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A conversation with Avi Sabag, Musrara Mix director

by ben May 19 2008
InterviewThings to do

VJ Milosh still

Avi Sabag, founder and director of The Naggar School of Photography, Media and New Music – also known as the Musrara school – is arguably Jerusalem underground culture's godfather. Sabag's eighth annual Musrara Mix festival, lasting for three days, begins on May 27, and he was kind enough to spend a few minutes with Jerusalemite to explain what it takes to stay on the sharp edge of hipster cool in a town undeservedly branded as lame.

What's it like being into "alternative" arts in a city known for conservatism, and how would you describe your festival's role in the greater Jerusalem cultural scene? In Jerusalem, we have the hub for fringe arts in the country, but there's a disconnect with the arts schools – the graduates end up going to Tel Aviv. So the mission of the city is to find a way to preserve the talent so that it'll stay here, and that's one of the things our festival does. Here, everything is possible – there's everything here, from politics to academics to religion to culture. The City Mouse magazine from Tel Aviv recently wrote that the ultimate alternative festival is remarkably housed in Jerusalem, and that's as progressive as it gets.

In my mind, The Israeli Opera company performing at the festival says it all: The Mix makes connections between things that weren't previously possible. You can look at it as an experimental multimedia experience of the highest quality, something that you can't get elsewhere. We're in the neighborhood of Musrara, with the neighborhood of Musrara. It's all arranged to be in the public spaces: It's truly arts for the masses, including meetings between neighborhood residents, students and international artists. For example, we've planned an encounter with a Berlin arts school, working together on a project electronically, in real time, that will be displayed.

With so many niche festivals springing up in the cultural calendar, how can yours maintain its identity of being the edgy one? And along the same lines, what's different and exciting this year? You can't even compare us to those supermarket happenings. This is deeper – really reaching and experimental. But sometimes age doesn't take away from one's experimental edge – look at [avant garde musician] Keith Rowe, performing at the festival in his 60s.

How much support do you receive from the municipality and foundations? We are given very little for the festival, to my chagrin. We want to make it bigger, but it's not easy. We somehow managed to get over 50 artists involved this year, largely because many of them volunteered. We have sponsorships from Bank Leumi and the Ministry of Culture, but it's on a small scale.

In your opinion, what are some of Jerusalem's most underrated treasures in the arts? It all comes back to the community of the student body. Uganda is an alternative space that was founded by alumni of Musrara. So was the Sala-Manca collective, started by a married couple and some of their friends – they make site-specific art installations [in places as diverse as Liverpool, Buenos Aires and Prague] that involve sound, video and printed photos. There's also the Sira pub, which offers performances in an experimental new genre, electro-acoustic music.

How did your institution make the leap from being one dedicated to educating its enrolled students to being dedicated to entertaining the general public? I wouldn't describe it like that. From the very beginning we were a broad cultural institution that had both neighborhood and international activities. From the beginning, one of our guiding principles has been to provide a stage to the students and alumni, and to share it with serious artists from around the world.

Among the Misrara Mix festival's offerings are performances by Parisian video artist Milosh (top, a till from a recent hometown-themed project of his) and English guitarist Keith Rowe (above).

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