Rabih Mroué’s Pixelated Revolution
Watch a video featured in Signals: How Video Changed the World, and hear from the artist about the social forces that inspired it.
Ana Janevski, May Makki
May 24, 2023
Rabih Mroué’s Pixelated Revolution screened here May 24–June 7, 2023. The video is no longer available for streaming. Join us for the next Hyundai Card Video Views, screening on June 21.
At the outset of the Syrian Revolution in 2011, Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué began engaging with cell phone videos shot by civilians that were proliferating on YouTube and Facebook. With the rise of social media, these videos circulated to an international audience, disrupting the heavily regulated images produced by the Syrian regime. The Pixelated Revolution reflects Mroué’s attempt to apprehend the images shot by protestors, for whom producing a record was a final act preceding their murders by the regime.
Throughout his career, the artist has contended with images of violence across political contexts and developed critical frameworks for analyzing their production and aesthetics. We sat down with Mroué to reflect on this work and the role of cinema, found footage, and theater in his practice. – Ana Janevski and May Makki
May Makki: The Pixelated Revolution is from 2012, a very particular moment in the still-ongoing Syrian revolution. In addition to the records that you’re engaging with, it also, I think, now years later, reflects a moment where social media had a very central role, and there was a certain sensibility there around how to use it, and engage with it. Do you feel your approach to using “found footage” has evolved in relation to a shift in the conversation about how such images should be used, artistically and politically?
Rabih Mroué: When I started this work in 2011, it was during the beginning of the revolution, it was a very early response to it. But at the same time, it was a continuation of research that I started a long time ago about images and videos that are related to death, war images mainly, and how death is represented in these videos or images. Three Posters is a good example, where Elias Khoury and I examined videotape testimony by a resistance fighter from the Lebanese Communist Party before carrying out his suicidal operation. So when I worked on The Pixelated Revolution, it was in a way a continuation of what I already started in Three Posters.
As I said, I did the work in 2011, but it started to change with time, going back to the topic and seeing it from different angles. This is what time can do to us actually, make us see things that we did not see, to revise, to develop, or even to correct ourselves.
The videos Syrian protesters were uploading on the internet were pixelated and low-resolution. They also can be thought of in relation to the famous essay by Hito Steyerl, “In Defense of the Poor Image.” In contrast to these poor images, one can think about the high-definition videos made by ISIS. ISIS members knew how to use new technologies to produce Hollywood level videos; with different angles, special effects, and animation. The high-definition videos force us to watch their crimes with clarity, threatening us, first with the knife in their hands pointed towards the lens as if pointed toward the viewers, then committing the cold-blooded killing so close to the lens. They want to implant fear in the souls of the viewer, and it is our responsibility as viewers to decide whether we watch. However, with the Syrian protesters' videos, actually, at that time it was our responsibility to watch them because by watching them, we were witnessing the crimes that the Assad regime is committing and could have helped the Syrians to overcome this regime.
Rabih Mroué. Still from The Pixelated Revolution, Part I of the series The Fall of a Hair. 2012
Repetition gives us the opportunity and the possibility to think about the material in a different way; to examine it with a forensic approach.
MM: To this point of repetition, it’s a strategy you use in the video. The same clip is examined again and again, visually, but also from the perspective of psychology, philosophy, and even optography. How does the performativity of your approach apply pressure in a way that disrupts the image?
Repetition is something essential in theater. I studied theater. I come from this medium where we repeat ourselves all the time. We rehearse, and afterwards we present the performance on stage many times. We try to repeat the same movements and feelings, try to be identical to the first time, which is actually impossible.
I thought that, first of all, even repetitions are not the same. Also, there are different ways of seeing the same thing repeating itself. Repetition allows us to have a different relationship with the material we are working on. We start to think of it in a calm way, far from emotions, and be able to analyze it and deconstruct its discourse, especially when we talk about images that are violent or that document the act of killing. Repetition gives us the opportunity and the possibility to think about the material in a different way; to examine it with a forensic approach. There are certain images that we think are untouchable and very sensitive to deal with because they belong to tradition. How do we deal with such images? I think repetition gives us the opportunity to take away their “aura,” and allows us to be skeptical, to question them, to formulate ideas about them, and to see beyond what they appear.
Still from The Pixelated Revolution, Part I of the series The Fall of a Hair
AJ: The Pixelated Revolution is a video work that started as a lecture-performance, or a “non-academic lecture,” as you like to call it. It is something that you've been practicing all those years, and also something that a lot of your generation of artists in Lebanon have been doing. Why do you think it’s so important, and how did you start practicing it?
