„Who’s Afraid of Representation?“

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Ein Gespräch mit dem Theatermacher Rabin Mroué

 von Sabi­ne Wirth und Eike Scham­bu­rek

“It’s a total expe­ri­ment, the­re are no limits.” Leba­ne­se theat­re-maker Rabih Mroué about Wes­tern Body Art, Leba­ne­se histo­ry and the rela­ti­onship bet­ween fic­tion and reality.

During the sym­po­si­um “Rea­li­ty Strikes Back II — Tod der Reprä­sen­ta­ti­on” in Sep­tem­ber 2008 in Düs­sel­dorf Schau ins Blau tal­ked to Leba­ne­se theat­re-maker Rabih Mroué. Tog­e­ther with his part­ner Lina Saneh he pre­sen­ted the per­for­mance „Who’s Afraid of Repre­sen­ta­ti­on?” at the FFT (Forum Frei­es Thea­ter). In this per­for­mance the artists are reflec­ting upon Wes­tern Body Art and vio­lence in their home coun­try Leba­non. Ther­eby they enga­ge in ques­ti­ons of pre­sen­ta­ti­on and repre­sen­ta­ti­on and scru­ti­ni­se the con­s­truc­tion of images in socie­ty.
The second per­for­mance we tal­ked about was „How Nan­cy Wis­hed That Ever­y­thing Was an April Fool’s Joke”, a col­la­ge of the sto­ries of dif­fe­rent figh­ters in the Leba­ne­se civil war, which was shown at Wie­ner Fest­wo­chen in May 2008.


Schau ins Blau: In your per­for­mance “Who’s Afraid of Repre­sen­ta­ti­on?” you are con­tras­ting or jux­ta­po­sing self-vio­la­ting acts of Wes­tern Body Artists like Chris Bur­den, Gina Pane and Mari­na Abra­mo­vi? with the ever­y­day vio­lence in Leba­non. In the talk after the per­for­mance you said that the initi­al ques­ti­on for you was: why don’t we have such Body Art in Leba­non? You men­tio­ned that it has some­thing to do with the noti­on of indi­vi­dua­lism. Could you descri­be this thought in more detail?

Rabih Mroué: To explain this I need to make a small dig­res­si­on into Leba­ne­se histo­ry. Leba­non was offi­ci­al­ly foun­ded in 1920 and inde­pen­dence was declared in 1943. Sin­ce then Leba­non has had a writ­ten con­sti­tu­ti­on by the sta­te and also an oral agree­ment bet­ween the dif­fe­rent con­fes­sio­nal lea­ders ruling the coun­try. This oral agree­ment is much more important than the writ­ten con­sti­tu­ti­on, which means that the sta­te is sort of cap­tu­red by the dif­fe­rent reli­gious groups and com­mu­ni­ties. Today we are still deal­ing with the same issue. It’s the issue of the­se groups having to share the sta­te among each other. They split the sta­te so that every con­fes­sio­nal group strug­gles to gain as much as they can from the sta­te for their fol­lo­wers. But at the same time they are con­dem­ned to live tog­e­ther with other groups and com­mu­ni­ties. That means that the­re is a con­stant ten­si­on bet­ween all the dif­fe­rent sec­ta­ri­an com­mu­ni­ties. On one hand they have to fight each other to gain more for them­sel­ves and on the other hand they have to live tog­e­ther in the same coun­try. Given this situa­ti­on, as indi­vi­du­als or as Leba­ne­se citi­zens we don’t fol­low the sta­te as such but each citi­zen fol­lows his/her reli­gious group or con­fes­sio­nal com­mu­ni­ty. Even if you are secu­lar in Leba­non you have to fol­low the sec­ta­ri­ans in a sen­se becau­se they orga­ni­se the means of life. The noti­on of indi­vi­dua­lism is still weak. It exists of cour­se, but it is weak. It would take a lot of effort to achie­ve indi­vi­dua­lism just as it was achie­ved in Euro­pe.
To come back to “Who’s Afraid of Repre­sen­ta­ti­on?”: Thin­king about why the­se kinds of body per­for­man­ces did not appear in Bei­rut and the Arab count­ries, I guess it’s becau­se the­se artists are deal­ing with their own body. Deal­ing with your own body in a ‘com­mu­ni­ta­ri­an’ socie­ty is like say­ing: “This is my per­so­nal body against the body of the com­mu­ni­ty.” Thus, the com­mu­ni­ty will ant­ago­ni­se the indi­vi­du­al body. This is why Body Art does­n’t exist in Leba­non till now. Nevert­hel­ess it is pos­si­ble to find excep­ti­ons but gene­ral­ly we don’t have it.

