Tracy + the Plastics, Can You Pause That for a Second?, 2003/2014, performance and video, sound, color, 25 minutes 11 seconds. Wynne Greenwood.
Artist Wynne Greenwood is the creator of electronic art-punk band Tracy + the Plastics, 1999-2006, a video and live-performance hybrid in which she played the parts of all three members. Always working at the outer limits of what one could practically and conceptually pull off in a small rock club, the queer-feminist virtual bandmates presented an alternate world that was in turns abstract, fantastical, and all too real. (I had the pleasure of witnessing many of these legendary performances in the early ’00s while my own band Le Tigre toured with Tracy + the Plastics.) Recently, Greenwood re-performed and documented her work from this era. The resulting videos play in an L-shaped procession of monitors alongside her more recent video and sculptural work in “Kelly,” her solo exhibition at the New Museum in New York, which is on view until January 10. I caught up with Greenwood as she put the finishing touches on her installation. —Johanna Fateman
JOHANNA FATEMAN: I’m interested in the cultural moment when this all started. There’s a semi official consensus around the approximate dates of riot grrrl as a historical movement—its first wave, anyway. It began in 1989 and ended in 1996. Maybe that’s arbitrary, but I find it personally useful. It makes sense to me because after ’96 there was this floundering around in our scene, what could be called the post-riot grrrl scene. And then in ’99, new projects, among others, emerged that were based more in home recording, digital sampling, and video. Le Tigre started in ’99. So did Tracy + the Plastics. What was happening?
Wynne Greenwood: Aside from the floundering of that period—that’s a good word for it—The Need was happening in the mid-1990s. I’ve got to cite their influence. They were important. [The Need was a Pacific Northwest–based lesbian neo-prog rock band composed of Radio Sloan and Rachel Carns that dissolved in 2001.—JF] Their use of electronics, their experimentation with recording processes, their persona-making, and their graphic style—it all related to what I wanted to do but was not yet doing.
JF: They had a strong band culture, their own mythology. It was so artificial and alien to the indie-rock realism of the day.
WG: Also, they were my introduction to a feminist community, a queer, post–riot grrrl artist community.
JF: Wow, I’m just now remembering that I first met you, or first saw you perform, while I was on tour with The Need. I was along for the ride, selling T-shirts for them. You were in the band MeMe America that opened for them at a tiny Smith College show organized by K8 Hardy. Like in ’97. Is that right?
WG: That’s right! MeMe America was my band with Sally Scardino. We used video and a drum machine along with guitar and vocals. That was right after I dropped out of college. And then a couple of years later, I sent you a VHS tape that got stuck in your mailbox. It was an early, single-channel representation of Tracy + the Plastics.
JF: Yeah, it got stuck. That was right when Le Tigre was writing our first record. I remember feeling like we were all deconstructing the idea of a band. If punk deconstructed rock, and girls deconstructed punk, now we were deconstructing girl-punk. Why should a band be “a band” at all? Like, with instruments. Of course there were other reasons we turned to electronic music and sampling. It was something new, plus it was cheaper and easier.
WG: Yes. After MeMe America ended, I started performing solo sometimes, using Tracy as a stage name. I was also working on a separate video project, developing the characters that would become the Plastics. By 2000, I had incorporated the video stuff with live performance and I went on tour. All of the songs, the backing tracks that I sang with, were recorded onto VHS tapes. I performed as Tracy. Nikki and Cola’s heads appeared on two monitors that were on stage with me. They didn’t talk to each other yet though.
Excerpts from Tracy + the Plastics, Can You Pause That for a Second?, 2003.
JF: So, can you break it down for everyone? Who were the different characters?
WG: Nikki was the keyboard player and she was the artist, or the one who really wanted to be an artist but was in a band, maybe by accident. Cola was the drummer. She was the most “political.” She was very antagonistic. Her voice got a lot deeper throughout the project. She became almost monosyllabic, more like a drum set. Tracy was… Well, at the beginning, the goal was for Tracy to be a dude, a heavy-metal dude. I love the name Tracy because it’s unisex.
JF: Tracy was like a drag king. I mean, you have a cool mustache naturally, and then for Tracy, you sometimes drew another one on top of it.
WG: Yeah. Tracy totally wanted to be a drag king as well as a disco singer. I was very influenced by the gender-queer drag culture of the time. Drawing a second mustache on was a way to claim the first one—as a gender expression, but also as a statement against straight, sexist beauty standards. Now I think it’s more acceptable to have a mustache, but only if you’re considered beautiful, desirable, or even interesting according to rigid cultural norms.
JF: Yeah. So, with these characters, and their interactions, I feel like you broached some sensitive stuff, new territory. You were looking at the dynamics of a “girl band.” While our scene was radically honest about a lot of stuff—or wanted to be—no one was really publicly addressing tension and dysfunction between feminists, or specifically between feminist bandmates.
WG: I don’t think I set out knowing I would explore how women are creative together, but from the very beginning there was tension in Tracy + the Plastics. I remember the first time Cola spoke directly to Tracy. It’s missing from this show because I couldn’t find the original backing video, but in that early scene, Cola is wearing the same outfit as Tracy. She’s even wearing a headband that says “Tracy” on it. And Tracy asks her, “Why are you wearing my outfit?” She replies, “Well, anybody can do what you’re doing.” Their exchange was a way to establish the band’s questioning of authority. Who’s the leader? And why? And what’s that about? When I was in high school, I used to think that if I were in a band we would all be soulmates. I was yearning for that kind of relationship and this was a way of confronting that desire. Confronting the reality that relationships and collaborations are imperfect.
JF: I think the utopian idea of sisterhood is disproven every time women try to do anything together, which isn’t …
WG: … it isn’t a bad thing
JF: Right, it isn’t a condemnation of feminism to say that. It doesn’t mean women shouldn’t do things together.
WG: Yeah. And I want to name jealousy and competition as pieces of the larger cultural context that we can’t escape when in relationships. I don’t want to escape it. I want to deal with it and represent the complexity of that struggle.
The Need performing at Rice University in Houston on April 2, 2000.
JF: I’m just scanning down this row of monitors, seeing you transition from un-synched to interactive video, and your move from monitors to projection. Then you begin using green-screen and animation.
WG: Right, the green-screen stuff started in 2002. It was important to my work. There was so much layering going on already, performance on top of performance, and then the green-screen environments allowed me to create portals to cut through those layers.
JF: It’s a huge amount of work, and your practice evolved over the years. I always knew that, but it’s hitting me now, seeing it all in one place. I want to ask the basic question: Why? Why revisit and reperform Tracy + The Plastics?
WG: Well, there was no documentation. I performed mostly in rock clubs, in bars, and there is no record of that happening. I realized that this would all be lost. In my personal archive, I had many of the props I used, as well as the costumes and the backing videos. But to represent the performances I knew I’d have to recreate them. Before I started, I wondered why someone in the future might look back at this project. What would it tell them? I thought it would tell them something about the physical experience of media. Fundamentally, Tracy + the Plastics was about video and mass media, about media’s messaging and how we hold that in our bodies, how we create and hold our identities. There was something very physical about the way I wanted to work with the technology. With the band, I created a situation in which I would physically encounter video versions of myself. I was forced to negotiate and coordinate my body, my responses and timing to share space and time with these characters. And I did this just before the advent of social media, and the mass production and use of mobile phones with video. That said, I’ve been really wary of this project becoming just about asking, “Remember when?” It’s really fun to nostalgically compare this stuff with the present day but… that’s not my point.
JF: Well, I think that archives exist for when we all die and no one can say, “Remember when it was crazy to have a mustache?”
WG: But wait, that’s actually an important question to ask! So, do I have to write that question on top of the archive so that people will remember to ask it?
JF: You mean how do you create the historical context for this for future viewers? Well, that’s not your problem. You can’t do everything.
WG: Also, I don’t know what to do with this stuff now. Should it be free online? Who hosts that? I can’t do it.
JF: Yeah, me neither. Was it difficult to reperform the material? Did you have trouble looking back at the old stuff?
WG: I started gathering the backing videos and taking stock of them in 2013. By that time some were twelve years old! Luckily, I had already passed through the phase where I was like, “This is the most awful thing I’ve ever made. I’ll never show it to anyone,” and I’d gotten to the point where the old work gave me joy. I have a lot of compassion for my younger self.
