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Internal Revolution
Lebanese Artist Rabih Mroué’s Theater of Questions

By Philip Bither

Given the recent tumult in the Middle East, it’s no surprise that Lebanese theater-maker and visual artist Rabih Mroué is interested in revolution. But he doesn’t see his work as activism. Eschewing the term “political theater,” he says, “If there’s a revolution, it’s revolution against myself, to provoke myself.”

Mroué visits Minneapolis for two presentations as part of Out There 2012: the Walker-commissioned Pixelated Revolution, a work-in-progress lecture-demonstration that explores the use of cellphones and social media in the ongoing Syrian uprising; and Looking for a Missing Employee, a mischievous reflection on “truth,” truths, and history. Mroué, winner of the 2010 Spalding Gray Award, recently discussed his thoughts on revolution, questioning theater, and the role of artists in society with Philip Bither, William and Nadine McGuire Senior Curator of Performing Arts.

Philip Bither

Obviously, there’s tremendous interest right now in the Middle East—what’s been going on with the Arab Spring and what’s going on in Syria, right next door.

Rabih Mroué

It’s surprising what’s going on, and it gives us hope for serious change in the region, in the sense that maybe people in different Arab countries are actually looking for democratic states and for states where they respect citizens, and where there’s a constitution and freedom of expression. I can see that this is a real move toward these issues, although we know the way is long and it’s not like in a day and a night everything will be achieved. It really gives hope, which for me, before the Arab Spring, was almost zero.

Bither

Is there a history, when things are “hot,” of people looking to the arts as a way to be inspired or ruminate on these questions?

Mroué

All the artists and intellectuals are closely following the events and what’s going on now. But it’s not easy to put art in direct contact with what is going on today, because we know that art always deals with politics, but not with actuality. We have to make sure that art is not a platform for activism. It’s a platform for discussing, for questioning, for putting doubts, for ideas. It’s not a place to make a revolution. If there’s a revolution, it’s revolution against myself, to provoke myself.

In this sense, we’re very conscious, and most of the artists ask this question: How can we talk about what’s going on today? Can art talk about it, and how? It’s not an easy question, because we know that we need distance in order to see and understand, and then to reflect, talk, and do art about it.

Pixelated Revolution, for example, came from many years of work. It’s an accumulation of knowledge and research. It didn’t come because of what’s going on today. For me, today is still—I can’t reach it. We are still in the event, and we need time. I started research in 1998 and in 2000, dealing with images, with videos, and relations to death, to life, to our daily life. It relates to how we write history and how we talk about images today when we are overcharged by images. It’s something that continues my reflection and my thoughts; it’s not something new that came up.

How I deal with the Syrian protesters, how they use the mobile phone, is kind of another issue that I’m now thinking about or continuing my thinking about the image and the use of images.

Bither

Is there something unique about the way protesters are using mobile devices in Syria that made you want to look at that particular circumstance instead of, say, just the overall advent of social media?

Mroué

Yeah, there’s something unique in this phenomenon. I didn’t see this in the other Arab revolutions. For example, there’s a lack of professional cameramen in Syria. There are only two sources to get information about what’s going on in Syria: Either the media of the regime—the official information of Syria—or the protesters themselves, what they’re recording and send us on the Internet. There aren’t any other sources. This wasn’t the case in other countries. It changes how they deal with this event when they are actually creating it. It’s their event, and they are recording their event at the same time.

Bither

In the States, there’s not much opportunity to see theater-makers from the Arab world, much less contemporary performance and theater-makers, and there’s a heightened level of awareness about what’s going on in Syria right now. How do you feel about people coming to see Pixelated Revolution because they want to learn more about what’s going on in the Middle East right now?

Mroué

I think they’ll be upset. I’m an artist. I live in Beirut. But I don’t represent a Beiruti or a Lebanese or the Arab art world. I’m not coming to teach my audience or to give them any information about the Arab world. It’s a world that can provoke ideas that they can adapt for their own situation anywhere. I’m talking about my country, my region, because I know it very well. But I’m not coming to teach them anything about my country. I’m interested in opening a debate about art, about theater, not about politics in a direct way.

