Sylwia Wodzińska | Poznań
The present paper deals with the Israeli performance artist, Yuda Braun, and his latest project, “The White Soldier”. The performance is analysed and interpreted from the perspective of performance studies theory, as well asits social and political context and their implications. What can one learn about Israeli society reading this performance? What is the role of the artist and his art in intense political realms? Does art speak louder than the words of politicians? These and more questions will be answered on the basis of the analysis of the performance itself, its media coverage, the videos uploaded at youtube.com and the author’s interviews with Yuda Braun.
Keywords: performance, Israel, Yuda Braun, White Soldier, conflict
It would seem that in a country such as Israel, which is continuously involved in armed conflicts, that art is the best means of public dialogue. The Israeli-Palestinian peace talks fail constantly and the peace process develops slowly. Newspapers provide their readers with new fatalities each morning and with the passing years, stability and safety seem less and less achievable. It comes as no surprise then that there are numerous ongoing art initiatives on both sides of the conflict that are aimed at bringing peace. Artists try to express their opinions, initiate public debates and challenge the ways the societies think. One of the numerous examples of such artists is Yuda Braun, a Jerusalem-based performer, whose character of the White Soldier has been gaining more and more attention in both local and international media. All covered with white paint, a soldier in full combat gear intervenes into public space and discourse, questioning the current state of affairs. His performances, including the most recent one in Israel’s former “No Man’s Land”, insert exclamation or question marks where they seem needed. To what extent is this art? Is it rather a personal statement, a bitter reminder of the past or a loud demand for a different future? Can it be perceived as the voice of many? Who is the audience and who is the actual performer? What do the reactions of the assumed “audience” tell us about that reality?
Analysing the mass-media materials (YouTube videos, interviews in magazines, blog entries, and press coverage) along with recordings from my meetings with Yuda Braun, I will examine different layers of the project, contrast it with the socio-political situation of Israel and show how it fits with performance studies theories.
“Reading” a Performance
In trying to define what “performance” is, one may find oneself caught up in intertwined explanations leading to the common point that performance resists a fixed definition. As Richard Schechner points out in Performance Studies: An Introduction1, there are numerous realisations of this concept: from “high” art, through sports or politics, to everyday rituals. Our lives can be perceived and read as performances, since in living them we repeat the same rituals and follow the same patterns.
Following patterns is arguably nothing more than restored behaviour. Schechner defines this as “physical or verbal actions that are not-for-the-first time, prepared, or rehearsed”2. It is important to notice that some restored behaviours might take place without the performer being aware of it. In this sense, whatever we do, we compose our actions from pieces of restored behaviour, following our preset patterns just like actors following the script. There is a thin line then between what is art and what simple life, and they overlap each other quite often. As Allan Kaprow points out, it is not clear whether an avant-garde artist who creates lifelike art is still an artist3.
Therefore, what are required to examine any kind of performance are the knowledge and awareness of life, understood as a series of restored behaviours. Yet the object of analysis is not the performance itself. According to Schechner, an analyst does not “read an action or ask what text is being enacted”4. The analysis focuses on the behaviour as a social fact, namely “the ways it interacts with those
1 » R. Schechner, Performance Studies: An Introduction, New York: 2001.
2 » Tamże, s. 22.
3 » Tamże, s. 36.
4 » Tamże, s. 2.11
“The White Soldier” Performance
who view it, thus evoking different reactions and meanings; and how it changes meaning over time and in different contexts”5. Thus, the emphasis is on the implications and outcomes of the action, not on the action itself.
We can thus assume that the performer is not the only creator of the performance – the performer’s audience is just as important, since each performance is for someone. The audience is what distinguishes performance from life, even if the audience consists of the performer alone, as Marvin Carlson indicates6.
In analysing a performance, we should not be focused too much on the performer but also on the underlying context, the audience and their reactions. The last two especially represent social behaviour, serve as a material for analysis and tell us much about society’s condition. As Schechner claims, each performance is different even if nothing changes; the interactive character of the event makes it unique7. However, as Gregory Bateson points out, it is very important for the audience to distinguish between “seriousness” and “play”, so that their interaction with the performer is not taken too seriously8. On the other hand, Clifford Geertz9 insists that only those performances engaged in a “deep play” (understood as the set of our most basic instincts, needs and desires) can actually question the presets of culture. However, a performance too strongly concentrated on the “deep play can fail to raise the debate”, as Bruce Kapferer indicates10. Therefore, a desired cultural self-reflection can sometimes result from a more distanced, shallow-play performance.