JF: Right, so it was like watching student work. Someone else’s student work.
WG: Totally. All of these shows were reperformed and documented in 2014 and 2015, which means that this is my thirty-six or thirty-seven-year-old body standing next to my early-twenties body on the prerecorded video. I had some questions about this that are hard to summarize. For example, I wondered if I should lose ten pounds because I weighed less back then. Ultimately it was liberating to not lose weight and to say, “This is my body.” It was a moment of shoring up my own feminism and… love. I did grow out my hair so I could have a similar hairstyle, though.
JF: You wanted to look the same.
WG: I did. I wanted to create the illusion this documentation had been made at the time. And I wanted complete uniformity. Every video here was shot with the same framing, the same hairstyle.
JF: Why’s the show called “Kelly”?
WG: So, the show at Reed College’s Cooley Gallery in Portland, Oregon last fall was called “Stacy.” It brought together the two bodies of work that bookend my practice thus far: Tracy + the Plastics and my More Heads work. For my More Heads videos, I perform dialogue for my head sculptures. The series is about how we, as individuals, internalize oppression and violence, and how we recreate it in our personal relationships. Seeing these works together revealed my own strategies to me. I could know them better, use them better, and work with them more intentionally. Like dialogue! I had never really thought about how important dialogue is to my work. That sounds ridiculous because that’s all Tracy + the Plastics really is. And with the More Heads videos I was returning to that, to giving voice to characters. Anyway, I called that show “Stacy.” I was kind of riffing off of Tracy + the Plastics’ imaginary friend Stacy, who was their manager. She was out of work and they employed her. And then, when you go to those websites for baby names and type in “Stacy” they tell you that people who like “Stacy” also like “Kelly.” The heads don’t have names though.
*View of Wynne Greenwood: “Kelly,” 2015–16, New Museum, New York. Photo: Joerg Lohse.
JF: They look like Mr. Potato Heads, this little group over here.
WG: They do. You know, I never had a Mr. Potato Head.
JF: Did you want one?
WG: I thought they were really cool.
JF: Wait, I still don’t understand actually. Who is Kelly? Are you creating her during this residency?
WG: No. No it’s just a way to hold space.
JF: Ok, it’s just a title. Next question: You’re not engaging with art history and theory as much as you are with feminist history, like the history of the political movement called “feminism,” or the history of various feminist subcultural aesthetics. And then there are also pop-cultural references, regarding the history of gender and performance in pop culture. Well, I guess my question is: Is that true?
WG: Yes and no. Yes, because I began this project outside of the context of the capital-“A” Art World, and because I am very committed to speaking in an accessible language. I’m not talking to art people, necessarily. The theories I’m interested in are not divorced—they can’t be—from political questions about how we live. With my newer work, I’m trying to situate queerness within conversations about peace, cultural peace—and violence. For example, the most recent piece I made is a conversation between a head made of fake bricks and a head made of decorative butterfly wings about “compromise.” The heads’ materials really inform their personalities and ideology. Also, I love the way that feminists talk and take time to hear each other. I like that still water treading. You know, “We’re not trying to get there as fast as we can. We’re going to sit here and deal with it.” I think that really comes out in my work formally, in the way that I edit, the pacing.
JF: I hadn’t thought of that, and I feel like it really illuminates the sense of queer-feminist cultural history that’s embedded in the work beyond your surface references.
WG: Yeah, I am always considering the formal qualities of what I do. For example, I think of the deadpan or “flat” affect of my characters as a response, or a dramatization, of video’s flattening of the picture plane. And I collapse time, create impossible simultaneity, by pairing live performance with prerecorded material. But then, I can’t help but ask: How are these formal qualities or capabilities of video and performance also queer strategies, feminist strategies? And how can they be used in the creation of new realities and experiences?
Taras Shevchenko Place, New York, New York. Photo: Adriana Farmiga, October 6, 2015.
In conjunction with “Class Dismissed,” a discussion about art school, USC, and Cooper Union in the October issue of Artforum, here artist Adriana Farmiga discusses her views as a former undergraduate student and current adjunct faculty at Cooper Union.
TARAS SHEVCHENKO PLACE is a curious site in the East Village: its formalism offers no shortage of metaphors. Looming on the right is the loud, new building of the Cooper Union, a bellwether for the current and seismic shifts in academia. To the left is Saint George’s Church, a spiritual anchor to a community of Ukrainian immigrants who settled here largely to escape political and cultural oppression. In between, you will find restricted parking, the occasional pot smoker, and a Citi Bike station, all on a one-block, one-way street.
There’s little to add to what’s already been said about the importance of Cooper Union’s role in higher education, about the specious mismanagement of its finances, which led to the sabotage of its meritocratic mission, the longest students’ occupation in US history, a lawsuit, a president’s resignation, a settlement with the State’s attorney general, and ultimately, a victory towards a second chance. Because Cooper’s story speaks to the larger narrative concerning higher education in America, it makes sense to dwell on the idea of freedom.
I am indebted to Cooper Union for giving me a debt-free education. By definition, when you have debt, you’re not free. The socio-political implications of this are myriad. The tuition-free education I received from Cooper Union was a gift. Yet the larger gift was seeing first-hand how a meritocracy functions in the classroom. Having taught in other universities, I can say with confidence that Cooper Union is a radical place—a pirate ship of sorts. Peter Cooper had swagger. He imagined an institution built on the belief that higher education shouldn’t come with a price tag. Without the burden of debt, it’s easier for a student to learn not just how to make and critique a work of art, but how to become a socially-minded, responsible citizen. When you lift the burden of debt, you ultimately lift the weight of fear, because that’s what true freedom is—no fear. When one can actually feel the difference free education makes it is pure magic.
The movement to corporatize academia, including art education, is relentless. Most egregiously, it undermines the intellectual space an individual needs to learn the fundamentals of theoretical and abstract reasoning. Broadly, this push becomes a battle for scale, and that’s why Cooper’s story is instructive: because of its founder’s philanthropic mission, it was never meant to scale beyond its means. There’s nothing exceptional in what happened to Cooper. If anything, its exceptional mission made it more vulnerable to the predators of global branding and expansionist agendas. But if my students have taught me one thing, it’s that the undercurrent of resistance to this movement is extremely powerful. It’s younger, faster, madder, and it’s lateral; it knows how to organize, and how to disarm. No debt-embedded, corporate, educational glitz-machine can stop it.
Returning to site, a block away from the imbroglio of Taras Shevchenko Place, sits the Foundation Building of the Cooper Union: a freestanding structure, an island unto itself. A freestanding work enables us to examine its relationship to the space and world around it. It’s now my privilege to participate in the continuation of the Cooper narrative, where it returns to its full-tuition scholarship mission as it has been legally tasked to do, and as a freestanding institution, once again becomes the example of what higher education can and should be.
Adriana Farmiga is a Ukrainian-American artist, curator, and educator based in New York. She has taught at Cooper Union since 2011. She also serves as a programming advisor for the non-profit La Mama Gallery.
WE JUST CAN’T GET ENOUGH. For centuries we’ve compulsively revisited the Ancient Greek myth of Antigone. Nearly every year there seem to be new adaptations, translations, scholarly articles, and various other projects taking up the earliest and most famous variation of her story: Sophokles’s ancient tragedy. Most recently, and following her 2012 comic book Antigonick, poet Anne Carson provided a fresh translation for director Ivo van Hove’s new production of the play, which will soon have its US premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as part of its 2015 Next Wave Festival. Following stops at the Barbican in London and Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg in Luxembourg City, the drama features Juliette Binoche in the title role, Patrick O’Kane as King Kreon, and a minimal set that evokes a Thebes neither old nor new.
In mid-September, artforum.com managing editor Lauren O’Neill-Butler sat down with Carson, philosopher Simon Critchley, and choreographer Trajal Harrell to discuss Antigone’s history and significance, as well as the play’s trenchant themes, from war and democracy to belonging and autonomy.
artforum.com: Trajal, let’s begin with you. Where did you begin your research for your dance Antigone Sr. ?
Trajal Harrell: I’d gone to a theater camp right after high school, and Antigone was the play we all had to read. I loved this fierce young woman, but I didn’t understand why she wasn’t available to me to play. As an adult I gained a different perspective on Antigone. I didn’t see her just as this cool rebel girl. I saw her as fanatical but also as a deeply caring person.
