Cultivating Creative Spaces in Palestine: An Interview with Yazan Khalili

Cultivating Creative Spaces in Palestine: An Interview with Yazan Khalili

Yazan Khalili is an artist and cultural practitioner based in Ramallah, Palestine. He is the director of the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramallah. In this interview, Yazan Khalili and Sascha Crasnow discuss the opening of the new Palestine Museum, the re-invention of the Sakakini Cultural Center, and the challenges facing issues of culture and public space in the context of Palestine.

Overview of the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramallah

Sascha Crasnow: A lot has happened since we originally talked about talking–about having this conversation (laughing).

Yazan Khalili: (laughing)

SC: At the time, it was shortly after the Palestinian Museum had just opened empty. Now, the museum finally has its first exhibition.  

YK: First let me say that the museum did not technically open empty. It did not open with a curated exhibition though, it opened with a kind of performance—a celebration of opening the building. They had some weird exhibits inside showing the construction process and also some sand and some broken metal–something to celebrate the construction of the building. Also, there were some writings on the walls–they asked some people to send a sentence saying what Palestine means to them. So, in a way the museum didn’t open empty but what was in it was also not an exhibition.

SC: That is interesting because so much of the publicity around it focused on the fact that it opened empty, but that’s not actually true. It just didn’t open with the exhibition that they had originally intended.

YK: Yeah. And also, when Lara was working there, and Jack as well, the idea of the empty museum was a curatorial concept that they were developing. What does it mean to open an exhibition in Palestine in a place under occupation, where whatever objects you put would be in danger, and the danger of opening such a museum while it’s still under occupation?

SC: Right, the precariousness of trying to make that happen.

YK: Yes, But I guess opening… because Jack was dismissed and Lara quit—due to many issues she did not continue with the museum—so then they took the empty museum without the concept. Therefore even though the museum had some objects, it still looked empty.

SC: Since the individuals who were part of the curatorial vision behind the intentionality of opening it empty were either removed or left for various reasons, the emptiness was then devoid of the significance too.

YK: Exactly. In a way, the emptiness was empty. An empty gesture. But, put that aside. Now the inaugural exhibition will be on the 27th of August [2017], curated by Reem Fadda. I’m working with them [the Palestine Museum] as a technical manager for exhibition and production, and I’m also a participating artist.

SC: What’s going on at the Sakakini Cultural Center now?

YK: A few years ago the center was in a total shut down …not shut down, but in a very bad situation. It had no artistic director for two years. It had no funding at all. It had only one admin director and a technical coordinator, but no income. It wasn’t producing culture as much as hosting some events now and then. It had no initiatives or visions. It even was spending some of its held endowment, which was mostly spent during these two years to cover the salaries—the running costs. And of course, there was no funding because there was no director, but there was no director because there was no funding as well.

SC: Right, it’s just kind of cyclical.

YK: Yeah. There is no way out from it. Unless you cut. You say, “okay the only way out is to do a very aggressive kind of cut with that endless Catch-22.” And that’s kind of what happened when I was elected chairman. After I came back from Amsterdam, we [the Sakakini board] had a board meeting and a general assembly meeting. There were elections and I was elected chairman. What’s good about that was I was the youngest on the general assembly and personally involved with the cultural politics. So what happened was we made this cut. We had to break the cycle. I volunteered as the director, which I still do. The administrative director resigned and only the cleaning man stayed to keep the center open. We broke the cycle. We thought the center cannot stay as it is–a very heavy-maintenance place. It cannot stay like this: just a center that is waiting for funding. It can’t do all that it used to. Now we need to do something.

