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Open Code | Avodah Zarah (2021)

Curator: Bar Yerushalmi

Hacking is a term used in the programming world to describe the act of breaking into or tricking a technological system. Contrary to popular belief, the original usage of the term in the early computer era of the 1960s did not refer to acts of malice, but rather the pleasure of engaging with software code for research and problem solving. In contemporary slang, “hacking” is used to denote solving a difficult problem, or pulling a clever prank. Hence, in its abstract sense, hacking means using our intellectual ability to crack complex technological, social or value systems of instructions.


The act of hacking is the leading principle of the exhibition of artist Chana Anushik Manhaimer, who deals with the evolution of the monotheistic worldview and its encounter with other paradigms of belief. Anushik chooses to look at the basis of the biblical text, which holds the prohibition of idolatry, as a sealed software code and a hermetic operating system she tries to decipher. Through a series of sculptural and performative acts, the artist suggests an alternative reading, which focuses on strategies of disruption and reprogramming of the monotheistic narrative from two different perspectives - the machine and the woman. 


Located in the heart of the exhibition is an encounter between biblical verses and the DALL·E 2 technology—a machine learning algorithm from the world of artificial intelligence that deciphers texts, generating visual interpretations of them. Anushik feeds the artificial software with biblical verses that relate to mystical beings such as seraphim, cherubim, and angels. Using a 3d printer, the images created by the algorithm were printed on a printing reel, untouched by human hand. The product—a sculpture resembling a Mesopotamian cylinder seal, is a plastic representation of the biblical verse. It is offered for scrolling on top of a kinetic sand table—an action that reveals the images impressed on it.     


Turning to AI entails a Halachic challenge concerning the concept of avodah zarah, which originally appears in the biblical text in the form of idolatrous practices, and later materializes in the talmudic literature as a blanket term expressing the differentiation of Jewish identity from external cultures and influences. By converting the text into machine learning, Anushik challenges the definition of idolatry and seeks to expand it beyond its antagonistic human-theosophical meaning to a technological “open code,” in which the biblical text functions as primal code instructions that the machine redesigns and opens up for interpretation. 


In a parallel move, Anushik turns to the inside of the biblical story to find four central female figures, who use their capabilities and their craftiness to violate the hegemonic mechanisms of behavior of their time: Rebecca deceiving her husband Isaac and making him give Jacob the blessing; Rachel hiding her father Laban’s teraphim under her camel’s saddle; Tamar dressing up as a prostitute and sleeping with Juda to compel him to marry her; and Michal, daughter of King Saul, covering for David and saving him from her father’s wrath by hiding teraphim in his bed. These acts of disguise, concealment and manipulation dramatically influenced the course of events, although they were based on one simple and clever ploy: an act of improvisation in matter, clothes, covers or body.


Using natural materials and ancient craft technologies, Anushik created a series of sculptures through which she retells the tales of these female figures, focusing on the material and corporal reality of the trickery by which they outwitted the patriarchal system.

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