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Chasing the Gaze of the Killer: Rabih Mroué’s The Pixelated Revolution

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While ruling governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen were deposed as a consequence of the uprisings, the al-Asad regime responded with unparalleled violence, unleashing an intractable civil war that has displaced millions of Syrians and continues to devastate the country. During the uprisings, hundreds of unarmed civilians were incarcerated, tortured, or killed and journalists were blocked from the country. But in a time when everyone keeps a recording device in their pockets, repressive regimes have a much harder time silencing those who would bear witness to institutional abuses. The result is a cinema of resistance, the creation of a vast, disorganized, popular, and free archive of revolutionary acts that have been recorded and uploaded to the Internet. The transmission of these fragmented videos, messages, and images through social media has been the main tool for spreading information that counters official discourses and encourages further action on the streets.

Mirroring this convergence of digital artistic responses to the revolution were performances and exhibitions that took place mere days after the first protests occurred.  Dalia Basiouny’s Tahrir Stories, for example, premièred on February 23, 2011. The immediacy of such cultural metabolization raises important questions about timing and historicization. Is it possible to produce art about a historic event at the very moment in which the event is taking place? Or does the act of producing an art piece unavoidably mark the end of the event? Is it necessary to gain historical distance in order to respond artistically to a revolution? And how has the extensive use of portable, hyper-connected and ultra-fast recording systems influenced the process of historicization, or the borders between performance and reality? If the artwork is created while the events are unfolding or soon after, before adequate historical distance has been gained, does it lose its artistic signifier and turn into a piece of journalism? Does it become part of the demonstration itself? Does an artistic response to a revolution that transcends activism become an act of memorialization that positions the revolution in the past and marks its end? And how have the new forms of creativity and the ubiquitous presence of recording devices influenced the act of memorialization?

In his 2012 one-man show The Pixelated Revolution, Lebanese multidisciplinary artist, Rabih Mroué, engages with some of these issues by blurring the frontiers between artistic product and political activism, sharing and analyzing videos of the revolution recorded by civilians during the 2011 protests in Syria, and theorizing the philosophical and practical implications of using cameras as weapons against oppression. Although Mroué has claimed that art that reacts to political events in an activist manner is not art, his work is nevertheless highly political and was immediately influenced by the revolution. As the Arab Spring was expanding and unfolding, Mroué’s first solo exhibition, “I, the Undersigned,” was showing in several European venues. Its title evolved to, “I, the Undersigned The People are Demanding,” with the original title crossed out with red graffiti spray and, “The People are Demanding,” sprayed in Arabic, then finally to, “Will the Spring Visit Us?” The evolution in the name of Mroué’s exhibition parallels the evolution of the Arab Spring, representing an act of suppression of the individual (I) in order to embrace the collective identity (“The People”). Mroué himself recognized this embeddedness, arguing that when the revolutions began, it became clear to him that he could not continue to create art exhibitions as if nothing was happening.

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