photo by Julian Voloj
Maya and Gonzalo Escobar create Talking about Orchard Street, a multi-sensory interactive installation that explores the generational transmission of Jewish life through dialog. The father-daughter duo traveled from Chicago to New Haven to conduct interviews with former members and friends of Orchard Street Shul and to record locals’ stories of growing up in New Haven during the 1920s and 30s. These stories of everyday life include tales of flirting on the front steps of the shul, eating herring and kichel, speaking Jewish, finding first jobs, going on first dates, learning bar mitzvah portions, and hearing (or having) loud conversations in the women’s section. In Talking about Orchard Street, visitors are invited to sit in comfortable armchairs, sample herring and kichel, listen to excerpts from interviews and engage in dialog with each other.
click here for more information about the Orchard Street Shul Artist Cultural Heritage Project
In October of 2006 my rabbi started blogging. While trying to comment on one of his posts, I accidentally registered my own blog. Within hours of posting a comment, my name began appearing in Google searches. I was now linked to the post I had commented on, previous posts my rabbi had written, comments left by other users and the posts they had written elsewhere within the blogosphere. The rapidity with which I was branded, not only by my own online activity, but also by the online activity of others, seemed incomprehensible.
I thought about this phenomenon in relationship to, the images that my friends and I had posted on Myspace throughout that year. I unknowingly went from being slightly annoyed and simultaneously amused by the phrase “take a picture of me for my Myspace”, to it becoming completely natural and almost organic to document every moment, every outing, every time my friends and I put on make up, and to take pictures for Myspace. I saw this behavior even further exaggerated in the high school students I was student teaching. Their conversations were dominated with events that had transpired on Myspace, and when they were not talking about Myspace they were taking pictures for Myspace.
When we talked about the factors that contributed to the construction of their individual and collective identities, my students were quick to bring up their style of dress, group of friends, the neighborhood they lived in, and the way they spoke. Yet not a single student referenced their online activity, the pictures they posted, the groups they joined, the comments they left on each others pages. I wondered why it was, that they were so aware of and adept at reflecting upon their experiences in the material offline world, but failed to mention the social network that played such a major role in their day-to-day lives.
DECONSTRUCTING PERSONAL IDENTITY
(today) I am referring to myself as a performance artist, Internet curator, and editor. I create and (concurrently) perform multiple online identities, by sampling from different representations of existing cultural discourses. I fragment my personal experiences and invite others to join in, and modify and regroup those fragments. By doing this I hope to share the process through which I deconstruct and reconstruct my individual conception of self, so that others can do the same in their lives.
In the series Acciones Plásticas I performed representations of five constructed characters: a religious Jewish woman, a spoiled Jewish girl, a ghetto Latina, a sexy Latina professor, and a Mayan woman. I created low quality YouTube video blogs for four of the characters, the Mayan woman did not have a video, as she would not have had access to YouTube technologies. The videos were strategically placed on popular social networking sites, including YouTube and MySpace. The layout of YouTube contextualized the videos and framed them with user comments and similarly tagged user content. Jewish Girls was picked up by a popular left-wing Jewish blogging site Jewschool, and soon entered the Jewish Blogosphere where it was referred to as the JAP. This repositioning shifted the focus from the portrayal of multiple interwoven identities to a depiction of the Jewish American Princess. The JAP became how people knew my work, validating me while simultaneously conflating my identity with that of this particular character.
One of the strategies that I employed to counteract idea of “me as The JAP“ was to group videos from the series Acciones Plásticas together with three other Youtube videos in a video reel of my work. The first video in the reel, el es frida kahlo is me dressed as Frida Kahlo where I violently scream I am Frida Kahlo! In second video Be Wife, I wear a bright red bikini top in front of an image of a Mayan temple in Tikal. Traditional Guatemalan marimba music plays in the background, while red text scrolls across the top reading Guatemala’s finest export. The third video Que Sencilla, features me as a little girl, who is being coaxed by an off-camera male voice to perform a dance for the camera.
Someone who is expecting to see a Jewish American Princess, is instead greeted with an enraged Latina artist, trying to fight the stigma of being associated with Frida Kahlo. My inclusion of these additional videos was to show the multidimensionality of the five characters initially presented in Acciones Plásticas. The Mayan women does not have her own YouTube video, but with the addition of the Be Wife video, her absence is felt even greater. The face of Guatemala in these videos, is the chest of a mail order bride. Another example can be seen within the four original videos themselves. With the grouping of the ghetto latina with the sexy latina professor, vast cultural and class difference can be seen between the two representations of Latina women. Put together with el es frida kahlo and Be Wife, there are suddenly five Latina performers all acting on one stage.
Berlin’s Eruv is a conceptual project that addresses the assumed non-presence of Jews in Germany. Berlin does not actually have an eruv. There is however, an active Jewish community, one that is frequently overshadowed by the city’s prominent monuments and memorials commemorating Jewish life (death). Berlin’s Eruv weaves together voices from Berlin’s Jewish community in an attempt to construct a metaphorical eruv representative of a living Jewish Community. Just as the eruv exists in the minds of the people who abide by it, Berlin’s Eruv manifests itself through the conversations surrounding the idea of the piece.
I will be showing Berlin’s Eruv at 2009 MFA Thesis Exhibition, opening May 8th at the Kemper Art Museum.
