While the interview with the artist in this In Focus project detailed the cultural and political scene that contributed to Mroué’s development as an artist working at the interstices of video and performance, the main purpose of this June 2013 interview was to explore the primarily theoretical issues or problems that are raised by On Three Posters. Foremost in this regard was the question of what effect video has had in destabilising notions of real, immediate, physical presence. In other words, how do electronic media function to strip the individual standing before the camera of an inner identity or ‘soul,’ and what implications does this have for contemporary forms of theatre which seek to make use of visual technologies that replicate or stand in for real bodies? This interview thus provides a link between the politics of death and videography in On Three Posters – in which Mroué insists in ‘The Politician’ section that the overexposure of Attallah’s image is equivalent to ‘killing him with the camera’ – to the lifeless repetition of images in contemporary technologies of digital reproduction.
The interview moves from a discussion of video martyrdom to explore a larger set of questions concerning the paradoxical role of digital media in contemporary religious movements – similar questions to those that Mroué poses in the final section of On Three Posters when he concludes that Islamic fundamentalist propaganda leaves little possibility (in the minds of believers and non-believers alike) for debating the role of suicide missions. This encompasses not only tele-evangalism and the films produced by fundamentalist Christian groups in the United States but more recently the online distribution of videos by Jihadist groups such as as-Sahab, the media production house of al-Qaeda.
The critic and theorist Boris Groys argues that one reason fundamentalist religious movements have become so successful over recent years is that they are able to combine archaic ritual with the most advanced technologies of image reproduction and distribution. He draws a very suggestive link between the fundamentalist adherence to literal or ‘empty’ ritual devoid of spiritual meaning, and video technology, which, in its literal repetition of the past, offers the promise of immortality ‘after the death of spirit’.1 Yet this has led to a paradoxical situation in which contemporary Islamic groups forbid the production of images while permitting the reproduction of already existing images made possible by photography or video. Thus, while fundamentalist Islam might be described as anti-modern Groys argues that its recycling of digital images inclines us to see it as ‘post-modern’ religion.2
Chad Elias: In place of conventional theatre, which is rooted in the live presence of the actor’s body, Rabih Mroué’s multimedia performances function to systematically undermine the ontological fixity given to notions of live presence and direct embodiment. In much of his performances the body appears less as a physical entity than as a ghostly image transmitted through closed-circuit television transmissions and looped video projections. This was the case with Three Posters. Here Mroué revisited a 1985 video testimony by a Lebanese communist resistance fighter, Jamal al-Sati, delivered shortly before he carried out a suicide attack on the Israeli army during its occupation of south Lebanon. On stage al-Sati’s testimony is preceded by another video in which Mroué appears in the guise of a fictitious martyr, Khaled Rahhal, delivering a posthumous message. When a door opened on stage to reveal the artist seated in front of a camera, the audience realised that what they had just witnessed on video was not ‘a moment in the past’, but a live performance presented digitally. This uncanny doubling of the past casts doubt on the ontological weight accorded to the original martyr video as an indubitable document of death. What do you take to be the ultimate effect of Mroué’s doubling of al-Sati’s video?
Boris Groys: To answer this question I would like to turn to a relatively short text by the German cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer called ‘Photography’. It was written in 1927 and although it is not well known it describes photography’s effect quite precisely.3 Importantly, what Kracauer says about photography can also be said about videography. For example, Kracauer considers a private photograph of his grandmother, a photograph of sentimental value, and observes that it does not bring back memories of his grandmother as it should, but blocks them. His grandmother as a person – her individuality, her inner being – is not disclosed by the photograph, but instead only her outward appearance is visible, which, however, through her then-fashionable clothes and make-up, seems impersonal and de-individualised. In the article Kracauer wrote:
We are contained in nothing and photography assembles fragments around a nothing. When Grandmother stood in front of the lens she was present for one second in the spatial continuum that presented itself to the lens. But it was this aspect and not the grandmother that was eternalised …it is not the person who appears in his or her photograph, but the sum of what can be deducted from him or her. It annihilates the person by portraying him or her, and were person and portrayal to converge, the person would cease to exist.4
According to Kracauer, every photograph is merely a general inventory of diverse fragments or details that lacks an inner unity. Such a unity can only arise at the level of meaning, and yet meaning cannot be photographed because it is invisible and needs interpretation to be made manifest. For Kracauer, then, photography is merely a garbage can, a phantom, a sign of death: instead of vanquishing death, photography kills, for it captures only the body, the corpse, and negates the soul.