From this point of view, it is very easy to see the parallel between performance art and a social dialogue. Performance art that resembles life – composed of pieces of restored behaviour – gives the audience an opportunity to re-examine its reality. It comes as no surprise then, that these kinds of actions are often used as a tool in public discussions on crucial social, political or environmental matters. Performance art has gained much attention in scholarly works, e.g. Dwight Conquergood mentioning the “politics of performance”11, while examining the relationship between performance and power. One of the main issues he raises is how performance can “reproduce, enable, sustain, challenge, subvert, critique, and naturalise ideology”12. This is in accord with MacAloon’s13 concept of “cultural performance”, defined by him as an “occasion in which as a culture or society we reflect upon and define ourselves, dramatise our collective
5 » Tamże.
6 » M. Carlson, Performance: a critical introduction, London and New York: Routledge, 1996.
7 » R. Schechner, dz. cyt., s. 23.
8 » M. Carlson, dz. cyt., s. 18.
9 » C. Geertz, Notes on the Balinese Cockfight, [w:] Tenże, The Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic, 1993, s. 412–453.
10 » M. Carlson, dz. cyt., s. 24.
11 » D. Conquergood, Rethinking Ethnography, ”Communication Monographs” 1991, nr 58, s. 179–194.
12 » Tamże, s. 190.
13 » J. MacAllon, Rite, Drama, Festival, Spectacle: Rehearsals Toward a Theory of Cultural Performance, Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1984.12
myths and history, present ourselves with alternatives, and eventually change in some ways while remaining the same in others”14. Performance can therefore be used as a (political, cultural, social) tool.
The use of performance art as a tool for self-expression in public debate has been discussed in the writings of Aldona Jawłowska. In her book Więcej niż Teatr15 she puts forward an interpretation of politically contextualised performance art as wish-making for a better world. She associates the creation of “new” identities, characters or realities with magical rites and rituals. Creating a different world makes us rethink or challenge the already existing one. Longing for a change, as she assumes, an artist starts from himself or herself, re-creating their reality, since “changing means creating”16. Carlson expresses a similar view when he explains that performances, understood here as both everyday rituals and art, can be used by the society to “undermine tradition, to provide a site for explanation of fresh and alternative structures and patterns of behaviour”17. Decomposing one pattern into small pieces of restored behaviour, one can build a new, quite often more “correct” or “desired” one.
However, it does not necessarily have to be the social reality that the performer wants to change; it can be a performer that need a re-construction. J. L. Moreno highlights the psychological function of performance as it “gives the opportunity of recapitulation of unsolved problems within a freer, broader and more flexible social setting”18. As William James19 suggests, each person has “as many selves as there are distinct groups of persons about whose opinion he cares. He generally shows a different side of himself to each of these different groups”20. In the context of unsolved, personal problems, an artist can create a new version of his/her old self or simply redefine it.
“The White Soldier” as a performance
A completely white soldier, covered from head to toe with rough white paint patrols the paths of Jerusalem, Palestinian villages and Israeli settlements in the West Bank. A full set of combat gear, including a helmet and a gun, makes him resemble the numerous Israeli soldiers that one passes by on the streets or sees in the media. He does not carry any flag but being aware of the context of the places where he appears it would be difficult not to identify him with the conflict. Besides that, Palestine does not have an army and he wears the Israeli uniform and carries a gun of the type used by the Israel Defence Forces. He must be an Israeli or, treating the character in more metaphorical categories, a former Israeli.
14 » Tamże, s. 10.
15 » A. Jawłowska, Więcej niż teatr, Warszawa: PIW, 1987.
16 » Tamże, s. 24.
17 » M. Carlson, dz. cyt., s. 14.
18 » Tamże, s. 46.
19 » W. James, The Principles of Psychology, New York: Dover Publications, 1950.
20 » Tamże, s. 176.13
Who or what is it? The interpretations vary according to the audience. He can be the angel of death or a security guard, a white knight, a ghost, a bitter reminder from the past or a loud demand for a new future. He can be a joke or a serious argument.
