Exhibit invites Israelis to visit a Palestinian home — through virtual reality

Artist Daniel Landau documented the lives of an Israeli family and a Palestinian family and reproduced their living rooms for an immersive VR experience.

Visitors, 2018 highlights similarities — and disparities — in Israeli and Palestinian experiences

Children experience Israeli and Palestinian homelife through VR goggles at the Visitors, 2018 exhibit in Jerusalem. (Ben Hertzog )
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A new art exhibit invites Israelis to experience the home life of a Palestinian family through the lense of virtual reality.

Daniel Landau's Visitors, 2018 — currently on display at the Israel Museum's Ruth Youth Wing in Jerusalem — encourages users to explore one room, split down the middle. One side is an exact recreation of a Palestinian family's living room; the other is a replica of an Israeli family's home.

Scattered throughout the exhibit are VR goggles. When a visitor puts them on, the room comes alive with the two families who live in the homes.

The Visitors, 2018 exhibit at the Israel Museum features one room split down the middle, with one side portraying an Israeli family's living room and the other showcasing a Palestinian family's home. (Ben Hertzog)

"One strong kind of theme that comes through talking to people visiting the show is that ... actually a lot of them just express, you know, 'I've never been to an Arab house,'" Landau told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. 

This despite the fact that the exhibit is just three kilometres from the city's Arab neighbourhoods and fewer than 10 km from the West Bank home of the Palestinian family who agreed to have their lives documented for the project.

"With the VR experience, they kind of just sort of absorbed every corner and every interaction," Landau said. "For them, it was very ... emotional just to see how regular family life looks like."

Real footage from real families 

The VR footage comes from hours of documenting and interviewing the two families in their real homes. And it was no small feat finding people willing to participate in the project, he said.

On the Israeli side is family called the Avidans. On the Palestinian side is the family of Raji Sebteen, 55, a former militant who "put the sword aside," Landau said. 

Sebteen, who was jailed for a year by Israeli authorities and whose sister was left paralyzed by an Israeli sniper, now teaches Arabic to Israelis and advocates for non-violent resistance, Landau said. 

Artist Daniel Landau documented the Palestinian and Israeli families in their homes and interviewed them extensively to create the VR footage in his exhibit. (Ben Hertzog)

Sebteen told the Guardian the exhibit is "good way to ask others to believe in peace."

"You have to understand that people are fearful. They are scared because of the situation … because of mistrust planted inside them, it is not easy," he said.

Cultural similarities — and stark disparities 

Landau said one his goals for the project was to highlight the similarities between Jewish and Arabic cultures, especially for those Israelis who are Mizrahi Jews — the descendants of Jewish communities from the Middle East and North Africa.

"Culturally, they feel very close to Arab cultures with all of its layers — food, music, language, mentality. And for me. this is kind of the biggest ... tragedy,  I would say, because I strongly believe that the story here is really not a conflict between religions," he said.

"It's much more of a class problem and a class conflict where somehow the European Western values have a big interest to underplay these similarities. For me, these cultural resemblances add a huge potential for articulating a different reality in our region."

The exhibit showcased both similarities in cultures, but also a stark imbalance of opportunity, says Landau. (Ben Hertzog)

But Landau said he knows the experiences of Israelis and Palestinians in the region are not equal. Those imbalances become clear in the interviews — especially with the children.

"The Jewish kids really talk about all the possibilities that they have thinking about the future. One wants to be a dancer and the other wants to be a lawyer," he said. 

"The Arab kids, they frequently talked about the other side in a way that's as if they didn't have a future of their own."

The stark differences in their outlooks sometimes took him aback, he said.

"This kind of tone exposed to me how different, you know, the psyche of each side is — what it means to actually kind of grow up under the occupation," he said.

"Being stopped, [having] to give documents, not being able to have very basic civil rights has this effect that you could actually experience hearing the Arab kids."

'Everything about it is political'

While the VR experience aims to go both ways — showcasing the inner lives of two different families from two different backgrounds — restrictions on the movement of Palestinians in Jerusalem mean the audience is lopsided.

It took a lot of bureaucratic wrangling just to get permits for Sebteen and his family to visit the exhibit, Landau said.

Landau is a media artist based in Jerusalem. (Ben Hertzog )

The children, he said, were excited to be at the museum and to see their own home on display, while some older members of the family "kind of expressed their concerns in terms of what it means to be part of such a show in Israel."

"But they basically did put their trust in my hands and saw the value where the story is a personal one, not a political one — although everything about it is political."

The exhibit will run until May 2019.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Daniel Landau produced by Donya Ziaee.