Friday, January 27, 2012

PuSh 2012 Review #6: Looking for a Missing Employee at the Roundhouse

On September 25, 1996, a low-level bureaucrat in Lebanon's Ministry of Finance disappeared. Shortly thereafter there appeared a small item in one of Beirut's daily newspapers announcing this fact, and tying the disappearance to the loss of several billion Lebanese pounds from the coffers of the Ministry. A few days later the disappeared man's wife published an item denouncing the slander against her husband and appealing for information concerning his whereabouts. And so things continued for the next four months, with different newspapers tracking the story: quoting government sources and the disappeared man's family in equal measure; regularly reporting on the fluctuating amount of money stolen; implicating other individuals; linking the whole affair to a coincident scandal involving fraudulent stamps; and gradually revealing the depths of corruption within several other ministries.

Following every twist and turn in the story was Lebanese performance artist Rabih Mroué, who clipped related items from three different newspapers and pasted them into notebooks. Mroué has brought these notebooks with him to the PuSh Festival (in a performance co-presented with the Grunt and Contemporary Art Galleries), and out of this textual archive he weaves a Kafkaesque tale (and, yes, there is at one point a reference to a Josef K.) of deception, innuendo, and rumour that is as intriguing for how it is presented as for what it says. Indeed, because Mroué reconstructs the story of the missing employee entirely from published newspaper accounts that are two decades old, and for an international audience that would in large part be significantly removed--not just temporally and geographically, but also culturally and politically--from their import, drama and suspense must be created via their re-presentation and remediation. To that end, the notebooks of clipped and pasted newspaper articles are projected onto a screen via an overhead camera, with Mroué flipping through them and summarizing their content in largely chronological order, occasionally offering a comic aside or barbed comment on the contradictions contained within them, but for the most part literally letting them speak for themselves.

Except, of course, that it is Mroué doing the speaking, acting as our medium by translating the accounts from Arabic into English, and by helping to place the specifics of the missing employee's story in the larger political and cultural context not just of Lebanon, but of the entire Middle East region (the various reports of the employee having absconded to either Egypt or Syria or the no-man's land between Lebanon and Israel offer an occasion for Mroué to make oblique references to both present and past conflicts). Moreover, the spectral quality of Mroué's second-hand reportage is further enhanced by the fact that he does not sit, à la Spalding Gray (with whom he has justly been compared), at the empty table and chair positioned centre stage to tell us his tale, but rather among us in the audience, with his image then projected onto a small screen just behind the chair. It's an eerie and uncanny effect: Mroué is at once materially among us, re-discovering and in effect co-creating the story of the missing employee with us; at the same time, he is electronically and digitally removed from us, a virtual Big Brother governing how we receive the story. And, in this regard, the careful spectator starts to observe how Mroué at various moments chooses to edit the newspapers' own editing of the story, saying he is at loss for how to translate some of the Arabic phrasings, deciding not to convey the content of some of the articles at all, going back and forth between different newspapers at strategic moments, and censoring some of the accompanying photographs from our view.

How, in the end, can we know what is true and what is a lie? This is in fact the question put to us at the start of the show by Ghassan Halawani, the visual artist who is Mroué's performance collaborator. Like Mroué, Halawani sits among us in the audience, but with blank sheets of bristol board in front of him, and upon which he first writes a couple of epigraphs (including the one about truth and lies being only a hair's breadth apart) and then attempts to construct the timeline and order the facts of the missing employee's story. By the end of Mroué's spoken account of that story, Halawani's visual record is a mess of scratched out names, competing figures, and cancelled possibilities, its inadequacy as a final explanation for what happened underscored (or overwritten?) by the water that Halawani squirts upon the board at the end, blurring the different colour-coded jottings into a hopeless jumble.

As for Mroué, after he finishes recounting the missing employee's story, he continues to stare at us from the small centre-stage screen--even after the house lights come up, even after he receives a smattering of applause, even as the audience gets up to leave. It's a challenge that makes us uncomfortable, maybe because it implicates us in the double violence done to the employee (real and textual), maybe because it refuses us the closure promised by the last of the recited newspaper items. As Mroué's witty, complex, and ultimately chilling piece shows, there is always more than one story to be told.

Looking for a Missing Employee continues at the Roundhouse through this Saturday; a talkback with the artist moderated by Vanessa Kwan follows this evening's performance.


No comments: