High Art in Zion

Beyond aesthetics,  openings & gallery walls.

By Monica Haim

Some of the mini-projects are workshops led by designers and architects, for example, who teach locals—many of whom live in tiny flats and have large families—how to renovate and maximize their small quarters. Another program on visualization shows residents new ways of processing visual information. In another workshop led by writer Idit Porat, a group of women meet regularly to explore the writing process to discover and celebrate the unique beauty within their own narratives. Some of their work is published on the project web site; and during the second phase, each woman is matched with an artist who works on a portrait, based on her life story.


“When we started the initiative with eight months of research around the neighborhood, in the schools and in the community centers, as we talked to people, it started to become clear that many of them didn’t think their life stories were important in any way. We believe that the history of this neighborhood is important, so the projects fundamentally deal with validating their life stories,” explains Kasmy Ilan. In another project, led by performance, video and installation artist, Meir Tati, yellow ‘media boxes’ located throughout the neighborhood are outfitted with cameras and screens, to record the day to day happenings and behavior of the area, and simultaneously transmit Tati’s own actions, which are filmed throughout the neighborhood with a crew of young people from the community. The locations of the media boxes change each month and this unique, give-and-take, multimedia experience invites, inspires and provokes the neighborhood to not only participate in “If art cannot change reality, it should at least take part in it,” notes Ran Kasmy Ilan, co-curator of the Jessy Cohen Project, a dynamic, ongoing, community-based arts program conceived of and run by the Center for Digital Art in Holon, just south of Tel Aviv. Though the Center boasts its own gallery and exhibition spaces, for this particular initiative the curators, Kasmy Ilan and Eyal Danon, have deliberately chosen to exit the building, and bring the art— in the form of practical, life-bettering, identity-validating tools— directly to the people.

While art tourism in the urban center of Tel Aviv is driven primarily by work that is sellable, the reality of the city’s outskirts tell a completely different curatorial story, one that replaces extravagant biennales and gallery cocktail parties with community action, positive reinforcement and social change. And for a neighborhood such as Jessy Cohen—which is comprised mostly of working class, Ethiopian immigrant families—art, as Kasmy Ilan and Danon see it, holds the key to such change.

The Jessy Cohen Project, which was conceived just as the city of Holon celebrated its 70th anniversary, is the umbrella term for what is an ongoing series of inter-connected mini-projects, each one led by a different artist, architect or designer, in collaboration with other municipal, governmental and private institutions, with the common goal of not only empowering the people of Jessy Cohen to lead more self-affirmed lives—and to give them the creative means to do so. the discourse on new media, performance and digital art—but to also play an active role in the real-time telling of its own story.

To select the mini-projects, it was the very people of the community whose votes held the most weight, after the curators made an open call to artists for proposals. A roundtable was formed, where the Center for Digital Art took only two seats, leaving the majority of the decision-making to the neighborhood locals. “We didn’t want to say, ‘We know what is best for you.’ The people have to be involved because otherwise it is patronizing; it would be like saying, ‘I know better,’ and I don’t know better—I don’t live here. That is something that I had to accept, as a curator,” Kasmy Ilan observes. Ultimately, by creating this fluid and dynamic matrix of workshops, lectures, performances, gatherings, screenings and other events that are innately designed for and woven into the cultural fabric of the neighborhood, life itself becomes the gallery and the neighborhood becomes en evergreen laboratory, where the curators and collaborating artists can test all varieties of creative methodology that aim to enhance and bring light to the personal and collective experience of a people. In this way, the creative process becomes the force that can positively transform the way a person sees him or her sense of self. In doing so, this multi-tiered, process-driven model turns the entire premise of commercial art and art tourism on its head and redefines all the roles, by creating a new creative landscape where the curator is activist, the artist is teacher, and humanity itself is the ultimate muse.