The white evokes different connotations and associations. It may symbolise purity or peace but it also brings to mind images of ghosts. Given the context of the heavy death toll in the ongoing conflict, the character may be perceived rather as a being than a human. What does he want? Why did he come back? In literature, every time a ghost appears, it appears in order to assist the other characters in reaching a higher aim: to solve a mystery, to set matters right, to improve the social order or all of these combined. In the context of Israeli reality, one can find arguments for each of these propositions. The white clashes with the harsh, emotionally loaded image of the soldier, especially if covered with acrylic paint that peels off. Everyone in Israel and Palestine has an attitude towards this symbol, nobody remains neutral. Almost every Israeli has served in the army and knows somebody who died in the conflict. Palestinians too have had many opportunities to establish their relationship with the image of the Israeli soldier. Regardless of how the symbol is read – pride or disgrace, security or oppression, law or crime – it evokes, maintains and strengthens the tension in which the people there live.
The White Soldier does not interact with the passers-by unless they provoke it. Asked what he is doing, he answers, “I’m on a patrol”. The very aim of patrolling is to ensure security, minimise the danger, get to know the enemy and monitor the streets and buildings. Whom does he protect? Should we apply the category of “nations” or rather of “civilians/soldiers”? What are the danger and the enemy he stands up against?
He seems to question the legitimacy of the police, as portrayed in the video White Soldier vs. Border Police21. Stopped by a patrol, he asks them to present their documents, asks whom they are working for, what they are doing and cuts all of their questions short. “I don’t think you fully comprehend the situation. […] I don’t think you are in a position to be asking questions” he concluded, leaving them perplexed and rather flabbergasted. The police officers seem too weak to confront the ghostly figure and answer questions that normally nobody would utter aloud.
What is also worth mentioning is the choice of places where one can meet the White Soldier, since all of them are controversial in terms of who they belong to. East Jerusalem, is inhabited in large part by Muslims and remains an article of controversy in the Israeli-Palestinian discussions; the settlements whose legitimacy has been questioned by international organisations since their establishment; Palestinian villages where Israeli soldiers22 as well as Palestinian civilians23 were killed; the so-called “No
21 » White Soldier vs. Border Police, www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0zqBS_gkzg (10.08.2012).
22 » M. Asser, Lynch Mob’s Brutal Attack, BBC News, 2000/10/13,
23 » Dawn, Israeli Soldiers Kill Two Palestinians in West Bank, 2011/08/01,
Man’s Land”24. Anywhere the soldier appears, his presence may be read in various ways. The last location, the “No Man’s Land”, seems to be the most metaphorical – the soldier is a no-man, unknown, anonymous, a ghost-like figure appearing in that intense, historically and emotionally-charged part of Jerusalem. What does he expect? That is an open question that everyone has to answer for himself or herself.
“The White Soldier” as a personal matter
The very idea of the character of The White Soldier was conceived by Yuda Braun on seeing a photograph of the “Falling Soldier”, taken by Robert Capa. The photograph seems to embrace all of the instant associations with warfare: unfair, unnecessary deaths, atrocities, loneliness, deprivation of human and personal dignity, indescribable loss and grief.
Yuda Braun (28) is quite often described in terms of his past rather than his present. In the majority of articles about him and at his websites one can read that he is a former settler in the West Bank who attended religious schools including Jewish yeshiva25. He is also a former Israeli soldier who served in a special military unit and fought in the second Lebanon war. He was born in Toronto and moved to Israel at the age of six months but Canada is always mentioned in even the shortest, one-sentence biography. It is perhaps an indication of a choice his parents made and he himself makes in that he holds the two citizenships and yet remains in Israel.
Braun consciously constructs himself from what he has experienced and where he happened to live. He seems to be composed entirely of Schechner’s restored behaviours – both his and those of the people around him. He calls himself a “by-product of the society26 – in the article from “The Jerusalem Post” he said:
I am very influenced by everything: my world, my upbringing, my collective consciousness. Maybe I’ve seen too many Vietnam movies; maybe I served in the army. I’ve lived here, where you see maybe two dozen soldiers every step you take – so my work is all these things together27.
