Rana Hamadeh’s performance “Can You Pull In An Actor With A Fishhook Or Tie Down His Tongue With A Rope?” is an eight-channel sound play that departs from a claim that regards justice as the extent to which one has access to the dramatic means of representation. The performance takes the Shi’ite ceremony of Ashura, alongside the political, military and legal actualisations of this ritual within the Lebanese and Syrian contexts, as a field for commentary and research. Andrey Shental attempts to decipher her work and locate it within the wider context of discursive artistic practices as well as philosophy of language.
Contemporary art experiences if not an ontological break, then at least a transformation of its system of values, that was manifested in a gradual deviation from the paradigm of inauthenticity, replicability and anonymity influential since the 1960s. If today those notions that had been considered radical (including subversion or radicalism itself) are appropriated and turned into sources of surplus value, such seemingly old-fashioned and reactionary modernist categories as aura, absorption, or presence, quite the contrary, are critically reevaluated and re-actualized in different artistic practices. The figure of writing as it was described by Jacques Derrida — self-erasing, differed in the play of différance — gives way to the figure of voice, as it has been defined by Mladen Dolar: freed from the burden of words and meanings, lawless enjoyment beyond the signifier. In this regard one could also say, that instead of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, undermining the cult of uniqueness of an artworks, a less popular Walter Benjamin’s text “The Storyteller”, glorifying the figure of narrator who is capable of sharing with others his authentic experience, could become defining and central for art theory.
In this essay, published in the famous collection “Illuminations”, philosopher describes the gradual decline of the oral form of storytelling, which with the expansion of capitalist society has firstly been pressed by the novel and then by mass media that juxtaposed to it “information” — the new form of communication based on verifiability, understandability, and plausibility. Even though Benjamin, does not discard information as such, his view is nostalgically imbued and he sees in oral tradition, like in other disappearing phenomena, the “beauty in what is vanishing.” One could say that artists working today with spoken language hold the same nostalgic pathos while aestheticising narrative form. The popular genre of lecture performance is in many respects based on the dialectics of information and storytelling where theoretical and conceptual content of the lecture is opposed to the elements of artistic fiction, autobiographical experience and corporeal performative presence. Simultaneously, academic and institutional context of the public speech parallels intimate commonality or intersubjective co-presence in the mode of orality.
On the second day of Moscow Biennale Rana Hamadeh, the artist from Lebanon, in whose practice speech plays a crucial role, presented experiential and immersive eight-channel audio-play “Can You Pull In An Actor With A Fishhook Or Tie Down His Tongue With A Rope?” In this performance, which is itself a part of a larger long-lasting project “Alien Encounters” Hamadeh had recourse to islamic oral tradition of public reading and narrating (ta’ziyah). Similarly to other Lebanese artists belonging to the elder generation such as Walid Raad or Rabih Mroué, who also used spoken language and lecturing, Hamadeh tried to overcome the discursive impasse, to which any discussion of violence in the Middle East inevitably lead. But unlike them, she set aside the theoretical and academic aspects of art speech, reflecting rather on its theatrical and performative dimensions.
In her projects Hamade questions relevance and incontestability of some juridical and political notions. Particularly, she demonstrates how “resistance”, that was indissolubly linked to the left movement compromised itself in Lebanon, when it was integrated into the repressive machine of the state and became a counter-revolutionary power. As an exodus from this impasse Hamadeh suggests to create imaginary alternative “archive”, discursive formation or the new form of communication, from which one could speak of oppression and justice. Throwing the whole series of propositions and establishing parallels between different spheres of knowledge (especially between medicine and biology, on one side, and politics and jurisprudence on the other), in her performances she creates a space for actualization and staging of the notions. She does not represent events, but reconstitute them in such a way that they can mobilise different types of politics. They could so to speak embody themselves through the body of a performer, and then become disembodied again into language. Thus, after performances artist, quite often organizes discussion, that she uses not as auxiliary as a constitutive part of an artwork. The notions, that experienced reformative actualisation, could again become politically relevant terms.
In several episodes of her project “Alien Encounters” Hamadeh uses different plots to create a field of such actualisations: Sun Ra’s film “Space Is the Place”, the Plague of Athens, or stories of undocumented emigrants she met in Marseille. However for the part, presented in Moscow, she decided to have recourse to the experience of the Middle East, choosing as a structure Shi’ite ceremony of Ashura, which, as a child, she could have witnessed through her window. In her work Hamadeh “proposes this phenomenon as a structural dramaturgical framework that underlies the entire politics of oppression in the region”, while, in my view, she explores ambiguities and potentialities of voice as the medium that epitomises and gives one to experience all its hidden ambiguities and potentialities.