Schau ins Blau: I found it quite inte­res­t­ing that you said the cri­ti­cism utte­red by your per­for­mance was more direc­ted towards Leba­ne­se socie­ty not taking respon­si­bi­li­ty of the case of Hassan Mamoun. I first thought that it put a cri­ti­cal light on the Body Artists and their acts of self-vio­la­ti­on in com­pa­ri­son to the vio­lence being part of ever­y­day life in Leba­non. I think I had the oppo­si­te point of view from a Wes­tern per­spec­ti­ve while I was wat­ching the performance.

Rabih Mroué: The per­for­mance was not meant as an accu­sa­ti­on of the Body Artists’ work; not at all. On the con­tra­ry; I am fasci­na­ted by the­se works. That’s why I am deal­ing with them. I would like to see this kind of art in Leba­non becau­se it might be able to pro­du­ce a social shock. We still don’t have it though. My idea was the­r­e­fo­re to deal with it in a dif­fe­rent way, to repro­du­ce the­se works by words. And to put them in a dif­fe­rent con­text by pre­ten­ding that the­se per­for­man­ces hap­pen­ed as a reac­tion to the histo­ry of Leba­non and the Leba­ne­se Civil War.

Schau ins Blau: In the per­for­mance you were not play­ing a role or acting as a figu­re but you were per­forming as yours­elf — would you agree to that?

Rabih Mroué: This is an open ques­ti­on. It might appear like I am not play­ing a role, but in fact I am play­ing a role, I am actual­ly play­ing two roles; one pre­ten­ding that I am mys­elf and ano­ther one pre­ten­ding that I am Hassan Mamoun. Even if the dif­fe­ren­ces bet­ween the two cha­rac­ters are mini­mal; even if the dif­fe­rence bet­ween the two roles and mys­elf is very litt­le; it is still not me who is on the stage. The ques­ti­on of how we can repre­sent a cha­rac­ter on stage is one of my con­cerns as a theat­re-maker. The­re are many schools or methods of theat­re. I sug­gest this one becau­se con­cep­tual­ly I am working on the rela­ti­onship bet­ween fic­tion and rea­li­ty. I want to put the audi­ence into a sta­te of con­fu­si­on whe­re they have to ask whe­re rea­li­ty starts and fic­tions ends. Is this role com­po­sed or not? Whe­re is Rabih? Whe­re does the actor start? The bor­ders are blur­red. It seems very dif­fi­cult, if not impos­si­ble to me to sepa­ra­te fic­tion from reality.

Schau ins Blau: Regar­ding this rela­ti­onship bet­ween fic­tion and rea­li­ty I was won­de­ring whe­ther the struc­tu­re of the per­for­mance was coin­ci­den­tal or not. It appeared coin­ci­den­tal to me — as if Lina Saneh was ope­ning the book of Body Artists on a ran­dom page and then she would pre­sent wha­te­ver was on this page — but I sup­po­se it was not as ran­dom as it loo­ked like, was it?

Rabih Mroué: Of cour­se it’s not coin­ci­den­tal. It is a game. Peo­p­le easi­ly accept it when you set the rules of any game in theat­re. They just accept it becau­se it is theat­re. This idea of ran­dom­ly ope­ning the book is part of the game and it also ques­ti­ons the idea of the book its­elf. Why for exam­p­le is Fran­ko B on page five and Mari­na Abra­mo­vi? on page 102? Who deci­des this? The book fol­lows an alpha­be­ti­cal order but why do we have to go in alpha­be­ti­cal order? All the­se ques­ti­ons can be asked while we are play­ing this game on stage. The audi­ence is awa­re of this game. Our struc­tu­re is well deci­ded before­hand, alt­hough within the game it might occur as if it was by chan­ce. It is an attempt to make peo­p­le think about the struc­tu­re of the book which could also be a dif­fe­rent struc­tu­re. In the end it ques­ti­ons the con­s­truc­tion of know­ledge and histo­ry. It also ques­ti­ons the way art is archi­ved; how the artists are clas­si­fied in this book; how they are all put into one box just becau­se they are deal­ing with their body.