First by looking at the crisis that the center is in, not as a passing one but as a new structure that the whole cultural scene will have to work with. There is no more funding coming down, or it’s very rare. And the cultural map—the funding and the grants—has changed, and the need for culture has changed as well. New and bigger institutions are opening like the museum, like the new Qattan building. Qattan are shifting from being cultural funders to becoming producers of a huge public program. The whole cultural scene is changing and the center somehow has to choose– to either follow the changes, or create a new way to approach this new era. Which somehow, we started to do and managed to do—to actually make this breakthrough and to put ourselves on the map through very specific visions. First of all, we thought we need to find other ways for funding, for getting money to survive. The center used to open from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm. Now, it opens from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm every day except Friday. This was the first step towards becoming an open public space for individuals and for collectives: that the center does not close when people finish work, it is actually still open. Activities, programs and events can happen daily in the center—it’s open. If you come there at 8pm it’s still open.

Secondly, we thought of the structure of the center in a different way. It used to be very hierarchical, with a very steep hierarchy. There’s the artistic director, the administrative director, the coordinator, the accountant, et cetera. What we’re doing is we’re thinking of a different structure. There’s still a hierarchy, but it’s not a steep one. Instead of having vertical cuts–the artistic director does some things, the administration director others, et cetera, we are thinking of horizontal cuts, meaning that everyone in the center does artistic work and administrative work. In this way, you will never have a situation where no one has artistic vision or can do artistic work. In the past, the funding process had professionalized every position. So, you have a professional artistic director, and then you have a professional administration director. The administration director has no idea about artistic projects and is only interested in the administration. So, when you don’t have any more resources and you only have an administration director, you have a director, but he has no idea about culture. This administration director could be working in a bank, or a company, or they could be working in a cultural center. So, the idea was that whoever works in the cultural field in Palestine, which is a very small field, has to be involved in the culture in one way or another, has to have an artistic vision that she or he wants to fulfil through working in the center. Now we have a program manager, he is interested in literature and literary works. He implements his ideas about literature and at the same time he does administration work. Same thing for our project coordinator, who is interested in cinema. She does projects and administration. Same thing for whoever wants to come and visit. Now, we only have these two and maintenance. In culture, I think this professionalization created a big problem.

The third thing we are doing is what we call the “Inreach” program. The “Inreach” is a play on the outreach program. The outreach has been what we call the “bread and butter” of most of the cultural NGOs in Palestine. It’s all costly, all the NGO-ization of the cultural scene, of the funding processes. The funders always want to see outreach–go outside Ramallah, go to the villages, go to the camps, create a project there. Of course, that’s important, but for a small cultural center to have to please big programs in order to get running costs paid, means that whenever there is no outreach program, there are zero core funds. You would have to apply for the EU or the Ford Foundation, or the Swiss for $200,000 to do an outreach program that is not at the core of your artistic vision to be able to get 30% for the salaries for your staff, which is a very crazy and unsustainable equation. So, the Inreach program was created because we don’t want to do any more huge projects outside the center. The Inreach that we do is at the center. We are transforming our relationship with our audiences from passive to active—to “producive” audiences. The “producive” audience is reflected in the fact that all of our activities in the center we do in partnership with individuals, with collectives, with other institutions, with groups, with artists, poets, et cetera. We no longer have to come up with, and fundraise for a project and then try to find audiences or producers for it. No. Every project we do is either one where we think of something and then we begin working with an individual or a collective to make it happen, or an individual or collective or whoever comes to the center and says, “I have this project or this idea I want to do” and they want to do it with you. So in a way now all of our projects are in collaboration with our audience.

SC: Right. So it’s more about collaborating and integrating the center with the community, rather than the center being a site for projects about other places in Palestine. Instead it’s much more integrated into the community because all of the projects come from the community.  