“The White Soldier” is not just a project to start a public debate or to take a stand in a serious discussion. Braun makes it personal, stating that the performance “is first and foremost driven from personal feud”. It is important to such an extent that he spent a significant amount of money on the costume, he
24 » A. Bar-Am, Former Israel / Jordanian border – No man’s land, “Jerusalem Post” 2010/01/25, www.jposttravel.com/jerusalem_tours/FormerIsrael1008.html (10.08.2012).
25 » ArtNectar Artist Interview with Performance Artist Yuda Braun aka The White Soldier, 2011/08/17, http://artnectar. com/2011/08/artist-interview-yuda-braun-aka-white-soldier/ (6.08.2012).
26 » Tamże.
27 » J. Sudilovsky, The White Soldier, “The Jerusalem Post” 2011/06/12,
risks being arrested every time he performs and he covers himself with white acrylic paint – which is not easy to remove, especially from his thick beard. He is thus very devoted to the idea behind the project:
On a personal level it is important to suffer. Ideologically, I am very total about my work. There is no compromise. I am not a pop singer and I don’t sing love songs. It is important for me in some way to be a martyr even though I don’t like that word28.
Asked why he launched the project, he explains that he feels responsible for and influenced by the reality in which he lives. He perceives the tension caused by the omnipresent soldiers as arising from the absurd political, cultural and emotional climate that enables it to exist and which he is not willing to accept. Through the character of the white soldier, he tries to focus the attention of people and challenge their relationship with the image of the soldier.
They can’t ignore a white soldier on the street, basically. I force them to react to it, not cognitively but emotionally. Everyone has a strong connection to this image of the soldier29.
He does not say how much of him there is in the character of the White Soldier and what meaning it carries for him, leaving more space for audience’s interpretation. What Braun emphasises is that it is not important what it symbolises for him but for the people whom he encounters; he does not speak about what he feels while being the soldier. He focuses on the reaction of the “audience” and his own reaction to their reactions. However, he admits that the whole project is not so much about what message he is trying to convey but more about what he is confronting in himself.
“The White Soldier” as a study of an individual
As the performance goes on, we can realize how complex the reality of the conflict is to an individual. This section will focus on the reactions of individuals to the project.
By the time of writing the article, there have been five White Soldiers. I have met two of them, Yuda Braun and Yossi Komar and have compared their opinions on what it is like to perform as the White Soldier and why they decided on that. Taking into account the theory of Marvin Carlson that each performance is for someone (even for the self of the artist), some conclusions may be drawn about the influence the project has on the performers.
As I have already mentioned, the project is very personal to Braun. Applying Jawłowska’s aforementioned concept of performance as magic-making, we can perceive the project as an attempted
28 » Tamże.
29 » Tamże. 16
deconstruction of the concept of the soldier into the small pieces of Schechner’s restored behaviour. The deconstruction of the concept makes it possible to create its new version – a non-oppressive and non-violent soldier. The deconstruction may aim at the image strangers have in mind but also at the image of the former soldier that Braun once was. On the other hand, following the concepts of J. L. Moreno and William James, the project can be read as Braun coming to terms with his past and his re-establishment of a peaceful self; an Israeli longing for security and stability built on peace, not war. However, what the performance really means to Yuda Braun is known only to him.
Another person performing the character of the White Soldier was Yossi Komar, a twenty-six-year-old student of literature, who has never served in the army, never touched a gun and never signed his name under anything connected to the conflict. Moreover, being a committed conscientious objector, he refused to do military service and because of this he was imprisoned three times and spent more than six months in jail. To him, performing the White Soldier was even more unsettling, as it gave him time to think about all the nonsense of the war. Asked why he agreed to take part in the project, he also mentions out social responsibility as a key reason. He stresses immediately that it is not about the conflict itself and has not much to do with his national or religious identity; it is just about the place, and if he happened to live somewhere else, he would be responsible for provoking the discussion in the same degree. However, the question remains whether in any other part of the world he would have similar experiences (religious, military, national) and reference points on the basis of which he could make choices to become whom he is now.
As for the observers, among numerous stories and videos portraying reactions of the individuals I would like to focus on two in particular.
