interviewed by Predrag Pajdic, February 2007

One of your latest projects is a live art performance 'Make Me Stop Smoking'. What is it about? Why did you choose such a title? 

The performance is a reflection upon the meaning of the archive, specifically archives that belongs to artists and individuals and not institutions.
But I keep the question wide and I try to go through my very personal experience in order to raise one main question: the history and memory.

So I started from a specific question: Why do I collect materials such as cut outs from local newspapers, photographs, interviews, news stories excerpts from television programs, written ideas, proposals for performances, objects, press articles and other things; and keep them for years and years without me knowing why I am doing this task.

Is it a fear of the future or, in another term, a fear of death? Death has the ability to destroy all principles. Hence, it has the capacity to threaten every archival desire.
In this performance, I reveal part of my personal archive and I talk about them and as I do, I go through the history of Lebanon and its war. These materials are still sketches, untreated and even raw. They show my weakness and idleness in a city that is still living its wars, a city that gives its back to future. So why still insist on collecting materials for the 'non-future'.

While talking about my archive, words starts to betray me, hesitating and stumbling between my lips. I am not longer able to finish any project. I start one and then I leave it unfinished, and go to another one until I discover that it is not worth it to continue working on it, so I move again to a new one and so on so forth. I waver and get lost.

So, as I said before, this performance is a pretext to raise some fundamental and basic questions about our history and about my role as an artist living in this hot zone of the world. (The Middle East).
In fact, when I think about this work, there are a lot of issues that I try to question. Simple issues and simple questions like your question:
"How did you choose such a title?"  Yes, in the performance I ask myself why I chose this title not another one. I mean, how one can choose a good title for his/her new artistic work, and what does the title mean? And what if it was a bad choice? I don't know, these are very simple questions and I've never thought about them this way before. What does it mean that my name is Rabih and not Mohamed or Tony? In fact, in Lebanon your name is a title to slip in some political and sectarian problems. Our names are a big problem. And why 'Make Me Stop Smoking'? I will leave it now, and in the performance I will answer this question and tell why I chose this title.

I don't wish to uncover more details about the performance, but what intrigued me most when I saw it in Beirut in December 2006 is a part where you talk about Lebanese people who disappeared. This is the phenomenon that you also explore in another performance 'Looking for a Missing Employee'. Who are the missing people?

Actually, in 'Make Me Stop Smoking' I differentiate between two types of missing people in Lebanon. The first type is the missing people who have nothing to do with the war, or who disappeared after the civil war. This is a situation that we can find in every city in the world. Where you can read a news brief about a missing person asking if any one met him or knows something helps in finding him or her etc.
I try to read and think about these missing people as sign of modernity in a country that is still facing lots of social, political and economic problems that stand against achieving its modernity. The other type are the missing people who disappeared during the civil war between 1975 and 1990. There are 17,000 missing persons who disappeared during the civil war, and still nobody knows whether they still alive or if they were killed. And all the factions who are responsible for the war refuse to give an answer. Nobody wanted to shut down this case. It is one of the main subjects in the country. The Lebanese government left the decision to the missing people's relatives to decide upon this issue. I mean the parents have to decide whether these missing people are still missing or they passed away. The Law says that after four years of disappearance, one is declared dead. But who dares to declare the death of his son, her husband, her father or his mother etc. when there is still a hope that this missing person is still alive. To take such a decision is a hard task for the parents and still the government, and all those responsible for the war, won't say a word about this issue. This is why this case is still suspended.

In your work you talk about some serious, or shall I say sensitive issues. How is your work perceived when performed at home (in Lebanon)? Is there such a thing as censorship?

It is a trap to answer such a question. I mean that every artist looks for good feedback and would like that his/her work be well perceived by the audience. But what if the audience was wrong? For me the question about the audience is a problematic issue; in one hand, any performance needs an audience and on the other hand this audience can be a reason to destroy the performance, especially if we are talking about censorship. The danger is in the auto-censorship. Where the artists can fall in the trap of what the audience would like to hear and watch; where artists become pre-occupied with audience development, or a need to please an audience in order to augment its size. It is uneasy to have an audience that likes what you do when at the same time you want to challenge their beliefs.
On another level, the official Censorship is still a major problem in Lebanon; where every artist is obliged to pass through censorship before having authorisation to show a play or a movie.
Actually it is very easy here to clash with official surveillance. I mean it is very easy to play the role of victims and heroes with regard to surveillance. It is very difficult to speak about surveillance and not to fall prey to its victim hood. There are thousands of people who are under surveillance so we are not the only ones. I believe the most dangerous censorship is the one where the individual practices auto-censorship without really acknowledging it. This type of auto-censorship is a lot more potent than surveillance or state-imposed censorship. In my case, I decided not to pass through the censorship long time ago. The goal is not to go into a direct confrontation with the system, but rather a self-defence. I refuse to go there but to take such a decision there is a price to pay, such as showing the work in Lebanon only twice, perhaps three times, to a specific audience. So, in the last eight years that we've been doing this, we've managed to avoid the official surveillance. Unfortunately, last time this trick did not work. After the opening night of 'Who's Afraid of Representation' we were forced to censor parts of it, and this is why we are not showing it any more in Beirut.

