Rabih Mroué in conversation with Göksu Kunak at Ibraaz Jan 25, 2016
Artist Rabih Mroué in conversation with Berlin-based writer Göksu Kunak at Ibraaz, the leading critical forum on visual culture in North Africa and the Middle East.
Göksu Kunak: In 2009, I saw your lecture performance – or in your own words 'non-academic lecture' – The Inhabitants of Images in Istanbul. Through a selection of photographic images of deceased figures such as a poster of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Rafik Hariri standing together in a garden, you analysed the capacity images have to manipulate our feelings when it comes to our personal and collective memories. In Turkey, history is being rewritten by the demolishing of buildings and squares – even Emek Sineması, where I watchedThe Inhabitants of Images, was demolished to build a shopping mall. In this erasure memories are lost. As far as I know the same situation is happening in Beirut, too. What do you think about methods of erasing or re(writing) a (hi)story: the tendency to pretend as if things never happened or, on the contrary, assuming they did?
Rabih Mroué: It is a broad subject but I'll try to tell you my opinion in a simple way. When I think about memory, whether it is personal or collective and whether it is written in a history book or preserved in an archive, I perceive it as a very violent act because of always being selective. The selection of certain events and the eliminating of others could be done intentionally or unintentionally, could be for ideological or political purposes and could be for personal, psychological or sociological reasons and so on. Although some people try to, remembering every instant is impossible. When we recall a certain event, images and moments come back into our minds and when we try to narrate them we try to fill the gaps in-between. In that way, the fiction starts to interfere and becomes part of our narrative – even unconsciously. If there were three people on the same spot, who have all witnessed the same event and each were to tell you what really happened, each one of them would tell it differently because each one would relate to it differently. This is also how historians work – they focus on certain events and desert others and therefore a selection occurs. The question is how to decide what is important and what is not? Do we have the right to choose? My answer would be yes; people, whether they are historians or not, all have the right to do so but we should be aware that this choice would only be his or her version – their personal point of view. No one could be merely objective.
Someone should choose and decide in a collective manner on what we should remember and what should we forget. It is always a power relation between the different authorities and a violent struggle between remembering and forgetting. As an example, when you are with your parents you can't tell them everything you remember. You would hide little details or incidents and they would do the same as well. And in some situations parents might get angry or sad because their son or daughter still remembers an unpleasant incident. In this sense memories are uncontrollable and bring surprises – most of the time they come brutally.
In my work I always try to avoid accusations. For example, you described the manipulation of images in The Inhabitant of Images and this was not my point at all. Because, for me, it is very easy to say that these images are photomontage – end of discussion. In this non-academic lecture, I proposed to go beyond the fact that they are photomontages and believe that they are true. The person behind this image wants us to believe that it is not a fabricated one. Actually, it is made in order to transmit a message or an idea.
This is why I proposed to believe the image and try to analyse the socio-economical and political discourse behind it. For me, the interesting point is not to reveal the fakeness or to make accusations but rather to make the effort to read what is between and under the lines. In this sense what is being hidden gains significance. The main point is not to legitimize this point of view but to accept it as one among many other different ones. In this manner there should be many versions of the same event as well as several history books. By analysing the differences one can understand the political and social discourse they are implying. It makes one realize that history is not fixed but is a continuous conflict. One should try to collect as much as possible to broaden their perspective and comprehend history from various angles.
GK: Bergson claims that, 'The pure present is an ungraspable advance of the past devouring the future. In truth all sensation is already memory.' How do you perceive the past, present and future?
RM: I totally agree. For me, the present is something that one can never grasp. It slips from our hands. When I say 'now', this 'now' has instantly become part of the past; the moment I utter it, it's already dead. Actually, the only way to talk about the present is through representation. That's why live performances (theatre, dance, music and so on) are different from films and videos. It is always said that in theatre the action is happening here and now, indicating that it belongs to the present time and it can never happen again in the same way. Of course one can argue with this. But in any case, what does here mean, especially today with new technologies, when we can be here and there at the same time?