Both Braun and Komar recalled meeting a young, maybe ten-years-old, Arab girl during the “No Man’s Land” patrol. The girl, raised in Jerusalem, encounters soldiers probably at every step and is so used to it that they just do not impress or scare her anymore. However, on seeing the White Soldier, she “got pale, froze, stopped moving”, “totally freaked out, went crazy, was screaming”. This should not be happening – a child should not be so scared of an artist, a clown-like person just wearing some costume. It was probably not the colour that scared her – she was old enough not to believe in ghosts. That was what Clifford Geertz might have referred to as a deep play, a soldier that normally passed by unnoticed was this time impossible to ignore, perhaps triggering what she tried to hide deeply in her mind. As the earlier-discussed Gregory Bateson indicated, the line between seriousness and play had to be drawn immediately. Komar put the character aside and started smiling and making funny faces to the girl so that she would calm down.
Since the project touches upon very sensitive aspects of “Israeliness”, it gains much attention in the media and provokes different reactions in its audience. Under the entries of numerous blogs or videos uploaded to YouTube there are many positive comments but also there appear words of quite strong criticism from those infuriated by the very idea. A comment appeared at The Marker Café Blog30 written by
30 » The Marker Blog, The Forces Saving Our Country, 2011/08/12,
an angry woman who called Braun “a Jew that hates Jews”; she perceives the project as offending the whole country since Israelis have to serve in the army to defend themselves. She reads the performance as an attempt to make Israel feel guilty. Moreover, she sees similarities between this project and a very controversial installation entitled Snow White and The Madness of Truth made by Dror Feiler and Gunilla Sköld-Feiler31 in which a photograph of a Palestinian female terrorist, Hanadi Jaradat, floats in a long pool of water coloured blood-red. It is interesting, though, how much can be read from the single character of a soldier who does not state any idea, carry any flag or act in any clear way but just walks down the streets of Jerusalem. In the end, the angered woman wishes Braun to get beaten up and go to hell.
“The White Soldier” as a study of the collective
“The White Soldier” is not a single event, it is an ongoing artistic project and therefore a wider context is needed to analyse it. Moreover, Israel is not a homogenous country and so it is crucial to consider the reactions of different groups present at the encounter with the soldier. The reactions of the Israelis, the police, the Palestinians and even the tourists are important here as they do shape the (artistic, political or cultural) context and the actual meaning of the performance. The differences, although expected, are especially worth attention, since in them it becomes explicit how divided the society is and how strongly certain patterns of thinking are rooted in the collective consciousness.
It would be an understatement to say that the police officers are not friendly towards Braun. Although each action is organised legally, being supported by a permission from the official authority, he has already been arrested more than twenty times, once under the procedure for detaining a suspect, during which the police aimed their weapons at him32. His costume has been confiscated three times and once destroyed. It is not clear what makes the police afraid. Of course, Jerusalem is a city heavily marked by social tension and an artist with a toy gun may look suspicious. However, it should not take more than just a quick check-out to realize that nothing that Braun carries with him is of any physical threat. If that is the case, the problem may lie in the symbols and connotations his art uses. The police see in it an attempt to undermine their legitimacy, the soldiers usually read it as a harsh criticism of their actions or as an act of support to the Palestinian case, while the older generations perceive it as an offence to the State of Israel or as promoting violence. Such interpretations result in strong reactions as the “deep play” is enacted and the audience closes themselves to any further discussion on the topics the performance touches upon.
Of course, Braun also receives positive reactions. Some people, especially children and those belonging to the Facebook generation, react quite enthusiastically. An encounter with what is different or
31 » G. Sköld-Feiler, Who Is Snow White?, www.avantart.com/music/feiler/snowwhite.htm (10.08.2012).
32 » N. Hasson, Reclaiming Jerusalem’s No-Man’s-Land, “Haaretz” 2011/10/30,
uncommon brings much colour to the daily life, even if the colour is white. It is not sure however, whether any consideration or thought results from such an encounter.
