Isshaq Albarbary works at the intersection of social practice, performances, and placemaking. His practice engages the relations between art, statelessness, and extraterritoriality. While at Amant, he will continue his research on the use of culture as espionage and a weapon to increase state surveillance and disciplinary power. By looking at the Israeli “musta’ribin” – the secret Israeli military units – and the Medieval “musta’ribin” of the Iberian Peninsula – a sect within Andalusian society that lived under Muslim rule–, Isshaq explores notions of authenticity, imitation, camouflage, anonymity, normalization, and naturalization.

Albarbary was born in 1988 in Beit Jibrin refugee camp, Palestine and he currently lives and works between Amsterdam and Bethlehem. He has shown his work (carried out collaboratively) at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven and the Serralves Museum in Porto. His work has been included in the São Paulo Biennial, the Qalandya International in Palestine, Documenta 14 in Kassel, and the Chicago Architecture Biennial. He was a fellow at BAK in Utrecht and a participant and coordinator of Campus in Camps, an educational program that activated collective critical learning environments in Palestinian refugee camps. Albarbary is a founding member of Al Maeishah, a communal learning environment in which participants explore and practice neighbouring and hospitality as radical political acts.*

Photo: Lua Vollard 

Meet the Residents Podcast: Isshaq Albarbary

A conversation in Isshaq’s studio about the relation between his own immigration experiences in Europe and his artistic research, as well as his new inquiries in the US and the American at large. “I’ve always understood art as research, … the research pretty much determines the art form that comes from it. So it’s extremely intertwined. … And I heavily depend on art to give it some form, not necessarily just an adequate visual, but give it some form that can create the meaning and understanding from it.”
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Sarah Demeuse This is Meet the Residents, a series of interviews with Amant Studio & Research residents in which we speak and digress about research, impact of context on artistic processes, serendipity and making community Amant is a nonprofit arts organization and residency in North Brooklyn. Our studios are at 306 Maujer, where we host four artists for three months. One cohort involved, another one in spring.

This is our spring 2022 season. My name is Sarah Demeuse. I’m your host and a man’s head of publications. Welcome Today, I’m in Isshaq Albarbary’s studio. Spring is finally springing, and Isshaq has been with us for almost five months. So Isshaq, thanks for letting me into your studio. Let’s jump right in, shall we? Before coming to our month, where were you spending time?

Isshaq Albarbary Well, I was born and raised in Beit Jibrin, a refugee camp in Bethlehem, in Palestine. But currently I am based in Amsterdam.

Sarah Demeuse Great. And Isshaq, you’ve been with us, actually, for two terms now. I’d be really curious to hear what you came to a with what your project sounded like on paper and what you’ve been working on here. In what way has this experience being here maybe changed things?

Isshaq Albarbary Well, I’ve been very lucky, actually, to stay or this time I mean, my initial proposal was to actually work on ID cards, the stateless I.D. cards, and and and it hasn’t really changed much. I think during my time here in Amant, they just went a bit more specific.

Sarah Demeuse So what are stateless ID cards? Can you just explain it?

Isshaq Albarbary So basically, if you are stateless and let’s say you live just as an example in Holland, then obviously they will get you they will give you a municipal I.D. card. Right. But certain information in regards to nationality and place of birth. The language that the U.S. Obviously, it’s supposedly supposed to be stateless. In my case, they’re not unknown at some point and they use the quote three exits.

Isshaq Albarbary So I you know, my initial proposal was to kind of like look at statecraft that was more interested in the sort of consultation that happens between the Dutch government supposedly with Israel. Right. Since, you know, I’m Palestinian then of course, most likely these are the sort of communication that happens between these political states or powers. But during my time here, I was much more interested in looking actually at the disembodied layers of them

So it’s kind of like, you know, shifted a little bit because then I was more interested in looking at the methodology that you know, for instance, the Dutch state and followed, they say looking at it from the historical expect.

Sarah Demeuse And in and in this case, you’re talking about the methodologies behind changing something from stateless to unknown.

Isshaq Albarbary Well, interestingly, actually, in my case, what they did at first is they wrote Palestine. So after one year when I actually applied for a renewal of my permanent residency, that is when they introduced these two codes, again, for nationality, they wrote and no and for place of birth, they included the three crosses or the three exits. And I think during my time here in Amant, what I was working on is trying to look at how language can conceals the complexity of our knowledge system when they see language, not necessarily just the written language, but also looking at, you know, you know, I see this embedded layers of I.D. card meaning that to look at the ethics, look at moments of silence, look at the history, the politics, subjectivities and so on and so forth, all these sort of elements.

Sarah Demeuse And how do you research those layers? Is there an archival practice? Is it interviews? How do you how do you go about it?

