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Protesting Settler Colonialism In The Neoliberal University

Above photo: “Holding Palestine” artistic protest. Steven Maybury.

When Dutch art students wanted to show solidarity with Palestine, their school attempted to silence them.

Students resisted with artistic forms of protest.

During May’s uprising in Palestine against the latest aggression of the apartheid Israeli state, a few students at the Piet Zwart Institute (PZI) in Rotterdam wanted to express their solidarity with the struggle. They hung a banner on the institute’s building that read: “STOP THE ETHNIC CLEANSING; #SaveSheikhJarrah; Free Palestine.” The action took place at a time when the vicious attacks on civilians in Gaza, the ultra-right-wing mob violence against Arabs in Israel and the forced evictions of the settler colonialist system in Jerusalem had resulted in a global show of solidarity.

A few hours after the banner was put up, the board of Hogeschool Rotterdam hastily urged the dean of the institute to remove it. The students’ refusal to give in to this demand has since turned into a struggle that has exposed the double standards in Dutch “progressive” art institutions. After a process of collective deliberation, the banner-drop developed into a performative action called “Holding Palestine.”

How did the protest start?

The protest of the students should in fact be seen as a performative realization of the decolonial theory that many progressive art institutes all over the world have come to include in their trendy curriculums. In their initial statement the PZI students recounted the affair:

On Wednesday, May 12th we hung a banner from our building that called for an end to the ethnic cleansing in Palestine. That same evening, the board of Hogeschool Rotterdam demanded that the banner be taken down as soon as possible. Our response was clear: we want the banner to remain hanging until we have had a dialogue with the dean. Unfortunately, the banner was taken down prior to the conversation on Monday, May 17th.

The Hogeschool Rotterdam board argues that according to their long-held policy, school properties cannot be used as a platform for political speech. The students argued in response that such an explanation testified to a double standard in the institution regarding the Palestinian issue:

The double standards of the Hogeschool Rotterdam, under which WDKA [Willem de Kooning Academy, the art school that includes PZI] and PZI are managed, are evidently present in their past actions: ‘Je Suis Charlie’ was put up by the institution itself on pillars at the entrance of WDKA in response to the 2015 terrorist attack in France, and included the WDKA logo. A statement of solidarity with Black Lives Matter was shared on the school’s Instagram. [And] in March 2021, a banner-artwork, funded by the open studios budget of PZI, was made by Diana Al Halabi and Afrang Nordlöf Malekian, with a clear political message addressing the visa regime.

The statement was signed by all the institute’s graduate students. The students then re-installed the banner, refusing to comply and hoping to confirm the political autonomy of art; all to little avail as the banner was taken down again five minutes later.

The next days became a creative laboratory of collective action. The students did not give in to the dean’s justifications of “neutrality” on the walls of the institution and started to hang similar, smaller banners from the windows of their studios. The security guards were ordered to confront students and take down the “political messages” on the outside of the institute.

Refusal, persistence and insistence have been constant trends in the struggle of WDKA students. More than two weeks after they hung the first banner, after all their subsequent banners and signs had been constantly removed and a protest march in front of the university building, they staged their political performance, Holding Palestine.

On Thursday, June 3, they made the following statement:

We the students of PZI decided not to hang the banner, we decided to hold it. This performance is consisting of artists volunteering to hold the banner, each artist will hold it for an hour until the day finishes.

The documentation of these events and the protests are all available at the Instagram account of Diana al-Halabi, a Lebanese artist, student at PZI and the initiator of the Holding Palestine political performance.

How did the protest develop?

The documenting of the protests through Instagram accounts, participation of other students and tutors from WDKA and the multiplication of the original banner on various walls of different university buildings — as well as similar struggles in other arts and humanities departments throughout the Netherlands in support of Palestine — led to a kind of rhizomatic solidarity: artists, students, scholars and tutors forming an alliance against their respective academic institutions.

Neoliberalization of these institutions has not only made their lives harder and more precarious, but also turned concepts such as decoloniality and artistic interventions into means of production for a trendy contemporary art market. Now, through these actions, the students have called for a real artistic decolonial practice.

Back at the PZI, as events developed, an assembly was formed. Palestinian scholars were invited to talk about the “proper language” regarding the Palestinian issue, partly in response to those who criticized terms such as apartheid or settler colonialism. The speakers laid out clearly why exactly those terms are correct, in contrast to what the mainstream media and governments in the West wrongly present as a “conflict.”