As Braun says, although the police are never friendly towards him and there is always a risk of being arrested for his actions, he feels much safer with them than with the crowd, whose reactions and dynamics are unpredictable. An example of the latter is the meeting of the White Soldier and Arab youngsters while he “patrolled” the vicinity of the Damascus Gate33, one of the places in Jerusalem that is very significant to the Palestinians, yet which Israel perceives as belonging to Israel. Both the Soldier and the boys were armed with toy guns, the boys were shouting in Arabic and the situation was tense. This scene might be read on a metaphorical level: a ghost of an Israeli soldier from the past and the future Palestinian freedom fighters meet at the Damascus Gate. The toy guns may be either promising – there will be no bloodshed, or horrifying – now those are only toys since the boys are young.
The last group that I would like to mention here are the tourists. As Yossi Komar pointed out, these are mostly religious people, who come to visit the Holy Land. In the Holy City there is blood everywhere and on encountering the White Soldier, they treat him only as another piece of local colour. There has been no single example of a tourist reacting differently to those laughing, pointing at the performer or taking “hidden” pictures from the distance. It is hardly possible that all of them are unaware of the ongoing conflict and the bloodletting; they just try not to get involved and keep the image of Jerusalem – the Holy City.
Every performance is rooted in the socio-cultural context of the place and the performer. The more multifaceted the situation is, the more complex the performance. If we take one of the most complex conflicts in modern history, the Israeli-Palestinian one, and base a socio-cultural performance in those realms, the outcome will be both gripping and alarming.
Much can be learned from the observation of the reactions of the individuals and crowds. Those who happen to be born or to live there, feel the extreme tension reflected by the omnipresence of the soldiers, regardless of their age, nationality or religion. Young Israelis carrying guns during their military service at the age of eighteen, Palestinian children who have experienced many police raids, the settlers whose sons died in terrorist attacks or the average Palestinian man who is stopped at checkpoints twice a day – all people living in Israel and Palestine have a strong connection with the image of the soldier. Passing armed police officers or soldiers do not even make the people blink, but what Yuda Braun created was both genuine and brilliant in its simplicity. Braun simply deconstructed the character of the soldier into pieces, decontextualized it and re-created it again. By painting the character white, he made it impossible not to notice him; in this way, the performer challenges the relationship that people have to the image and to the reality they live in.
33 » J. Sudilovsky, dz. cyt.
As the analysis has shown, it is a multi-layered phenomenon that has different significance in different cultural contexts and only by considering them both together and separately, can one grasp the performative complexity of the project. Different reactions to and interpretations of the project unravel the complexity of the conflict and of the everyday experiences of Jerusalem’s inhabitants. The character and commitment that Yuda Braun shows in carrying out the project, tells us much about him – but what personal purpose it serves remains an open question. Possible questions include the basis of the aggressive reactions of the police is, or who actually is the audience of the performance: the groups mentioned before or Yuda himself?
However unclear Braun’s motivations might be, their socio-cultural significance is undeniable and assessable. The performance raises questions about the tension which the Israelis and the Palestinians endure on a daily basis and the omnipresence of the soldiers. Such an artistic action should not be viewed only in reference to art but in reference to social dialogue, as it provides a starting point and is in itself a platform for a discussion and interaction.
Studentka drugiego roku studiów magisterskich Intercultural Communication na Uniwersytecie im. Adama Mickiewicza w Poznaniu, a także absolwentka filologii angielskiej na Uniwersytecie Zielonogórskim. Swoje zainteresowania naukowe łączy ze społeczno-kulturowym kontekstem Izraela, a także z triadą język – naród – kultura.
Performance „The White Soldier”. Studium jednostki i grupy w kontekście konfliktu politycznego
Niniejszy artykuł traktuje o Yudzie Braunie, izraelskim artyście, i jego ostatnim projekcie – „The White Soldier”. Czerpiąc z dorobku teorii studiów performatyki, performance zostanie poddany analizie i interpretacji, biorąc pod uwagę jego liczne odniesienia do tamtejszego kontekstu socjo-politycznego. Zostaną postawione pytania o rolę artysty i sztuki w społeczeństwie dotkniętym konfliktem zbrojnym, a także o to, czy i czego można dowiedzieć się na podstawie analizy performance w takim kontekście. Prawdopodobne odpowiedzi zostaną udzielone na podstawie analizy samego performance, materiałów prasowych, filmów na youtube.com, jak też wywiadów z Yudą Braunem przeprowadzonych przez autorkę.
słowa kluczowe: performance, Izrael, Yuda Braun, White Soldier, konflikt