After the war ended in Lebanon in the ’90s, the country opened to itself. West Beirut and East Beirut became united after 15 years of civil wars. We, the Lebanese, from both sides, were together, face to face, discovering each other in the middle of the destroyed downtown of Beirut. What was needed at that time was to build the dialogue between us. We lacked it. The only communication between the political ruling class, between the militia and even between the people, was fighting, hostility, and accusations.
I assume that the birth of the lecture-performance came from the need for discussion and debate to understand what had happened to us. The simple form of the lecture-performance came out of our need and maybe from the ruins of Beirut and of course from the heated debate about the reconstruction of Beirut!
At that time, my generation of artists were not at all exposed, or invited, or noticed by the European festivals, museums, and art centers. Only the international media were interested in Lebanon after the war. Journalists and some art curators were fishing for melodramatic stories about the horror of the wars and its atrocities, which reduced us to either victims or terrorists. Of course my generation was not interested in this, so we were trying to find our own way of producing works without sponsorship and funding. The lecture-performance is a form that does not need much money or can even have no budget.
While I was doing my lecture-performances, I was also doing my theater productions. I was always concerned with questioning the medium itself. What is representation and how do we do theater today? What body language should we have on stage, especially after all the years of wars? My theatrical works were also very low budget. With time, I decided to distinguish between these two practices—the theater and the lecture-performance—because my theater pieces were starting to resemble my lecture-performances, but they were not the same. In theater there are more layers to deal with, from the set, to the props, lighting, sound, music, costumes, scenography, the relation with the audience, the tension in the space. In the so-called lecture-performance, all these layers disappear...almost. That’s why I call them non-academic lectures. Non-academic lecture is a term that describes the structure of certain works, such as The Pixelated Revolution.
One of the main characteristics of the non-academic lecture is its flexibility. It liberates me from the market, it frees me from any authority that is above me. I’m free to do whatever I want, wherever I want: in a theater, in a house, in a hall, in an art center.
Ana Janevski: But it works. It works really well! We’ve talked about theater and video, but I want to also consider the role of cinema. In The Pixelated Revolution you have two cinematic references, one to Dogme 95, one to the Palestinian director and actor Elia Suleiman. And you also act in films yourself. Can you say more about your relationship to the cinema?
The first reference, Dogme 95, struck me because, when I was working on The Pixelated Revolution, I started to collect advice and instructions on how to shoot a demonstration in a secure manner that protesters and activists were circulating between each other on the Internet. I found it to be a kind of cinematographic manifesto. The list reminded me of the Dogme 95 manifesto with its 10 obligatory points written by the two Danish filmmakers Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. What struck me was the common points I found between the two lists, such as how to stay as close to the real as possible by avoiding artificial effects and the use of the tripod and other things. In Dogme 95, for example, it is better to avoid using blood because it will be fake. Or the sound must be real, so no sound effects such as the sound of bullets and explosions, etc. All these were part of the videos that Syrian protesters were uploading on the Internet. Of course we are dealing with two different matters, one belonging to fiction and one belonging to reality. Dogme 95 was a way to liberate the directors from clichés and stereotypes, but soon it became a prison for the directors and they could not continue with it. The Syrian activists’ list is full of advice and instructions, which was much more generous and much more flexible and open. It is an unfinished manifesto that needs to be continually adjusted, corrected, added to, and so on. Contrary to the Dogme 95 manifesto, the Syrians’ “manifesto” is not dogmatic. It’s pragmatic.
The second reference that I refer to in The Pixelated Revolution is Elia Suleiman’s film The Time That Remains, mainly the scene of the Israeli tank in the middle of the street. I wanted to contrast this fictional scene with another video uploaded by a Syrian protester where one watches a Syrian tank in the middle of the street, directing its cannon towards the unseen Syrian protester who is filming.
The importance of the Syrian protesters’ videos is that they implicate the viewer. By watching them, we are inhabiting the protester’s eyes since it is from their point of view. The Syrian protester is always off-camera and we are certainly off-camera as well. We are both on the same axis of the killer who is pointing his gun towards the lens. And in a way, the bullet that hits the little screen of the smartphone, and hits the protester, and metaphorically it hits us as well, like the Syrian, the real victim.
We have to establish the scene in our minds, we have to imagine and to complete what is missing in the scene. We have to think and feel what happened to the protester. We have to imagine what is around him, etc. In Hollywood movies, the directors use the editing process to give viewers the opportunity to see the same scene from different angles, which is something not possible in real life. There’s no editing in the Syrians’ videos. They are real. And this is what hurts.
Still from The Pixelated Revolution, Part I of the series The Fall of a Hair
Signals: How Video Changed the World is on view at MoMA March 5–July 8, 2023. You can also stream The Pixelated Revolution—along with nearly 50 other videos—on the Signals Channel through the end of the exhibition.
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