Isshaq Albarbary Different ways. I have to say an important and of course, an archive. So one of the one of the things that have been looking at is the Dutch database system, you know, which is pretty much like a fixed supposedly system. I also look at moments when the Dutch parliaments met to sort of, you know, response to such language because there has been cases of court as well against them because, you know, this language is not necessarily only applied on Palestinians.

Right. So in the case of the Netherlands, you have about 80,000 people who are actually referred to as unknown. And most of these people are not stateless in the first place. You know, they come from, you know, what we call nation states, of course, but they use this language in order because if you are stateless in the Netherlands, then and at some point you have rights, right?

So you know, every stateless had the right to become stateful. Right. But if you are unknown the way they conceived this this the way they define this language is that you have failed to prove what are you comfortable. So it’s kind of like a policy stuck right in place in order to prevent people from rights that states are supposed to give.

[sound of an ice cream truck in the background–they both enjoy it]

Sarah Demeuse That brings me to the question of the New York context, how it may have reshaped some of your research methods or maybe your focus. It was you know, at the beginning you said that initially you were looking at statelessness, but then it became more about your own case with the triple Xs and the unknown. Are there other factors that you feel that this environment has shaped your research.

Isshaq Albarbary And I’m thinking about basically so the way I do my research for example, you know, okay, let me put it this way. So my practice off has always been research, right? So research and art are deeply into the point. And my art generates types of materials that can be used in different ways. I use them to create an artistic format that used to create a for me.

So what matters is that is the art practice that becomes research-based but intertwined with research practice. And the reason why I’m saying this is because of my work. You know, like generally speaking, contextualization and interpretation feed into innovation, which is the narration that I would like to sort of, you know, give to myself and others and and the narration is very much dependent on how one situates or dependent on the finding of the research and how one situates and conceptualize and interpret its finding.

And they and I use this in kind of in a way I employ it in different ways, you know, in, in a publication because so far they have been just, you know, writing a lot. But also in a better display, I use it in conceiving an object I use it in to it really depends of course in the present moment in which I am engaged with and so far here in New York.

I guess one of the are the most positive things it has happened to me that is that it has brought me to different geographies and specifically learning about this whole history of I don’t know to what extent is correct to say Latin America, but the lack of the words to say Latin America. So it gave me this opportunity to communicate.

Right. And pretty much one language, but in different geographies. I come from the Middle East, right? So to look at how the X sort of and exist in Guatemala during the Civil War. Right, because the government uses also this this code and how the U.S. government uses also X in what we call now gender passport. It’s kind of like you to communicate all these sort of like language that the Dutch created, but with other different, you know, realities here in America.

Sarah Demeuse And if I’m not mistaken, there’s also a component of looking back into history quite a while ago, which also kind of connects the Americas now with the Middle East and Arabic culture.

Isshaq Albarbary You’re not mistaken at all. I mean, maybe to think of this connection and situated in my research, of course, I’m looking at that weaponization of culture, how culture is being weaponized and use as espionage as a matter of fact. And of course, the one that is has perfected. This is usually, you know, contemporary states starting from 500 years ago.

Isshaq Albarbary And for me, and specifically in my research, I’m look at I’m looking at like the present moment of what is the present moment. I mean, like the present settler colonial realities that the Palestinians live under, but also in relation to the Iberian peninsula and time. So let’s say it periods from 900 until the 1500s. And I tried to kind of like charts tension of colonialism and and yeah, I mean weaponization of culture. These are the two specific sort of geographies to a large extent that I am really focused on at the moment.

Sarah Demeuse And is there also a component where you become more aware, say, of the Americas and settler colonial dynamics within the continent through engaging and, say, with peers here or with just day to day encounters.

Isshaq Albarbary Individuals? You mean like. Oh, absolutely. I mean, New York is a such a rich place in terms of who’s actually sort of like living here. And that in itself constitutes the great opportunity for me in that like I’ve been able to speak with people and who I have been wanting to speak with in such a long time. Right.

Isshaq Albarbary People who teach in universities, but also walking by different positions in institutions and, you know, researchers, artists, curators, as a matter of fact, lots of institutional directors and stuff. All this has been very, very, very great for my research.

Sarah Demeuse There is a basic question that I always ask everyone, but in a way, we’ve been talking about it all the time: What is research for you? It seems to be all encompassing, but maybe there is there’s something else that you feel like we can add to this. Like, why is it so important that for you artistic practice, kind of that the distinction between artistic practice and research is almost no, that they that they that they are.

