F.I.N.D. #14
Art Starts When You Betray Yourself : 33 RPM and a Few Seconds

by Joseph Pearson

6 April 2014

Can the death of an individual trigger a revolution? Are social media a force for positive change? What is the role of the artist in politics? These weighty questions of public concern are set in the challenging context of today’s Lebanon, in the production 33 RPM and a Few Seconds. The husband and wife director team, Rabih Mroué and Lina Saneh, are excellent interlocutors. While they are unlikely to provide you with answers (they like to ask questions), they might help you along with your own responses.

Having met as students, the couple is based in Beirut, but tour internationally, working between theatre, installation and visual art. They are often found in Berlin, for fellowships at the Freie Universität, and now for the upcoming FIND Festival at the Schaubühne in early April. At dOCUMENTA 13 in Kassel, Mroué’s flipbooks about the war in Syria, superimposed over ink pads, literally got your hands dirty. 33 RPM will soon go to the PEN World Voices Festival in New York. Lebanon, however, remains the focus of their recent work: ripped apart by civil war and sewn back together, in a complicated manner, with delicate thread – an uneasy confrontation between confessions and militarized groups, increasingly destabilized by the war in Syria. To understand Lebanon, you might look at a young activist, »Diyaa Yamout«, whose 2012 suicide was a political earthquake.

A »Personal« Suicide that was Political

33 RPM examines Yamout’s death and the enormous repercussions for Lebanese political life. Rabih Mroué does not want me to give away the actual name of the activist leader who committed suicide (theatre after all is a mirror, not our reality): but this is based on a real story. Yamout created the conditions, to the worry of the Lebanese authorities, for an uprising that ultimately never occurred. What is most important is his role as a mentor for young militants. This made him a powerful influence, and his death a tremendous shock.

»He was a leader figure, militating for civil rights, citizen’s rights, women’s rights, gay rights«, says Lina Saneh. »His death was a shock not just for his friends, and everyone, but mainly for this group of activists and militants in Lebanon. In general, when someone is a militant, it means he believes in something, that we can do something. And if he commits suicide, it means it has no meaning and he has no hope.«

The suicide note left by Yamout perhaps anticipated the fallout among activist communities. He said his motives were »personal« and not at all political. Mroué recounts Yamout’s Sophoclean view, »He said: my suicide is something I prepared for a long time, because I think that ultimate freedom, and I am someone looking for freedom, is to escape from this big prison which is called life.« The production cultivates the ambiguity between the political and personal intentions of his act, and even questions just how political the content of the play itself might be.

This Play is not Politics

Saneh says, »Theatre is political and cannot help but be political.« And yet, Mroué says, »I always tell people: if you think that you will get any information about Lebanon or Beirut from this piece, you are wrong. No, it is about me, Rabih, it’s about Lina, and what we experienced, and about sharing that experience.« You may think they are talking at cross-purposes. Is this piece political or is it not? I want to know: »Why set this play then in Lebanon?« Mroué replies that it’s important that the themes they discuss are rooted in a particular milieu: »I don’t believe in generalising. This is a piece about love. When you talk about love in general, it doesn’t mean anything to me. But when you speak to me about a specific love that you experienced with a particular person, and the complications related to your love, and then you connect this to my love, then it makes sense.«

In this way, I see a certain synthesis: that the location needs to be highly specific in order to communicate the grit of content. In this case, that place is Lebanon. But I’m not quite satisfied yet, and want to know how a play, set in Lebanon, can avoid being about politics. I ask: »Should artists concern themselves with politics? Is there an obligation in Beirut? Or are you thinking that the entry of politics into art risks making art into propaganda?« Rabih Mroué is tall and has a shaggy mane of curly hair. He considers over his Fritz Cola, and replies as follows. What he says is involved, so it’s best to quote at length:

»Each artwork is political, whatever you do. On one side, we need to differentiate between politics and the political. On the other, we should be aware that every work could be appropriated and used by ideological discourses. So whatever you do, even if you do art for the sake of art, the artist should be aware on which ground he’s standing and who could use his work. No one is innocent if he or she is outside of politics, and we have to be aware of that whatever we do. I would also, however, like to differentiate between the artist’s life and the artist’s work. For me, when an artist is highly engaged with politics, that is fine. When he or she is an activist, fighter, whatever, it is his or her business. But… art for me, as I understand it, is sharing, is doubts, is where you put your uncertainty. You put questions in it. If you have answers, you are not doing art. You are doing ideology. You are teaching or leading, and you become a politician. If you are an artist, you add your doubt. Normally, if you are honest, these doubts start with yourself. Art starts when you betray yourself, your thoughts and beliefs. And when you want to be provocative, it is very easy to provoke people. But it is not easy to provoke yourself as an artist. This is what artists should do: to provoke themselves first-hand, not their audience. This is how I understand politics and art.«

Yamout was a politician, and 33 RPM might not be politics, but it is, no doubt, political. I appreciate his careful distinction. The suicide had, and this theatre piece will have I imagine (in a very different manner), an important actual political ripple effect both among political powers and in online media.

The Role of New Media

Many of us have had the experience of someone we know passing away, but his or her Facebook profile remaining. The constant reminder can be upsetting, but there is also the lease-on-life side, the »afterlife«, the way in which the force of the personality continues to exist in the world, and creates discussion and reactions.

Lina Saneh describes: »This suicide raised a lot of troubles in Lebanon, a lot of questions, not just for the young people involved, but also inside the very strong confessional and traditional powers existing in Lebanon, from extreme right to extreme left, extreme Christian to extreme Islamic. Everyone was afraid of this. It’s dangerous. How will a suicide of this kind create a new revolution in Lebanon? How to exorcise this possibility, this threat, in our country, while others wanted to use this death to make a revolution?« The suicide, a loss of hope, occurred during a moment of hope, as the Arab Spring was perceived then. It also precipitated a waterfall of internet discussion: much of it anonymous and characterized by a lack of restraint. As an agora for public discussion, the consequences of internet exchange, of social media, are still not entirely understood, and provide a virtual foil to the visceral body of the protestor, which, in the case of Yamout, has disappeared from the scene. »His suicide raised of lot of discussion«, says Saneh, »which is also the question of this performance – those political discussions … a lot was written on Facebook, on blogs, on internet sites, etc. People commit suicide, so why in this case such a problem? Because of the Arab revolutions, but also probably because of the new social networks opening new possibilities and nobody is sure about their advantages or disadvantages, the risks.«

The Afterlife on the Empty Stage

How then should the stage take up an absence that nonetheless makes its presence felt? Rabih Mroué tells me, »The stage choices indicate the concern with the afterlife of the protestor. We wanted to deal with the physical presence on stage, so we thought let’s try to do this piece without actors at all. This was not an easy decision for both of us, since both of us are actors. We thought at the beginning, let’s at least be present on stage as technicians. But then we thought, why, it is a compromise.« Indeed, there are no actors on stage for the entire performance, instead the audience begins to piece together the protagonist’s life through the media that have been left behind, and ghostlike, continue to operate. I tell Rabih that I understand much better now: the importance of this suicide, the relationship to the specificity of the Lebanese experience, why the piece is political, but not doing politics, and the uncanny unpredictable role of social media. But I don’t understand yet why a play with no actors should be on stage.

»Isn’t this an installation?« I press him.

Rabih is very charming, and laughs like he’s heard this question before. He says, »It is something we have had to defend and insist upon, that this is a theatre work, and not just an installation. If it’s an installation, then we can do it in a gallery or a museum or an art center. But it needs to be done in a theatre because it needs a theatre-going audience, and our questions are on the history of theatre. It is questioning theatre, not the visual arts – let’s say, the tableau, or the painting – but rather the theatre form. Although we had a lot of invitations to do it in arts centers and museums, we always refuse, because this is a theatre piece.«

For what is a greater challenge to the audience – or for the director – than to present a play without actors. Or, rather, a play where the only actor is a ghost, whose voice, through the uncanny afterlife of technology, we still hear. 

33 RPM and a few Seconds

Guest Production from the Lebanon
by Rabih Mroué and Lina Saneh

Premiered on 4 April 2014