Monday, April 9, 2012

Delusion is a Refuge, A Refuge Under Siege

Delusion is a Refuge, A Refuge Under Siege
On March 11, 2012 an article written by Nicky Larkin, someone I’ve counted amongst my friends for the last few years, appeared in the Sunday Irish Independent. I was taken aback by the title: Israel is a Refuge, A Refuge Under Siege , and thought hopefully there must be more to it than that.

See, Nicky received a generous film project award from the Arts Council for €32,400 to create a documentary called Forty Shade of Grey. It’s described as “an experimental, non-narrative film piece, shot on location in Israel and the Palestinian territories. There seems to be some very black and white ideas when people think of these areas; however we wish to explore the forty shades of grey in between the black and the white.” I supported the idea of the film and even obtained a reliable, academic contact to aid Nicky in translating interviews of Palestinians from my uncle, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

A couple of months after Mr. Larkin’s return, he sent on some sample clips to me and, a bit concerned, I told him frankly:

“Because all the interviews are with Israelis who basically support Israel and because these are in English it comes off as very one sided. I think you would have to have just as many Palestinian voices to balance it. Also, I think you need to be careful in showing poverty and anger, as this comes off as other or 'alien' to Western audiences, while the advanced capitalist middle-class scenes of Tel Aviv read as normal and human.”
Having studied photography myself, I am aware of the power that artists behind the lens have in shaping perception. In striving for objectivity and fairness it is essential to maintain a consistent ‘way of looking’ and to present all subjects in the same dignified manner. This is very much the mechanics of lens-based work, but it is the basis for any legitimate documentarian strategy. This is what I hoped to convey to Nicky.

I haven’t had too much contact with him since. That is, until the March 11th article. You should have a read of it, it can be found here. The article is in the most basic sense an account of Larkin’s personal transformation from “Hating Israel” to complete sympathy with Israel, followed by a strange conspiratorial allegation that the Arts Council is corrupt and a brief plug for his film’s debut. Simply put, it is irresponsibly written and makes several factual and investigative errors.

Nicky’s starting point is “Hating Israel”. A shockingly narrow and simplistic sentiment that is the kind of nationalistic short-cut that replaces thought, full stop. This is indeed telling. He swiftly moves on to the Holy Land and describes the curious Palestinian onlookers as ‘martyrs’, a term usually reserved for those that have died for their beliefs. Dehumanising much? Nicky recounts an interview with the former Palestinian Ambassador to France and describes her as “all aggression”. I watched the same video and could hardly describe it as such. Larkin follows this up with a superficial analysis of Hebron based literally on the writing on the wall.

He writes of his time in Tel Aviv, recounting an unconfirmed story by a former Israeli Defense Forces soldier:

“He talked slowly about his time in Gaza. He spoke about 20 Arab teenagers filled with ecstasy tablets and sent running towards the base he'd patrolled. Each strapped with a bomb and carrying a hand-held detonator. The pills in their bloodstream meant they felt no pain. Only a headshot would take them down.”
Wait... what?! Gaza is under a strict embargo and is economically paralysed as a result, it experiences regular power and water outages, as well as bread shortages. And we are supposed to believe that there is MDMA in Gaza? Larkin continues: “Conversations like this are normal in Tel Aviv”. Certainly there must be a different set of conversations in Ramallah or Gaza City? Maybe even 40 shades of them. But not now, not in the national press. Larkin must talk only of the rockets raining down on Israel and not of checkpoints, settlers, displacement, human rights violations as decided by the United Nations, white phosphorous bombs, billions of US dollars in aid or the shooting of unarmed civilians, children even.

After a seemingly obligatory reference to the Holocaust, he again looks literally to the writing on the wall, this time at a misspelling in Cork, and then Larkin approaches his crescendo. Now that he has made up his mind as to what the correct shade of grey is, despite his film’s premise, he seems to expect Ireland to fall in line upon his return. The possibility that Irish people are invested and informed about, arguably, the largest ongoing human rights issue in the world doesn’t cross his mind. Larkin cites a lack of freedom of speech in Ireland, even an intolerance to different ideas. It comes across as some kind of psychological self-conditioning or self-fulfilling prophecy for taking a deeply unpopular political position based on tenuous thinking.

Larkin’s inflated sense of self importance didn’t stop there or even at the facts. He makes a broadsided attack on 216 artists who, heaven forbid, expressed their opinions about a recognised human rights issue by signing a petition (information about the petition is here). Yet, his claims that Israeli food has been pulled from grocers is false, his claim that Aosdana signed the petition is false, his understanding of what the petition sets out to achieve is false. Nicky then speculates that the only reason that artists might have signed this petition is for career gain due to the fact that Aosdana controls the Arts Council and gives favours to like-minded thinkers. Wow.

