When I began to study photography in college, my chosen theme was about trying to rediscover cultural Jewishness, an identity of mine that previously had been nothing more than a distant inconvenience, something to be discrete about. I attempted to grapple with the assimilation I had to go through as a young Jew growing up in suburban Ohio, a place that was ultimately not the most willing to roll out a welcome mat for me and my family.
My art during the first three years of undergrad was composed of things like old family photos, text edits from private but truthful conversations about Jewishness, and even 1960s Kodak slides of my grandparents and my mother when she was a child. I would manipulate my photos and findings together to make the family figures seem displaced from time and space, much like how I felt living as a Jew in America.
The work leaned towards sentimentality, nostalgia, and inquisition, things that may have helped me discover my adoration for Jewish culture, but didn’t help me understand what it meant to really know what it means to be Jewish today.
And then I learned about negative space.
In the making of art, we’re taught to never ignore the negative space. In many cases, like that of painting or in photography, working with negative space is often the most valuable skill an artist can master, because only with it comes the reinforcement of forms, figures, and color — the elements that create truth and make things resonant.
I wanted to talk about Jews in America, but I wasn’t quite hitting the mark, because I was working without negative space. I was ignoring the sources of Jewish collective cultural trauma that is vitally important to our lives. Meaning: I was ignoring the current rise of white nationalism in America, and how that rise affects the Jewish diaspora.
So, I got on 4Chan. I figured, admittedly in somewhat of an artistic and naive haze, that if anti-Semitism is cultivated in these online social discords like 4Chan, Reddit, and so forth, then I needed to go there, too. For the work.
On 4Chan and other sites like it, I found a cavernous and vast world that was the negative space to the progressive, positive mold I had been working with in my art previously. A “deep dive” is truly a light term for the amount of time that I spent decoding these digital worlds. As I sunk further into it, investing more and more hours into understanding these spaces, I began collecting from them. I was an anthropologist gathering every image and resource I could for posterity, just in case it was all gone the next day.
I encountered endless pages of crudely edited, vibrantly anti-Semitic memes. I trawled through countless slurs and conspiracies about Jews. I thought, uncomfortably scoffing at my computer screen while categorizing screenshots to appropriate and use for my work, “How ambitious of us Jews to simultaneously be a global superpower and apparently the weakest ethnic race all at once!”
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Meant to post this earlier and then got too distracted by the chaos of the third week of classes. The first plate of the litho print i’m working on is the “Merchant” meme, popularized on 4chan amongst white supremacist groups (i.e., /pol/). It symbolizes Jews and their supposed greed. Here The Merchant is covering his face with a mask, masquerading as someone he is not to, pressumably, “plot” or cause mischief. Overtop, the second litho plate is a copy of a depiction of Judas, often a symbol of the Jews in a large amount of historic, theological iconography. He is too seen as a “plotter”. Over top of these plates will be another, with text. But this is the WIP.
The work I create is uncomfortable, but the forums themselves are, too. No one is having fun on them. No one is learning. What I saw was that nihilism and the acceptance of false narrative is much more valuable to the people that visit these sites than personal growth is, and more valuable than real experience and supportive communities are.
The way that the people in these spaces talk to each other is rather implosive. If you stay in one thread for too long, the overtones of mutual hatred for not only their shared common enemy — the Jew — but also towards each other, becomes unavoidable and frankly confusing. The people on these sites are purists in most forms, meaning that as much as they agree to hate others because of baseless classifications, they also pick each other apart at every chance they get. They call each other names, argue over which countries and nationalities can be considered “white,” and are on endless conquests to be The Most Right Nazi amongst one another. If these supremacists cannot find community and brotherhood with each other over anything but their shared fears, how would they ever find love for someone else, especially someone like me, the 21-year-old Jewish woman that apparently runs the oppressive, global media?
At the end of each long night of research and image collecting, I often went to sleep acknowledging to myself that I had no answers, no solutions to deal with the most pertinent threat facing Jewish people. I did, however, now have a platform through art to talk about my findings.
In an attempt to do my part, I’ve chosen to manipulate text and image in a different way. In printmaking, I work with the imagery that I’ve collected from the dark web and I repurpose it in order to reclaim it. I try to create pieces that evoke tension and irony between the supremacist imagery and the text posts these people share. I’m highlighting just how futile and chaotic these spaces are, all while trying to articulate the languages and methodologies of these spaces so that viewing audiences can be fluent in Proud Boy, especially in a time where it couldn’t hurt us to be multilingual.
If anything, my work is for other young Jews like myself who also ask themselves the question of what, as a demographic minority, they are up against.
I’ve learned that being cognizant of our negative counterpart as Jews is a powerful tool. It means the potential ability to be able to strategize against them, and it can even be a unionizing mechanism in our rather complex, often divided diaspora. Our social practices as Jewish people should not only be based in reminiscence and an emphasis on the hardships of the past, but also to advocate for ourselves with knowledge communicated amongst each other about the tribulations happening to us now.
If, through art, we can understand these anti-Semitic hotbeds and the people on them more coherently — if my use of negative space that I have attempted to master has been successful — then I’m hoping that it contributes to our collective awareness and brings forth those forms and figures that balance the darkness with light, thereby finding truth.