Who is your audience?

I don't know my audience.
In the beginning of my work, we were thinking about finding a formula where we could have an audience of all kinds and levels of people, with all their differences whether it is social, political or intellectual differences. So we completed some works keeping in mind such an audience and the result was catastrophic. It did not take us long to discover that this was an impossible task and at the same time it was a bad and dangerous idea: populist discourse.
Then I told myself to define the audience that we are addressing our works to. Since we live in Beirut, we decided to make works for a Beiruti audience. Not a Lebanese, but Beruti. Also it did not take long to find out that it was still a big audience to reach, so the work was also a mixture of compromises. Then I said that my audience consists of students and left intellectuals in Beirut. Again the same result with the work. Finally, I decided that I want to address my work to a very specific audience, an audience consisting of individuals that we might like to get to know personally. This is important for the work. We do not address a particular community or religious group or intellectuals or political party or students or popular culture what ever that maybe.  I like to work for such a very small audience. But still, when I think about these individuals I have doubts. I believe that one should never think of a specific audience during a process of the work. I mean that the idea of the audience is too complicated, and I prefer to think of a virtual audience, that only exists in my mind. It is an ideal audience. This is why this audience is an idea. I myself, I am this audience, but this 'I' only exists in my mind, because the idea of what I would like to be is not what in reality I am. This might lead us to some fundamental questions. How do I look? How would I like to be? How do people see me? What idea would I like people to have about me? etc. I forget who the artist is that turned Hamlet's famous question into: "To be and not to be, this is the question". I think he is right.

You speak many different languages. I was lucky to see for example 'Make Me Stop Smoking' in English and in Arabic (with English subtitles). How hard is it to say the same thing/meaning in different languages? Do you think certain things can get lost in translation?

Indeed, many aspects of the performance will be lost when it has travelled out of its context. This is natural because I do not, in any way or form, expect the foreign audience to comprehend the nuances of our country and consequentially to capture our critique of our experience there. I produce performances about the history of my region where I live, and I know that a foreign audience would have little knowledge of its details, especially about the complications of the Civil War.
Still all my works seemed to be received well abroad. Audiences paid particular attention to the direct relationship between the performance and the Lebanese Civil War. They grasped that the history was too complex to be summarized and more importantly, they appreciated the differences between our portrayal of the Civil War and the 'official' discourse that had hitherto fed them simplistic outlines of Lebanese history. 

Your background is in theatre. What made you shift your interests from theatre towards performance?

I, with my partner Lina Saneh, began to differentiate between our previous work in theatre and performance art when we started to question our relationship with the audience. We wanted to give ourselves a space to think about who we represent when we display our bodies on the stage. We asked ourselves the question: if we didn't play theatre, what would happen? For example, if we didn't have dialogue, if we didn't have conflict and drama, what would happen? If we didn't have acting, or eye contact between the actors, what would happen? etc. They were questions we asked ourselves primarily in order to provoke ourselves. We also noticed that these questions were threatening to conventional theatre in Beirut. We noticed that the response to the new works we were producing was that of discomfort. At times the work was perceived as dangerous or destructive. We didn't realise this at first, but later we noticed that what we were doing was challenging norms and theatrical formulas with which people felt comfortable in general. So in effect we were challenging common theatre wisdom. In essence, every time we chose to go down a certain path, we would wreck it at the same time.

One can not say that you are the pioneer of live art performance in Beirut, but you have paved the way for new generations of artists like Ali Cherri who are now ready to take the challenge and sample the stage.  How do you feel about that?

This frightens me.

If you have to summon in one sentence what is your work about, what would you say?

My work is a non-stop voyage that will reach nowhere.