- Poetic Portraits of a Revolution by Will McInerney and Kane Smego
Cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard’s infamous declaration that the Gulf War “did not take place” characterized that conflict’s news coverage as a proliferation of images in which long-range weapons stood in for the bodies of soldiers who used them and the civilians who were killed by them. Twenty years later, “taking place” is an increasingly contested phrase. One can argue, for example, that something takes place in a geographical location as it simultaneously takes place on the Internet. In the wake of the 2011 Arab uprising, American spoken-word poets Will McInerney and Kane Smego traveled to Egypt and Tunisia to interview participants in the 2011 revolution to learn what happened from people—not from news reports. The multimedia performance they created from their experiences, Poetic Portraits of a Revolution, exposed the falsity of the live/mediated binary they articulated and instead foregrounded how the Arab Spring engaged the many ways that an event can take place: from violent group protests on the street to collective consciousness-raising on the Internet. McInerney and Smego’s performance further emphasized how the history of this revolution is being written—as an impermanent, uncurated archive of YouTube videos, Facebook posts, and tweets.
Smego and McInerney interviewed witnesses to the ongoing revolutionary actions that began with the December 2010 self-immolation of Tunisian protester Mohamed Bouazizi, and has since included the overthrow of Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Structured as a series of episodic slam poems with alternating photographic portraits and filmed interviews, the performance included subjects who reflected a range of views, from those who continue to participate in political actions to others who contend either that the revolution is over or that it “changed nothing.” The poets asked their interviewees whether the Arab uprising was indeed the “Facebook Revolution.” As Amina Zaki, a young woman “with a mind so sharp hidden beneath her headscarf/it could have qualified as a concealed weapon,” told her interviewers, “Twitter changed everything.” Others thought that the power of social media was drastically overstated: “Facebook and Twitter did not sleep in the streets. Facebook didn’t say ‘Shut up, Mubarak.’ That was me.” Denying the notion of a youth revolution altogether, 76-year-old labor organizer Fathallah insisted that the events of 2011 were the product of years of work by political organizations, the media, and laborers: “Revolution is like your fingernails or your hair, you don’t see it growing.”
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One fraught moment illustrated the overdeter-mined effect of multiple simultaneous news sources on individual experiences of revolution: a moment from an evening the poets spent in Tunisia with the Mubarki family, whose teenaged son Mohammad Amin was killed in Kasserine. They described what happened that evening: the poets entered the Mubarki house through a door painted with Mohammad’s name; in the back of the house, a television played: “An elderly man is watching Al Jazeera in the far room—/the Syrian uprising can be heard in sound bites and political commentary/from confident Kevlar vested reporters”; Mohammad’s mother and brother showed them pictures of him; his sister played a YouTube video of his funeral procession. The following poem described the moment that the video froze on the image of Mohammad’s bloodied head: “It’s stuck in time/The bloody face is frozen on the screen/Mrs. Mubarki doesn’t blink/It’s the same still shot as the photo sitting beside me/Mrs. Mubarki closes her eyes/The [End Page 117] video never finished loading that day/The photo is still sitting on the table/His name still written in white paint on the door.” This poem drew out the...