Rabih Mroué on Tour: The Pixelated Revolution

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From Rabih Mroué's “How Nancy Wished That Everything Was an April Fool’s Joke”. (Photo: Kohei Matsushima)

By: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie

Published Thursday, January 5, 2012

The artist Rabih Mroué is making his US debut on Friday, with the first of four performances in New York to mark the start of a five-city tour across North America. Despite being one of the more internationally acclaimed figures to have emerged from Beirut’s tight-knit contemporary art scene over the past ten years, Mroué has never performed his work in the US before.

The tour includes the official world premiere of The Pixelated Revolution, a dicey new piece that Mroué performed as a work in progress in Beirut last month as part of Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace Program. The work takes the form of an academic-style lecture, with Mroué seated at a low-lit table, narrating his way through a slide presentation projected onto a screen behind him. Delving into the use of mobile phones to capture video footage of protesters being shot and killed in Syria, The Pixelated Revolution draws curious parallels between the uprising’s visceral visual phenomena and the ten rules of unvarnished cinema drafted nearly two decades ago by the Danish film movement Dogme 95.

Mroué’s piece has already provoked heated debate among local artists on how to address the underbelly of ongoing Arab revolts in their work, and, more specifically, how to deal with the situation in Syria. At a time when museums, festivals and arts institutions all over the world are all too eager to find and show work that encapsulates the presumed totality of the so-called Arab Spring, some of the most vexing issues for artists living in the region today have become how to work at all in times of such tumult and uncertainty.

Should they be making art in their studios or joining protesters on the streets? Should they be agitating as artists, activists or day-to-day citizens? If artists have already been dealing with subjects such as corruption, injustice or social inequity for years, then how can they avoid having their work co-opted by the new fervor for revolutionary fare? And if they decide to take on and work through the uprisings in their art, then how can they do so without coming across as naïve, belated, opportunistic, callous or crass?

“For me these are very intriguing questions,” says Mroué, “and they’re also a kind of trap. One of the things we always say is that art needs distance, and that art needs a kind of peace. But at the same time, with the revolution in Tunisia, or the revolution in Egypt, or the violence in Syria, when are we allowed to talk about it? How long do we have to wait before we can make a work? I think there are no limits, no defined times.”

As is so often the case, when Mroué presented his work in Beirut, local reactions were immediate and strong, going far beyond whether people reflexively liked or disliked the piece.

“With The Pixelated Revolution, the subject I am dealing with is still going on and we are all following what’s happening for obvious reasons,” says Mroué. “We are all following the news. Everyone has an opinion, so when someone imposes his or her opinion, it provokes a very tough reaction. I heard a lot of opinions from people who had not articulated their ideas so loudly until they saw the piece. Sometimes the show begins after it finishes,” he adds, meaning that a work succeeds when the ending opens a conversation or better, a debate.

“To take what’s happening in Syria and place it alongside a cinematic manifesto was for some people unethical,” he says, “because people are still dying and suffering and I’m doing this cold reflection. But when I’m making art, I’m not an activist, and I refuse to be an activist in art. I try not to take a political position in my work, but if I do – and in this case, it’s very clear that I’m with the protesters – then I try to deconstruct and reflect on my position and provoke myself. Of course, all of these questions came to my mind. Am I allowed to talk about the protesters when they are still being killed? Am I allowed to take them out of these events? Is it okay? Is it possible for an artist to make a work about something that is still going on? When I ask myself such questions, I tend to think I’ve pinpointed something I should pursue.”

If the challenge of performing his work in Beirut is to convince people to consider aesthetic form alongside political content, then the challenge of performing his work in New York is similar, but different. There, the question is how to position himself as an artist experimenting with forms and ideas that an unknown public can relate to, rather than as a kind of native informant whose purpose is to teach an audience about politics in Lebanon, or to show people what theater looks like in Beirut.

“I don’t represent this or that,” he says. “I have no expectations. I only have wishes, that people will come and see my work as an artist, without considering my nationality, without this expectation that I will tell them what’s happening in the Middle East, just to come and see my work as material to open a conversation.”

For that reason, Mroué is counterbalancing the prickliness and immediacy of The Pixelated Revolution with an older, more polished work, originally produced for the second edition of the Home Works Forum in 2003, which exemplifies his adventurous approach to theatrical space, the body on stage and the circulation of images.

Starting on January 6, Mroué is giving three performances of Looking for a Missing Employee at the Baryshnikov Art Center’s Howard Gilman Performance Space, followed by the premiere of The Pixelated Revolution on January 9.

In Looking for a Missing Employee, Mroué radically upturns the conventional arrangements of theater. He seats himself among the audience with two video cameras – one pointed at him to project an image of his face onto a large screen onstage, the other directed at the pages of three notebooks filled with newspaper clippings, which he uses to tell the story of a man who disappeared in mysterious circumstances from Lebanon’s Ministry of Finance in 1996.

Set up like an investigation, with Mroué in the role of an amateur detective, Looking for a Missing Employee plays with notions of presence and absence on several levels at once. During the entire performance, for example, the stage is empty. Toward the end, Mroué vacates his seat and quietly slips out of the auditorium. The live footage of his image is seamlessly replaced by recorded footage. Not until the lights come on does the audience realize that the artist himself has disappeared.

The New York performances are part of the annual COIL festival organized by PS 122, a 30-year-old arts institution with a penchant for experimental, politically charged work, which was founded in the cafeteria of an abandoned public school in the East Village in 1980. PS 122 is also part of the consortium that sponsors the Spalding Gray Award, which Mroué won in 2010. The prize includes a stipend to create a new work – in this case, The Pixelated Revolution – and the support to tour that work to all of the other institutions involved. Between now and the end of the month, Mroué is traveling to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, and On the Boards in Seattle. Outside the scope of Spalding Gray, he is also performing at the Roundhouse in Vancouver, as part of the city’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.

Mroué hasn’t stayed away from the US for lack of invitations, but for years he has managed to delay, postpone or cancel every opportunity that came his way, out of a comical but entirely understandable fear of the embassy, visa and airport regimes. So why is he going now? “They put me in a corner,” he laughs. “I have nowhere to run anymore.”

For more information about Rabih Mroué’s performances in New York, please see http://ps122.org

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