10 February 2007

The Jewish McLuhan

Mel Alexenberg, Four Wings of America, Tziztit ritual fringes at the NW corner of USA flowing into the Pacfic Ocean at Neah Bay in Washington State
February 2, 2007

Book Review by Menachem Wecker
The Future of Art in a Digital Age:
From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness
by Mel Alexenberg

As a wakeup call to “an indifferent world” and “Jews with their heads in the sand,” Mel Alexenberg designed a Holocaust memorial to honor the 6 million Jews in Israel “incinerated by an Iranian nuclear bomb that is Iran’s prelude to global conquest in the service of a mad ideology.”

Although the word “memorial,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, derives from the Latin memoria (“memory”), Alexenberg has no qualms about memorializing events that have yet to occur. He certainly won’t be spitting three times, muttering “ken ayin hara” or throwing salt. “To hell with an evil eye,” he told the Forward in an e-mail. “It is evil to sit back and do nothing.”

Alexenberg’s project, titled “Future Holocaust Memorials,” has its own blog, http://futureholocaustmemorials.blogspot.com/, and is just one of several new-media Jewish art projects that Alexenberg has launched. He has tied prayer shawl strings to the four “corners” of America (Washington, San Diego, Maine and Florida), faxed “cyberangles” (based on Rembrandt’s work) across the globe, built an eruv (ritual border) around the city of Sodom and used a kabbalistic system that matches colors with Hebrew letters to map out the Bible in lights. These pieces and more are collected in Alexenberg’s new book, “The Future of Art in a Digital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness.”

Alexenberg’s interest in digital art stems from his belief that art and science are “integrally one in the human psyche,” which “only need to be merged in postmodernism because they were artificially torn apart.” Alexenberg says that when he was a child, he used to conduct “scientific and artistic activities” with salamanders in the Catskills, “without a clue that they were considered different areas of human endeavor.” That childish playfulness and obliviousness to the boundaries of disciplines have apparently stuck with the artist, who refers to the Talmud’s “hypertext Internet-like design… that demands that it be studied in multiple ways unlike the one-way linear reading of other books.”

Alexenberg would seem to be an unlikely herald of Talmud-as-hypertext. The bearded artist, who wears a black hat and Hasidic garb in many of his promotional images, is the founding dean of the art school at Netanya Academic College in Israel. He was chairman of fine arts at the New York-based Pratt Institute, and a professor of art at Columbia University and at Bar-Ilan University. He also served as a research fellow at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies and as dean of visual arts at Miami’s New World School of the Arts before moving to Petah Tikvah, where he now lives.

His book’s premise centers on what Alexenberg calls a paradigm shift between Hellenistic and Hebraic consciousness. Alexenberg cites Norwegian theologian Thorleif Boman, whose book “Hebrew Thought Compared With Greek” (W.W. Norton & Company, 2002) defines Hellenism as a “static, peaceful, moderate, harmonious” art that spans from the Renaissance to modernism, whereas Hebraic thinking is “dynamic, vigorous, passionate, explosive,” or new-media art.

A well-versed student of art history, Alexenberg rallies names no less significant than Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry to prove his point. He calls Wright “the son of a Unitarian minister,” who “internalized the biblical message of freeing humanity from enslavement in closed spaces and expressed his freedom in his architectural design.” Gehry, meanwhile, who was born Frank Goldberg, used to play with the carp swimming in his grandmothers’ bathtub. In Alexenberg’s conception, “The vigorous body motions of swimming fish seen from above gave Gehry his vocabulary for the dynamic shape of his museum,” the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain.

If Jacques Derrida had not preceded him, Alexenberg would be the Jewish Marshall McLuhan. He talks about the “endless flow” of the spiral Torah scroll “in contrast with the same content trapped between the covers in a codex book form.” He sees the Internet as a tool for translation and simultaneous unification and diversity that reverses the transgression of the Tower of Babel. Like McLuhan, Alexenberg is vulnerable to criticism for the breadth of his seemingly all-inclusive message that could prove either brilliance or utter nonsense.

