An Argument against Aboutness

12.8.19 / Text
Ariel Efraim Ashbel talks to Dominik Müller about his new work, his poetics and his role as director

Image courtesy of VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019, Alona Rodeh

Dominik Müller: no apocalypse not now is quite the ominous title. It almost seems like a prayer or mantra to me that references an imminent catastrophe but wishes desperately for it not to come true. Can you tell us how this title came about?

Ariel Efraim Ashbel: I like that it sounds like a prayer or a mantra, I guess it is some kind of a plea, an ethical orientation and a spiritual wish. But I’m not that naïve, and the simpler answer, at least about how we got to it, is way more mundane: it’s just stolen [ … laughs … ] all my pieces always take their titles from existing films—for example the empire strikes back, do the right thing, and my graduation piece back in the day at the school of visual theater—Jaws—and with this one we started by simply calling it “apocalypse now.” As my partner in developing the concept Romm Lewkowicz and I went deeper into our research on different aspects of the apocalypse we came across this text by Jacques Derrida called No Apocalypse, Not Now.

DM: So this time you “stole” your title from a text?!

AEA: Yes. He published it in 1984 at the height of the Cold War, as the annihilation of humanity seemed like a realistic scenario and was discussed in politics, culture, and the humanities. Throughout seven mini poetic arguments (he calls them missives/missiles), he draws a portrayal of humans at the edge of the 20th century; accelerated, anxious, racing towards a phantasmagoric accumulation that will blow up not only us but also our concepts of meaning and procedures of meaning-making. So that’s when the decision was made to change the title.

DM: In light of this, how do you position your piece in relation to the apocalypse?

AEA: There’s something refreshing in the rejection of the notion of the apocalypse; again not as a naïve call for optimism, but first of all as sheer resistance. In eight years of living in Germany, I grew suspicious of a nihilism which seems prevalent in the arts, and to the best of my understanding stems from a dated enfant terrible culture, mixed with the gradual acknowledgement in the failure of the liberal project; some kind of self-deprecation mixed with wild narcissism, through which the imminent destruction of the world is being celebrated; a “we fucked up this much, so we might as well, and the world doesn’t care about us anyway” attitude, which I find uninspiring. I’m done reveling in destruction and glorifying decadence, I think we have the possibility and thus the responsibility to propose a more subtle, pleasure oriented articulation. I think among many other things that’s what “no apocalypse not now” means for me. Also, I really love the “not now” part—it feels like a way to keep “the contemporary” at bay—at the risk of contradicting myself, I dare say that I think asking ourselves what’s right for “now” or what is “contemporary” is a tedious 20th-century trope which we don’t need anymore.

DM: The uncanny similarity of your title to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), as you described, is no coincidence. But is it fair to call the film an inspiration for the piece? I believe you said together with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) it inspired some of the themes. For example the crisis of white male identity, which is tackled in a very particular way in both these works, and for many other reasons seems somewhat ubiquitous these days. Can you give us a hint of how you and your team are going to tackle this crisis more concretely in the piece? And maybe more generally which parts of the material struck a chord with you?

AEA: Both Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now are indeed sources of inspiration for the work. Generally, I love dealing with how narratives reincarnate through culture at different moments and I am highly interested in the dynamics of appropriation as an alternative to authenticity. But more specifically, these two pieces are interesting exactly because, as you mention, they describe not only a crisis of white male identity but a total collapse of that subject position as a result of being confronted with the colonial order. As soon as the western subject has to deal with the physical reality of the colony, when he faces what the other side of his domination looks like, he can’t take it and his world falls apart—hence the apocalypse links the destruction of personhood with a moral awakening or a shift, indeed a revelation, in worldview. For the first time, the subject acknowledges his unavoidable entanglement with the world, and at the same time experiences how this new entangled self is losing its grip on the world as he knew it. Of course both narratives are still focusing on the white perspective, so I’d like to think that in a way we’re proposing a continuation and a critique of what they were trying to do. Conrad was a fierce critic of European colonialism in Africa and Coppola orchestrated an epic anti-Vietnam War film, and at the same time they were (white) men of their time, in various ways perpetuating with their practice the very structures they’re seeking to criticize. In relation to the discourse you’re referring to in your question, I understand my job not as a crusade to “call them out,” a fashionable practice nowadays, but to address and disrupt the space/time coordinates that western artistic narratives have rendered universal. So the “critique” or analysis of that subject position is really a struggle against “aboutness,” essentialist logics, and representationalist identity politics. Ultimately, it’s an unromantic invitation to reevaluate humaneness and humanism. So that’s a way of understanding how we will address this issue in the piece: we are striving towards a sci-fi speculation that doesn’t focus on obliterating certain bodies but dismantles the oppressive logic of identity altogether, believing that there’s a lot to achieve by leaving its constructs behind.

DM: Theater in the traditional sense centers on human interaction—(hu)man is at its core. From what you just said, I gather that’s a question you are interested in addressing critically. More generally I like to describe your theater work as a smart spectacular synthesis in space of bodies, movement, music, light, and more—plus a myriad of references. Can you elaborate a bit on your poetics, in relation to this upcoming work?