In 2002 I began to think about a series of works titled Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church. The proposition was this: What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing dance tradition in Harlem had come downtown to Greenwich Village to perform along side the early postmoderns at Judson Church? When I got to the “large” size in the series—there are eight pieces that are based on different sizes—I decided that I wanted to go big, to encompass the idea of theater, specifically the foundations of western theater. I felt that there would be people who could come see this work and not know anything about voguing, or anything about contemporary dance, but who would be interested in theater. Of course, the early postmoderns would have been against all this because Martha Graham had claimed Greek tragedy and the star heroine, and they wanted to go against that kind of representation on stage.
I thought a lot about the relationship between the performativity in ancient Greece—men playing female roles—and the performativity in voguing. It seemed to me that ancient Greek theater and the voguing balls were maybe not that different. For instance, there is the link between rethinking what a democracy could be in 1963, in terms of civil rights, and how rights are represented in Antigone—though always in a discussion among men. I was interested in what an all-male version of Antigone could say today.
I also kept thinking about realness, a voguing term, and how it relates to Greek theater. As I’m interested in historical imagination, I tried to come up with some imaginary possibilities drawn from researching how Antigone would have been performed then: What would have been the impetuous, the drive, and the spirit? We might not ever know, and that’s interesting. You can read Greek scholars, but there were no videotapes. Even the scholarship has a certain imaginative practice around it.
Trajal Harrell, Antigone Sr./Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church (L), 2012. Performance view. Photo: Whitney Browne.
Simon Critchley: That’s true—we don’t know. There was dance, but we don’t know what the dance was. There was music, but we don’t know what the music was. We don’t know what the instruments were.
Anne Carson: We don’t even know how the words were pronounced.
Critchley: Exactly. Was the play just fun for the Ancient Greeks, or was there some active questioning and subversion going on? We want to say the latter. But it might have just been men dressing up as woman having a nice time. Who knows.
Harrell: I tend to think artists in the past had similar questions about their society, and that some must have felt outside of society's mainstream—just as some of us feel today. There are always different political and social contexts, but often the artists are the people on the forefront asking questions that society doesn’t want them to ask. But as you say, Simon, it could have been men dressing up as women for theater—and it was not drag or camp, which are modern constructions. But is it that they were just dressing up? Or did that performativity have some element of political or social activism?
Carson: Isn’t the question of gender different from actor to actor, as individuals, just as it is for us? Regarding antiquity, just as now, it’s hard to place these things in tiny slots, and moreover to have an opinion on how the Greeks felt about men playing women. I don’t get it either.
Critchley: It was different in all sorts of ways, but the similarities are actually much more striking. We’re in the same kind of messes that the Ancient Greeks were in—war, corruption, and migration were huge and constantly pressing issues. We like to think of the Greeks as exotic, as other, because that’s more reassuring in a way, but the uncanny thing is the Ancient Greeks’ similarities with us and our problems.
Harrell: When I play Antigone the thing that strikes me the most is her love for her family and her grief, which also feels contemporary. There’s this piling on of loss. Often I’m just sitting there listening on the stage, and that’s what hits me. It’s not the political situation, and it’s not the larger thematic questions. It’s just this basic condition: My two brothers are dead. That’s the thing that goes beyond some of my intellect.
Critchley: But what is she mourning? What kind of family is it that she loves? Because it’s quite a family, right? When she says near the end, “A husband or child can be replaced. But who can grow me a new brother?” That seems to be about Polyneikes [her dead brother], but it’s also about her father, who happens to be her brother in a way. This family is double, tripled . . .
Harrell: Is a mess!
Critchley: This is family that comes out of this incestuous dirt, this filth of death, as Kreon puts it. So what does Antigone love when she loves? Who does she love?
Trajal Harrell, Antigone Sr./Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church (L), 2012. Performance view. Photo: Miana Jun.
Harrell: I can never play all of what I think and know and think that I know. There are so many ideas around the play, and so many different ways to think about Antigone. I just have to focus on what is it like to lose a brother. I have to concentrate in a way separate from my choreographic mind. I just sit there and go, oh my god. The audience watches me going through a hell of a lot of grief. And they begin to relate to it.
I’m always trying to call people into the moment, to show that we’re in the theater together—as Graham said, before theater was a noun, it was a verb. I’m always trying to get them to realize this imaginative thing that we’re in, all doing in the room together. It’s not just us over here performing something for you. As a performer it starts from just being clear about where you are, and what’s going on in the room with you.
Carson: Sophokles does that with the play, too. He keeps it on this kernel of everything’s lost from this person. What does she do? She doesn’t sit around thinking about the politics of her situation, and all the internecine struggles in her family. She just feels it. I think that weird argument—I wouldn't have done it for a husband or a son—she just comes up with that because she’s pressed to the wall by people saying “make sense of this,” and she has no sense. She just has the grief, and the grief for her takes the place of reasoning. Sophokles made that possible for the actor to take seriously. I think another Greek playwright wouldn’t have been able to do that. Also, when you speak, Trajal, about being in the room I think of Zeami and his idea about faces. The reason we have theater, Zeami says, is so that people can see each other’s faces.
Harrell: That’s great. I need to run to MoMA now for rehearsal—wish we could continue this conversation in a restaurant over dinner!
Excerpt from Antigone (2015).
Carson: Perhaps I should say why I translated the play twice, because that’s confusing for people. Antigonick was meant to be a comic book, and not scrupulously faithful to the original text. Bianca Stone did the illustrations. After it was published, I met Ivo van Hove. He said he wanted to do a production of Antigone. I said, great, I have one. I’ll just send it. But he didn’t like it. He wanted a new one. I was enraged, and then thought about it, and it seemed worth trying. A neat, defeating thing to try. So I did it again. Seeing the new piece performed was quite the revelation. Because I frankly thought I would hate it. I’ve seen lots of Greek plays and various versions of my own translations, and most of them were awful. This one wasn’t awful.
Critchley: What did you think of his decision to play the chorus the way he did, with actors having multiple roles?
Carson: I liked it and it seems to work. Ivo didn’t tell me anything about it beforehand. I just sent the thing to him on email, and he said okay, and that was that. It went into the void. The whole thing works in a lot of aspects that surprised me—most especially the Kreon role.
One thing Ivo specified when asking me to translate the play again—he said the Kreon role in Antigonick is too spare, almost symbolic. At the time, I think I was trying to do the translation kind of the way John Cage makes his mesostics—he always said he was trying to “demilitarize language.” Maybe the difference between Ivo and me is that he wants to remilitarize language. He wants it fleshed out for conventional audience expectations and conventional capacities of an actor. I didn’t appreciate that until I was translating the work again. The Kreon I had originally given him wouldn’t have worked on stage—demilitarized grieving wouldn’t work as a theatrical experience. Patrick O’Kane, who plays Kreon, is amazing. After Antigone leaves the stage. It becomes his tragedy, and he fills the space. You almost forget Antigone.
Critchley: What would you think of the idea that the tragedy is Kreon’s rather than Antigone’s? If we take the Aristotelian idea that there’s reversal and recognition. Well, Antigone experiences neither. She just goes her way.
Carson: That’s true. She’s the same at beginning and at end.
Critchley: Right. But Kreon changes after the intervention with Teiresias—a character that raises a question about gender. As a blind prophet, he was transformed into a woman for seven years. T.S. Elliot said he was “throbbing between two lives.”
Carson: Kreon does change, and he has a recognition that Aristotle would have underlined with his highlighter pen. We should have asked Trajal about Teiresias. I sometimes think Sophokles was writing proleptically in defiance of Aristotle’s views, and trying to do things that break his rules. Because the tragedy—if there is one—is between those two people: Antigone and Kreon. Neither of them can resolve their view of law, and they never will, so city-states go on being ruined.
Listening to Trajal, I realized that whatever contradiction of proper Aristotelian practice the play plays out, the core of it is still Antigone’s emotion, and that does convince you that it’s a proper tragedy when you’re experiencing it. I think that it poses one of those nice theoretical questions—whose tragedy is it—that we always have to consider because that’s what scholars and teachers do, but I don’t think it bothers you during the experience of the play. After you go home you might wonder why is it called Antigone when Kreon makes it sadder at the end. But as Trajal says, theater is at the time, it’s what’s in the room.