Bither

A theme that I’ve used for Out There 2012 is that it’s a uniquely international, somewhat global year. I’ve been talking with people about the nature of performance today on a global level being very different than it was 10 years ago, because of the availability of content and influence across continents. Would you say that’s true—that the way artists are working today, no matter where they are in the world, there’s a more universal source material that people are drawing from, because of the Internet, because of digital media?

Mroué

For sure. What I feel today is that by traveling a lot everywhere in the world there’s a kind of conversation going on all the time. Now it’s much wider for me, that I’m not only connected to this very close circle, which is just in Beirut—my city. I can find myself with many, many theater directors who are trying to find alternatives or to question theater. For me, this is very important. It takes theater into other spaces and other dimensions.

Bither

That’s definitely what we try to do with Out There, have people think about what theater is today and about alternative ways of approaching it. In that sense, if we look at Looking for a Missing Employee, and the way you’ve chosen to have it a mediated experience, where you began the piece on-stage and then you go up into the house and everyone is experiencing it one step removed through video representation. Why was that an important step?

Mroué

I start with very, very simple questions. Sometimes they look like very stupid questions. But then I discover that they’re really very complicated to answer. Can we do theater with out actors? We know [Jerzy] Grutowsky said you can do theater without a set, without lights, without music, without, without, without. But you cannot do it without actors. I’m asking this question not to prove whether we can do it without actors. It’s just to provoke myself. Looking for a Missing Employee started from this simple question.

There are other questions, too. Why are we so attached to this idea of watching something that’s happening now but in another place: Live broadcasting. Why do we insist on waking up at 3 am or 4 am to watch a football match that’s happening in China, for example? Why do we want to be in the event at the same time that it happens in another place? I’m also asking, what is the power of this live broadcasting thing. It’s related to how the first Iraqi war was broadcast on TV. We watched the Gulf War on TV with a direct link. We also watch our wars, like the war of 2006 when Israel attacked Lebanon, on TV. Actually, it was just happening next to us, on the next street. But we were insisting upon watching on TV instead of being in reality.

Bither

Tell me about your choice to have an artist using an old technology—markers, drawing in real time—how did that come about and what were you looking to add to Missing Employee with that aspect?

Mroué

It’s another narration of the story because it’s someone trying to follow what I’m trying to tell, but with notes with diagrams. He’s trying to draw a map of the whole story. This is someone who is trying to take notes in order to later write a history of this case. It’s this question about how we write history, how we deal with narratives.

Bither

In a lot of your work, you question the notions of truth, history and memory. It’s intriguing trying to sort through what’s real in the story and what isn’t. How much “truth”—with truth in quotes, because what is truth?—is there, and how do we figure it out.

Mroué

Definitely. In this work, I read from newspapers. I tell the whole story out of these readings. I’m saying I’ll be neutral, I’ll just read what I have. But I’m choosing and I’m editing all this material; in fact, I’m becoming a part of it or taking a position. So I start to tell another story. Just to edit—to cut and remove, to keep, or to use my voice in this way and not in the other way—all of this makes this pretension of being neutral impossible.

My suggestion is maybe when we read history, we shouldn’t look for what’s fake and not fake, what’s real and not real, what’s invented and not invented. For me, we need to take it as a whole and to study this history as a whole, as one version among many other versions.

Bither

Do you feel that even if someone is intentionally telling a story that’s made up, but woven into history, it tells something of its own truth?

Mroué

No. For me, it’s part of the truth, but not the whole truth. We should take it as one version of the truth among many other versions. If we can collect all the versions about this event, then maybe we can reach an absolute truth. But I think this is an impossible task. It’s good to collect as much as possible of different versions—and to believe every version. In every version, there is something good to study and it’s worth it to take it, whatever this version is.

