Elias and Yousef Anastas of AAU Anastas, discuss with Nathalie Frankowski and Cruz Garcia their broadcasting project Radio Alhara and alternative platforms for Palestinian and planetary solidarity.
With this issue of informa, we have been thinking about how designers, thinkers and practitioners figure out ways to create platforms that allow for networks of solidarity to be generated. Your practice was one of the first we thought about. With the struggles against occupation in Palestine, and being architectural practitioners through your studio AAU Anastas, we have been following your project Radio Alhara.
What are the collective benefits of having a project like Radio Al Hara, compared to other forms of architectural practice? Is there a relationship between solidarity or collectivity that is part of all the projects?
EA: Practicing architecture within the context of Palestine led us to think about architecture in a way that is very much inclusive. Very quickly, when we moved back to Palestine, we started to collaborate with a number of people that are embedded within the architectural project at the very early stages. The community that is building the architecture, so the constructors, the makers, etc.
A common denominator in architecture’s history has been thinking that we [the architects] design, and then parachute the product in a community that is totally dissociated from us. When we started working within that kind of framework, we started to reflect on construction techniques and the way we treat material and the way we treat society and culture in different parts of the world, and how these can be mirrored and reflected. We looked for analogies in other civilizations, as well as Palestine. For us, that was the start of a way of thinking about solidarity, and how solidarity is not just people taking care of other people during times of emergency.
Solidarity is not only when there's something that is very urgent that we need to deal with. Solidarity is thinking about others together with us, as well creating a network of solidarity that would constitute a new form of architecture, or a new way of thinking about architecture.
YA: In terms of Radio Al Hara’s structure, we didn’t really think about what we were doing before actually doing it. I think in that sense the radio has been evolving in a way that is quite spontaneous. And with that, the idea of solidarity, the network of solidarity is also linked to, for example, the 1970s in Palestine, where all political parties had cultural branches that were actually not auxiliary or accessory to their cause but completely part of it.
With the radio we’re also questioning or challenging how today’s cultural centers are institutionalized, bureaucratic, static sort of structures where the relationship between culture and politics doesn’t mean anything. In the 1970s for example, they had these exhibitions that, while linked to political parties, were from renowned artists from the entire world that were participating in solidarity.
But not in solidarity in a cheesy way. In solidarity because the cause meant something to them. So, there’s an apparent separation of the cultural sphere and the political sphere that we’re also trying to question through these sorts of small initiatives that are, at the end of the day, a provincial way of doing things. So how can this provincial way of making things become more globalized by linking stories that are not expected to be met with a shared common space?
As you mentioned, we can think about the role of political parties using art exhibitions and cultural institutions as a core strategy to reach out to people and create a form of public discourse. In architecture, people have tried to use similar types of platforms, but as we know, these exercises can become institutionalized very quickly. Funding mechanisms oftentimes outline or limit the reach of positions or the issues one can or should talk about. Following that, why do you use radio? Is it more freeing? Can the radio help you avoid the need for sponsors? Or even, why music?
EA: I think one of the things that led us to start the radio is the fact that at the very beginning of the pandemic, when Radio Al Hara started, the internet was just flooded with imagery. The imagery that was flooding the internet was basically trying to shape the minds of people. And with this incredible amount of imagery, the degree of liberty that was offered by the internet was very much reduced.
We felt that using sound waves, something that could be heard, allowed people to hear something where they could use their own imaginary. I think for us, sound is very much architectural, it's very much linked to space, and it’s very fluid. We always said that sound is similar to water because it can penetrate and be very fluid, and access many communities and access many places. That was the most interesting part where, through the internet, and through a channel that brings people together, there’s still this possibility of keeping a certain degree of freedom.
YA: In more practical terms, sound and audio files are much lighter than video or image files. And then it's also the question of intimidation. When you're speaking and not seen, you’re less intimidated than when you are seen. So, it was also this kind of process in which the producers that were residents of the radio, were not all from a background of music, or from a background of podcasts. Sometimes they were just listeners that wanted to participate in the project, and became producers. And the audio format allows us to blend the limits between listeners and producers.
In a way it is like art Populaire or popular art, or something of the commons. In the way that it allows a de-hierarchization, so there’s less hierarchy in the sense of who’s the producer, and in this case, who’s the architect. Do you see Radio Al Hara as an architectural project?
YA: I think in the work we do, between architecture and forms and typologies that are found across different geographies and different periods of time, and linking them together, it’s a way of challenging a certain way of writing architectural history.
EA: To this question, I want to come back to the idea of resistance. As architects, we got to a point where we were just sick and tired of hearing the word ‘resistance’ to the point it had become banalized.
Banalized and commodified.