But Alexenberg stresses that he is not a philosophy professor who never realizes his theories in the real world: “As an artist, I am always seeking new ways to realize theory/concept in space and time.” He even tries to use his art in areas where politics is failing. His exhibit Cyberangels: Aesthetic Peace Plan for the Middle East, which was shown in Prague, proposes an aesthetic solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict by highlighting an aspect of Islamic art that incorporates both geometric patterns and disrupting counter-patterns to show that “human creation is less than perfect.” Israel, then, can represent that counter-pattern of iconoclasm that leads the Islamic world to recognize “that they need Israel to realize their Islamic religious values.”

In this project, Alexenberg is most like McLuhan, who told Playboy in 1969 that the artist, and not the scientist, should be called upon to perceive and foresee new trends, because “inherent in the artist’s creative inspiration is the process of subliminally sniffing out environmental change.” Perhaps he will not have the opportunity to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, and hopefully he will not be called upon to truly memorialize Israel, but Alexenberg’s art and scholarship represent some of the most innovative work being made in both the Jewish and non-Jewish art world.

Menachem Wecker is a painter and editor based in Washington, D.C. He recently began blogging about religion and the arts at http://iconia.canonist.com/.

Iconia: Wherever Faith Meets Art
Iconia is a blog about religion and art by Menachem Wecker that is part of the Canonist network of religion blogs.

Interview: Mel Alexenberg

My review of Mel Alexenberg’s new book, The Future of Art in a Digital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness is in this week’s Forward, titled “The Jewish McLuhan.”

I talk about his installations which do everything from tying tzitzit strings to the corners of the United States to sending “Cyber-angels” (derived from Rembrandt) across the world by fax. And perhaps most provocatively, his Holocaust memorial honoring the 6 million Jews in Israel “incinerated by an Iranian nuclear bomb that is Iran’s prelude to global conquest in the service of a mad ideology.”

Here’s the email interview I conducted with Alexenberg, pictured (wearing a hat with the ambassadors of Israel and the U.S. at the opening of his exhibit, Cyberangels: Aesthetic Peace Plan for the Middle East, at the Jewish Museum in Prague):

MW: I find your ability to not only map the Torah out over postmodern/deconstruction theory but also to create numerous artworks that attend to those discoveries quite fascinating. I wonder, though, is there any limit in your mind to cooperation between Jewish texts/theology and technology? Is there ever a danger of creating towers of Babel?

MA: I discuss the greatest transgression in building the Tower of Babel as defying the Divine will to revere and applaud the differences between peoples (pages 150-151). With rapidly developing translation programs on the Internet, people can retain their different languages and cultures while communicating to each other freely. Internet translation programs that promise to be perfected in the next decade provide unprecedented opportunities to be both unified and different simultaneously.

MW: Along similar lines, it strikes me that close inspection of any text, not only the Torah, would yield striking aspects that are relevant to postmodernism and the digital age. Do you agree with that? If so, what is it about Judaism that makes the postmodern investigation particularly fruit worthy?

MA: On pages 21-22, I discuss McLuhan’s important concept that the medium is an integral part of the message in relation to the hypertext Internet-like design of the Talmud that demands that it be studied in multiple ways unlike the one-way linear reading of other books. The text of the Talmud itself repeats the mantra that there are 70 facets to the Torah (p. 14). It invites us to read between the lines. See the section “From Deconstruction to Reconstruction” (pages 84-88). On pages 41-42, 89, I explore the endless flow of the spiral Torah scroll in contrast with the same content trapped between the covers in a codex book form. The medium is so central that the same content is not read from a rectangular book if the Torah is not available in a scroll form.

MW: You make a big deal out of the paradigm shift from Hellenism to Hebraic perspectives, but it seems you are far more interested in the Hebraic space once you get there than in the evolution. Are there not many aspects of Hellenistic thought that also be compared with new media developments?

MA: The book is about the future of art which is confluent with the Hebraic structure of consciousness not past paradigms. To use Boman’s words [from his book Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek]: Hellenism = static, peaceful, moderate, harmonious = art from Renaissance to modernism. Hebraic thinking = dynamic, vigorous, passionate, explosive = new media art (see p. 9 in my book).

MW: You have done a lot of art projects that develop upon your writings. Do you see the theory/concept as the most important part? The artwork? Do you sometimes feel like you are rushing to finish things so as to adopt new projects?