I contacted the Arts Council for comment and the Director of Public Affairs, Seán Mac Cárthaigh, conveyed that:
“The Arts Council has always adopted a strong position in favour of freedom of expression. I don't expect this to change -- in fact I'd be confident the Council would regard it as non-negotiable. We have a very rigorous, transparent peer review panel system for our grants to individual artists, and applications are scored solely on merit. This is really important to us. We also have an appeal procedure, and I can guarantee you that we would take very seriously any evidence we had fallen short of that standard.”

Larkin ends his piece by belittling the Irish for daring to hold a different opinion than what he, Israel, the US, and most other powerful Western nations, find acceptable. Insulting, condescending and inflammatory? Little bit.

Nicky’s piece utterly fails to present the issue in a balanced, nuanced manner or with any context. It is indeed ahistorical, it’s as though his analysis only considers his own subjective experiences during his 7 week Arts Council funded trip. I wonder what kind of homework he did before going off to Israel/Palestine? It is highly questionable, nay, unethical, to publish unsubstantiated stories, particulalry on a politically sensitive topic, as Larkin did. It is self righteous to dismiss critics as narrow-minded. That Irish people have the right to passionately disagree with him isn’t considered. It is certainly bad policy to ‘bite the hand that feeds you’. To go as far as making outrageous corruption claims against the very organisation that liberally funded your project in the first place is downright foolish. But, by far what is most irresponsible about Nicky’s writing is that it is utterly biased and dehumanising of Palestinians. They are presented flatly as martyrs, aggressive and suicide bombers. Isn’t this feeding Islamophobia? Much like the preliminary clips he sent on to me, where he failed to investigate and document anything close to 40 shades of gray, his ‘way of looking’ in the article is completely one-sided.

I am a little surprised the Independent gave Nicky space for this type of ‘surface’ analysis and even more surprised they didn’t check it for factual errors. Then again, the Independent does have a track record of publishing some very questionably researched articles (e.g. Welcome to the ‘good life’ on Welfare – How Polish Waitress Embraced La Dole-ce Vita by Norma Costello, which due to a massive mistranslation of the source text caused an international stir and has now been removed from the website).

The aftermath to Larkin’s piece on a certain social network has also caused a stir. The vast majority of opposing comments I’ve seen questioned the accuracy of Larkin’s piece and raised a variety of informed arguments and historical facts against his position. Debate begins, so fair enough, right? Or maybe not. From what I’ve witnessed, his gang (comprised of his girlfriend Norma Costello (yes, the same), a member of his production team, and a few of his hometown friends) have been outspoken in rhetorically calling for discussion while simultaneously drowning out debate. Their general modus operandi is to deflect, derail, and outpost any real discussion. Consistently, they dismiss disagreement as intolerance. A funny sort of circular logic, that. By and large Nicky himself apparently didn’t deem these criticisms worthy of response.

With the aim of stirring Nicky from his silence, I posted several comments to him ranging from inquiries to jokes; from rebukes to the earnest statement that “I would be happy to explain why I signed the petition” (wondering indeed why Nicky would ask his artist friends rhetorically via a newspaper and not in person!). I have been met with his gang’s deflections and even a string of personal attacks that are a dangerous combination of arrogance and ignorance usually reserved for ‘trolls’. When I deleted one of my own posts that became filled with comments that were personalised accusations and speculations, I was labeled as anti-Free Speech. Sorry lads... lies, fabrications and character assassinations are an abuse of aforementioned Free Speech. I was harassed and labeled an anti-semite and “FASCIST”.

I was able to cajole Nicky into a few responses. Among other things, he claimed to be generally harassed and recalled how he has been called a c*nt for his article. Dude, this is Ireland... you’ll get called a c*nt for not using a beermat. He also asserted his correctness.

My advice to Nicky has always been to correct the errors in the article, move on, and let his film speak for itself. Unfortunately, he now risks dwarfing the artwork itself through his publicity side show. What more, Nicky does not believe there is anything erroneous or unethical about his article and has now vowed a follow up piece to further his claims of persecution. In the spirit of Free Speech, I challenged Nicky to a polemic, asking for equal column inches, side-by-side to voice a rebuttal to his opinions. He declined. Unsupportable for the most part, and straying far from his artistic premise of investigating diverse viewpoints, Larkin’s opinions might have been designed only for shock value. Is it possible this whole business is equal parts delusion, contrarianism and short sighted publicity stunt? How cynical would that be?