Ashura is a perennial theatrical religious ceremony that, like artistic genre of reenactment, re-stages the battle of Karbala, during which Imam Al Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Mohammad, was killed. In span of this rite, Shi“ite mourners organise readings of stories, narrate and stage the deeds and vicissitudes of the prophet that gradually transform into collective ritual of self-flagellation. In her piece, Hamadeh plays on the exaggerated theatricality of Shi”ite ceremony that is based on the constant oscillation between fiction and reality, between the conditional character of ritual and its physical and affective dimension: particularly, ecstatic chest-beating and bloodletting by means of chains and daggers. The more theatrical and conventional the act becomes, the more direct and violent its impact on the physical body is. The same happens during “Can You Pull In An Actor” performance: it is harder and harder for a viewer to set a boundary, which would divide the sacred and the profane, the aesthetic and the extraaesthetic.
On the formal level Hamadeh“s play reproduces the underlying structure of Ashura ceremony, but filling it with contemporary content where ancient figures coexist with new technologies such as CCTV-cameras or loudspeakers. Her performance starts, when a female voice announces the first act, but at sight is transformed into formidable post-humanist even queered voice, that does not have any age or gender indications. Invoking in memory animatronic puppet from the horror series “Saw”, this voice is amplified through a series of speakers, mutates and, subsequently, alienates from artist”s body, becoming acousmatic, i.e. having no identifiable material source, disembodied, virtual, and almost divine revelation “from above”. But time and time again voice — following artist“s own instructions — comes back to its normal, natural state, reuniting with the orator”s body, sex, and age and thus rendering voice material and sensible.
At the same time presented as a kind of “insight”, as it happens in case of a lecture or a sermon (it is no chance that the word “professor” comes from the latin word “profess” to publicly admits one faith), this voice, as linguists might say, is produced by nearly all the striate musculature cooperate of the orator’s body. Reading out the script with the help of organs of speech, the artist continues its enveloping with the help of expressive gesticulation, like Benjaminian storyteller, who establishes “old co-ordination of the soul, the eye, and the hand.” Finally, in the end of the performance this tension between ideality and materiality of speech is resolved by dialectical sublation, when the play organically and almost imperceptibly morphs into the discussion with curator Defne Ayas (who herself took part as a “cameo” in the play). The state of the beyond or transcendence — to which contemporary art appeals, but usually poorly — is overcome and “secularised” by the formality of institutional settings. The orator turns out to be an artist playing an actor playing an orator, while the witnesses of this ceremony — visitors of the exhibition playing the audience playing the witnesses.
If in the actual ceremony the change of orator“s accent invites participants into trance and begin self-flagellation, then in case of a play the transition between the real voice, its mutated double, artist”s voice as well as the abstract sound — organizes and groups the viewers, molding them, according to the logic of sound dislocation. As Dolar claims in his book “Voice and nothing more”, “the moment one listens one has already started to obey, in an embryonic way one always listens to one“s master”s voice, no matter how much one opposes it afterward” (it is no coincidence that in Russian like in some other languages including Arabic the word slushat is etymologically connected to poslushanie meaning obedience). The orator“s voice in the meantime submerges the audience into internal contemplation (that is well communicated in the the documentation of the performance) or act onomatopoeticially: thus one participant of this act started to beat his chest with fists. One could say that at the moment of “submission” the effect of disavowal plays: the awareness of conventionality of storytelling and one”s own submissiveness to the power of sound is increased thanks to the content of the speech, that, describing the imaginary ceremony, “foretells” what would happen in a few seconds: “The orator’s voice is heard through a series of horn speakers before his body reaches the central platform. The horn speakers, hanging at ear level, address the audience, adding a metallic texture to the orator’s voice…”
This enchantment with voice could not be explained by means of performative utterances, as positivist philosophy of language does it, where the speaking subject changes social reality, producing specific forms of speech acts. Language here does not function as a conventional system of signs or play of arbitrary signifiers, but reveals its “magical aspect”. The orator“s voice becomes the mediator or guide between microcosm and macrocosm, between spiritual story of Hussein”s unjust murder and profane history of oppression of minoritarian resurrective ideologies, between Shi“ites militant ceremony and the real militarism of Shi”a Islamist party Hezbollah, between the aesthetic or sensuous experience of an encounter with an artwork and its verbal and conceptual explication.
This power of language to reveal connections between phenomena of different orders Benjamin has famously called “mimetic faculty” (even though, of course, he meant something else). This allusion to this ancient human capacity allows the philosopher to overturn the ordinary hierarchy between meaning and form in such a way that semantics, i.e. the conceptual content of speech, becomes the medium, while the revelation of hidden correspondences becomes the message. Establishing the ties between what is written and what is said, Hamadeh lets this notions to pass from political and juridical discourse into the mimetic circe, where being in contact with the conventional and the actual, they are tested.