YK: From the community, from the cultural community, the cultural field: artists, curators, musicians, cinema-makers. Exactly what you said. There is something that is totally missing now in Ramallah and in Palestine in general and that is public space. Everything has been privatized. If you want to spend time with friends you have to go to a café or a bar or whatever. The public space is–wherever you can get it is closed or you have to pay for it. So the idea is to turn the center into this public space so people can come, spend time, et cetera. That’s one thing. But mostly, that if you want to do projects in the center, there is no big bureaucracy to do it. You don’t need to apply. There’s no written document that tells us or the audience or the individual or whatever how this collaboration happens. It’s open to negotiation every time a project is suggested. This lack of written document allows you to tailor the project according to the needs, according to the groups, according to the context of the situation. Of course, sometimes you take risks, you have to push harder. Sometimes you do a couple of things before you discover “oh this idea wasn’t good”. But what happens is that you become open to a huge spectrum of individuals and collectives that are thinking and working and looking for a space and looking for an institution to host them or to have them without having to invest so much time into administration and into bureaucracy to apply. This has been the approach now: how the center should respond to the cultural practices in Palestine. At the same time, all these collaborations are also crowd funding. We began having entrance tickets to our events. Last year they could cover around 45% of our running costs, which is amazing. Nearly $21,000 came only from our activities. And this is essential that it is also the public that is funding the project now.

SC: Yeah, that speaks to again this “Inreach” thing that’s making it part of the community. The community is investing in its own public cultural space.

YK: Exactly. And this is our motto–I’m trying to translate it from Arabic–“for you to be at the center you don’t need to pay money, but for the center to keep going it needs money.” In a way, money is not the condition–it’s not like if you don’t have money you can’t be in the center, but of course the center needs your support somehow.

SC: So is the center open to the public free of charge from 9am-9pm and then just ticketed for special events?

YK: Yea, we see the center as a public space, where people can use it for meetings, working, and hanging out free of charge. They can also hold public activities and events that engage with the public, but we are also trying to ticket most of the events with 10 Shekels, which is like $2-2.50 now. But, if you can’t pay you don’t need to pay.

SC: Right, it’s like a suggested donation.

YK: No, we don’t call it that because then no one would donate. We call it “physical crowd funding.”

SC: (laughing) Because then no one would pay.

YK: If you come say oh I can’t pay now, then it’s fine. But also some events are more than that, like 25 Shekels. Now we are having many musical events and many public events that are based on sharing tickets with a group. Now we have this music event curated by Dina Shilleh. She’s a musician, and she invited nine bands to do a weekly musical event. Its 20 Shekels for a ticket, split between the band (50%), the organizer (25%), and the center (25%). It used to be that you wait to get funding to be able to pay the band, now we don’t need to wait.

SC: You’re not beholden to the funding to be able to execute the event. You execute the event and then the event draws the funding to pay for it.

YK: Yes. Now we are focusing a lot on creating strong advertising; social media, weekly emails, Facebook. Our followers on Facebook for instance, went from 3,000 at the beginning of last year to 10,000 now. This is a big jump for a center that is based on activities rather than funding.

SC: That’s incredible.

J.M. Coetzee reads at the closing event at the Sakakini Cultural Centre May 27, 2016 in Ramallah, Palestine. (Rob Stothard for The Palestine Festival of Literature)

YK: Yeah so we are really building, and of course we are trying to connect different kinds of cultural activities: from cinema, music, the kind of traditional classical things, to hosting farmer’s markets, to opening the garden for farmers and artists to come up with agricultural projects, to hosting exhibitions and workshops. We are trying to allow different kinds of practices to enter into the center. The crisis for many of the institutions applying to funding, is that you need to prove that you are attracting different audiences from different backgrounds. But I have to say that we unintentionally did this, because we are not applying for funding, and because we are not working through a very rigid kind of strategy, and because we don’t have an application that says clearly what the project has to be, this allowed for a big and very mixed audience age-wise, gender-wise, class-wise, et cetera, without really having that as a goal.

SC: It seems counter-intuitive that these largely American and European organizations that are funding and want you to prove that you have these diverse audiences clearly are all going to have this very Western-centric idea of what’s going to attract diversity of audiences, whereas by eliminating them and just going straight to your own community, you, without trying, attracted a diversity of audiences because the projects are coming from the actually diversity of your own community.