Nicky is crying 'intolerance' and 'Free Speech', but he has already abused a large, national platform with one dimensional rhetoric. What might be a different, more accurate viewpoint is that his only problem with the Irish is that they are disagreeing with him. How ironic.

By the way, it’s called a kufiya, not a PLO scarf. Kind of like it’s a tricolour, not an IRA flag.

Jim Ricks is a native Californian based in Ireland for the past 7 years. He is a visual artist and is signatory number 134 on the “Irish Artists’ Pledge to Boycott Israel”.

Editor's note: Nicky Larkin was given an advance copy of this article and invited to respond prior to publication. That offer still stands.


  1. Nicky OR Larkin- At the beginning of this article about your friend, it sounds like you are talking about two different people. A very personal, public slating of your friend using an important world issue as a cover I think. Obviously it was nice of you to offer to help your friend at the beginning of his project, but it is his project in the end not yours. It seems rather sensational way of attempting to communicate with your friend about your personal issues with his work,this is a bitter, wounded and pointless argument which has nothing to do with Palestine or Israel or Ireland. It reads as a personal attack from a jealous friend who didn't get an arts council grant to make a film. It would be better for you to re write this important article with less bitchiness, it reads like you are rallying for support in a personal scrap. Your friend, sounds like an idiot and I"m sure the other people reading his work can see that for themselves. The other important thing an artist must do, it treat their audience with the respect they deserve and not assume that a). they have no discerning powers of their own and b). are all as stupid as you.

    1. Well said, although i don't agree with Nicky Larkin being an idiot, you are more than entitled to your opinion. The author could take lessons in resonable debate from you.

    2. Hardly reasonable debate by anonymous (the first anonymous). Jim lays out his problems with Nicky Larkin - that he misrepresents Israel/Palestine and misrepresented people in this country who support Palestinian rights. If you want to debate that point, then fair enough.

      But instead anonymous 1, cheerled by anonymous 2 conducts an ad hominum against Jim, saying that realy what he's annoyed with is Nicky Larkin's arts council grant rather than his publicly expressed opinions. Hardly convincing.


  2. I dont know about the people you are hanging around with Jim, but the word c#nt is highly insulting. Nevermind being called such a word for not using a beermat, its disgusting and so are you. Just understand that you will not become famous by being Mr Larkins arch-enemy

    1. Who is Nicky Larkin? Never heard of him before today.

    2. If you're stuck on the word, which was regrettably said under duress of negative emotion, (but then honestly mentioned in this article), you are really really missing the point. Really really really missing the point, in fact.

      Calling someone disgusting is somehow also disgusting, but you just did it....go figure.

  3. I think the point of this is responsibility. Sharply worded, but not bitchy. Thank you for the compelling rebuttal Mr. Ricks.

  4. Ha.. Jim why don't you tell us how you really feel?!!?!! Brilliant

  5. Jim I commend you for this piece. Nicky Larkin's article is quite an embarrassment to the Irish artistic community as a whole. I am quite baffled at how this article, even if it is an opinion piece( I am unsure of what section of the paper it was printed in) made it through to the publication. Apart from the gross misrepresentation and ill informed statements made in the article the Irish artistic community would, it seems according to the article, revolve solely around arts council funding.

    I think this also raises some issues about how the Arts Council engages in it's continuous review of artistic projects during the course of their development. Labeling a documentary as "non narrative" as Nicky Larkin does sounds more like an easy way out of explaining the value of a piece of art. I have seen two of his pieces before - apart from being utterly un-watcheable they come across as naive and arrogant. From the trailer alone this new film also seems naive and without direction.

  6. Nicky Larkin finally discovered the truth. you shouldn't even say "black and white" or "one side of the story" cause your anti-Semitic (A.k.a anti-Zionist) media shows only one side - the "poor Palestinians" except you forget the fact that rockets are being shot to Israel on a daily basis from Gaza. and ten years ago when there wasn't any fence suicide bombers would bomb every day.

    Only ignorant people like you would actually believe they can judge something without knowing anything.

  7. Jim, I'd read Nicky's response where he clarifies that I - Norma Costello - had absolutely nothing to do with his article being published in the Independent. You seem quite stuck for press yourself at the moment and I believe you're no spring chicken, so respond right away:

  8. Unfortunately Mr Larkin's experience in Limerick seem to have left him with the impression that there really is no such thing as bad publicity.

