by Sumeja Tulic
November 2, 2018
The Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar is standing on Wall Street—today’s metonym for financial markets and wealth—with his back to Federal Hall, the national memorial where George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United States. Behind him are two portrayals of Washington: One is a bronze statue of a powerful man, the other a brass relief of a man kneeling in prayer. The tension between the omnipotent authority exuded by the bronze statue versus the humility captured in the brass relief encapsulates the present-day experience of Wall Street. It’s also the spatial plane of Jarrar’s recent performance, Blood for Sale, which took place over five days in October on the corner where Wall Street meets Broad.
“My work carries political thoughts,” Jarrar says of Blood for Sale. The conceptual background of the piece, for which he sold a limited number of 10-milliliter vials, each filled with his own blood, from a portable black cooler on that New York street corner, is anchored in the artist’s research. In the case of Blood for Sale, this included a close reading of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address, in which the outgoing US president coined the term “military-industrial complex.” The famous speech informed Jarrar’s ongoing interest in creating work that addresses human rights violations as well as economic and social inequalities occurring in militarized societies, identifying the threads of the military-industrial complex that persist in the world today. Jarrar also appropriates the writer Naomi Klein’s idea of governments using the shock of natural and manmade disasters to enact policies concentrating power and capital in the hands of the very few. He narrows the notion of disaster capitalism to the vital role financial markets play in advancing the American military-industrial complex, enabling bloody conflicts and humanitarian disasters around the globe.
“Drawing blood [is] not painful but seeing others suffering from death by armaments, guns, and bombs certainly is,” says Jarrar. He himself is no stranger to blood, guns, and bombs. Born in Jenin, Palestine, in 1976, Jarrar grew up during the years of the First Intifada. To financially secure his studies in visual art at the International Academy of Art Palestine, he joined the Palestinian police force in 1997, and he eventually became part of the presidential guard, where he served as Yasser Arafat’s bodyguard. Although not a dominant feature of Jarrar’s work, his military experience informs it. At the beginning of his career, in 2007, he displayed photographs of the Howwarah and Qalandiya checkpoints at the Israeli-Palestinian border, at a view where Israeli soldiers could see them. In another performance, Live and Work in Palestine (2011), Jarrar marked the passports of foreign citizens with an official-looking stamp, which, according to the artist, “gave them permission” to reside in the territories. In I Am Good at Shooting, Bad at Painting (2018), held in the Arizona desert, he used a RK-15 assault rifle to splash color onto canvas, and then exchanged these paintings with audience members for articles of their clothing. The performance was inspired by the CIA’s weaponization of Abstract Expressionism during the Cold War, when the US asserted itself as a beacon of intellectual freedom and creativity that would inevitably surpass its rival, the Soviet Union. The work of artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko were brandished as arms in this ideological warfare. As part of its program of propaganda against the Soviet Union, the CIA funded several high-profile exhibitions of Abstract Expressionism in Europe, helping the movement gain acclaim outside of the United States.
As is typical of Jarrar’s work, Blood for Sale undermines power by mimicking it. The artist sold his blood at prices matching the stock market value of America’s most prominent defense contractors. The first eight vials of blood were sold for $19.48, the price of Smith & Wesson stock. Jarrar chose to open the sale with this price as its numerals corresponded to those of 1948, the year of the Palestinian nakba, during which 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homeland. The other 42 vials of Jarrar’s blood were sold for the week’s stock price of the other fifteen most prominent defense contractors. Just as in the stock market exchange, Jarrar’s vials, all of the same size and shape, increased in price as more and more of them were purchased. The sale ended at $347, the going rate for a share in the Boeing Company, which designs, manufactures, and sells airplanes, rockets, satellites, and missiles.
A certificate of authenticity, handwritten by the Palestinian calligrapher Sahar Kabi in Arabic calligraphy, accompanied the purchase of each vial. Jarrar’s performance was easy to miss on the busy streets of Downtown Manhattan, but while I was there, on two days of the performance, what caused a number of people to stop and look was not the blood in vials but the Arabic script on the certificates of authenticity. “Is this Arabic? What does it say?” almost all of them asked. What their polite inquisition didn’t betray in words, their faces revealed in surprised and fearful looks: seeing allusions to Arab culture and Muslim identity in post-9/11 Downtown Manhattan still causes anxiety for many people. When Jarrar translated the certificate of authenticity to one passerby, I witnessed the anxiety visibly subside from his face. “So, you are doing this as an artist,” the man replied, adding: “Now I understand.”
“When I say, ‘Come, buy the blood of an artist,’ I am not boasting. I am actually being cynical towards myself and the notion that the blood of an artist is different, marketable,” says Jarrar. “In the name of honesty and being as ethical as possible, I do not accept donations and all the money from the blood-sale will be donated to hospitals in Gaza and Yemen.” The vast majority of buyers were those who came to see him perform. One of Jarrar’s few random customers was a homeless man who begged regularly in the neighborhood. He didn’t have the money to buy when a vial was $19.48, but he managed to collect enough on the day it cost almost $49. “It broke my heart,” says Jarrar. Another memorable encounter was with a man who told the artist he liked the piece and that “he would pay double the price but for the certificate only,” adding that he couldn’t bear to have “the blood of a Palestinian in his hands.”
Blood for Sale fits Jarrar’s bold and at times controversial oeuvre. “I’m not a provocateur,” he says. “If I was a provocateur, I would have been in front of the Guggenheim, the Met, the MoMA. Instead, I’m here.” Here is the Financial District of New York City. Its narrow and dark streets evoke old, Northern European cities, their names firmly grounded in North America’s colonial past. Pine Street is named after the pines the Lenape people once preserved on Manhattan island while Pearl Street derives from the oysters that were once harvested from the East River. Maiden Lane is an homage to the Dutch girls who strolled along a path, following a little stream that is nowadays, probably, part of the sewer system. Wall Street, where the first slave market in New York was held, commemorates the wall that kept Native Americans, the British, and pirates at bay.
As he explains why he chose the Financial District as a location for his performance, Jarrar alludes to it being one of the first instances of Klein’s disaster capitalism. As he looks around at the people on the street, he notes: “These Americans are practicing their lives on land built by slaves, on top of the skulls and bodies of slaves and Native Americans, where, today, so much dirty business that enables bloodshed in the world is happening. They are not aware. They are here to do their jobs.” His performance and its message were hardly shocking, but the artist’s intent, patience, and poise in delivery of Blood For Sale were poignant. Like the denizens of Wall Street, Jarrar was also there to do his job: pointing to the relation of cause and effect between the global markets of money and capital and the known and unknown tragedies of our world.
Following Jarrar’s public performance of Blood for Sale, which ran from October 8–12, the artifacts and accompanying documentation of the piece were on view at Open Source Gallery, 306 17th Street, in South Slope, Brooklyn, through October 27.