Critchley: True enough.
artforum.com: What is it like to work with Ivo van Hove? He’s a director with a strong voice; do you feel an ownership of what’s on stage?
Carson: No, once it goes to him, it goes to him. He had very strong views all the way along of how it should be.
Critchley: How does he see the play?
Carson: He sees it as… well, maybe you should ask Ivo, but I gather he sees it as a balanced conflict between Antigone and Kreon. Very substantially balanced. Lack of balance was what he objected to in Antigonick.
Critchley: It’s more the Hegelian view then.
Carson: I think so. Well, he’s … Belgian [laughter]. Actually, his whole team went to school together, I believe. That’s one thing that I learned in Luxembourg, that he and his whole design team work together as a sort of molecule.
Critchley: Oh really?
Carson: All five of them eat breakfast together, work all day, and have dinner together, always in a hubbub. They’ve been friends for so long, they have their own language by now. Like twins.
Critchley: It would be interesting to hear more about that from Ivo. What I find particularly liberating about your translations of Euripides—and it’s there for me underpinning your Antigonick as well—is the idea to liberate tragedy from the Aristotelian framework, and in particular the straitjacket orientation toward catharsis.
Carson: I’ve never understood catharsis.
Critchley: It’s that old idea that there should be some moral lesson that we get from tragedy, which is still an omnipresent view. But it’s ludicrous. Tragedy is something else, it’s much more curious.
Carson: More devastating.
Critchley: Much more, yes.
Carson: Because you don’t learn anything from Kreon except, oops don’t do that again.
Critchley: Then, what’s it for, for you?
Carson: The play?
Critchley: In general, this curious art form tragedy. For me, following what you say in the preface to your translations of Euripides, tragedy flows from rage, which flows from grief in the context of war and violence. In Antigone, we are presented with that. We watch people go down somewhere—to a place that we want to look at, but we don’t want to go ourselves. We’re left with this what is it for question. In many ways the entire history of the reception of these plays has been about that question, and it’s that that we have to bracket out. So I wonder how it is for you?
Carson: I don’t really know what it is for me. I came at the plays from studying them in school to learn Greek. To me this is all distant. Listening to Trajal talking about his emotions I understand it, but I don’t feel that when I write the plays—and very rarely when I see the plays. It’s partly that I’m a semi-autistic person [laughter], but it’s also just that that’s not how I went about it; I cared about the grammar more than the feelings. It’s a different angle. I don’t know how to get to the other angle that Trajal has, for example.
artforum.com: Simon, could you talk a little about the relevance of Antigone and tragedy, perhaps as it relates today for thinking about the risks and necessity of democratic culture?
Critchley: I’ve got very dark views on this. The way I see tragedy is influenced by Anne’s Euripides translations, which really did twist the way in which I had looked at those before, as well as reading Hellenists like Jean-Pierre Vernant and Simon Goldhill. It’s this idea of tragedy as people in rage. What’s interesting in this new production of the play is that everybody in it is enraged. Even Teiresias is angry. I think of Teiresias as coming in on the arm of a young boy, calmly declaring the truth, but he’s really pissed off here. Everybody’s angry—and all that flows from grief, which flows from war. Not just war, but civil war, the horror of stasis, which for the Greeks was the most horrible of all things. What’s going on in the play is claim and counterclaim. We see these people making claims, absolute claims, and then absolute claims are made against those. If Antigone is the hero, or if Kreon is the hero, then I guess what I take from someone like Vernant is that the hero is a problem. The hero is a pollution. Whatever the hero is, the hero is the source of filth that is screwing everything up.
For me, tragedy is that movement of claim and counterclaim, claim and counterclaim, which produces violence. We find ourselves always in violence and counter-violence. In Antigone, cycles of violence and counter-violence are justified with reference to claims about law. It’s exactly what happened after 9/11, the anniversary of which coincidentally is today. 9/11 was an attack on the United States, which then justified a violent response. But if you read Osama bin Laden on 9/11, all this was justified as revenge for the crimes the West had committed in the Arab world. So, claim and counterclaim, violence and counter-violence spin way back. What we see in tragedies is just that history of violence that we come from, seemingly without end.
Carson: Except that once in awhile a sort of unassailable person intervenes, like Antigone, and then it doesn’t come to an end but sputters into a corner for awhile, then stops, then presumably would start again.
Critchley: There’s a divergence and there’s the form itself, theater—a presentation of violence that’s not violent. That’s true of all the Theban plays, wherein we get this ancestry of violence and counter-violence, which spins all the way back, through all the generations, back to the Gods.
Then there’s this question: What on earth is the relationship between this thing called theater—particularly tragedy—and, this thing called democracy? Both are going on in the same city when this play debuts, in a particular form—which we can criticize for its exclusion of women and slaves. Though it was an extraordinary experiment in politics. We don’t know the answer to that question. But what does democracy do? Democracy goes to war. Democracy leads to tyranny. Democracy destroys itself, which is what happened at the end of the fifth century in the mess of the Peloponnesian War described by Thucydides.
Antigone shows us something about the history of violence that we come from. While we’re happy it’s them and not us going down, it speaks to a flaw that we have, which we don’t see, but which makes us the creatures that we are. So I see this tragedy as absolutely contemporary in terms of that not seeing. It’s what animates violence, grief, and rage—all those things playing out in Antigone—and that happen daily, which we think we know but we’re still blind to. This happens every day in the Unites States, in the world.
Tragedy for me is so much more important than philosophy. Because it’s a form that’s able to do a “both/and”: show that we know and we don’t know.
Carson: In the play they’re always talking about knowledge. And in structure of the stage there is a process of coming out inside, from silence—this hidden thing. We see the hidden thing. Then it goes back inside and the play is over. All you know is that you’ve gone through it. What would it be to end up with a theory of it? That would invalidate the thing you saw when you were there.
Critchley: Yes, it would make it serve some end.
Carson: It would be reducible to yourself, to what you already know. With that hidden thing, I think of walking around Detroit. Sometimes at night you might pass the Foundry—a place with molten metal burning inside. You can glance in and see it—you glance into a core. It’s burning away in there. Then you go on down the street. What remains in the mind is that core.
Critchley: There’s nothing more important than that. Anne, you’ve talked about Francis Bacon in relationship to that. I’m trying to remember the quote…
Carson: “Paint the scream not the horror.”
Antigone runs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from September 24–October 4, 2015 in New York.
As Diane Sawyer’s much-publicized interview with Bruce Jenner on April 24th illustrates, gender continues to be both highly individuated and highly regulated—“troubled,” to cite Judith Butler’s prescient queer proclamation—subject to a complex rehearsal of disciplinary patterns and emancipatory narratives that continue to seduce and evade pure cognition. In an effort to briefly think recent mediations of transgender bodies, we invited Paul B. Preciado, author of Testo Junkie: sex, drugs, and biopolitics in the pharmacopornographic era (2013) and a curator of the controversial MACBA exhibition “La bestia y el soberano” (The Beast and the Sovereign), to respond to an artforum.com Pop Quiz about the Jenner interview. (In keeping with his current self-identification, Jenner is referred to by the male pronoun.)
Bruce Jenner has been careful to separate his struggle with gender identity from struggles over sexual orientation. He’s also made clear that he doesn’t consider himself a “spokesperson” for trans experience. Where and how do you think Bruce Jenner’s “coming out” story and the attention it has received engages the current landscape of queer and trans politics?
The media frenzy around Bruce Jenner’s trans coming out shows that we are immersed in a binary gender regime where the possibility of moving between or outside gender conventions is still seen as a political transgression. We have to think about media (including social media) as a set of technologies that can be normalizing but that can also be critically reappropriated for resistance. Jenner is trying to find recognition within the dominant public sphere and this requires media normalization. This is why he is looking for a tactical recognition as a “good American parent” in an effort to resist oppressive transphobic discourse. Transsexuality threatens the stability of the heterosexual reproductive family, and so Jenner has to present himself in public as “asexual,” and speak about the well being of his family as his primary concern.