YK: Exactly. And it’s coming from a real need. Not from the community alone but the crisis of the center because that’s the crisis of the community. The financial crisis that the community has to deal with on different levels. The existential crisis of the individual, the cultural crisis in general. In a way crisis itself becomes a unifier, a through line that connects the center to a big group in the community. The center is not coming from a higher ground telling the audience or the public what needs to be done now. No, they both have the same question. We both are in the same crisis. And we both need to find money to live, to continue. Each one has to offer something to create a kind of cultural movement. Again, the same band that comes to the center accepts to play on the ticket basis, meaning if there’s 100 audience [members] you get this much, if there’s 50 you get that much. This is the same band that if it used to be invited to the center three years ago they would say no, we charge $500 because they know we already have, or because we tell them we have funding, because the name of the Ford Foundation would be under your title, et cetera. Now we say no, we are together, it is the cultural crisis that we all together are trying to–not solve, but to work with. This idea of “there is a solution” it comes a lot with this kind of funding: this is the problem, this is the solution for the problem. When you don’t need to answer these questions anymore, when you don’t need to apply and spend most of your time reporting, applying and then reporting about the application what you did with the funding, you have much more time to work closely with the questions, the cultural questions, that are mainly the driving force for many of the cultural activities.

This doesn’t mean that we’re not applying for funds, to be clear. First of all, culture cannot live on its own alone, it needs support. There has been lots of people saying oh you know you need to do commercial stuff, and you need to depend more and more on tickets, and I think this is dangerous because then you will be very much interested in doing only the projects that are money-generating, you will only be interested in what is commercial, and you will only be exhibiting paintings that can sell and maybe then you will take some percentage for the center, or you’d show only Hollywood films because they attract a bigger audience, no? So, this idea that the self-sustaining has to be totally dependent on the center—it’s unrealistic and it endangers the cultural practice. The cultural practice always needs support because it is essential for it to be given the ability not to commercialize.

SC: It’s finding that balance – it’s that you want to produce projects that come out of the community, but not that come out of the commercial consensus of the community. That come out of all the little ideas that wouldn’t get attention otherwise as well.

YK: Yeah, yeah. Totally. We don’t want to become a gallery, and we don’t want to become a venue for only big names. Culture is about taking risks. It’s about working with younger, with experimental, with projects that cannot actually make money. When you invite experimental musicians, you get four or five people coming to the session, but you should not not do it because you know this is not money-making. And you should not only invite the mainstream band because you know you will get 200 people coming. This is an essential balance between self-sustaining and not depending on money-making projects. You should be able to get some of your expenses so in a minute of crisis you will not collapse. Let’s say 40%, 30%, 35% every year is good enough to keep you at least open. So that when the crisis hits, when there is a total cut on budget or you don’t get any budget that year, at least you can maintain some of the team that will be able to find ways to think together to find ways to move on. But at the same time, you need to apply for funding for projects, for some of the running costs, to develop the center, to maintain it, to come up with projects—you need to pay also. You don’t want to become only a place for hosting events. What we are doing is offering our registration at the center to curators and artists to apply through it for funds. Lara Khaldi and Reem Shilleh applied for the Qattan Foundation and they got $10,000 to do a series of research-based exhibitions at the center. So, it’s become a kind of collaboration between them and the center. They applied, they got the money but the center does the administration work for them.

SC: So it’s very much diversified the types of things that the center is available for and will do.

YK: It’s like you use all your means as a center. So, the building is something. The building allows you to host people and to collaborate with people who need a building, or whatever you have. And then you have the programming. Individuals can apply for funds and do projects with you. And then there’s the website. Now we are trying to develop the website to do a radio and a magazine, so we applied for funds for the website. So in a way we are a very small team but we have very huge network of collaborators that keep the center busy always.

SC: I was wondering if you could talk a bit more about this idea of public space. You were talking about how the use of cultural centers and the way they’re structured has changed and how public space in Ramallah doesn’t really exist anymore. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about how that change came to be, why there isn’t public space in Ramallah anymore, and how the Internet and social media and the website has become an additional or maybe supplementary public space in lieu of that.

