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How Artist Alona Rodeh Reveals the Tyranny of Safety

Sound and light as means of order and control melt into signifiers of rebellion and counter-culture in Rodeh’s immersive installations

When Alona Rodeh refers to her installations as ‘performances without performers’, it shouldn’t be taken at face value. Steeped in the theatrics of power, control, safety and security in the public sphere, her work – which spans videos, sculptures, wall works, light and sound installations, publication-making, theatre set designs and public art – homes in on the quotidian illusion of order performed on us in urban landscapes.

The Israeli artist began an ongoing query into these mechanisms with a series of projects she has gathered under the umbrella title ‘Safe and Sound’ since moving to Berlin in 2014. In contrast to the covert security in Israeli cities, in the German capital elements of urban planning manage crowd movement, visibility and counter terrorism, while even the widespread use of high-visibility gear is blatantly embedded. Her recent work Dark Ages 2020 (2019–ongoing) is on view at the Salzburger Kunstverein through March. Here, Rodeh and her long-time technical collaborator, Rachid Moro, constructed an environment that destabilizes the viewer’s autonomy through light and darkness. Four pairs of sculptures cut through the length of the exhibition space, while white light studs delineate lanes, much like on a motorway or landing strip. A looped 7-minute choreography in which the changing conditions of light emitted from the sculptures and a droning soundscape created by a much amplified electric hum render the installation as said performer-less performance. A familiar risk is lurking; the titular dark times can easily be invoked through a state of emergency. The work hints at the tyranny of safety and the potentially devastating cost of security.

Alona Rodeh, Dark Ages 2020, 2019, installation view with lights on, Salzburger Kunstverein. Courtesy: the artist and Christine König Galerie, Vienna; photograph: Ludger Paffrath

The loop’s pitch dark moments undercut the illusion of safety. Given today’s light pollution, the condition of complete darkness is unnatural for city dwellers. Darkness either marks instances of chaos, such as a menacing blackout, or is attainable solely in controlled environments, such as an art space, black box or a club’s sex-positive dark rooms. The sculptures mimic traffic-stopping hydraulic bollards, but the contraptions they usually go into, otherwise invisible beneath the pavement, are instead raised here to act like pedestals. Their different shapes provide a hint of the artist’s research into the industries around illumination and safety: one of the sculptures, reminiscent of a scaled-down modernist high-rise, is based on the Osramturm: a towering light piece created by the Berlin-based Osram company for the 1928 festival ‘Berlin im Licht’ (Berlin in Light) in which the German capital celebrated its light industry and future-oriented manufacturers. (Kurt Weil and Bertolt Brecht composed their Berlin im Licht-Song for the occasion.)

The initial artwork in this ongoing series, Safe and Sound 1+2 (2014), was an installation luring the viewer into a cavernous room where screaming siren sounds poured into deep techno (commissioned from different DJ collaborators), and flickering lights exposed a reflective chequered dance floor. Sound and light as means of order and control melted into signifiers of rebellion and counter-culture. The work was on view in Berlin’s Künstlerhaus Bethanien and at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, Israel – both cities where clubbing, as an expression of personal freedom or escapism, is deeply rooted in the urban identity.

FIRE: Safe and Sound, artist publication, 2017. Photograph: Alona Rodeh 

Rodeh is a uniquely engaged researcher. Her deep-dive into topics around safety regulations brought her to an unusual ‘residency’ with the Berlin fire brigade in late 2016, where, for nine months, the artist joined firefighters on emergency missions around the city, followed by two months with the Tel Aviv-Jaffa fire station. Her interest in comparative safety practices and architectural standards for fire prevention formed the basis of the 2017 publication FIRE: Safe and Sound, for which she commissioned different professionals to contribute essays, and also reprinted Ulrike Meinhof’s 1968 pro-arsonist manifesto, ‘Setting Fire to Department Stores’.

In her works, tensions between anarchy, or nihilism, and order are constantly being negotiated anew. The original publication in the ‘Safe and Sound’ series, from 2015, looked at, among others, the invention of glow-in-the-dark paint, its origin in magic, and the evolution of reflective fabrics and high-visibility gear from workwear to streetwear and high fashion. This was three years before the Yellow Vests movement adopted their unifying symbol.

Alona Rodeh, The Gate Keeper, 2017, sketch for public sculpture, fire station Friedrichshain, Berlin. Courtesy: the artist and Rachid Moro

Rodeh’s first institutional show in Germany, titled ‘Architecture of the Nights’ opens this month at Kunstpalais Erlangen. Conceived as a gesamtkunstwerk linking multiple galleries through synchronized sound and light manipulations, it is also one of her most ambitious to date. A 13-minute video work To the Moon and Back (2017) will also be shown here as a split-screen installation for the first time. Filmed with the Berlin fire brigade, it is an atmospheric homage to the men, their routines of body maintenance, care and life-threatening missions. Permissions from city officials have recently been obtained to erect a firefighter monument, a sphinx-like public artwork that would be titled The Gate Keeper and installed on the lot of the fire station in Berlin’s Friedrichshain neighbourhood, facing the back of the Berghain club.

Alona Rodeh is an artist based in Berlin, Germany. Her exhibition at Salzburger Kunstverein, Austria, is on through 31 March 2019. Her solo show at Kunstpalais Erlangen, Germany, can be seen from 16 March through 10 June 2019.

Main image: Alona Rodeh, Safe and Sound II, 2015, installation view with lights off, Künstlerhaus Bethanien. Courtesy: the artist and  Christine König Galerie, Vienna; photograph: Sam Smith 

Hili Perlson is a writer, art critic and fashion journalist based in Berlin.

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