The transgender subject’s free use of the sexual body represents a threat to the heteronormative political management of desire. This regime always attempts to capture the transgender subject within its binary sexual economy, ideally as heterosexual—since the transgender subject unsettles the very possibility of this normative divide. Not only does this subject trouble the naturalized representation of the body within the visual epistemology of sexual difference (as an assemblage of visual signifiers), but so does its public gender performance—just look at all the crazy tweets concerning Jenner’s dress, as if a dress is like a terrorist’s “technology” when used by a body to whom male gender has been assigned at birth!
To cite Jacques Ranciere’s theory of democratic representation, I think we need to “invent a new scene of enunciation.” We need to radically reorganize the field of gender recognition within the public sphere.
How do you think Jenner’s early image as a paragon of Cold War–era masculinity—“the world’s greatest athlete,” the second Wheaties spokesperson—intersects with his current status as the “most famous openly transgender person in America”?
There is a discursive tradition that presents the M2F transgender subject as someone moving from a sovereign form of masculinity (often represented by sport or the military) to become a female media icon, as if both ends of the gender binary should be emphasized to make the transition part of a heroic act. Therefore, if the possibility of transitioning could question the binary logic, the act of perfectly embodying the extremes enables an ultimate naturalization of male and female positions. This is the case of Bruce Jenner as well as of others before in the twentieth century, starting with Christine Jorgensen in the 1950s (her transition was told as the transformation of an ex-GI into a “blonde beauty”) and with tennis player Renée Richards in the 1970s.
How does Jenner trouble or embody what you’ve termed pharmacopornographic era politics and labor? Is his interview with Diane Sawyer a consolidation of contemporary techniques of the body? How might we trace a trajectory from the early publicity around Christine Jorgensen’s transition sixty-plus years ago?
I understand the displacement from the disciplinary biopolitical regime of the nineteenth century (in which the notions of heterosexuality and homosexuality were invented) to the pharmacopornographic regime that emerges after WWII (where notions such as gender, transgender, and intersexuality are invented) as a shift within Foucault’s “apparatuses of verification,” or, to put it in Deleuze & Guattari’s terms, in “machines of semiotization”—of production of meaning. Whereas science and the law were once the main apparatus of verification, the market and the media have become the new machines of semiotization. This does not mean that science and law have lost all interpellating power, but rather that this performative force is now articulated with new technologies in the production of subjectivity.
As with Jorgensen, who in 1952 became one of the most photographed women in America, only comparable to Marilyn Monroe, what Jenner’s public transgender campaign shows is that the production of the “truth” of gender has become an affair of media management. We are now in the domain of the pharmacopornographic production of gender: Gender is both constructed through biotechnologies (such as hormones or surgery) but also through multimedia techniques. In other words, gender does not exist prior to its multimedia display. It is through the media’s disclosure and representation that the truth of Jenner’s gender is produced.
This is why a primetime interview is as important as surgery or hormones. Diane Sawyer’s encounter with Jenner could be read as just short of a media sex-reassignment operation. This act of political sex reassignment is not happening in the clinic or in court but on a TV stage and through responses on social media. Jenner’s interview brings together many historical narratives: on one hand, the rhetoric of legal and medical confession (which was already at work in the nineteenth century; see the case of Herculine Barbin described by Foucault in 1980) now staged within the framework of the TV interview. On the other hand, the codes of the freak show are reworked within the intimate “tête-à-tête” (seen by millions of viewers) between two women.
There is no linear relationship between the improvement of transgender civil rights and the advent of higher degrees of trans visibility in the mainstream media. Jenner’s jump to the front pages of magazines and to primetime TV is a paradoxical political displacement. It is at once a strategic move for recognition and a process of media surveillance and gender control. Nevertheless, it is within this narrow regulatory framework that Jenner must negotiate his new identity—by trying to rework abjection into political agency.
We need to see how the gender technologies that are producing Jenner’s transformation are the very same that most “cis” heterosexual women used in the West—at least after the 1950s: hormones (such as the pill), makeup, performance, sometimes surgery. The only difference is that transgender bodies are not yet fully recognized as political subjects within the binary gender regime. We could compare our gender regime to a highly orthodox theological one in which the idea of God can’t be questioned. In our contemporary, high-tech society, questioning the binary gender norm is our heresy. Genderqueer bodies are the new heretics.
Mazen Kerbaj, Je pense. . . Donc je ne suis plus! (I think. . . Therefore I am no longer!), 2005/2015.
A TRAUMATIC EVENT is one that defies our ability to tell what happened and at the same time sets off the desperate compulsion to do so, or at least to try, over and over, however awkward, until a story begins to take hold. A sharp, sudden eruption of violence—a war, an explosion, an attack—both does damage and repairs, by triggering the impulse to explain it, assign it meaning, and make it fit within the wider story we tell ourselves about the worlds in which we live.
In the months that have passed since three young men, two of them ex-convicts, gunned down the staff of a satirical magazine and patrons of a kosher grocery in Paris, killing seventeen people, including several artists—during which time another young man, also an ex-con, shot up a café and a synagogue in Copenhagen, killing two more, including a filmmaker—much has been written to put these events in context. With each new text, the narrative has thickened with nuance, anger, digression, and distraction, as writers, in accordance with their nature, have tied themselves in knots to make sense of the killings in terms of terrorism, religious intolerance, ideological indoctrination, postcolonial injustice, racial prejudice, economic depravation, government neglect, bad schools, terrible prisons, dangerous clerics, and the potential for radicalization among disaffected young men prone to messianic delusion.
In one way or another, all of these texts belong to what Adam Phillips, describing Freud, has termed “a long spiritual, religious tradition of crisis writing.” Perhaps that ever-expanding mass of storytelling, messy and oversensitive and argumentative as it may be, is truer to the experience of these events around the world, where reactions have been everywhere mixed, and nowhere the same, not even in the mind of a single person, to say nothing of the popular imagination of a single place.
In Europe and the United States, a story of the attacks has settled into a moment of much-needed but still dubious repose, as responsibility is passed to “moderate Muslims” around the globe to deal with religious extremism, reform their faith, and thicken their skin. “What is entirely out of the government’s control—out of anyone’s control,” argues Mark Lilla, writing about France in the New York Review of Books, “is what happens next in the larger Muslim world.”
This is true enough. But there are a great many cities out there in the not-so-distant, not-so-frightful Muslim world. In those cities, one might listen for the subtleties of a self-reflexive criticism and hear a brash and lively satire in return. One might discover a rich history of progressive ideas that have developed in close proximity to Islam over hundreds of years. Beirut, Cairo, and Istanbul are three such cities. Others are just as relevant, but in these three, artists have established a particularly strong tradition of pushing public discourse. And in these three, regular people are dealing all the time with the kinds of dangers and ideological distortions that ripped through France and Denmark this winter.
The response has been complicated in Beirut, where I live, as it was and would have been anywhere. In the first week of the new year, when the brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi murdered twelve people commando style in the Paris office of the magazine Charlie Hebdo, the Lebanese capital was burning through its own drama, different but related. Last August, around thirty soldiers and police officers were kidnapped in Arsal, a town near the Syrian border, by ISIS and the Nusra Front, a branch of Al Qaeda that is active in the area. For months, the families of those soldiers and police officers had been staging violent protests, trying to force the Lebanese government to negotiate their freedom. The kidnappers’ key demand is the release of imprisoned Islamist militants, including from Fatah al-Islam, a group that waged a war against the Lebanese army eight years ago in a refugee camp outside the port city of Tripoli, an hour’s drive north of Beirut. This is just one sign among many that the apocalyptic freak show known as the Islamic State is also complicated, and not entirely new, with elements ranging from the disbanded Baathist military in Iraq to fundamentalist groups thought to have been wholly created by the Syrian state.
On January 9, the Paris attacks came to an end when French forces killed the Kouachi brothers in an outlying warehouse and then, at the kosher grocery, killed Amedy Coulibaly, who had reportedly pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State. On January 10, nine people were killed in a double-suicide bombing that took place in a crowded Tripoli café. The Nusra Front claimed responsibility. On January 11, vigils honoring the victims of the Paris attacks were staged in the French capital and cities around the world, including Beirut, where people gathered in a downtown garden named for Samir Kassir, the journalist and historian who was killed in a car-bomb blast ten years ago. On January 12, the Lebanese army stormed Roumieh, the country’s largest prison, and dismantled the notorious Block B, where Islamist inmates were said to have organized the Tripoli bombings (they had also become so powerful, well connected, and heavily armed that prison staff had not entered Block B for months). Nusra threatened to kill a hostage in retaliation. Four had already been executed, two of them beheaded. The families intensified their protests. Several schools in Beirut observed a minute of silence for the lives lost in France. Conspicuous in their absence were any such minutes of silence for the lives lost at home.
