immense violence, but there is something there that makes the future seem near. When you’re in the midst of the struggle, you believe that it will shift at some point. In the second decade of this millennium, the future has only moved further and further away. I think that is also an indication of the shift in DAAR’s practice from the settlement to the camp. The camp is also a laboratory for a longer struggle; the camp works at a different duration. But I think that shift in your practice had different reasons. One of them was the job Sandi got at UNRWA. It was a combination of conceptual choices and professional choices, but it was also a shift in the register of struggle; when it became clear that this kind of armed resistance and radical struggle is not operating the way it should be, but that instead, it was happening in between, in a much longer duration.

Sandi Hilal: I believe that the shift in the camp happened with the collapse of the idea of building a state. And not only in Palestine, but in the whole Arab world. When we were
working on the settlements, the idea of building a state was very present. We were
confined to this idea. I still remember once when we were in Venice and I told you,
“Yes, why not the wall? I want to have an independent place, let’s build the wall if this
separates Israel from Palestine.”

Eyal Weizman: One state, two states…

Sandi Hilal: Yeah one state, two states. We were still thinking what a Palestinian state might
look like and how we can shift and intervene in these settlements. But then we began
to understand that the only way we can get out of the political situation that Palestine
was in was to start working in extraterritorial spaces like refugee camps. In The Red
Castle, A Common Assembly, and even P’sagot we shifted our perspective; what inter-
ested us was not that the parliament was where it was, but rather that it allowed us
to work in the cracks. We saw that it is only from the position of refugees that we can
challenge the status quo.

Eyal Weizman:  That’s absolutely true. And I think this is, in a sense, why the future retreated all of a sudden. It’s also why I think your subsequent move was Campus in Camps, which
is an infrastructure project not only for the near future, but for the distant future. The
sequence of projects you described are like when you draw a circle, each one has a hitching point and as you go further from the hitch, you take the center and you draw. I thought it was a very interesting sequence of projects; the periphery of each became the place where the needle entered for the next one. But you battled against this situation of a receding future, and against the intellectual and architectural challenges of dealing with that. There is always an immediacy in your built architecture, in Shu’fat, Fawwar, or The Concrete Tent, but the future that you speculate on is a long-term one.

Alessandro Petti: I don’t see it the same way. I think what we did, which was more radical and at the same time more pragmatic, was to create situations in the present that allowed for a different form of cohabitation, without having the illusion that things would radically
change in the near future. The year that marks this for me was 2011. It was the first time I had the feeling that the kind of condition, what you called the future, that we were working on, became closer. It was a rare moment, when you feel that finally, history is not so hostile against the way you live. Discourse on the common became central, and suddenly all of the ideas that we had been working on in the camps, and the collapse of the state, became relevant for everyone. A second shift was the summer of 2014, with the so-called “refugee crisis,” when the condition of refugeeness became central to public debate in Europe, and was understood as a threat to nation states. These changes brought our work over the last ten years in Palestine to the forefront of the struggle. Decolonization moved from the occupied territories to the colonial metropolis. I’m against this discourse about the future, because we’ve found a much more effective way to think political transformation than messianic Marxism. We understood decolonization as an endless struggle, one that is happening right now, right here. There are already fragments of futures in the present. You imagine something, and at the same time live it. It is liberating to understand political transformation without being trapped in the idea that one day everything will be solved and we will all live happily. The work that we have been doing in refugee camps is already the future; it is already something that deals with people that live outside the nation state. Working within and against the condition of permanent temporariness means opposing two fronts at the same time: the perpetuation of the status quo, that imposes an unbearable condition of precarity on people, and normalization, trying to put all the broken pieces of the nation state back into its box. When the work shifts from speculation to realization, it shows that a third way is actually possible. And more importantly, we also start seeing how different struggles are connected to each other and not imprisoned in their self-referential logic along with the global success of BDS, we are witnessing Palestine becoming a laboratory of resistance, and not only against Israeli violence.