  9. I have to jump in this discussion, very late unfortunately, but I feel that people are lashing out at Nicky incredibly maliciously and, for the most part, without real basis. When I say this it is because I saw his movie before the release as I screened it in a space that I manage in Zurich. His movie is extremely balanced and extremely un-editorialized. He literally invites people to talk - people from Palestine, Palestinians from Israel, Jews from Israel, and African refugees to Israel.

    If people had actually paid more attention to his film, which is constantly cited as being pro-Israeli and having an Israeli bias, exactly as this Jim states, it would be absolutely clear and without any shadow of a doubt for those without agendas, that the movie is actually completely balanced. In fact most of the Israeli interviewees are themselves extremely critical of their government's policies on a variety of different issues (People, remember: Israel doesn't only have Palestine as an issue and neither does the world, although Ireland seems to have entirely forgotten its own crimes and prefers to worry about Israel's only.)

    The problem with Jim and others like him is that they are stuck in their discourse and need to maintain it as a legitimate position no matter what changes occur, no matter what problems it causes, and no matter how erroneous and untargeted their criticism. I am of course referring to Jim's criticism of Nicky's movie and article, not his position on the boycott.

    The boycott in and of itself is absolutely idiotic and indeed anti-semitic. Why? Because the boycott is not targeting exclusively the government of Israel, which i believe would be legitimate if indeed people object to the occupation. However, if the objection to occupation is an ideological principle that people take seriously, then those individuals should boycott all the following governments so it doesn't stink so much as choosing only one government to oppose: the most important, the US government, then the British (these are the most visible and guilty in the West, then of course let's look at Africa and what is happening there and wonder why the hell these artists are so silent about the atrocities that are taking place there?) Why is it that these "informed" individuals have chosen only the Israeli government and not all governments that have committed unspeakable atrocities through occupation? I actually want an answer to this question. How do Irish (and others who have begun these idiotic boycotts) curate their causes?

    Another reason why I think these boycotts are idiotic is that they boycott the wrong people. The academics, the intellectuals, all the members of Israeli society that are vocal, critical, informed, creative, engaged, and resistant, they are all banned because they are Israeli. That is so wrong and yes, it is anti-semitic. I wouldn't have any objection to not inviting right-wing extremists to ireland - of course that is something else. But boycotting Israel as a blanket statement, without acknowledging the incredibly nuanced and complex political and ideological positions that are held by Israelis is absolutely gross and primitive behavior. If I were you, I would focus more on the crimes of the Catholic church as an integral part of Irish society, and the IRA legacy than condemning others so brutally. But of course, introspection and self-analysis is not easy.
    Throwing rocks at prostitutes is much better...

    I do think that boycotts can function if they are targeted and intelligent - but this one isn't. You should target products made in the West Bank, under occupation, for example, however as many Arabs have even written, those boycotts impact their economy much more than the Israeli, unfortunately.

  10. The other thing is that Jim negates the existence of pressure to be Pro-Palestinian. That is absolutely crazy. The pressure to be anti-israeli among artist circles is a mandate. Everybody knows that. Here in Zurich, where most people are wealthy and comfortable, I was asked point blank if I am pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. The fact that that question is an absolute idiocy to begin with (why would anyone be for or against any of those two sides?? - we need to be for both, people!!!) can be put aside for the moment. But really, one is judged on the side that they are on about some conflict that we only have vague and completely insignificant knowledge of. Is that normal? That is the most reactionary thing I have ever experienced, and that goes under the label of progressive liberalism. HA!

    Conclusion: the Israelis in the movie are very interesting because of their critical positions. The Palestinians are not so critical of their governments, which is too bad, but I found their perspectives interesting. The ambassador to France is, as opposed to what Jim states, a disgusting ideologue. She states that the murderers who target innocent Israeli civilians are indeed martyrs and not murderers. I hope all normal people reject that and see that that sort of discourse only leads to repression of Palestinians and justifies the occupation. She and people who use this discourse are guilty of the oppression on Palestinians. She is a leader and glorifies murder. No, despair does not lead to murdering innocents - that is false and it needs to be rejected.

    Go see the film before you make an opinion. The film is not Pro-Israeli, it just shows perspectives and views that are closer than we think and give credit for.

    1. Boom Boom Basketball BobbyJune 1, 2012 at 3:49 AM

      Well Olga, not only did you leave wordy and presumptuous comments, you apparently didn't read the above article. It is a reply to Nicky Larkin's article in the Irish Independent and claims to be nothing more. In fact, Jim Ricks clear states: "My advice to Nicky has always been to correct the errors in the article, move on, and let his film speak for itself." The only fear I have about Nicky Larkin's video is that it will be as absolutely dead boring as the rest of his 'practice'. Read twice, reply once next time, K?