Reconstructing Fragments: Rabih Mroué on Riding on a Cloud Jan 26, 2016
Belgian curator (and former Walker Film/Video curator) Cis Bierinckx, Rabih Mroué discusses the relationship of Riding on a Cloud to previous works—including The Pixelated Revolution, a Walker commission—as well as to notions of fact, fiction, absence, biography, and language at the Walker website.
Cis Bierinckx: Let’s start by talking about “double shooting,” a term you’ve used in relation to some of your video works—the idea of shooting, with a gun, and shooting a film. Can you explain this?
Rabih Mroué: Yes. I first addressed “double shooting” in The Pixilated Revolution, which I presented at Walker Art Center in 2011. It’s a work that was inspired by smartphone videos from protestors at the beginning of the revolution in Syria. They were filming, and in their camera they saw one of the snipers aiming at them, a thug of the regime, and this person watched them back. This eye contact, you can see it because the killer who has the gun in his hand is looking directly into the lens. So, when we watch these videos, it actually appears as if there is eye contact with us as spectators.
Bierinckx: You presented The Pixelated Revolution together with Looking for a Missing Employee at the Walker, right?
Bierinckx: Talking about missing people, the absence of people is also a recurring issue in your work. In 33 RPM, for instance, there is no person on stage. There are only machines. This absence of people, what does it mean in the frame of your work?
Mroué: Absence has been a major topic in my work for many years, maybe because I do theater and theater is about absence. For example, when someone’s playing Hamlet, then the real Hamlet is absent and the actor is trying to replace him. So, there is always this absence—the real persona of the actor putting himself forward as Hamlet when Hamlet is absent. There’s also a very strong history—the modern history of Lebanon—in which 17,000 people, almost, disappeared during the civil war [1975–1990]. Even today nobody knows where they are. Nobody knows if there are corpses or not, so they are just disappeared, and we live with this denial of these 17,000 persons.
So for me, everything is about absence. I think absence is very strong, because it has this promise that something is coming, or coming back. The absence is not dead. The absence is someone or something that is liable to appear—something in a state of latency. (My friends Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, both artists I’ve collaborated with, wrote about latency recently in an inspiring text. Indeed, it is a topic that a lot of Lebanese writers and artists have considered—obviously, because of the violent history in Lebanon.) Latency can occur at any moment and unexpectedly surprise you, but maybe it will never show up at all. But the interesting thing with absence is that the absentee is in this state, the state of being here, but we cannot see it. It’s in a state of in-between-ness, between dead and alive. When a person is in this state, we never know when he or she will appear. We cannot declare death because if we do then the absent is no longer absent because he or she is dead. Or, if we declare the thing that we lost is lost and we replace it with a new one and we forget about the last one, we metaphorically kill the idea of waiting for something to come back.
Bierinckx: I was just talking with Sanja Mitrovich—I don’t know if you know her work, but she is from Belgrade—about this piece she’s making about staying or leaving. She left when the conflict started there, and she is still in conflict. I know there is always this discussion in intellectual circles: if you really want to do something you should stay, even if your country is in conflict. What’s your opinion about this kind of staying and leaving? Because I know you still spend a lot of time in both countries, in Germany and in Lebanon.
Mroué: For more than two years now, I’ve lived in Berlin, but this isn’t the result of—
Mroué: Yes. It’s not like we have an urgency state in Lebanon or a war that made me leave the country. I left because I got a fellowship at Freie University, and I stayed here, although I still visit Beirut. But coming back to the artist you mentioned, Sanja: I think art needs motivation. Artists need motivation. They need material. But when it’s time to produce artworks, I think we need peacetime. I think to produce during wartime, it’s not impossible, but it’s so difficult. I experienced this during the war. During war there’s a kind of urgency state where you look for the basics of life, and then art becomes a luxury. Other things become luxuries, too, like reading, for example. Like contemplating. Like writing. Whatever. Because you need to live. You need to run to find your food, water, fuel, gas. In war, there are very difficult conditions to live, and people fight in order to survive. So, in this sense, the war and the warlords are stealing this time from us, this time that makes us human beings. And by “human beings,” I mean having the time where we’re able to rest, to think, to write, to contemplate, to be different and distinguished from animals in our total definition.