If, as Kracauer describes, there is a central void around which the photographic or video image is built, then every subjectivity, every person, can enter this void and fill it. It seems to me that Mroué does precisely this: he demonstrates that the void in the centre of the filmic image can be entered, potentially by everyone. But he also provokes the viewer to ask how comfortable or uncomfortable Mroué feels himself inside the image.
Chad Elias: In On Three Posters, the video that he made about his performance, Mroué explicitly draws attention to the hesitations that mark al-Sati’s speech in his video testimony. For the artist, they are not merely the signs of an amateur actor striving to create the most ideal image of himself before his imminent death. What they point to instead is al-Sati’s desire ‘both to defer death and to withdraw from life’. In the period spanning the recording of the video and its broadcast on television al-Sati can be said to occupy a liminal space ‘between two deaths’, that is, between his symbolic death on video and his actual death. This non-place between life and death resonates with your description of religion in the age of mechanical reproduction: ‘true religious experience is actually the experience of death rather than the experience of life – the experience of death in the midst of life. Hence, precisely because mechanical reproduction may be understood as the lifeless repetition of the dead image, it can also be interpreted as a source of the truly religious experience.’5 Would you agree?
Boris Groys: In his book Difference and Repetition (1968) French philosopher Gilles Deleuze wrote that literal repetition is radically artificial and, in this sense, is in conflict with everything natural, living, changing and developing, including natural law and moral law. Hence, performing literal repetition can be seen as initiating a rupture in the continuity of life. Thus, literal repetition may be seen as a way toward personal self-sacralisation and immortality – immortality of the subject ready to submit himself or herself to such a repetition. It is no accident that the working class performed the repetitive, alienated – one might say ‘ritualised’ – work in the context of modern industrial civilisation, sacralised, in certain ways, by the socialist movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By contrast, an intellectual or an artist – as embodiments of the creative spirit of change – remained profane precisely because of their inability to repeat and to reproduce. In 1882 the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had already referred to literal repetition – the eternal return of the same – as the only possible way to think about immortality after the death of spirit, of God.6 In this way the difference between the repetitiveness of religious ritual and the literal reproduction of the world of appearances disappears. One might say that religious ritual provided a paradigm for mechanical reproduction that dominated Western culture during the modern period, and which, to a certain degree, continues to dominate the contemporary world. What this suggests is that mechanical reproduction might, in its turn, be understood as a religious ritual. It is for this reason that fundamentalist religious movements have become so successful in our time, for they combine religious ritual with mechanical reproduction.
For Walter Benjamin – the German philosopher whose influential essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ was published in 1936 – mechanical reproduction connotes the loss of aura, the loss of religious experience, which he understood as the experience of uniqueness. He described religious experience as a unique spiritual experience. In this respect the experience of being enchanted by an Italian landscape (the experience of happiness, of fullness and the intensity of life), which is the example Benjamin gives of an authentic experience that cannot be reproduced, is particularly characteristic. But it could be argued that true religious experience is actually the experience of death rather than life; the experience of death in the midst of life. Hence why mechanical reproduction, which may be understood as the lifeless repetition of the dead image, can also be interpreted as a source of truly religious experience. In fact, it is precisely the loss of aura that represents the most radical religious experience under the conditions of modernity, since it is in this way that a human being discovers the mechanical, machine-like, repetitive and reproductive, one might even say dead aspect of his own existence.