For anyone involved in art history, criticism, journalism, or contemporary art, the sites of the Paris and Copenhagen attacks—the weekly editorial meeting, the public talk on art’s relation to an issue of the day—were disturbingly familiar. The same can be said for the reason: a drawing, or several drawings, which caused offense and provided the pretext for a terrible series of actions. “Over a cartoon?” asked the Egyptian artist Ganzeer, incredulous on Twitter on the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. “A cartoon you fucking fucks???!?!??!”
In Beirut, Mazen Kerbaj, who for years drew comic strips for the French magazine L’Orient Express and the upstart Arabic newspaper Al-Akhbar, dashed off two erudite cartoons. The first, updating Descartes, shows a man, intact in the first frame, saying “Je pense…” (I think), and then, with his head blown off in the second, “Donc je ne suis plus!” (Therefore I am no longer). The second: “Quand j’entends le mot revolver je sors mon stylo” (When I hear the word gun I reach for my pen).
In Istanbul, the three most popular humor magazines in Turkey—Penguen, Leman, and Uykusuz—published the same cover, all black with “Je suis Charlie” in a speech bubble, to mourn the deaths of their colleagues in France and to express solidarity with cartoonists everywhere. Death threats and hate mail poured in from social media. “Now we have a special security guard in front of the office,” says Cem Dinlenmiş, an artist who has been drawing a weekly cartoon for Penguen for nearly a decade. (His title, “Her Şey Olur,” translates loosely from Turkish as “Anything Goes.”)
Among artists in Cairo, Beirut, and Istanbul, the condemnation of the Charlie Hebdo killings was universal and unequivocal, as was the defense of free speech. In a region where intellectuals, journalists, and cartoonists have long been targeted for their work, people slotted the attacks into well-known narratives. The Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali, known for his withering critique of Arab leaders and the creation of his much-loved character Handala, was assassinated in London in the summer of 1987, shot in the face outside the office of the Kuwaiti newspaper where he worked. In 2011, the Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat, a harsh critic of the Assad regime, was kidnapped and severely beaten; both of his hands were broken. During the Charlie Hebdo vigil in Beirut, people added on to the “Je suis Charlie” hashtag: “Je suis Samir Kassir, Je suis Gebran Tueni, Je suis Riad Taha, Je suis Kamel Mroue.” The list of journalists cut down in Lebanon is long, and it echoes all over the region, in the assassination of the Palestinian novelist Ghassan Kanafani and in the killing of a generation’s worth of artists, journalists, poets, and playwrights in Algeria (not in the war for independence from France, mind you, but in the civil war of the 1990s).
Beyond the fundamentals, however, there is hardly any agreement—among artists or anyone else—on the issues raised in the aftermath of the Paris and Copenhagen attacks. The cartoons themselves, seen mostly out of context as they circulate online, have proven especially divisive. For most, they are difficult to defend, and easy to take personally—as Arabs, as Muslims, as anyone with ties by love or family to the Middle East. This has nothing to do with figurative representation or depictions of the prophet in Islam, “fruitless arguments,” as Dinlenmiş describes them. Artists in this part of the world know the history. (Nasser Rabat, a distinguished scholar of Islamic art and architecture, describes it at length in the current issue of Artforum.) Examples of Muhammad’s face and figure abound. For every source that tells you there is an absolute prohibition on picturing the prophet, there’s some anecdotal counterimage that blows your mind. Ayatollah Khomeini kept a portrait of Muhammad as a child in the sitting room of his home in Qom. A decade after his death, it was possible to buy posters and key chains in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar adorned with an unabashedly erotic picture of the prophet as a young man with a bared shoulder and a flower behind his ear, an image based on an old orientalist photograph by Lehnert & Landrock of a beautiful Tunisian boy.
Lehnert & Landrock, Portrait de Jeune Homme (portrait of a young boy), c. 1905–1906, original negative. Right: Poster of Muhammad as a boy. Artist unknown.
The Charlie Hebdo cartoons (like the ones in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten before them, and by the Swedish artist Lars Vilks) are something else—cruder, less interesting, and imprecise in the target of their humor. “The problem is that they are bad fucking caricature,” says Kerbaj, who adored the early, leftist era of Charlie Hebdo (and Hara-Kiri before it) until, courting readers on the right, “it was no longer funny and began to stink,” he recalls. (The art historian Yve-Alain Bois likewise captures the importance of Charlie Hebdo’s early days in the current issue of Artforum.) But depicting Muhammad as a dog, with bugged-out eyes and a huge hooked nose, with balls in his turban and a dick on his face—this is childish at best. At worst, it dwells in the same mean spirit as blackface, as jokes about the Druze being sneaky or the Jews being cheap. Such cartoons do nothing to deter, acknowledge, or even call attention to the horrors of the Islamic State or similar such groups. To the contrary, they are perfect recruitment tools. They fuel extremism on all sides.
What artists in Beirut, Cairo, and Istanbul may bring to bear on these violent events—and the tumble of narratives that they engender—is an approach to comics, satire, and critique that can pull the debate elsewhere, into potentially more thoughtful terrain. Such people have a wealth of experience negotiating sensitive material into the public realm, where there is rarely any consensus on the rights of citizens or the role of the state. After all, these are cities where a jumble of religions have been living cheek by jowl for thousands of years, coexisting, intermarrying, and occasionally slaughtering one another too. There is something to be learned and a great deal at stake here, where all of the extremes that converged around Charlie Hebdo in January exist in the bureaucratic details of everyday life.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, the wife (or girlfriend) of Amedy Coulibaly was said to have slipped into Syria, where she was allegedly welcomed by the Islamic State. That minor plot twist is foreboding in itself, as if to suggest that when the news dies down in Europe and the story dwindles in the West, the uglier consequences of what happened in Paris will wash up on these shores. If they do, the work of artists—with their habits and traditions of critical inquiry, formal invention, improvisation on demand, and tireless energy for debate—will matter arguably more than any weak or strident calls for moderate Muslims to pluck an enlightenment, renaissance, or reformation from thin air.
Ganzeer is living in Brooklyn these days, and he was getting ready for his first gallery show in New York at the time of the Charlie Hebdo attack. He does a little bit of everything: stencils, murals, paintings, pamphlets, comics, installations, graphic design, a pair of booklets for the Egyptian revolution (offering tactical advice and a set of stencils for protesters), and a graphic novel that has long been in progress. Strictly speaking, he hasn’t drawn satirical cartoons in a decade, and he insists that he was never any good at them to begin with; he defers here to colleagues such as Andeel, Ahmed Nady, and El Teneen, whose Shepard Fairey–inspired poster of a sinister man’s bearded face above the command lilwara, meaning “regress” or “go back,” lends ambiguity a knowing edge that is absent from Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammad cartoons. But Ganzeer does make use of the language of satirical cartoons, and the sharpness of their humor, in works that take on everything from the duplicitous nature of Egyptian dictatorships to the false pieties of conservative Muslims. Prayer of Desire, a large-scale painting on wood from 2012, for example, shows a woman in prayer position with a stylized script above her conveying a slew of raunchy sexual desires. Several of his street murals highlight police brutality and the complicity of US foreign aid to Egypt. His criticisms of the army and the military regime—which were made very public in stickers, stencils, and posters—earned him an arrest, an interrogation, and a handful of death threats four years ago.
“In general,” Ganzeer says, “I find myself drawn to satire that while being funny is actually informative. In terms of legitimate targets, people of power and privilege are of course worthy of satire.” Less so, in his view, are people as people and the underprivileged. “There is clever satire based on some kind of information”—certain episodes in the life of the prophet would be perfect, he says—“and there is dumb satire that does nothing more than offer cheap laughs at the expense of a billion people around the world.”