AEA: Well I think the upcoming work is definitely another step in exploring this question. I do not see theater as a space for workshopping the human or focusing on the figure of the human. For me theater is a huge opportunity to have something unfold in time and space in the presence of attentive spectators. More than a place to tell stories, I understand it as a spatial situation, a place where images can emerge and meanings can appear and disappear in a complicated way that is still, like you say, spectacular. I think my love for spectacle is what I carry from my “theater-theater” education. And while it might be true that traditionally theater revolves around human interaction, I’m excited about the potential it harbours for material “intra-actions” (to use Karen Barad’s term); what possibilities open up when you take all of its ingredients—images, sound, light, words, human and nonhuman bodies—seriously, without a hierarchy that puts “man” as the ruler of that domain. Rather than dominating the space, the humans share it with all the other “actors.” Without getting too didactic about it, I feel like that’s a contribution I can offer to dealing with this art form in the age of the Anthropocene.

This also means dealing with the question of whiteness and humanness that we already discussed, which has been a journey we’ve been on for quite some time, at least since 2013’s all white people look the same to me. Still I’d like to note that the piece won’t be only dealing with these issues, they’re merely a few of the starting points for kicking off the work, along with other topics such as messianic temporalities, doomsday cults, different concepts of “new worlds,” and more things that will come up on the way. I can’t and also don’t want to know right now where the process will be as we continue, not knowing is to my understanding part of the practice of the ideas I propose above.

DM: You once described to me the scenery of this new work as “a tribe of women in the process of training for life after a catastrophic event or preparing for an imminent one.” Should we expect to see a space designed as a distraught wasteland or a bunker?

AEA: Yes, it’s a beautiful crew of women who will be featured in the show, coming from different backgrounds and holding different experiences. Tatiana has acting training, Jess is a singer, and Cassie is a dancer, and we’re also joined by Sarah Thom who is one of the founders of Gob Squad [An influential Berlin-based performance collective, known for their blending of video and reality], so between all their sensibilities the performative texture will be rich and layered. I’m not sure yet what the space will look like, but like you mentioned, we will flirt with the temporality of disaster without saying precisely if it already happened or is about to. So maybe sometimes it will feel like a bunker or a wasteland, but it will also explore the physical implications of the original Greek meaning of ἀποκάλυψις (apokalypsis)—a revelation, an unveiling. There is something inherent in the architecture of traditional modern theater, with its off stage spaces, curtains, and proscenium, that invites a dynamic of revealing and concealing, showing off on the one hand and keeping secrets on the other. I’m sure we will play with this dynamic when building the space and the actions. So you can definitely expect some shenanigans [ … laughs … ].

DM: You produce your pieces as Ariel Efraim Ashbel and friends. Some of the friends you’ll be bringing to Graz you already mentioned. This time you’ll also be collaborating with renowned Israeli artist Eli Petel and several more frequent and/or longtime collaborators will be involved as well. How would you characterize your role as the director in such a professional and creative team?

AEA: That’s a question I keep asking myself with every project. The way my work evolves is taking me further and further away from the traditional director role; a fatherly, guru-y, all-knowing dude who has all the answers. Right now I see myself as a facilitator or a host, lucky to be surrounded by incredible artists who I admire, and more than searching for answers I raise questions in the universe we’re carving for each show. Romm and I create a frame and invite the team to operate as authors in it, using it as a springboard and pushing and flexing it as we all see fit. Alongside the performers, I’m working again with Berlin musical duo Hacklander \ Hatam who will make the original music for the piece. We’ve been working together for a couple of years now and have a fruitful collaboration that keeps on giving. Colin Hacklander and Farahnaz Hatam are working with sound and music in a similar way to how I treat the theatrical apparatus; they approach sound phenomenologically, break it open, and develop techniques to deconstruct and reconstruct the sounds in ways that discover new compositional possibilities, which many times will become dramaturgical decisions. With Eli it’s different because it’s the first time we’re working together. He’s an amazing artist and someone I looked up to as a young person starting to navigate the art world so I’m super excited he’s on board. Also he’s never done stage before so it’s extra special. We’re friends so our conversation has been going on for a couple of years. I knew the moment to collaborate would present itself and am very happy it’s happening now. As the process is progressing we’re sliding into our roles intuitively and figuring out step by step how to compose together. From the beginning it was evident that Eli is much more than a “stage designer,” he’s a partner in understanding the visual articulation of this piece and all the things it wants to do. Also Joseph Wegmann who is doing the lights is a close friend. As I have a lights background myself, a lot of the ideas for scenes start from semi-technical conversations about stuff we want to try out.

Between everyone’s ideas, tendencies, and schedules, I’m like the guy helping the traffic to move, giving directions—literally “directing.” So while I’m kind of the ringmaster of this circus, more than anything else I engage in a conversation with my friends and see where the practice takes us. I anyway can’t tell any of these divas what to do.