Schau ins Blau: I had the fee­ling that the ques­ti­on of guilt and respon­si­bi­li­ty plays an important role in “Who’s Afraid of Repre­sen­ta­ti­on?”, espe­ci­al­ly within the sto­ry of Hassan. Would you say that the­re is a cer­tain respon­si­bi­li­ty that every artist has? May­be an ethi­cal dimen­si­on of art?

Rabih Mroué: This is a com­pli­ca­ted ques­ti­on. What is the ethics in art? I can’t real­ly tell. I mys­elf admi­re mani­pu­la­ting peo­p­le. But this can mean dif­fe­rent things. From my point of view art is not pro­pa­gan­da, or poli­ti­cal in a nar­row sen­se. Theat­re is a place whe­re you think; whe­re you can ques­ti­on things and shake norms and ste­reo­ty­pes. It’s a total expe­ri­ment; the­re are no limits. But an ethi­cal issue for me would be to exploit art for poli­ti­cal pro­pa­gan­da try­ing to brain­wa­sh the audience.

Schau ins Blau: For me Body Art is clo­se­ly lin­ked to Chris­ti­an aes­the­tics. The­re is a lot of self-vio­lence and repre­sen­ta­ti­on of pain and suf­fe­ring in Chris­ti­an imagery. Many per­for­mance-artists play with the­se images, for ins­tance Mari­na Abra­mo­vi? in “Lips of Tho­mas”. Do you think an Isla­mic audi­ence per­cei­ves the­se images in a dif­fe­rent way?

Rabih Mroué: To be honest, in this per­for­mance my inte­rest was not in the reli­gious aspect of the Body Artists’ works. And to be more honest, I can’t ans­wer your ques­ti­on becau­se if I ans­wer it, then I am afraid of going into this trap of gene­ra­li­zing things. But I would like to tell you a sto­ry. When the Ame­ri­cans declared the war against Iraq, the­re was a fema­le artist in the Sta­tes who did a hap­pe­ning, a body-per­for­mance. She stood on the street in a squa­re, naked. I guess she is a Syri­an artist. Being naked in her per­for­mance was meant as a pro­test and an objec­tion to the war against Iraq. So, what hap­pen­ed was that many of the Arab web­sites and even the news­pa­pers tal­ked about this woman as a pro­sti­tu­te. They took her pro­test as an affront against the tra­di­ti­on. How dare this woman be naked on the street! They did­n’t read her per­for­mance as a poli­ti­cal state­ment against the Ame­ri­cans; for them, for the Arabs. So, in the end they were accu­sing her for her loyal­ty to the Arab world or Isla­mic world or etc. This is just one exam­p­le how things might go.
But I think this is not only rela­ted to Islam. I mean, it’s not only a mat­ter of reli­gi­on but it is rela­ted to the regi­on. Any­way, when we talk about Arabs, Arab does not mean “Islam” and “Mus­lims”. The­re are also Jewish Arabs, Chris­ti­an Arabs, and so on. “Arab” is not a reli­gious term.

Schau ins Blau: Would you say that the rela­ti­onship bet­ween what is hap­pe­ning on stage and the audi­ence is one of con­fron­ta­ti­on? Becau­se you often say about your work that it is not about explai­ning but more about questioning.