MA: Theory/concept is vital in my work both as an artist and professor of art and Jewish thought. However, I am not a philosophy professor who does not have to realize his theories in the real world. As an artist, I am always seeking new ways to realize theory/concept in space and time. I never completely finish art projects that are part of a continuous dialogue between concept and realization. My art projects overlap each other and re-emerge in an ongoing process of creative discovery.

MW: Your memorial to 6 million Israelis who could be killed by Iran is intriguing. Is there fear of casting an evil eye? What exactly is the memorial you want to make? Are there plans to develop it?

MA: The website www.futureholocaustmemorials.org is a prioric and dialogic work of Internet art in itself (see chapter on semiotics in my book and explanation in text of website itself). I am also exploring creating a memorial artwork using digital animation technologies in large-scale nighttime projections covering the exterior surface of buildings worldwide. What I’m doing is using my abilities as a new media artist to issue a wake up call to an indifferent world and to Jews with their heads in the sand and warn of a horrific danger facing Israel and all the free world. To hell with an evil eye. It is evil to sit back and do nothing.

MW: I like your art models designed to respond to the Arab-Israeli conflict and to find common ground. Do you think it is realistic that art can help people resolve their political differences? Do you have any experiences that lead you to believe that art can make that difference?

MA: Why not try art when politics is failing? In my Prague exhibition proposing an aesthetic peace plan for the Middle East drawing on Islamic art and thought, I opened a constructive dialog with Islamic leaders. (pages 54-57). My Legacy Throne artwork exemplifies using art together people (Hispanic, African-American, Jewish) of different cultural values in a common enterprise (pages 26-30). Perhaps similar collaborative Jewish-Arab artworks could ease tensions.

MW: Finally, your work relies heavily upon kabbalah and other mysticism. Do you think these sorts of theories are within the experience of real Jews living in the world today? Is your investigation more interested in the theology or in how people have and do interpret that theology in their own lives? I imagine many Jews would find your work either too esoteric in its attention to Judaism or new media. Have you heard feedback in this regard?

MA: There is worldwide popularization of kabbalah among both Jews and non-Jews while people in the developed world have no choice but to become computer savvy and attend to new media. I make it clear in Chapter 3 that kabbalah is a down-to-earth mysticism to encounter everyday life unlike other mystical traditions that draw away from the mundane material world.

Response to “Interview: Mel Alexenberg”
Ariel Beery, editor and publisher of Blogs of Zion and the magazine PresenTense, says:
Mel Alexenberg is one of the most amazing, insightful and inspiring human beings I have ever had the pleasure to meet and learn from. Kol HaKavod on bringing his message to the world.

Blogs of Zion
Alexenberg: A Prophet in our Midst

The role of the prophet has been considered and reconsidered numerous times, most prominently by the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who identified a certain frame of being in which the prophet acts. In my eyes, however, a prophet is more of an agent of change than anything else. Prophets provide paradigm-shifting experiences through modeling behavior and working outside the bounds of current reality. In essence, prophets don’t push the envelope, they destroy it, pointing out that the envelope that boxed in reality prior to their coming was no more than an assumed reality, and that there are other ways to see the world.

Alexenberg is such a prophet. As Menachem Wecker writes both on his blog and in a review of Alexenberg’s mindshattering book, The Future of Art in the Digital Age, in the Forward. Alexenberg isn’t just a philosopher or an intellectual, he is a doer, a creator, a model for new models of Jewish thinking that contain within them the wisdom of our civilization adapted for this new age of Information Technology.

I have been blessed with a number of occasions to learn from Alexenberg throughout the years–in fact, as the father of a good friend of mine in Israel, he is in many ways a person who made me who I am today. By revealing patterns in the world, pointing out the workings of those systems that surround us at present, and by expanding my horizons to Judaism as a spiritual practice that is in fact aspiritual–that is, as real as the kreplach one may eat–Alexenberg has been known to instill in many a love for the Jewish wisdom ensconced in the Jewish People that some kiruv organizations, both secular and orthodox, can only dream of.

Alexenberg’s latest project is a living memorial to the six million Ahmadinejad of Iran aspires to murder through the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Let us hope that Alexenberg’s prophecy leads the West to play the role of Nineveh–and may we be blessed with learning more from this prophet of our times.