EA: But today, resistance is crucial, and incredibly important. For example, when we started this project, one of the first moments of Radio Al Hara was an online protest called “fil mish mish” (an Arab saying that means “it’s gone to the apricots” and all the effort put has gone to waste), which was a reaction to the illegal annexation of territories that are in-between Palestine and colonized Palestinian territories, and Israel where there’s a number of settlements that are constantly being developed and constructed on, etc.
EA: There was a plan in July 2020 where Israel decided to annex these territories with the backing of the USA. At that point we decided: we have this radio, we have this community, and we have people who are listening to the radio from all over the world. Why don’t we just use this platform to talk about this kind of illegality and this conquest of territory that is totally illegal in the eyes of international law?
So it started that way. And what was the most incredible part is that people started to contribute to this online protest by talking about their own struggles. For example, we had this incredible lineup from Colombia that wanted to stand in solidarity and resistance with Palestine, talking about very peculiar and specific living conditions in Colombia. This kind of resistance is the resistance that is a strong one, because if you create resistance that is isolated [from other struggles], it can be extinguished very easily.
Looking at resistance within these networks, we see that there's a long history of planetary struggles. And as you brought up with the acts of solidarity from Bogota, but also the fact that this [Radio Al Hara] started in 2020, the same year of the most recent eruption of Black Lives Matter protests in the US, and also the same year that we started our LOUDREADERS program, pretty much for similar reasons, as the global pandemic of COVID-19 was revealing many of the embedded disparities in society, the cruel effects of asymmetrical accumulation, lack of access to healthcare, but also racist and apartheid policies and forms of colonialism all around.
What’s the role of alternative architectural platforms in engaging with urgent political discourses? Do you feel it would be possible to address struggles for emancipation or confront the menace of apartheid states with architecture? Or does the radio do something that, through the conventional means of architecture, would be much more difficult to do?
EA: Absolutely. I mean, this idea of fluidity that we mentioned before is extremely important. One of the things that is always at the core of Radio Al Hara’s thinking is the archives. Because after almost two-and-a-half years of the radio, we have this incredible amount of content that is basically the equivalent of two-and-a-half years of sound. The sound however is not only music, it's conversations between people talking about food, politics, resistance, sound performances, etc.
EA: The idea of the archives is very much central to the work, because up until today, there's no trace, the trace is only external. So, if you want to catch a specific show, or you want to be part of an ongoing conversation on the radio, you have to catch it at a specific moment. Otherwise, you just miss it. So now that we have this archive, one of the projects that we're working on is to think about what we do with this archive.
I think this archive becomes physical and it becomes linked to architecture because it becomes something that is constructed in a certain way. And what to do with it is something that is extremely important and can be risky and dangerous, because I think there's an amount of things that are said on the radio that evacuate a certain energy and deliver a certain way of thinking that’s possible only because of this fluidity within the structure.
YA: For me, one of the things the radio achieved in concrete terms is that it created connections between different countries in the Middle East. For example, [between] Palestinians and Lebanese people, that any other way would have been physically impossible. Lebanese cannot travel to Palestine, Palestinians cannot travel to Lebanon, unless under exceptional circumstances. But yet, through the radio, some people became friends from these parts of the word that cannot be connected as is. I think that is critical. For me, this is a simple, very basic achievement that is super important.
We're talking about the radio as a form of infrastructure. And talking about architecture, again, maybe not architecture in the sense of columns, but as a space that creates these bridges between communities that otherwise wouldn't be connected with each other. What have been some of the challenges of having such an open platform? What are the threats of these social platforms? How is the project perceived?
EA: One question that we have currently is about the way we perceive the radio as a public space. During Covid, where basically public spaces were not accessible during the lockdown, we thought that maybe through the radio we can create this form of public space that is very architectural, that is very urban, that is very linked to the city, very linked to territory, etc.
I think the threat we face within the structure of the radio are the same problematics we face in public space as well, which actually enriches the whole experience. So, it's not a threat that weakens the structure because it has to respond to these threats. Instead, it is kept as something that is vulnerable, and something that can be attacked, or can be appropriated, or can be used to express a certain idea. I think this is something that constitutes the essentials and the foundations of public space itself.
We started with four other friends. Now we are six. And we are now thinking about how this community that is counting almost 300 residents across the world, how can the radio be the space, or is it already the space?, of these 300 people as well? How can a radio be managed and led by this group of people that is not only us, but all of the listeners, all the producers of the radio that have become an instrument in shaping how this public space can evolve over time?
YA: To the question of public spaces, the thing that we aspired to the most is to be as open as public spaces. I mean, it's true that sometimes people use the radio for intentions that are not the common intentions or the intentions that we imagined, but I think it's richer to have this kind of risk, or threat, than having a space that is too controlled. There’s always a risk of appropriation of public spaces and people appropriating them for the wrong reasons. We see it today specifically in Palestine, with the capturing of the cultural world which is completely subsidized by foreign countries. The budget of the Ministry of Culture in Palestine is like 0.001%. So, it's nothing. So, you have the Germans, the French, the Italians…
Yeah, the typical colonial-colonialist subject.