Chad Elias: Unlike the person who dies and leaves this world forever, in Islamic theology the martyr is one who gives up their life in order to come back to the world of the living, to fight, and become a fallen martyr again. In his 2009 performance The Inhabitants of Images Mroué quotes the alleged words of the Prophet Mohammed as evidence of this belief: ‘No one enters Paradise and likes to come back to the world of the Living, except for the Martyr. For he wishes to return, and be killed ten times more.’7 This notion of martyrdom seems to resonate with your remarks about the return of religion as a central reference point in contemporary culture and politics. You note that religious movements, which are especially active today are predominantly fundamentalist movements maintaining a superficial adherence to laws rather than an inner, spiritual fidelity to the essence of a religious message. In this regard you draw a very suggestive link between the fundamentalist adherence to literal or ‘empty’ ritual devoid of spiritual meaning, and video technology, which in its literal reproduction of the past offers the promise of immortality after the death of spirit. Do you see Mroué’s foregrounding of video technology in Three Posters as an attempt to unravel this apparent contradiction between anti-modern religion and modern media?
Boris Groys: Already in the mid-1930s the philosopher Alexandre Kojève described the process of writing and, then, art-making as a prolonged form of suicide.8 Authors and artists sacrifice a part of their life to create a text, an artwork or a film that will survive them. When we speak about the survival of art after the end of the life of its creator we mostly think about a period of time after the author’s or artist’s death. But in fact artworks and documents of performances survive their creators at the moment at which they are produced. Indeed, for the public that sees these works of art or documents the artist is presumed to be dead. When we go to a library or video store we treat the works of living and dead authors in the same way: they are all dead for us. They are all out of our reach, not a part of our world, or rather, a part of the world of dead letters and spectral images. I think this is what somebody preparing a suicide operation is confronted with, consciously or unconsciously. The production of their video testimony is already a form of symbolic suicide, and the real suicide when it takes place is actually a repetition of this symbolic suicide. The subject of the suicide is seen looking in a mirror where they see their after-life repeating itself in front of their eyes.
Here one must say that texts, images and videos that emerge as by-products of symbolic suicides embody a vampiric mode of existence. They suck the living time and energy of their audience and bring it closer to death.
Chad Elias: In Lebanon suicide missions were not solely undertaken for religious reasons but became a strategy of military resistance pioneered by the secular Left. In the 1970s and early 1980s non-sectarian groups such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and the Lebanese Communist Party successfully mounted what they called ‘martyrdom operations’ against Israeli targets in southern Lebanon. With this mind can we read Mroué’s fictitious testimony in Three Posters as a parodic restaging of televised martydom, or does the artist’s performance aim at something more ambiguous? Rather than taking a safe critical distance from al-Sati’s words perhaps we can see Mroué’s re-enactment as a non-ironic doubling of them even as it questions notions of authenticity and sincerity. In his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ Walter Benjamin described this re-appearance of a past, ‘blasted out of the continuity of history’, as a potentially revolutionary act. In light of this claim, can we see Mroué’s re-iteration of the communist past as a literal repetition that functions as a critique of the religious present? What would it mean to return to the legacy of defeated communist projects at this moment in time?
Boris Groys: First, I do not believe that the communist project is defeated. Communism is another name for globalisation. Not the globalisation from above as is the case now but the globalisation from below. The Marxist project of the Communist International was a response to the first wave of capitalist globalisation that took place in the nineteenth century. It was the only right answer at that time, and it remains the only right answer in our time. The religious movements that have surfaced in recent decades have the same universalist, global claim. Islam is universalist as well as Christianity. However, even if these religions are programmatically universalist they are also too deeply rooted in particular cultures in which, historically, they became territorialised. Thus, the existing religions remain too particular to be able to offer an alternative to neo-liberal globalisation. Only if a new religion emerges that is genuinely universalist would one then be obliged to say that the secular communist project has competition. But in that such a world religion does not exist the communist project remains undefeated. It is still the only alternative to the global status quo.