The policy of forced evacuation in Sheikh Jarrah is indeed a reminder of the “Nakba Day” in 1948 where a majority of the Palestinian people were forcibly displaced from their homes, towns and villages and at least 15,000 people were massacred; a process that could only be properly termed settler colonialism.

While the claims of the Zionist project as settler colonial are by no means new, they have begun to resonate more in international discourse. While much of the world is now catching up on this understanding of the situation, the movement for Palestinian liberation has long named this state of affairs for what it is. The below description of the settler-colonialist process from a 1982 conversation between the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and the Palestinian historian and diplomat Elias Sanbar is reflective of the long counter-history challenging the dominant Israeli account of the particular settler-colonialist process in Palestine. Sanbar states:

The Zionist movement mobilized the Jewish community in Palestine not with the idea that the Palestinians were going to leave one day, but with the idea that the country was “empty.” Of course there were certain people who, arriving there, noticed the opposite and wrote about it! But the bulk of this community functioned vis-à-vis the people with whom it physically rubbed shoulders every day as if those people were not there. And this blindness was not physical, no one was deceived in the slightest degree, but everyone knew that these people present today were “on the point of disappearance,” everyone also realized that in order for this disappearance to succeed, it had to function from the start as if it had already taken place, which is to say by never “seeing” the existence of the other who was indisputably present all the same. In order to succeed, the emptiness of the terrain must be based in an evacuation of the “other” from the settlers’ own heads.

As for apartheid, before the recent uprising, Human Rights Watch called the Israeli state an “apartheid state” for the first time. The UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia also labelled Israel an apartheid state on 15 March 2017 — before the commission was forced to take back the report under American and Israeli pressure. The report showed the legal framework of apartheid in Israel; how Palestinians are divided into four categories with “different laws and policies” enforced against each and how they enjoy much fewer rights than Jewish Israeli citizens. Both were much-belated announcements but welcomed developments in international discourse.

Where did the decolonial theory in art education go?

How is it then that decolonial artistic practice — a stable subject of the PZI curriculum — could become a target that supposedly violated the “western” value of freedom of expression, while a “Je Suis Charlie” banner endorsed by the board was hung without concerns about “neutrality” just a few years back?

On the one hand, this shows the regime of visibility in “progressive” Dutch art institutions. As Jacques Rancière explains in his essay Thinking between disciplines”: “aesthetics is a historically determined concept which designates a specific regime of visibility and intelligibility of art, which is inscribed in a reconfiguration of the categories of sensible experience and its interpretation.” In other words, the authority that controls representation throws light on certain things literally and keeps the “unrepresented” in the dark — invisible and unintelligible.

What the students of PZI did was to help put the spotlight on those who fall through the cracks of such a visibility regime — in this case, Palestinians. The “dislocation” of decolonial knowledge — the banner — from within the institute’s walls to its physical surface triggered a political art process. Rancière explains dislocation as the introduction of specific phenomena within a regime of space and time whose internal logic actively prevents its appearance in the world. In this case, this specific phenomenon was Palestine. To make the invisible visible, is, if nothing else, the political dimension of aesthetics par excellence.

That is why, for Rancière, political art — another particular focus of Piet Zwart Institute education — is an art that “shapes a specific sensorium, suspending the ordinary coordinates of space and time that structure the forms of social domination.” The students have performatively realized such a political artform.

But there is another process at work, too, which is economic and has shaped art education just as it has any other discipline in the universities.

In 1966, the Student Union of the University of Strasbourg published “De la misère en milieu étudiant” (On the Poverty of Student Life), a pamphlet written by Mustapha Khayati of the Situationist International. The pamphlet attacked the established institution of the university, its way of researching and its purpose of education; but more importantly, it situated the student — far from its conventional image as an outsider to political economy — inside the system, playing a “provisional part” for her or his final role as an element in market society. The union was promptly closed by court order as a result, but the slogan “the university is the new factory” quickly went viral in the West among many of the radical movements of ‘68.

The contemporary neoliberalization of the university — which was the ultimate reaction to those movements — has created a new elitism in education, made the criteria of access to higher education mostly economic and led to the withering of institutionalized academic freedoms. In other words, universities have been reorganized to conform to the neoliberal agenda.

