UGL: Rabih Mroué, in your Documenta(13) installation you investigate about videos of civil victims of the current uprising in Syria. You made flipbooks from these youtube videos and put underneath an ink pad. Why did you do that?
RM: First, I wanted to get the people more engaged in what they are watching. The other reason is that nobody has clean hands. So, we all have dirty hands in a way or another, who ever we are and wherever we live.
I took a very good ink. It remains for a while at the visitor’s fingers. I wanted this subject to leave traces at them, in order to think more about the issue of the installation.
UGL: Currently, there is in many shows a big focus on Arab Spring or Arab Freedom Movement. What do you think about it from an artistic point of view?
RM: I had the chance to see only some art that is related to Arab Spring. However, not much did really convince me from an artistic point of view. These works are often describing and documenting the situation. I miss works that pose questions, or proposes ideas, or leave doubts. For me, an artist always should be skeptical and should express doubts to mainstream thinking. I think this kind of works does not exist yet.
UGL: When you think of the start of the Arab Spring with the self-immolation of the Tunisian fruit dealer Mohammed Buazizi in December 2010, what would you say is the root cause for this revolution?
RM: The basic motivation of the people to revolt was the lack freedom of expression, not to have their basic civil rights, not being able to satisfy their daily needs. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and of course also in Syria the people are not treated as citizens in a democratic sense. I think this is what makes the Arab Spring important. I am still optimistic about it, because it was the citizens, who decided to start this movement spontaneously without any real planning. There was no specific ideology or leader.
UGL: Don’t you think this is part of the problem, in for instants Libya, after the turnaround? There is no leader?
RM: Yes, of course, but it says also there is a real need for a change. Years ago, in these countries all revolutions or revolts had been led by someone from the army or some other institution trying to take over the regime. Here it were the citizens who wanted to execute their basic rights. And because of the lack of leadership there is also a danger somebody appropriates or manipulates the revolution in his favor.
It is important to recognize that the people of this revolution broke the wall of fear that was around them for decades. Whoever will come around and try to manipulate these people will have to deal with the fact that he cannot fund his power on fear anymore. When you look at Syria, Egypt or Tunisia, you see people who are not afraid anymore of secret service, army, police, prison, torture or death. For instants in Damascus, Syria, there are people shot and killed every day, but on the next day they insist on going again to demonstrations to fight against this regime.
UGL: How do you think things will develop in Syria?
RM: I am not a politician, I don’t know if I am allowed to predict what will come. Obviously, there is a huge risk that this conflict can spread out in the greater region. In any case, I hope Syria will not enter a longtime civil war, which could very easily happen. Unfortunately, I think a civil war also would be the only way for the Baath / Assad regime to survive. In this case, they will lose power in some parts but stay in power in other parts of Syria. I have the impression, the regime tries to mobilize the various groups of the population to fight each other. Then, they could say, it would be better, if they were ruling again. This is a very naïve scenario, but unfortunately, it could work for the regime.
UGL: What are your chances to influence this process as an artist?
RM: Of course, when I create a work of art, I don’t expect to change anything. For me art can basically open a platform for debate, or ask questions about everything. So, what I expect is that my installation makes people talk and reflect. In this sense, I am not at all an activist or promoting any specific political concept. I think activism is very good, but not in arts. For me, a lot of bad art had been done by political activists (in a very narrow definition).
UGL: What was your idea behind using the Syrian youtube videos in your installation?
RM: As we talked about the situation in Syria, there were only two different sources: Official regime TV and the internet, where the protestors had been uploading their videos. If you want to follow seriously, what is happening, you have to go to both sources. What struck me was a video, where you see a (cell phone) cameraman filming a regime soldier with a gun, and then, suddenly, this person fires his gun at the cameraman and the camera falls and the video ends. After I found this first video, I found many more videos like that in the internet. I was shocked.
It is like a war against the camera, or against the image. The installation is about these videos mainly: I started to deconstruct the videos. I separated the sound from the images. I made large prints of the shooters. I made small-scale flipbooks from the videos. This way, the visitors have to try to reconstruct the quick internet video in their heads. My deconstruction is a kind of obstacle in order to find out, what is really happening there. But we don't know what is really happening there.
I like the sentence by Marguerite Duras in ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ when the protagonist says to the French journalist, ‘You have seen nothing in Hiroshima!’ I also wanted to demonstrate to the viewers it is impossible to reconstruct all these layers of reality and really know what is going on. In the end you have the ink on your fingers and you are engaged as well.
UGL: In your installation’s lecture you talk about the possibility that the cameramen don’t realize the danger, in which they are in.
RM: I think there are two reasons for this. One reason is when you watch through the finder of a cell phone camera, there is a minor delay. This delay also makes the cameraman run away from the sniper’s shot too late. The other reason is the fact that you see the danger through a mediator, a cell phone. If you point a finger in someone’s eye, he will immediately move away. If you point a finger at the lens of a cell phone camera, nothing will happen. The cameraman does’t realize that the shot is fired at him, but at the camera. He also might know this from some shooter viedo game, but, unfortunately, this is no video game, this is his own death.
UGL: You personally, survived 15 years of civil war in Beirut, Lebanon. In your installation video you say, during this war you asked yourself ‘From where do we get that certainty that we will be able to survive even worse?’
RM: Yes, one doesn’t feel fear, unless there is a scar from war, or has been visited by death.
UGL: I have the impression many Lebanese people have had to develop a great talent to adapt to difficult circumstances, like this civil war.
RM: I don’t know, it may be the case. It is good, because, people manage to find a way to go on with their regular lives as good as possible, to go to work, to school, to the beaches. It is astonishing what people adjust to. On the other side, this is also bad, because that is also a reason, why it lasted 15 years.
UGL: You told me, when you showed the installation before at Ashkal Alwan Space in Beirut, there was also some criticism?
RM: Yes, I wanted to show this work in Beirut before I took it to documenta(13) in Kassel, Germany. There was a debate about the question ‘Is an artist allowed to do a work about an event which is still going on?’ and ‘Is it possible that art can create the distance, which is necessary to think about something currently happening?’. I can understand this. For me, it is also a question, ‘What time do we need?’
I have been working with this type of images and videos from various sources for more than 10 years now. So, the work on the Syrian protesters was one of an ongoing artistic practice. I was interested in the ‘double shooting’: One is shooting with a camera and one is shooting with a rifle. And there is eye contact.
This criticism is good, because it is part of an ongoing debate, I wanted to start with my work. I like to see my works open, not with a final answer, but open for other points of view, not only mine.
UGL: Thank you for the interview!
RM: You are very welcome!