- Make Me Stop Smoking by Rabih Mroué
Lola Arias’s “My Documents,” which started in Buenos Aires in 2012, is a program through which artists produce live performances based upon their personal archives: idiosyncratic obsessions, unused research, or otherwise unrealizable projects. These works are usually performed in a theatre, with the artist sitting in front of their laptop, sharing its contents via projection. In 2020, Arias transformed this project into an online series of live works for the time of quarantine. With theatres closed, she offered a renewed space for spectators and artists to think and feel, socially, in the presence of others. Mroué’s work, which has been performed live in a theatre several times in the past, addresses his personal archive of images. Like so many of his “non-academic lectures,” this piece highlights the relationship between viewer and viewed, particularly in the consumption of digital media. Adapting the work to an online form made the politics of this relation even more pronounced. Through this performance of Make Me Stop Smoking, Mroué brought theatrical mediation to bear on the dramaturgy of ubiquitous digital media.
Like all works in the My Documents series, the performance began in a shared “lobby.” This online gathering offered a chance for spectators to see themselves among strangers; no doubt, for many, for the first time in some time: a public. Speaking directly to the camera, Mroué discussed his obsession with interesting, “attractive” titles, that bring their own, distinct meaning to a work—Make Me Stop Smoking, for instance. Much of Mroué’s archive consists of unused materials relating to past performances, like the videos produced by fighters on suicide missions in the Lebanese civil wars that were used in the making of Three Posters (2000). Other images would likely find no other future home, such as his numerous and varied photographs of manhole covers. Mroué divides his archive between those pieces that relate to the past—documentation and press for previous performance works—those [End Page 95] that relate to the future; his proposals for upcoming or unfinished projects; and “a general, non-personal archive related to the public.” In Make Me Stop Smoking, Mroué aims to move many of those pieces relating to the future, an impossibly large library of material it would take several lifetimes to engage, to the past, through their engagement in performance.
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In his performing voice, Mroué expressed both an existential angst (why should I collect this material when I won’t have time to use it all?), and a compulsion to use or consume as much as possible in the face of fleeting time. He reflects a temporal dilemma of lockdown: the empty time of unemployment, the consignment of future ambitions to a certain past. Yet, he also reflects the global political atemporality that characterizes life under neoliberal governance; and, more specifically, the political and economic stagnation faced by the vast majority in contemporary Lebanon. A curtailed future, and the past—particularly the wars and their unanswered questions—must remain past.
A recurring formal technique of Mroué’s work is to make visible the spectator’s complicity in the production and consumption of images in a digitally mediated society. This is a particular politics of the theatrical relation, in which the spectator’s role in the production of contemporary social reality—and with it, the political availability of particular historical truths—is laid bare in co-present performance time. In Mroué’s work, this becomes a relation to another through the image: the political and ethical imperative embedded in the photograph produced under a state of emergency. In Make Me Stop Smoking, Mroué describes his work collecting images of people lost during the civil wars. He has collected photographs of missing people printed in newspapers: 17,000 people went missing between 1975 and 1990 in Lebanon. This work is a recuperation and demonstrates the transgressive political force of a quotidian...