Rabih Mroué: Yes, it’s about con­fron­ta­ti­on. This goes back to the ques­ti­on of acting. In the clas­si­cal method of Sta­nis­lavs­ky they usual­ly crea­te a ten­si­on bet­ween dif­fe­rent cha­rac­ters or insi­de the cha­rac­ter him/herself. I pre­fer to crea­te a ten­si­on bet­ween the stage and the audi­ence ins­tead of crea­ting a ten­si­on on the stage and insi­de the sce­ne. When I crea­te this ten­si­on I hope that peo­p­le will start to think becau­se they feel enga­ged with the per­for­mance. I don’t want them to be pas­si­ve spec­ta­tors who are just recei­ving what we are giving them. This is rela­ted to Brecht and his method and ide­as. The audi­ence should reflect upon the rela­ti­onship bet­ween fic­tion and rea­li­ty. In other words, the audi­ence should think about the bor­der bet­ween the stage and whe­re they sit. I am try­ing to make the two spaces inter­ming­le by kee­ping the line bet­ween them very sharp and clear. It is not an easy task and of cour­se I can’t say I suc­cee­ded or I fai­led in doing this, becau­se it’s not about fail­ure or success.

Schau ins Blau: You once said to me that your per­for­mance “How Nan­cy Wis­hed That Ever­y­thing Was an April Fool’s Joke” which was shown at Wie­ner Fest­wo­chen was not made for tra­vel­ling. Your per­for­man­ces are very much lin­ked to the local situa­ti­on in Leba­non. Do you think the­r­e­fo­re the Leba­ne­se audi­ence is always the “first” audi­ence and the audi­ence in every other coun­try is neces­s­a­ri­ly on a second level?

Rabih Mroué: I did­n’t mean exact­ly that this per­for­mance was not made for a for­eign audi­ence. Of cour­se, in the first ins­tance it was made for the Leba­ne­se audi­ence in Bei­rut. One of the main things that I wan­ted to say in this pie­ce was that I am afraid of ano­ther civil war in Leba­non. I wan­ted to recall what we all com­mit­ted as Leba­ne­se during the civil war in order to think about it and may­be to learn for the pre­sent and for the future. But thin­king about the audi­ence as a theat­re-maker is a pro­ble­ma­tic issue. If you start to put an audi­ence into your mind, you will start to work for the­se peo­p­le, eit­her to pro­vo­ke them or to con­vin­ce them or to satis­fy them. Eit­her way it would mean making a com­pro­mi­se. If you think about a spe­ci­fic audi­ence, you are get­ting yours­elf into a trap. This is a big pro­blem and a lot of artists get them­sel­ves into this trap. I always think of an abs­tract audi­ence. I don’t know who this audi­ence is but I try to repre­sent it by mys­elf. I try to be my own audi­ence; to attack mys­elf; to cri­ti­ci­ze mys­elf. My work should first of all pro­vo­ke me if the­re is a need for pro­vo­ca­ti­on. It should shake my norms in the first place, not yours. I have to chan­ge mys­elf in each work becau­se I under­stand it as a pro­cess of thin­king; of pro­du­cing ide­as and of deve­lo­ping mys­elf. Other­wi­se it would just be a pro­duc­tion for the art market.

Schau ins Blau: I would like to ask you some­thing about the for­mal aspects of “How Nan­cy Wis­hed That Ever­y­thing Was an April Fool’s Joke”. The per­for­mers are sit­ting on a sofa tal­king about the Leba­ne­se civil war. Images only appear as pro­jec­tions on four screens. Why did you choo­se lan­guage as the domi­nant form of (re)presentation in this performance?

Rabih Mroué: We are living in the age of the image. The eye is the king of the sen­se organs and see­ing is the most important way of per­cep­ti­on. With regard to the popu­la­ri­ty of the eye it seems dif­fi­cult for me to repre­sent or to repro­du­ce ever­y­thing visual­ly on stage. The­r­e­fo­re I often use words to crea­te pic­tures. If you want to see some­thing as a spec­ta­tor, you have to build the image in your mind. This way the image does not exist mate­ria­li­sti­cal­ly and is not a docu­ment. I have the fee­ling that this vir­tu­al image is much stron­ger than put­ting a con­cre­te image on stage. The use of images in my works is very litt­le. I would­n’t say mini­mal but con­den­sed; I try to con­den­se images. For exam­p­le in “Who’s Afraid of Repre­sen­ta­ti­on?” the­re is an image when I am next to the screen at the table and Lina enters behind the screen and her pho­to, her image appears on the screen. This is a con­den­sed image in my view becau­se it tells a lot. Ano­ther exam­p­le is the sce­ne whe­re Lina lies on the flo­or; gets up and the image of her body on the flo­or remains as a trace on the screen. This expres­ses a lot and the­re is no need to make more effects, or to pro­du­ce more images.