Thus during the discussion, following the play, Hamadeh claims that Hussein is not merely a historical figure or religious hero, but the embodiment or pure abstraction of oppression as such. His murder is paradoxical: it was necessary for the oppressed (Shia) to access the language and, respectively, the means of representation, but at the same time the very act of his physical erasure made them dispossessed of that language. Transforming his death into a theatrical action, mourners use it as an alternative form of communication and therefore become testimonial subject existing beyond the court of law, i.e. the whole history of Islam dominated by Sunni. Starting with this proposition, Hamadeh comes to a conclusion: “justice is the extent to which one can access the dramatic means of representation.” If the state owns the exclusive right for spectacle — for the show trials demonstrating the justice that are manifestly known to be unjust, then the only way to reclaim justice would be to access alternative ways of performing. Instead of choosing juridical language that is similarly to information is based on the criteria of verifiability and persuasiveness, Hamadeh after Shi’ites recourse to the art of storytelling (telling the story of killing and resurrection, which, according to Benjamin, “keeps a story free from explanation as one reproduces it.” Like in case of bygone figure of narrator, participant “takes what he tells
from experience — his own or that reported by others”and “makes it the experience of those
who are listening to his tale.” The merging of discourses that Hamadeh is preoccupied with, is just at the right time: to perform also means to infect, i.e. to unite viewers with the shared virus.
However, the main conclusion that Hamadeh makes in her discussion of the mimetic work of tying correspondences between Ashura and contemporary state of affairs in the Middle East, is ambiguity of the notion of oppression. During the Shi’ite mourning the figure of a mourner doubles or splits, revealing inside itself both the oppressor and the oppressed that are interchangeable during the rite. Playing the victim and highlighting one“s victimology, the participant of Ashura cuts his subjectivity in two, so his hand separates from his body and becomes the hand of the oppressor. The same happens with the orator who turns out to be simultaneously both the master and the slave. Submitting visitor to the authority of voice, he at the same time, according to Dolar, externalises himself through this voice, reveals one”s intimacy to the Other. However, what I find the most important in this work is the way the voice — which gives the right to talk on oppression and call for justice — himself becomes the means of oppression.
In order to write the script for her audio-play Hamadeh used structures, affects and rhythms of ten-day Ashura ceremony, that she transformed into verbal narration that consists of respective ten chapters. The written text that was read and recorded by an actress (Caroline Daish) and was then “re-choreographed” into music by means of infinite reverb morphed speech acts into abstract and asemantic and sounds. This double rendering of a text from nonlinguistic experience into words and then back into abstraction of experimental music, could be seen as an act of “designification” or emancipation of speech from its semiotic functions, transforming spoken language into a formless mass of presenting, breezing and living voice of an orator.
In the history of Western metaphysics, that Jacques Derrida wanted to deconstruct, speech was traditionally considered as a specific mode of being, that provided human race with presence and self-equation. Breathing and living, continuous and uninterrupted, it guarantees immediate transmission of meaning and proximity between the speaker and the listener to whom the truth was open. This ontotheological idealism was juxtaposed to the idea of self-erasing writing, leading to deferral, difference, death, absence, nonpresence and nonbeing. Establishing ties between the written and the spoken, Hamadeh like some other artist working in this genre, rehabilitates speech after its derridea deconstruction.
In his recent rereading of this tradition that coincided with the development of lecture performance, aforementioned Dolar tries to retrace the alternative genealogy of ‘phonocentirsm’ and proposes the metaphysical tradition in fact has been guided by the banishment of voice. Dissecting voice from speech, that Derrida did not always make and all the more his translators, Dolar talks about pure voice, unbounded from words that has been considered the source of decay and dangerous to meaning-production. This unleashed, lawless voice suggests ‘enjoyment beyond signifier’. If in Derridean description of philosophy, the speech could only be transmitted unmediated, then Dolar finds object a — an unattainable object of desire — that intersects between the ear and mouth, that mediates like loudspeakers in Hamadeh’s performance.
On the one hand, this lawless unbounded voice that is not burdened with semantics, could establish proximity and kinship between the speaker and the listener. Escaping from the hiatus of difference and deferral, which is endemic to writing, this self-transparent voice of storyteller establishes co-presence, where the experience ceases to be individual (unlike in novel, news or in the court), but becomes communal. But as Dolar has shown, voice does not only unite the oppressed as a new extrajudicial subject, but can itself establish new laws. The staging of oppression for the sake of justice itself becomes an act of oppression, reimposing new form injustice. Thus, using metaphysics of voice, Hamadeh universalises the experience of the Middle East, where the militant ceremony of Ashura is connected with the military party Hezbollah, and invites the viewer to live it through.
The author expresses his thanks to the artist