Art institutions are also tasked with training cultural producers of artistic commodities. If progressive and contemporary, then their art market includes radical concepts, mostly used to “curate.” This pervasive spirit was best captured by the Arts Council of Great Britain under Margaret Thatcher, which in a 1986 pamphlet titled “A Great British Success Story,” stated that: “The arts have an excellent sales record and excellent prospects. Customers are growing in numbers.”

Fifty years after the Situationists first made the claim, the university remains a factory. In this contemporary knowledge factory, however, the conditions of resistance and struggle are present as elsewhere in society. With the university a cornerstone of today’s economy, it needs to be stressed that, as the scholar in information and media studies Nick Dyer-Witheford writes, “In academia, as elsewhere, labor power is never completely controllable.”

Even inside the neoliberal university, there exists a strategy of desertion and strike, where desertion does not mean exiting or escaping from the university, but rather the struggle for autonomous free spaces in the university — the result of the self-organization of students-as-value-producers.

Against the colonialism of institutional ‘neutrality’

The students of the Piet Zwart Institute, through their Holding Palestine performance, have fought for the realization of such autonomous free spaces, which is also exemplified in the last artwork of the protest by Al-Halabi, presented in Piet Zwart’s 2020-21 graduation show.

Al-Halabi wrote a curatorial statement that is supposedly “the Official Apology of Hogeschool Rotterdam.” This is the statement that should have been written by the institute’s officials — if they had followed what they advertise as a platform for progressive thought and practice:

While trying to preserve our ‘white innocence’ as Gloria Wekker puts it, we failed to embody the token we claim to represent. We claimed to be inclusive while were in reality only tolerant … In the past month, we have learned from our students that change comes if we learn how to employ our privileges to help those who are oppressed and marginalized. Therefore, allow us to use this graduation show as a platform to voice a public apology.

In recent decades, radical thought has been commodified into trendy concepts for academic institutions and contemporary art. The obsolete romanticized figure of the individual genius artist-curator is no longer a guarantee to spot resistance against the constant encroachment of the neoliberal regime, since “contemporary art is no unworldly discipline nestled away in some remote ivory tower… it’s squarely placed in the neoliberal thick of things,” as filmmaker and writer Hito Steyerl puts it.

Nonetheless, this should not lead to an escape from confronting institutional power. The practice of emancipatory thought is always collective, as the PZI students have shown in taking these steps towards decolonizing their education. It also situates itself on the thresholds of the institution: standing under that door, just like the Holding Palestine performance, which opens the university to the outside world and initiates a movement toward the inside of the educational institution in order to resist its neoliberal regime.

As for the Palestinian issue in European universities and institutions, especially continental Europe, a simple show of solidarity could be confronted with censorship and limitations on the freedom of expression (that most hallowed of “Western values”). The “neutral” position advocated by these institutions, as explained in the assembly of the PZI protest, is basically a political ban on using words and concepts that disclose the closest to the truth of the Israeli state: settler-colonialism, genocide, apartheid and the racial state. Symbols such as the Palestinian flag, as in the case of the PZI, are not tolerated as violations of “neutrality.” Showing solidarity with Palestine is wrongly interpreted as Arab nationalism, supporting right-wing Islamism or antisemitism.

In a podcast during the same period as the PZI student protest, a network of artists and students in solidarity with Palestine from different Dutch institutions (including the PZI) gave voice to the colonial character of institutional “neutrality” in the Netherlands. The shared experience was that of a hypocrisy, where decolonial theory in progressive cultural institutions does not translate into decolonizing action, but to neutral silence. Artists from other Dutch art and culture institutions shared their similar frustrations around their own so-called progressive institutions and statements in solidarity with the Palestinian decolonization struggle. Again, these are more departments that are themed around notions of decolonial and anti-oppression aesthetics.

It is in this atmosphere that the pro-Palestine wave that took over the humanities and art institutions in the Netherlands this spring shows its significance against the (neo)colonial discourse of “neutrality.” Taking a liminal position in order to contaminate the normative, seemingly “neutral” position of a researcher-artist with an excluded, militant and non-neutral position: this is the meaning of struggle inside the institution.

Iman Ganji is a writer and scholar and holds a PhD in Performance and Theatre Studies from Freie Universität Berlin. His main areas of research concern emancipatory politics, political performativity, post-autonomist Marxism, contemporary arts and decolonial theory.

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