Frida Kahlo at the synagogue: Maya Escobar and the young Jewish-American Creation
by David Sperber in Ma’arav Israeli Arts and Culture Magazine.
translation by Shlomit Nehorai
Maya Escobar is no doubt one of the ‘hottest’ things developing in the Jewish-American art scene. Escobar defines herself “dyslexic internet artist”. And in order to view her work you need not wander far.
Her work is mostly created in familiar internet format, and is most often displayed on Youtube. Escobar, daughter to a Jewish mother and Guatemalan father, defines her art work as ongoing personal anthropological-sociological research into the narrative language that uses contemporary media.
The “Acciones Plasticas” work includes short films that present a series of convincing characters and monologues that deal with identity questions. In the first short film in the series she appears dressed up as the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo who became an icon within the feminist discourse. it is commonly argued that Kahlo had some Jewish roots. Escobar is dressed and made up as is famously attributed to Kahlo – the uni brow – while screaming “I am Frida Kahlo, you are Frida Kahlo, we are Frida Kahlo”. In agitation or in ecstasy she tears her custom, messes up her hair, wipes her make up off of her face and returns to being herself. In another short film in the series she carries on with a monologue of a jewish orthodox woman. The text here is so exact that for a minute the line between irony and slapstick to deep seriousness is blurred. In another short film the stereotypical Latin female as a sexual sensual object is presented, when here too the subject is moving between embracing the stereotypes and breaking them. Escobar is presenting different episodes that she had experienced herself and that deal with her hybrid identity as a woman, as a Jew and as a Latin American.
Another work of Escobar is “my shtreimel” – a video-blog that is also presented on Youtube.
In that piece appears a young man in his twentieths who sits in his room in front of a computer and talk about his Shabbat rituals. The monologue describes an amorphous jewish world in which jewishness lives and materializes without obligation to its institutions and mostly in personal frameworks. A central part in this world is self deprecation: The young man shows his beloved shtreimel and mentions that the shtreimel which looks like the traditional is actually a women’s hat purchased at a thrift store.
In the work “eruv” (intermingling) Escobar relates to the fact that in Berlin there is no eruv even though there exists a vibrant jewish community. In a series of photographed interviews with the city’s citizens she transforms the notion eruv – from a halachic-legal notion that creates a conversion of the public space into the private space, into a blending – the creation of a multiple of characters and worlds. The blending (eruv)transforms into a cultural concept that celebrates the different and the unique. The individuals create a splendid mosaic that assembles anew the “collective” as a social concept. The way Escobar deals with the subject is typical to the jewish-american art world that tends to transfer concepts from the practical halachic and transfer them to another world, and so they transform into a metaphor of the personal or social condition. The personal experience is significant to Escobar: ” Like other jewish rituals, the Shabbat encompasses practicalities that materialize private condition in a private space. Except that the understanding of the private space and the public space is fluid and changes at all times. I think that it is very important that people celebrate their Shabbat as a pleasant experience, defined and personal. The Shabbat rituals evolve all the time – not as an unbending obligation that is transferred from generation to generation, but as a result of a simple choice of the individual to create to him/herself nice and pleasant Shabbat customs. We all have these kind of customs.”
The intercontinental use of the Internet gave birth to a generation of individuals who create for creation’s sake, and the concept of art for art’s sake gets that way a new meaning. The Internet media connects individuals and contributes to mutual influences between people who work separately in far away places. The young work on the Internet challenges the old definitions in relation to what is considered art and what isn’t. Similarly, it adopts new presentation forms that are not the norm in the art world’s mainstream, and breathes new air into the art field.
The discussion into Escobar’s work leads into a wider discussion about the differences between the Jewish thinking in the Israeli discourse into the new understanding of the American world view. The Jewish-artistic engagement in the United States is influenced by the introduction of new-age ideas into the center of the conversation, and is integrating into the effort to create a connection between contemporary culture and the traditional Jewish identity. Within the American-Jewish community there are signs of a move from an organized institutional Jewish expression into a unique and personal expression of the very personal experience. These artists reorganizing the traditions on their own terms, and in this way contributing not insignificantly to the definition of Jewish-American Non-Orthodox Modern-orthodox anew. The link between Jewish culture and Jewish identity to art occupies a central role in this conversation.
The echoes of this tendency can be seen in Israel as well ( in the young Yiddish culture developing in Tel Aviv, for instance ), but generally there is still a deep disconnect between the dominant concepts in Israel and in the United States. In Israel it is common to connect between Judaism to an organized tradition and to a blood line that is based on a genetic continuity. On the other hand, many young Jewish-Americans marry outside their religion, but nevertheless see themselves as an integral part of the Jewish world and expect to not be expelled from it. As opposed to Israelis who experience their Jewishness in terms of disintegration that followed restoration, the Jewish-Americans create new branches where growth and rebirth metaphors fit them better.
The joining of contemporary culture and art to Jewish creativity expresses itself in fashionable characteristics like tattoos, hip-hop music, Internet art and the like, and is often understood as the disconnect with the accepted binary dichotomy between holly and the common. That is why conservative bodies see these art forms as a dangerous provocation. These new cultural concepts interconnect during confrontational discussions with the old cultural concepts. Philologically speaking it can be said that borrowing symbols from one discipline to another interferes with the semiotic systems. In the Kabalistic vernacular it is said that the energy that is released during the friction that is created by the disintegration of the usual vessels – creates “new light”.