On the formal efficiency of political cartoons, Ganzeer makes a surprising (and seemingly counterintuitive) point. Print culture in Egypt is huge. To this day Cairo boasts more than forty daily newspapers in Arabic, Armenian, English, and French, with a history of caricature dating back to the nineteenth century. “A satirical cartoon has a kind of instant power that lengthy analytical articles do not,” Ganzeer explains. The problem, of course, is that most of the newspapers in Egypt are controlled by the state, “which means people in power will not be subject to satire, thus perverting the very function and necessity of satire to begin with.”
Ganzeer, Tank vs. Bread-Biker, Cairo, 2011. Photo: JoAnna Pollonais.
“The funny thing is, I was never censored by the censors,” Mazen Kerbaj tells me on an evening in March, referring to the soldiers in the Interior Ministry who are tasked with policing the content of fine art and popular culture. “But I was censored by nearly all of the editors in chief in Lebanon.” At one newspaper, Kerbaj drew just four cartoons before quitting (two of them were never published). The only two editors with whom he could ever really work were Samir Kassir, who ran L’Orient Express in the 1990s, and Pierre Abi Saab, the influential critic and a founding editor of Al-Akhbar. “They both pushed me in this hardcore humor,” he says. “They were always listening to what I was proposing, and pushing me to do more. But I always said that what I was doing was social satire. I never did political cartoons per se. It was always about two guys or two girls, two bourgeois or two poor.
“I know—and I learned from censorship—how to go down different roads to arrive at what I want to say,” Kerbaj explains. “By the time I get there, it’s subtle. It’s no longer blunt. I could be very nasty in my attacks but I never wanted to attack these idiots,” he adds, waving a hand to mean Islamic extremists who are generally easy to provoke. “I wanted to attack you and me.”
At this point, Kerbaj is no longer drawing comics for Al-Akhbar. He stopped when he had enough material for a book, published as Cette histoire se passe (This Story Happened) in 2011. He still does a monthly cartoon for the supplement L’Orient Litteraire. And he is arguably better known as an artist and musician. Beirut’s Galerie Janine Rubeiz is currently showing the drawings he has made in collaboration with his mother, the painter Laure Ghorayeb, who is also an art critic for the Arabic daily An-Nahar. His next big project involves illustrations for an unpublished manuscript of a play by the Syrian poet Mohammed al-Maghout, which he found among the effects of his father, the well-known actor Antoine Kerbaj.
Curiously enough, of the two cartoons that Kerbaj posted on Twitter right after the Charlie Hebdo attack, neither was new. He drew both of them when Samir Kassir was killed in 2005. “It’s easy to do the same drawings forever in our region,” he says drily.
Lebanon has a surprisingly strong tradition of mainstream caricature—epitomized by the work of Stavro and the late Pierre Sadek—as well as a culture of avant-garde comics, which, for outside observers who are not reading Arabic newspapers to plan their days, resides almost entirely within the more familiar precincts of Beirut’s contemporary art scene. When Kerbaj was growing up, in the 1980s, there was a group of artists working collectively known as Atelier de Jad. He was too young to join them. In 2008, the city’s first homegrown comics magazine, Samandal, appeared. Kerbaj has been a frequent contributor ever since. Founded by the artists Hatem Imam, Omar Khouri, Lena Merhej, Tarek Nabaa, and the Fdz (aka Fadi Baki), Samandal takes a broad view of what comics are, could be, and can do. There is also considerable debate among its members over the formal, experimental, and political imperatives of their work. (When a friend posted the “Je suis Charlie” hashtag to the magazine’s Facebook page in January, the discussion grew so aggressive that Imam removed it to make it stop.)
In terms of politics, sexual material, and social commentary, Samandal gets away with a lot—in part because the magazine is artsy, and in part because, as Imam explains, “most people think comics are for kids.” But the exceptions are costly. The magazine is in the midst of a long court case over two stories that ran in the “Revenge” issue in 2010. One of the stories illustrates an idiomatic expression that translates roughly as “Burn your religion.” The other deals with homosexuality and the history of Christianity. A local Catholic group filed complaints against the magazine. Samandal went to court and lost the case. The damages amount to around $20,000, which is no joke for the three founding members named in the suit (Imam, Khouri, and Baki). They are now in the process of appealing.
In January, they were also in the process of reinventing themselves. After taking a yearlong break from publishing, Samandal returned this winter as an annual publication (it had previously been quarterly), book-thick, with a theme and a tighter editorial focus. The first new issue, on genealogies, features contributions by Kerbaj, Akram Zaatari, and the late Moroccan artist and filmmaker Ahmed Bouanani, among others. In Samandal’s time, it has inspired and encouraged numerous other comics magazines throughout the region, including Tok-Tok in Egypt and Skefkef in Morocco.
Turkey is distinct in the Middle East for boasting a whole field of humor magazines that are comparable in their sensibility (if not their provocative style) to those in France. Perhaps for that reason, Dinlenmiş and his colleagues at Penguen felt closer to the Charlie Hebdo massacre than many of their counterparts in Beirut and Cairo. (But like Samandal, they also bump into political limits: Last month two of Penguen’s artists were fined for “insulting a public figure” in a cartoon suggesting the Turkish president was gay.)
Cem Dinlenmiş, Sakalar ve Gerçekler (Jokes and Truth), 2015.
Dinlenmiş, who is also a great painter, uses his work to comment on current events and to alleviate the misery they often cause. “The challenge is to come up with fresh narration and imagery when we’ve been talking about the same issues and problems, revolving around the same crises,” year after year, he says, “to express all these tiresome, boring, heartbreaking issues without wearing the reader out.” What are some of those issues? “Lack of democracy,” he says, simply enough. “But this is a long story to explain here.” Across the region, the predominant targets of political cartoons and satirical comics remain the authoritarian leaders who are still in power, despite the hopeful uprisings of the Arab spring and the cynical insurgencies of ISIS and its ilk.
In late January after Charlie Hebdo, the artist Tony Chakar, known to some as the troublemaker of São Paulo, floated a comment on Facebook suggesting that the problem with satirical cartoons was not their content but their form, and the lack of complexity inherent to it. Perhaps the kind of critique that could keep a conversation going rather than having it end in murder would demand different media altogether. And here the experience of Beirut in particular might be instructive, in the ways in which the makers of highly provocative work tend to negotiate their public gradually rather than throwing such work into the world.
Last December, for example, the Beirut Art Center opened its annual exhibition for emerging artists, which was disappointing, with the exception of one work, a video installation by Roy Dib (also an art critic for Al-Akhbar). To access the work, you had to ask for permission from the reception desk. Only a few people could enter at a time, and no photographs were allowed. This was due to the sexual content more so than its politics, but still. The artist Mounira Al Solh relies on similar strategies for a project she has been working on since 2006, a magazine called NOA (Not Only Arabic). Solh prints only one copy of each issue (two of which exist so far, with a third in progress). To read it, you have to make an appointment with the artist and sit with her while you peruse the magazine’s pages.
In 2008, during the fourth edition of Ashkal Alwan’s Home Works Forum, artist Akram Zaatari organized a video program dealing with graphic representations of gay sex. The screening sessions were moved out of the forum’s main public venues and into the secluded private office of the architect Bernard Khoury. Zaatari preceded them all with a warning to the audience concerning what they were about to see. On a less than charitable day, one might consider such actions too careful or even cowardly, but the thing is: They are effective. They succeed where blunt provocations fail. The works are shown; a small number of people see them and talk about them and debate them, which leads to them being seen again, by more people, in a different and often slightly broader context, until they become truly public.
On one end of the niche-public spectrum, there is cabaret. Last summer, around the time the Lebanese soldiers were kidnapped in Arsal, the band Al-Rahel al-Kabir (the Great Departed) was performing a regular show at a small club in Beirut, featuring songs lambasting the worst of the regime’s despots and autocrats: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-styled caliph of the Islamic State; Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; the Egyptian military; the Assad regime in Syria. Khaled Soubeih, one of the founders of the band, is a journalist who studied classical Arabic music and is inspired by popular composers such as Sayyed Darwish. He didn’t set out to create satire, Soubeih says, but ended up doing so because of the surreal situation in the region, what he terms the “posthysteric” phase we are living through—“a regime exterminating its own people… resistance groups claiming victories on a daily basis while we are going through the toughest period ever, extremists killing people in the name of mercy.” None of this is normal, he says. “The best way to confront [these regimes and figures] is by making fun of them.”