YK: I guess the issue of public space at the end is a political issue. It’s not only about the physical space: Are there streets? Are there places where people can meet? It’s the political meaning of the public space. Do the public–who are these political beings in the space–do they have agency over the space? Generally, in Palestine, I guess the political sphere is shrinking and shrinking and shrinking. You don’t have this ability to express or to act upon your political views and projects anymore. That shrinking has been happening through the process of privatization, closing the physical spaces where such political beings can practice their political being. Sareyyet Ramallah Club, it’s a sports club, and it’s one of the first scout’s club, which used to be an open space, anyone can go to the garden, you pick up a chair and you sit. You go to the canteen, buy a coffee and sit, and do whatever, or don’t buy anything, no one asks you where you go. Now, it’s being privatized. It’s been leased to a private coffee shop that took this space, this platform that was there and made it into a café. So you cannot just go and sit there. When you sit immediately someone comes to you and says, “what’s your order?” When I came to Palestine in 1996 this was the place where I could immediately go–I could merge in with society through this kind of space. You go as an alien, as a newcomer to the city–you just go there and you are already part of the community. Think of the main streets – Rukab Street for instance, the main street in Ramallah—there’s not one bench on this street that people can sit and rest on while they’re walking. If you want to sit, you need to sit in a café and you need to pay for that. And of course you can imagine the rest of the city goes like this.

Again, as I was saying, the possibility that you practice your political visions in the streets is very limited. You’re being watched. Actually, now if you speak your views online, you speak it on Facebook—it’s already a privatized space. The Internet is not this kind of public space–it’s a privatized space. So you go there, you are already saying it on a company’s platform. We’re approaching this issue of the public, first of all on the physical level. So, at the center there’s a garden and there’s a building inside. The garden’s door is open 24/7—it doesn’t close. Anyone can come in and do whatever they want in the garden. This is not new. This has been going on since I think, 7 years. The door doesn’t close and people can come in, but people did not come in–for many reasons I imagine. There’s this kind of hierarchy that the center used to create: it’s a big name, this idea that you go into a garden that looks like a house, I don’t think people could easily break. But the last two years things have been changing, we have been seeing people come–families are coming. I think a couple of months ago on a Friday I was passing there, it’s a day the offices are closed, and there was a family sitting there doing barbeque in the garden. It’s a very minor little detail, but for me it shows a kind of break in the fear of the institution.

SC: Like social blockage.

YK: Yeah. Like, that you wouldn’t enter it–it’s specific to the center. Now, more and more I see families coming to the garden, playing with their kids. I think this little incident was very significant for me to see at least the physicality of the public space being constructed. There’s a public in this space. Now, the more important issue is: How are politics in the public space practiced? And for this we are trying, to go back to the first things I was saying, that this center is not a top down kind of situation anymore. It is actually a very horizontal cultural producer. There’s no application, there’s nothing that you need to tell us about exactly what’s going on, we just need to get to know what you are thinking of, we can discuss that with you and then do your project. In a way we are trying to avoid this kind of having to be responsible for any event that happens at the center. Some of what happened at the center does not exactly fit our political views, but still it would happen, because this is what creates the public space as the public space. It’s full of diversity, it’s full with disagreements. The disagreement is for me the very essential component—that we contain disagreements. It’s not a place of consensus. It’s not a place of “we all agree on one thing”, no. It also contains disagreement, and this disagreement is what allows the public space to stay public: That you can have these different political views, artistic views. And I have many people come to me, like, “why did you host this guy” or “why did you allow this guy to speak” and “having this guy speaking at the center gives him or her legitimacy.” I disagree with this. I think if you as an audience disagree with a producer or one of the people speaking at the center, you should actually come and practice your disagreement. You can ask, you can engage in the disagreement. Because I don’t want the center to be a pre-judging one—like “oh no you cannot come because I disagree with you.” No, then I think the issue of politics becomes contested somehow. At the end what we do is experimentation. Of course, I come from a socialist, left-wing background, which I try to reflect on the center. It is a place where the left can be practiced, the socialist and social ideas can be practiced.

