Documenting DOCUMENTA: A haudenschildGarage Project with Matthew Schum

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YouTube Assassins Archive

Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué comes from the theater. Conflict makes the images he collects – he is not their maker.

When I interviewed him during the 2009 Istanbul Biennial, he stressed the fact that his training was not in the visual arts. He also resisted being pigeonholed as a researcher-type. “I work against the archive. I’m reflecting upon the meaning of the archive,” he told me when I asked about his penchant for exhibiting metafiles that tend to occupy the cusp between personal data and government control. The role he envisions for himself seems to be that of an interlocutor for the war images he finds. Each file or image contains innumerable relations and in his onstage and video-recorded performances Rabih Mroué exposes the power lurking in these relations, which are always at root asymmetrical, visual and therefore inconclusive.

In his performances he debriefs the audience, contrasting documents only to deconstruct the very evidence he introduces with calm diligence. His artistic lawyering is, by turns, humorous and cutting: the moment a conspiracy has been nearly put right, new evidence is introduced that dashes any hope of the truth being exposed. War, it seems, does more than destroy lives, it defies presenting a corrective meaning in its aftermath; it is negation, outright. To interrogate its visual culture may be foolhardy but the artist preservers. From a more localized perspective, his presentations are intriguing because in them found material “is a pretext to draw a map of the history of Lebanon and the region and the Middle East. It’s always a pretext to talk about our daily lives, where we live politically and socially.”

For his Documenta 13 installation in the Hauptbahnhof, Mroué looks at the current civil war in Syria through disturbing videos of people being shot and killed in the first person he has evidently found on the internet. The YouTube videos of assassins as seen by their victims made with cell phone cameras and handheld devices are confused and noisy documents. To add to the discord and distance of the macerated videos, the artist has made clever little flip books that show the assault frame-by-frame as the soundtrack plays with the push of a button. Each flip book rests on an ink pad that stains the user’s fingers with blue ink. The temporarily mark personalizes the media images that came out of Iraq and elsewhere when voters were forced to dye their fingers in order to participate in an election.

Like his previous work attempting to come to terms with the Lebanese Civil War that lasted from 1975 to 1990, the central thrust of The Pixilated Revolution also probes the obliteration of armed conflict. Only now the visual vacuum of war has the sting of immediacy instead of the aura of history. In this sense, few works in the exhibition could be considered as timely as this one.

Blue stained fingers

Baudelaire critiqued photography for its allegiance to the mob, which threatened the ouster of art. Mroué’s critique comes to an inverted conclusion: time-based media forfeits no allegiance and guarantees no single truth or objectivity. It is inherently political, little more. The Rodney King case in Los Angeles is a relevant precedent for Americans ( King died on June 17, 2012).  As soon as it is taken, video and film footage is relinquished to the politics and turmoil that preceded it and make it relevant. Like photography, time-based media as a means of surveillance has no extra truth separate from its user.

Live action here functions like the other anti-archives found in Mroué’s previous work: nothing definitive is proven by launching the investigation we see in the video at the rear of the installation. Here the artist gives one of his signature lecture performances, exploring all the what-ifs each fatal clip prompts.

The same images seen on the walls in the main gallery, hung as video-stills are analyzed in the lecture. Each freeze-frame shows the inaccessible drama Mroué tries in vain to expose in the lecture. Naked violence, we are made to understand, escapes comprehension along with the life that leaves the victim. Excessive force has not been captured on film, despite appearances; it has been relegated to the oblivion of the archive which swallows citizens’ identities in the same summary way it gave it.

Rabih Mroué, ‘The Pixilated Revolution’

The imperfect archive, in this case, happens to be YouTube but it could be a KGB file, Pentagon papers or any other kind of database capable of storing incriminating information while deflecting public scrutiny. The poor quality footage is only as unfortunate for the victim as it is advantageous for the aggressor. Whether it’s a cover-up or a file inadvertently redacted by an imperfect medium, the official story cannot be undone by countervailing sources, the artwork tells us.

Panic, outrage and futility are the only remaining subjects in the footage. As we see in blown-up video-stills freezing the boogeyman in fuzzy portraits of pixilated soldiers aiming at their compatriots, the artist tries to find multiple angles to footage that was taken from a single, ill-fated vantage point. More than just the casualties of armed conflict, this pointblank perspective is an analogy for the arrested development of a digital age where life and information cease.

In the end, Mroué’s theatrics encircle the constant dissipation of information (including disinformation) that is left in the wake of war. This Documenta installation critiques the government and the inactive policy of the international community that has wasted thousands in the last year; but it also critiques the fidelity of the recorded image as news or evidence witnessed from outside the war zone.

Rabih Mroué, ‘The Pixilated Revolution’

The counter narrative offered to the government story does as much to dissemble as to reveal a true image of violence and this is due to the treachery of the camera – not the distracting theatrics of the performer. This breakdown inherent to the media reframes life and death changing hands as experience only. Mroué is at great pains to have this media take on a life of its own given what it has “seen” and the silenced dissent it “represents;” but it cannot.

Bearing witness to the act of revolt, and its near impossibility under present conditions, is at the heart of The Pixilated Revolution. It asks if the revolution in new media is a reactionary force or if it is actually up to the task of serving and protecting dissidents. If it is not, what would it mean if a device could be invented to record violence, in particular, with perfect objectivity?

Protest images are not made with ideological intent, the artist says amidst the lecture video performance, they simply record events.  This neutrality is what scares authoritarian regimes. “The Syrian Government is at war with the image itself,” Mroué reflects at one point. I doubt the artist thinks the Syrian authorities are alone in their struggle for image monopoly in this conflict or in their preference to smother the opposition, hors-champ.