On the other end of the spectrum, there is the lecture performance, which is especially popular among contemporary artists in Beirut. They use it often enough to embed a desired interpretation of a work into the work itself. But again, in practice, the form accommodates sensitive material without shutting down the rapport between an artist and his or her audience. Chakar is particularly fond of the form, and like Jalal Toufic and Etel Adnan, he often seeds his works with quotations, excerpts, and references to mystical texts. They function, for him, not as beliefs but as “allegories for understanding the present,” as he puts it. “There’s a fine line between believing them and treating them skeptically.” Of the work of certain Sufi mystics, he says, “I think it’s beautiful as poetry,” but the point is that “allegory, indirectness, and ambiguity are much more efficient” as critique. The real potential for radical critique in a year like 2015 may lie in those same Sufi thinkers (who were, after all, the original enemies and the biggest threats to orthodox Muslims such as the Wahhabis, who emerged in the eighteenth century, helped introduce the putative ban of images, and continue to inspire fringe groups such as ISIS). It might also require not the banishment but the malleability of ideas and practices that have come to us in some vestigial form from religion (including narrative itself). “I like to think of myself as a storyteller,” Chakar tells me. “This is not an easy thing. But a lecture performance is exactly that. We are all telling a story.”
Tony Chakar, The Eighth Day, 2008–. Performance view, Stedelijk Museum (Bureau Amsterdam), June 25th, 2011.
On the days when I worry about the world into which my eight-month-old daughter has been born—on the days when the news is terrible, seemingly unbelievable, and increasingly hostile to artworks and artifacts in the Middle East—I bundle her up and bring her with me to the Archaeology Museum at the American University of Beirut, one of the oldest institutions of its kind in the region, after the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and the Archeology Museum in Istanbul. There on the mezzanine level is a special display of amulets and talismans. I learn that these objects—as well as the spirits and superstitions they address—have been used for thousands of years, from the era of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. For a long, long time, the hand ornament has conveyed the transfer of energy and power; the eye has offered visions of another world. The rise of monotheistic religions in the region didn’t end but rather integrated the function of these amuletic objects. In Islam, they became carriers of texts, bearers of stories: Amulets were written down, rolled up, and slipped into cases to be worn as jewelry. I pick out a tiny, seated lion in red jasper, tell myself it’s for her, and try to imagine the stories we’ll tell each other one day about the events unfolding all around us.
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a critic based in Beirut.
“He who dares is he who dursts, and Robert Durst is certainly daring to expose himself, he is daring to kill,” says philosopher Simon Critchley, invoking the archaic past participle of the verb “to dare” when speaking of the famed scion of New York’s Durst family, also an alleged serial killer and recent subject of Andrew Jarecki’s contentious HBO documentary The Jinx (2015). Here Critchley responds to artforum.com’s Pop Quiz, accounting for the heights of Durst’s daring and our “admiration” for him.
What is the risk in aestheticizing murder? Are murder and aesthetics mutually exclusive?
One of my favorite essays is Thomas De Quincey’s “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts,” published in 1827. It’s written as a lecture—apropos of contemporary performativity, perhaps—for the “Society of Connoisseurs in Murder.” The thesis of the lecture is that all major philosophers have been murdered, and he gives gruesome details on these accounts. (Descartes was murdered by sailors as if he were a puncheon of rum.) The text is prefaced with this thought: How should one consider murder? De Quincey says that it is like a chamber pot with two handles: One could consider murder morally, as a bad thing, or, “as the Germans would put it,” aesthetically, in relationship to good taste. Following De Quincey, if we put aside questions on the morality of what Robert Durst did or didn’t do, and the legality of it, and we consider his actions aesthetically, it raises a different set of questions. What if we thought of these murders as artworks? It’s not particularly beautiful—the torso found in Galveston, Texas, for instance—but it’s powerful, and raises ugly questions about what intrigues us most about watching The Jinx. We can also ask, what do these artworks give us? What do we like or get off on in relation to these murders? The answer is: an intimacy with violence that we get extraordinary enjoyment from, but one that we find hard to acknowledge. We’re moral hypocrites about what we enjoy. We think that the murder and violence we see constantly serves some purpose, as an education or as warning. I think that’s crap.
Do you see Durst as a Shakespearean figure, or do you see other resemblances across history? What makes him so compelling?
It’s tragedy, for sure. But for me, it’s more Greek than Shakespearean. One way of looking at Greek tragedy is that you don’t really see the act of killing, which happens offstage, but you see the consequences of killing. You see murdered people displayed as tableaux, as with the murdered bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra. Durst’s life relates more to the Greeks because fate seems to be powerfully at work, especially fate as it’s articulated in and through the family. In this case, you have the mother’s suicide, the father’s indifference and coldness, and the key theme of the rivalry with his brother. With the last, there is a possible link to Hamlet: Robert Durst should have been king of the real estate empire—and he wasn’t. Douglas Durst slighted him and he’s never forgiven his brother for that. Robert Durst’s crimes are, in a sense, payback, but through fame. He has poisoned the reputation of the Durst kingdom forever.
Aristotle defines tragedy as “imitation of elevated action” or “of noble action”—namely, the only subjects of tragedy are people who have nobility. The question for us is then: If we don’t have kings and queens today, where is nobility to be found? In the United States it’s to be found, of course, in relation to money. We respect the rich. Here we have a real estate empire with a doom-laden fate. Tragedies also typically involve a curse: Oedipus is the curse of the prophecy. People in tragedies are cursed by the effects of the past—effects experienced as fate, which they are weighed down and oppressed by, and which they bring down upon themselves. Think of the Kennedys and their curse. Durst fits perfectly into this model—there’s a dance with fate that he’s playing throughout The Jinx. In a sense, he wanted to be caught, as people said in the series; he wanted to bring fate down upon himself because that would ensure his fame—his final victory over his brother.
Durst’s decision to call Jarecki and say he wanted to be interviewed from a legal point of view is crazy. So what does he want? He wants to expose all of this. All Good Things [Jarecki’s 2010 fictionalized account of Robert Durst’s crimes] wasn’t enough. Durst himself has to be the protagonist in his own show, and he has to, in the entertainment sense, kill them all. The final bit of the last episode of The Jinx is a masterpiece of television: He put himself into that situation with the hot mic—he willed that. Another element of tragedy is that he’s “jinxed” by fate—this was why he didn’t want to have kids. Because why would you want to continue that jinx?
Finally, the big philosophical question here is: What is Robert Durst’s agency? Is he free? Not free? In what does his freedom consist? For me, it consists in being able to fully bring that jinx down on him and everyone around him.
Jarecki’s All Good Things spawned The Jinx, which is of course a concatenation of all sorts of fictions (mostly Durst’s) in the service of a supposedly greater truth. Where do you think Durst’s own fictions intersect with our own?
For one, truth only emerges out of fiction. The Jinx is an elaborate construction of a narrative in a six-part documentary in which fiction touches the real, in this case the real of murdered bodies, of life extinguished. This is something that plays out over and against the real of what it means to be a person of noble character in the late twentieth, early twenty-first century in the US, which Durst embodies. But it’s not that truth only emerges through fictions but also that there are fictions in fictions, and this fiction is one that, when constructed into an artifice, has a powerful, monstrous effect.
There’s this mysterious word in Aristotle—katharsis. We think we know what it means but we don’t. In Aristotle, most of the uses of it relate to the purgation of bodily fluids, physiological processes like ejaculation and menstruation. We have an idea that in our relationship to art emotions are elevated and transformed when we experience “katharsis,” which is somehow ennobling and educative. This is supposedly why we need to teach people about art, theater, literature, and so on—it’s like Guinness, it’s good for you. Yet this is a terrible way to think about art. Katharsis is actually much nastier, more visceral, particularly in theater. And what Jarecki has done—his theater in the form of documentary—brings us into proximity with violence and gives us an intimacy with it, and we enjoy that, we like it very much. We don’t have to murder ourselves or other people. We’re saved that expenditure! But we get off on the experience; we get to take delight and joy in someone else’s downfall. Behind that is ultimately an admiration we have for that person. We see in him something that we want to be: indescribably rich and getting away with it. It’s ugly and that’s why we find it beautiful.