Schau ins Blau: In your works you often use docu­men­ta­ry mate­ri­al like news­pa­per artic­les or pho­tos. What is the effect of this method of put­ting some ‘relicts of rea­li­ty’ into a per­for­mance that also plays with the rela­ti­onship bet­ween fic­tion and reality?

Rabih Mroué: This ques­ti­on is also rela­ted to the pro­duc­tion of images. Is it neces­sa­ry to pro­du­ce fic­tion­al sto­ries when we are for exam­p­le living in Leba­non? The­re are alre­a­dy a lot of sto­ries and docu­ments around us that need to be ques­tio­ned. I don’t mind working on a fic­tion­al sto­ry but at the moment working with docu­men­ta­ry mate­ri­al makes more sen­se to me. I think it’s a good way to make peo­p­le think about what they are doing in their dai­ly life. Espe­ci­al­ly how they deal with the media; how they get infor­ma­ti­on; whe­re they get infor­ma­ti­on from etc. I put pie­ces of “rea­li­ty” on stage and try to ana­ly­se and decon­s­truct them. “Loo­king for a miss­ing employee” is a good exam­p­le; in this pie­ce I just read out news­pa­per artic­les fol­lo­wing an inte­res­t­ing case about a miss­ing employee from the finan­ce minis­try. It is just an attempt to under­stand the cir­cum­s­tances that we are living in today.

Schau ins Blau: So, your rela­ti­onship to the media is very a cri­ti­cal one and you are ques­tio­ning the con­s­truc­tion of rea­li­ty in the media in your work?

Rabih Mroué: Yes, of cour­se. But it’s not an accu­sa­ti­on. I am not say­ing that the media always mis­leads its rea­ders and view­ers. On the con­tra­ry, I to try to under­stand how the mecha­nism works. I’m not say­ing that I am out­side of it and able to point the fin­ger on the media. We are part of this machi­ne — if we want to be or not. So it’s bet­ter to under­stand how this machi­ne works. If we dis­cuss and ana­ly­ze the mecha­nisms of the media then per­haps we can under­stand it much better.

Schau ins Blau: I think it is also a mat­ter of what one can say; what is allo­wed to be said. Did you make any expe­ri­en­ces with censorship?

Rabih Mroué: Yes I did. We always have pro­blems with cen­sor­ship in Leba­non. It’s the law that we have to app­ly for a per­mis­si­on to per­form. We have to hand in the script and they cen­sor what they think needs to be cen­so­red. But this is only the offi­ci­al cen­sor­ship; from my point of view the most dan­ge­rous thing is auto-cen­sor­ship. In 1989 my part­ner Lina Saneh and I deci­ded not to go through the cen­sor­ship any­mo­re. We star­ted to pre­sent our pie­ces just for two or three nights wit­hout per­mis­si­on but we dis­co­ver­ed that the offi­ci­al cen­sor­ship was not the main pro­blem. The big­gest pro­blem was how one could work on the self-cen­sor­ship in his own head. How one could cross his own norms and pre­ju­di­ces. How one could break the­se taboos and hid­den mecha­nisms of self-cen­sor­ship. I belie­ve that you can find cen­sor­ship ever­y­whe­re in the world, not only in Leba­non or the Arab world. It is just a mat­ter of dif­fe­rent forms and levels.

Schau ins Blau: I have a quo­te here from Peter Brook’s “The Emp­ty Space” whe­re he defi­nes his under­stan­ding of theat­re: “I can take any emp­ty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this emp­ty space while someone else is wat­ching him and this is all that is nee­ded for an act of theat­re to be enga­ged.” Would you agree on this defi­ni­ti­on of theatre?

Rabih Mroué: Yes, defi­ni­te­ly! Lina and I actual­ly used this defi­ni­ti­on in our per­for­mance “Biokhra­phia” to defend our view of theat­re. We are per­ma­nent­ly accu­sed by theat­re-makers who think our work is not theat­re any­mo­re. The­re is no acting in the clas­si­cal sen­se, for exam­p­le. We like to go back to the defi­ni­ti­on of theat­re and to rai­se this ques­ti­on again: what is theat­re? I like Brook’s defi­ni­ti­on becau­se it is so open. It is a very gene­rous defi­ni­ti­on. The­re is an emp­ty space and I can add some­thing. I can fill this space with wha­te­ver I want but at some point I have to lea­ve this space, lea­ve it emp­ty, for other peo­p­le to come and fill it again. One should­n’t inva­de this space for too long.