Bither

When I saw the show, I still wasn’t sure whether your starting point of the story of the missing employee, which you read from the newspaper, was completely made up. Was the story you started with ever “real”?

Mroué

It’s not important to know if the story is a true story or a fiction story. If I tell you this is a real story, it’s worth it to believe me. Just believe me that this work says this is a real story, and after this point it’s not important.

Bither

You’re coming into the US when there’s an interesting debate going on within art circles between performance that emanates from visual art practice—performance drawn from visual art history or training—and experimental theater and more theatricalized hybrid performance that’s drawn from more of a theater history. There’s something of a conflict between those two worlds, because there seems to be a divide of understanding. You seem to effectively—and you’re one of the few I know—have a vibrant life as a visual artist, respected in the visual art world as a conceptual artist, and as a theater artist. Could you comment on the distinction between those two worlds and how you bridge them and how you place yourself, perhaps?

Mroué

I studied theater, and I come from a theater background. At some point in my career, I started to question theater harshly. I had very difficult questions myself, and I decided that maybe I shouldn’t answer them now. I postponed the answer. I should look for the answers everywhere, not only in the theater. It gave me the opportunity to meet with people from different disciplines.

I started, for example, to work with architects, graphic designers, and people who are not artists at all. It was really a very open thing. When I decided to perform my answers, I felt very light and free. It allowed me to go everywhere. To open my experience to everything, to the unexpected things. I found myself unexpectedly in the visual art scene and I did not mean to be there. But if you go and see my visual artworks, you immediately see that they’re still related to theater.

Bither

It must’ve been some enlightened curators or gallery managers who first invited you in, even though you weren’t from their world.

Mroué

I think so. The art centers and curators who invited me, I assume that they were interested in postponing their own questions, so they went to other places or other artists, maybe to find answers. I think this is how they came across me! It’s nice when we meet in this no-man’s land.

Bither

Even though you’re working around open-ended questions and your work is not “political theater,” given what’s going on next door in Syria or even in Lebanon, do you have to worry about freedom of expression or threats to yourself because you’re provoking questions?

Mroué

We have censorship in Lebanon, and the censorship department is very active. But at the same time, relative to the other Arab countries, we have a big margin of freedom of expression. I decided many years ago that I didn’t want to go through censorship, simply because I noticed that when I was writing plays, I start to censor myself. I was saying, “Oh, maybe they’ll tell me, ‘This sentence is too much. You have to change it.’” I noticed that this is auto-censorship, so I decided I wouldn’t go to them anymore. Of course, there’s a price for this decision: I don’t show my pieces for long. It’s only for two nights, three nights, without taking money from the audience. It should be set like it’s a private evening.

Bither

If you charged tickets, the censors could come and shut you down?

Mroué

Exactly. Or if I made it for a long period, they’d come and ask, “Where’s the permission? Where’s the authorization?”

Bither

Maybe the fundamentalists have very strict ideas of what’s acceptable, and what isn’t ends up being deferred to around some of these choices?

Mroué

Yeah, the censorship department is inside the interior ministry. It doesn’t belong to the cultural ministry. The police are censoring us. It’s the interior security that’s censoring us; it’s not a cultural ministry or people who belong to the cultural or intellectual area.

Bither

Do factions such as Hezbollah get upset about artists work?

Mroué

Of course they get upset. All the politicians, all the political parties—if you’re trying to do any criticism of politics, they won’t be happy and they might put pressure on you. Sometimes it’s dangerous. Sometimes it’s not dangerous. I know there are a lot of intellectuals who’ve paid their life for their writings. They were assassinated by different political parties in Lebanon. Not mainly one political party, but different ones, from all religious backgrounds. Concerning myself, I don’t feel like I’m in danger.

Bither

So I don’t have to worry about you?

Mroué

No. I told you, I’m not an activist. I don’t want to be a martyr. When I feel there’s a danger, I’ll stop. I’m interested in thinking and writing—and not to make a revolution in art. If I want to do a revolution or something dealing with activism, then I’ll do it outside art and theater.