YA: Exactly. In concrete terms, sometimes you cannot do specific stuff because it doesn't follow the guidelines of a different country.
Or it challenges their position of power…
Like, French institutions are not going to fund projects that question why they are there [in Palestine]. That's always the problem that runs at the core of colonial projects because they are funded and administered by the colonial power.
Maybe we can address other points of reference. We follow other platforms that incorporate music and publications. Chimurenga in South Africa is one of them. In Puerto Rico, feminist circles produce different forms of propaganda against occupation, against institutional violence, and other forms of oppression. Did you have a model for the radio? How did the project come about?
YA: Honestly, I would like to say that we’re intellectuals and that we followed them, (collective laughter) but it was more like, ‘let’s do a radio, let’s put music’, and then it got shaped in different ways, different manners, different people coming in and giving their own viewpoint. So, there's no manual. But I think that the references start to appear in the different phases of the radio. In terms of political struggle, we have many references that are proper to Palestine, the First Intifadas are some of the references. But there's no manifesto, there's no guideline.
What does Radio Alhara mean?
YA: It means ‘the radio of the neighborhood’.
That’s a sort of manifesto already embedded there.
YA: The only thing that is coming through all of the projects the radio has been putting in place is this provincial way of doing things.
EA: At the end of the day, the most beautiful thing about references, I think, whether it's radio, whether it's all of our community practices, is the fact that there are references that are kind of dormant, that basically become part of the way you think, and you do not automatically make the link between these references and the way you structure your own way of thinking and your way of producing.
I think, as Yousef was saying, the fact that the radio is a totally independent structure, because even the economy of it is totally independent—we do not depend on any other organization—it’s an opportunity to think about how we can de-institutionalize culture and how the radio itself is offering a new format of a cultural institution. This is a reference to how culture was produced in the 1970s and 1980s in Palestine, and in the regions where there was less presence of bureaucratic institutions.
This question is the trickiest one. And it's something that we've been thinking about for a while, particularly after the presentations in Rotterdam. The framework of those presentations felt like the Empire, or the first world, decided to look at other, precarious parts of the world, but from this position of power.
This relates to your practice and how you engage with the world. When Leopold Lambert talked to us about your practice, we saw this great range of works of architecture, of design, and on top of that the work Radio Al Hara was doing. While we wanted to reach out to you to find ways to collaborate, we were also aware about the delicate question of only focusing on Palestine, because that’s something that colonial institutions are really good at: only looking at the work when they want to discuss precarity, or destruction, but not as an example of what architecture, or design, or community practices should really be like, everywhere.
And here we’re also aware, because we also struggle with these questions of institutionalization, that these institutions won't look at an architectural practice because of their qualities, but because they come from places they want to momentarily talk about or exploit. On one hand, one would like for the architecture to be judged by its merits, but on the other there’s a political struggle that must be and is being addressed. Does the radio allow you to engage with more direct forms of political struggle? Is there a form of friction between the aesthetic, the content, and the forms of your practices, discourses, ways of operating?
EA: I don't know how to respond to the question. But, for the last 15, or 20 years, everything that is related to visual arts—taking visual arts as an example, because it’s kind of visible and present—is that there's an expectation that someone coming out of a specific region, whether it's Palestine, or other parts of the world, works within that kind of frame.
Like Africa or the Caribbean.
EA: Basically, this creates an automated way of producing very commercial art, because if you do that, then you can have access to galleries, and then you can have access to fairs, and you can sell more.
I think what the radio has been trying to do is defy this idea of, for example, the algorithms. We were saying at the beginning that the radio is essentially fluid, and it's vocal, with sound, and that by the end of the day, it was very much nourished by a certain visual presence, because all the shows were promoted through imagery.
But the way the imagery was structured was totally connected to the community. Basically, people used to send us their own artwork, or their own images, or the way they want to express their feelings about the show. And that was the way it was promoted. And basically, that thing allowed to overpass the idea of the algorithm because the place from which these images were published or posted created this kind of break into the algorithm.
We’re trying to understand what is expected and challenging that by not doing that necessarily, and instead finding a way out.
YA: We get a lot of questions that are like: ‘what’s it like being an architect in Palestine?’ I don't know. You tell me. Not only is this really, really superficial but also it’s dangerous.
It's like a trap.
It's a trap. It's also sort of imperialist nostalgia. But if you start looking at other practices and not asking, how is it to practice, but instead, what do we have in common with these other kinds of practices? Then you enrich your own practice.That's why provincialism is very important because it becomes a mode of resistance to real estate developers, and to exclusively capitalistic projects. I think it creates momentum and strength.
So in provincialism, there's a strength in its decentralization?
YA: A global provincialism.