Chad Elias: In The Inhabitants of Images Mroué examines how Hezbollah’s image of martyrdom correlates with a religiously oriented politics of death that today operates by means of digital reproduction. Looking closely at the Hezbollah billboards that appeared just after the July War with Israel, Mroué notes that not only are the uniforms identical in each image but so are the bodies supporting them.9 The head of each martyr has been cut and pasted on to the same digital body using Photoshop. Mroué drew a fascinating link between the digital decapitation of the mujahideen’s [fighters’] heads in the posters and a foundational event in Shiite collective memory: the original martyrdom of the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson Hussein Ibn Ali in the battle of Karbala. Shiite rituals of remembrance, developed around the annual Day of Ashura, focus on the violent nature of his death. The primary observances on Ashura consist of public expressions of mourning and self-mutilation that symbolically emulate and internalise Hussein’s beheading. In these rituals Hussein’s suffering is taken to be a source of both deeply-rooted guilt and salvation. Mroué sees the same structure of ‘reverse identification’ at work in the posters.10 However, whereas the rituals re-enact the violence inflicted on the martyr in order to atone for it, in the images the violence of martyrdom is effaced through a digital sleight of hand. Mroué has written:
I perceive it as a very violent, sadistic act, the fact that someone would willingly cut and mutilate the picture of a dead person, even with good intentions. There is a halo around pictures of the dead. And I don’t really believe that the designers of Hezbollah are art critics, because the posters do not reveal the manipulation. In fact they have tried their best to hide the tricks they’ve used, in order to make us believe that these are original pictures.11
For Mroué, then, these martyr posters subject the body to a double violence: the brutality of the mujahid’s physical death is re-inscribed by the symbolic violence of the cropped image. The media department of Hezbollah exploits the fact that ‘digital images have the propensity to generate, to multiply, and to distribute themselves almost anonymously through the seemingly open fields of contemporary communication’.12 One form that critical art practices may be obliged to take in the face of images that seem to be more and more mobile, anonymous and disembodied, is a renewed emphasis on the distinction between physical bodies and the technologies used to duplicate them. This would require insisting on image production as a material field of conflicting concrete operations. I was wondering where you stand on this issue?
Boris Groys: The images of terror and counter-terror that circulate in the networks of contemporary media and have become almost inescapable produce the universally valid images of the political sublime. The notion of the sublime, despite its association with Immanuel Kant’s reflections on Swiss mountains and sea tempests, originated in Edmund Burke’s 1757 ‘philosophical enquiry’ into ‘the sublime and beautiful’. The examples that Burke used to describe the sublime included the public exhibition of beheadings and acts of torture common before the Enlightenment. (It should not be forgotten that the Enlightenment itself precipitated from the public mass beheadings in the centre of revolutionary Paris: in his 1807 treatise The Phenomenology of Spirit the Enlightenment philosopher G.W.F. Hegel wrote about how these public exhibitions demonstrated equality among men because they made it clear that no one could claim that his or her death had any higher meaning.) During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the massive depoliticisation of the sublime took place. Now we are experiencing the return of the political sublime, or the repoliticisation of the sublime. Contemporary politics does not represent itself as beautiful any more, as the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century did. Instead contemporary politics represents itself as sublime: ugly, repelling, unbearable, terrifying.
The point that Burke originally tried to make was this: an image of violence that is terrifying is still only an image. Images of terror are produced, staged, and thus can be analysed aesthetically. Their modes of representation can be critiqued. This kind of art criticism can be a theoretical one. Or the means with which to critique can be provided by art itself. For me Mroué’s art is important because it provides a critique of representation by means of art. Mroué permanently draws analogies between physical, real events involving extreme cruelty that attempt to generate strong images, and the purely formal operations of pictorial signifiers. The viewer is thus attentive to the artificial, designed aspect of what is allegedly real. This insight into the artificial, ideologised character of the images of ‘reality’ immunises the viewer from their direct, unmediated impact.