For us, the Internet, the online existence becomes a very crucial existence. We are heavy users of Facebook, for instance, which most of the society is. But now we want also to activate our website as well. We want to connect with music groups that want to create a radio program, and also curators who are thinking to do curatorial programs online. So the center extends. The center is not only the building, it’s also the website.

SC: I would imagine that something like creating curatorial content, be that a music radio or visual content, given the difficulty in access in and out of Palestine—that doing that online creates a site for creating collaborations or putting things together that physically are unable to be in the same place.

YK: Yes. And what the center is trying to imagine, the most important issue for us is that this crisis is not a passing one – it is actually a very [speaking in Arabic] azma muassisa أزمة مُؤسِسَة  – a fundamental crisis.

SC: Yeah it’s persistent

YK: Yeah. The other day someone was asking me “is our vision driven by the crisis,” which I think is an unfair question. Because no, there is a vision, but then the crisis comes, and it allows you to do it. But it’s not a vision that is created for a crisis. What the crisis allows is a kind of extreme, a very kind of fundamental action. The crisis happens, and you need to react to it, in a very extreme act. Two years ago, I think we [were] just like “boom”, we did react to it. But the vision is beyond the crisis. The vision comes from a longer kind of reading and preparation and thinking of what culture should be or shouldn’t be, and then the crisis has allowed us to begin a kind of action. And always there’s this kind of hesitation to give the center support because we take the crisis as an excuse–as though if we were given money and the crisis ended, our vision would end. But this is what we are arguing against. It’s not anymore an issue of crisis. The crisis was just an initiator of something, but the vision goes beyond that.

SC: The crisis sort of created the circumstances under which to say “take a step back and what is our vision” and then to be able to act in response to the crisis—to be able to execute the vision. But the vision is not based on the crisis. It’s about how you execute the vision and how you stop thinking about the way things have been that created the crisis and start thinking outside the box.

YK: I think the crisis was very essential. It creates a moment. But to be stuck with it, that is not good–or to be associated with it only—that we are just the production of the crisis, it becomes unfair for whatever we have been doing.

SC: As if you need the crisis…

YK: Exactly. Which I think is a very capitalist way to look at things. The crisis becomes the motif of your work. That you go from one crisis to the other and then you benefit from the crisis, so the crisis becomes the vision. No. We don’t want to get into the crisis again. That’s the most important thing for us. We should not fall into it. By always defying the reasons for the crisis. This kind of very professionalized team, to base all our programs on funding, et cetera. These become mistakes; if we think that if we get some money from an application, we should give up these kinds of things.

SC: As if the innovative ways that you’ve approached culture are predicated on a crisis of not having money whereby if you get money all of the sudden you’ll throw all these ideas out the window and go along with what everyone else has been doing.

YK: Exactly, the vision is beyond the crisis, but it needs the crisis to begin.

SC: Right, that gave the impetus for coming up with a new way of looking at things–but now you’ve got that and so you’re not beholden to the crisis for perpetuating it, for continuing it.

YK: No, the crisis is something that, it’s on. It’s on here everywhere. The question is how to not to allow it to explode again.

SC: As you said, it’s a moment, not a state of being.

YK: The financial crisis is on all the time. It’s about what kind of structure we should build in the center that doesn’t allow it to explode or to get too extreme with us like what happened two years ago. How not to depend a lot on funding, but at the same time to get some funding. How not to have big expenses, but at the same time to spend enough on culture. How not to have a very professional team meaning–not that our team is not professional–but just in one little detail, but at the same time you have to have a team that knows what they’re doing, that are interested. So we work between these things and you hope, you manage.


Culture and agriculture project at the centre

Sascha Crasnow holds a PhD in Art History, Theory, and Criticism from the University of California San Diego. Her current research centers on contemporary Palestinian art.