Isshaq Albarbary Yeah, like I just said no, you know, for me. Yeah. So that can just sit now for me. Like I’ve always understood art as research, you know, and my engaged with the research and pretty much determines the art form that comes from it. So it’s extremely intertwined you know, and I engage in, you know, trying to figure out a condition, trying to figure out a policy. And I heavily dependend on art to give it some form of, um, not necessarily just like, you know, an adequate visual, you know, but give it some form of can create the meaning and understand uh, from it. Yeah. So research-based is pretty much how I engage.

Sarah Demeuse Um, is there something about the art field that you feel is an exception that this is the place where one should do this type of research?

Isshaq Albarbary I mean, if we accept that art in if we accept that art deals with the everyday life, then that is the field that I’m sort of find myself more suitable. You know, for me, I’m very much interested in this relation between art, science and politics. And that’s why I always say I try to engage the relation between art, statelessness, and so if we say art and politics, another way to say art nerds production and I don’t know, activism, if you like, you know, another way to say art building societies and so on and so forth, you know, so so this is kind of like I feel like, you know, art really gives me the freedom to sort of engage with the conditions and constitute the an understanding of in part understand what is in the first place and then try to kind of create a respond to that and the beauty of it is that it really gives you the freedom to also sort of maneuver through different geographies. So it’s not just in it doesn’t trick me to a specific context as well.

Sarah Demeuse And in that way, is it is it is a kind of how should I say is it is it a necessary condition to kind of do residencies? Because you need to be in different contexts? Is that also part of the practice?

Isshaq Albarbary It’s not like I have done many residencies, but and I think the beauty of of I can speak, of course, about a month residency is that what it did? It truly offered me the time, you know, to set and dove in-depth into my research to try to articulate better questions and try to communicate these questions with other people as well.

So this is the most beneficiary of the residency as well. And besides, of course, it provides some form of financial support, which of course we should not also go blind on. So so in that regard, like the residency especially, that they had the full freedom to sort of like decide how I want to engage with my time. It has been extremely great Yes.

Sarah Demeuse So both context, but also very much time related to money in the end. Yeah. Now, I’m going to jump to a different topic because we we have a theme here that is kind of informing subterranean sleep. Many of the programs that we do and the scuttled hearing voices. Now, hearing voices can be related to kind of a more classical understanding of inspiration, but it’s also about kind of unearthing voices that might be there and not be really in the ether yet. And I wonder if you are hearing any voices, might be irrational ones, might be suppressed ones. I am curious how you how you see it well.

Isshaq Albarbary I’m driven toward the work I do because of I mean, voices is quite interesting word to use, I would say, of course, because of I find myself in in conditions of anger, sadness, pain constantly. But also between all of these conditions, there’s always a human, which is an extremely powerful tool of resistance. Right. So unfortunately, this is the realities in which we live. We live by and basically, but also these voices, of course, they are not just mean because we inherited these voices, but also, you know, we we are born to inherent oppression unfortunately, history and so on and so forth. So at the moment, I say history, fiction, and dark humor is the many voices that I’m dealing with. Did I respond?

Sarah Demeuse No, no, no, it does. And I actually I really appreciate the humor element in it, too. It is. It is it is such an it’s essentially human interaction and and that really.

Isshaq Albarbary It’s very delicate. Yeah. You know, it kind of surface up disrupts and then it leaves. Mm hmm. But the impact of continuing.

Sarah Demeuse My last question is actually not a question. It’s more an invitation for you to ask questions. To Amant. I wonder if you have any.

Isshaq Albarbary Oh, yeah. Extend my residency. Ha ha ha.

I mean, it’s I don’t know, I have questions, but and I looking back at how great it has been to sort of looks to residents, like, in terms of time. Mm hmm. I would definitely strongly advise that they make it, and that makes it a little bit longer, like five months at least, because. So, I mean, you know, to come to New York, you really need the time to sort of, you know, I don’t want to say subtle, but it’s kind of, you know, adjust to what is happening.

Sarah Demeuse Our theme music is composed by Silas, who also recorded the conversations. Sound Editing and engineering is by Isaac Silber, Finally, we’re thankful to our artists for letting us into their studios and thought processes and for finding time in their busy schedules. Thanks for listening.

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For Your Reference

Departing from his Dutch residency identity card on which his country of origin, Palestine, is marked as “XXX (unknown)”, Isshaq Albarbary peels away the disembodied layers that come together in the making of an ID card. First, he looks at the historical moment when the X entered Western consciousness and when four distinct, contemporaneous genocides paved the way for modern notions of subjectivity and statehood that continue to shape contemporary state bureaucracy’s methods and truth claims. Next, looking again at his case, he ponders how these western bureaucracies swiftly reprogram their collective memories and hard-wired memory chips. After his presentation, Isshaq will engage in an open conversation with New York-based filmmaker and researcher Naeem Mohaiemen.

Naeem Mohaiemen and Issahq Albarbary at Amant, 2022.