The empire of remote witnesses

Superamas create ‘Empire (Art & Politics)’ at La Villette in Paris

Corpus 9 Jul 2008English

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The Espace Charlie Parker at La Villette is all but an intimate theatre: a huge hall with an auditorium sitting at a distance from a raised stage, a large frame left open in a black wall. Against three white panels as a backdrop, some scenes and intrigues from a Napoleonic battle are re-enacted. Violence, condescension, lust, rape, racism: all reduced to a series of expressionist tableaux vivants, underscored by impressive light, sound and costumes. Distance. Frame. Flatness. Postcards almost. An off-screen voice relates the Aspern Essling battle in 1809, in which 40,000 men lost their lives in only two days. "It is the bloodiest battle of its time and even to this day the Austrian and French military both claim victory on the field." Bloody and unresolved, the battle is an uncanny metaphor for the conflicts that underpin representations of Europe, from the Viennese Congress till today, covering its countenance with historical dust.

History, politics and representation are recurring issues in the work of the French-Austrian (!) collective Superamas, who created a large-scale and complex piece with Empire (Art & Politics). The Napoleonic re-enactment is only the upbeat for throwing out and piling up more unsettling issues. Are Superamas intent on writing a counter-history of Europe's modernity? Perhaps, but the message is also to be looked for in the form, in the subtle deconstruction of representational regimes, in the reflections on the actual place where history's debris is being stirred up. We are in a theatre – that is at least where the re-enactment seems to happen at first sight. Later on, the re-enactment turns out to be staged by Superamas (as characters in the piece) on the invitation of the French Ambassador, whom we meet at the subsequent party. And all this is obviously staged by the actual collective Superamas, layering different representational strata. So where are we?

Disembodied eye

What connects the different planes and scenes in Empire (Art & Politics) is a camera, wielded by a cameraman, his assistant and a sound guy. When the re-enactment of the battle is almost over, the camera enters the dark stage, scanning dead bodies with a searchlight. Afterwards, the camera will be present at the Ambassador's party, registering people's speeches, stories, chatter, gossip and jokes. The actual film, we never get to see. The focus is on the camera, which is nothing else than the spectator's proxy on stage, symbolizing the comfortable position of ‘remote witnessing', but also its paradoxes and obscenity. The camera is not unlike the television news' disembodied eye, which continuously feeds us the fiction of an omnipresent, true yet undisturbed view upon the ‘world'.

The re-enactment of a historical battle isn't much more than a grotesque take on the possibility of a genuine representation of war – and by extension of geo-politics, our global reality, the capitalist empire, and so on. As an alternative proposal, Superamas (again, as characters) travel with their camera to Afghanistan to interview the Iranian film maker Samira Makhmalbaf, driven by the idea to create an artistic and documentary view in dialogue with a colleague – an idea that came up at yet another party. This film (staged, to be sure) is being screened but doesn't quite show the expected genuine, clever, politically correct art film. Superamas expose themselves as cowboys propelled by an exoticist and pornographic desire for the ‘real' – and don't hesitate to infuse it with a gendered pigment. Phantasms of proximity don't quite make up for the artists' acknowledgement of their position as remote witnesses and the endeavour to come to terms with it. Yet is there an alternative to address this issue beyond irony, in full awareness of our perspective?

The ‘&’

The French Ambassador's party brings different people together, from politicians, celebrities and artists to a Somalian refugee: a motley, global crowd, not quite quotidian, but not bereft of dissensus either. Again, the modern comfort of remote witnessing permeates many dialogues: the Ambassador's naïve humanism, the celebrities' charity, the artists' politically correct discourses, the scholars' desktop activism, and so on. Yet, Superamas are not just intent on poking fun at the consensus-ridden leftist art world. Full awareness of their (and our) perspective means for Superamas also to move beyond critical theory's generic Western heterosexual white male. All the characters in Empire (Art & Politics) are formed and haunted by the paradoxes and contradictions of their global condition, of their personal lives and desires, of their art, politics and beliefs – epitomized by the title's ‘&'.

Superamas' strategy to reveal this ingrained ambiguity and multiplicity is almost literary, though it is rather an ignitable cocktail of clichés than psychological depth that tempts them. The fourteen characters have different lives and interests, but also discover clashing energies in their own chest – personal traits that disturb the stereotype's unambiguity. Though the characters are stereotyped, the acting in Empire (Art & Politics) is not exaggerated, and in that respect altogether different than in Superamas' BIG trilogy. Professional actors and dancers, amateurs and ‘readymade characters' are all treated the same way as performers, which adds an interesting complexity to the work. Moreover: the work with blunt stereotypes brings up the question of embodiment again.


Which language goes beyond the characters' flatness and resonates with their bodies, is maybe even inscribed in their history? Jamal Mataan may very well be a Somalian refugee in real life, performing a slightly fictionalized version of his own story. But it also works the other way around: actor Davis Freeman is rather at ease with performing the ‘American guy'. This creates a slippery zone between embodiment, fictionalisation and blunt stereotyping, rather than making a singular truth stand out. The bodies' ‘proper' language is subtly used to show how uncannily close the ‘world' actually is, how the empire of global capitalism percolates our veins.

In contrast to the comfort of remote witnessing, Empire (Art & Politics) dissects the empire's many languages. Our global condition is literally captured in a mixture of English, French, Arabic, Portuguese and Parsee – not always subtitled or interpreted, so as to introduce the issue of ignorance, which spreads out to culture at large. But language is also official speech, bad jokes to create an atmosphere of shared understanding, indifference toward other people's names, personal drama disguised as lifestyle magazine talk, the alleged ‘universal' language of bodily desire captured in a popular dance (think ‘Do the mojito with Bacardi'), violence of war inscribed on people's bodies, and so on. Violence, condescension and ignorance linger in each moment, becoming all the more legible and overt in Superamas' blowing them up to a whirlwind of clichés.


As a spectator you cannot but ride all these waves and go through a rather unsettling journey of conflicting perceptions, feelings, thoughts – which includes the drama and violence residing in it, the many languages and representational regimes at work, but also a resistance toward cliché and reductionism that backfires and pulls you into self-observation. Again: where are we? (Yes, we are individual spectators, but both in the theatre and in the empire we are perhaps also a ‘we', despite, or thanks to, our liberal disposition.) We are all over the place, though the camera keeps moving and makes us believe and live this expression differently. Empire (Art & Politics) ends with stunning fireworks, a myriad sparks and configurations of light. The camera's probing light and the luminous globes hovering above the Ambassador's party, as symbols for the detachment, overview and universalism that we associate with Enlightenment, transform into yet another remote spectacle descending into the theatre. It is an ambiguous celebration of the remote witnesses' empire – like it or not, it is our very history and condition.

For all it proposes, Empire (Art & Politics) is an important work of art, an utmost contemporary and worldly critical statement in a clear and challenging form. Superamas are not heralds of transparency though, nor of a particular ideology. They are not believers, but does it mean they are only ironic or even cynical? Superamas are ready to suspend any generalised truth and present us with a diagnosis of our times in its disquieting complexity. Mirrored in Enlightenment's fireworks, Empire (Art & Politics) elicits a conflicting, heterogeneous imaginary realm. Yet not only do Superamas deconstruct the empire as today's main grand narrative, they equally shatter the secure base of well-meant critical activities that go under the banner ‘art & politics' – including their own.