Schau ins Blau: You told me that in spring 2008 you were invi­ted to Japan to per­form but you could­n’t lea­ve Leba­non becau­se they had clo­sed down the air­port. What you did then was some­thing like an ‘Inter­net-live-per­for­mance’. You per­for­med in your living room in Bei­rut and it was broad­cas­ted via the Inter­net to the audi­ence in Japan. The set desi­gner of the per­for­mance, Samar Maa­karoun, was in Japan and pre­pared ever­y­thing nee­ded to make this broad­cast show pos­si­ble. This, I sup­po­se, ques­ti­ons the defi­ni­ti­on of theat­re as phy­si­cal co-pre­sence of actor and spec­ta­tor in one space, does­n’t it?

Rabih Mroué: The Inter­net makes things more com­pli­ca­ted, inde­ed. Having this in mind, Brook’s defi­ni­ti­on beco­mes more com­plex but is still valid. What is phy­si­cal pre­sence? In Japan we did this per­for­mance cal­led “Loo­king for a Miss­ing Employee” via sky­pe. I was in Bei­rut and my image was on the stage in Japan with the audi­ence wat­ching it. This was theat­re par excel­lence — even if my body was­n’t phy­si­cal­ly the­re on stage. Nor­mal­ly in “Loo­king for a Miss­ing Employee” I sit on the stage next to the audi­ence and my image is pro­jec­ted onto a screen han­ging on the stage. Alt­hough I am phy­si­cal­ly the­re and peo­p­le can see me, they would always look at the pro­jec­ted image. Phy­si­cal pre­sence in this case and in the case of the per­for­mance in Japan is con­nec­ted to the know­ledge of the audi­ence that the actor is some­whe­re pre­sent. I think they need to know that I am pre­sent at the same time they are pre­sent. It the­r­e­fo­re has to be a live-broad­cast to be still accept­ed as theat­re. The audi­ence has to be con­vin­ced of the per­for­mer acting at the same time they are wat­ching his actions. Other­wi­se it would­n’t be theat­re any more but a film screening.

Schau ins Blau: What is the situa­ti­on for artists in Leba­non like at the moment? Are the­re any public struc­tures that they can rely on or is it more a free sce­ne with its own rules?

Rabih Mroué: Yes, it’s a free sce­ne. We don’t have any fun­ding or finan­cial sup­port from the govern­ment or the cul­tu­ral minis­try. From time to time they have a small bud­get but this is most­ly spent on the big com­mer­cial and tou­ris­ty arts and music fes­ti­vals try­ing to crea­te a good image of Leba­non. I mean Leba­non is a coun­try that has other prio­ri­ties than arts to pay for. It has been suf­fe­ring from civil wars. We had a big war in 2006 whe­re the Israe­li army des­troy­ed a lot of the civi­li­an infra­struc­tu­re in Leba­non; now they have to rebuild ever­y­thing. So cul­tu­re is always among the last points on the to-do-list which is okay in a way. We are not com­plai­ning, we are just deal­ing with this situation.

Schau ins Blau: Thank you very much for this talk, Rabih!


Rabih Mroué was born in Bei­rut in 1967. He is an actor, direc­tor, and play­w­right, and a TDR Con­tri­bu­ting Edi­tor. His plays, per­for­man­ces, and vide­os ques­ti­on the defi­ni­ti­ons of theat­re and the rela­ti­onship bet­ween the space and form of the per­for­mance and, con­se­quent­ly, ques­ti­on how the per­for­mer rela­tes with the audi­ence. His works deal with the issues that have been swept under the table in the cur­rent poli­ti­cal cli­ma­te of Leba­non. He draws much-nee­ded atten­ti­on to the broa­der poli­ti­cal and eco­no­mic con­texts by means of a semi­do­cu­men­ta­ry theatre.