On the occasion of MoMA PS1’s survey exhibition of the Iranian-American theater director Reza Abdoh, which travels to travels to KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, February 2–April 29, 2019, Performa Magazine is pleased to feature a 1994 interview between Abdoh and the independent curator and performance studies scholar André Lepecki. The interview, which was originally featured in the French magazine Mouvement (no 8., July August), is featured here in English for the first time. It provides an intimate look into the director’s process and thinking around his production “Quotations From a Ruined City” (1993), the last piece he created before he died of complications related to AIDS at the age of 32.
Reza Abdoh is one of the most challenging, thought-provoking American directors of today. His new piece, "Quotations From a Ruined City”, premiered in February on a West Side industrial loft in Manhattan, will be touring Europe this Summer. "Quotations..." is one of those rare and extraordinary moments of poetical, intellectual, emotional, and political excellence on stage. It is a piece on death and destruction, a piece on the potential for ruining that we all carry inside us. But it is also a piece on hope and resistance, on the possibilities of redemption. Sarajevo appears as the explicit quoted city. AIDS, as the implicit hovering ghost, hope as the resistant energy.
After seeing "Quotations..." twice I asked Reza Abdoh for an interview. "Quotations...", in more than one sense, has the power of a manifesto and I felt that a review would be senseless without Reza's own voice manifesting his ideas on the theater, on the world, on living. Reza Abdoh received me in his apartment on 44th street and Broadway, two days after "Quotations..." ended its four-week run in New York. We talked about his work, his art, his ideas on the theater and the dance. What you are about to read is a montage of my own scattered notes on the piece with Reza's own voice.
-André Lepecki, New York, April 1994
Reza Abdoh: I developed "Quotations..." in Los Angeles, I did a workshop of it, invited artists come to see it...but I have done everything I could do in LA. I had nothing else to offer LA. I am not one of those people who thinks LA is Just phony. Everywhere is phony—the plasticlty of the culture is everywhere. But New York is where I really worked on the piece. There is a lot of NY energy and also NY actors...
I would say that "Quotations..." is an accumulation of my previous work. And also a distillation of what I have been working for a long time. In the making of the piece I knew that I wanted to think about ruins. I wanted to think about them in different ways and connect them in different ways: physical and emotional. I wanted to associate these different ideas and patterns of ruins. And I knew there was going to be no character or anything like that.
André Lepecki: The scatological language reminds of William Burroughs—the text takes the viewer to a new land of performed poetry. The interzone of war as the ruined city that lives inside us all. Obscenity as the language of the land.
Basically I wrote sections of poetry and connected them. I am a very visual director, I think often of images but text also happens at the same time. I write the texts in the same way that I conceive and create the rest of the work, where I just think of an idea of what I want to say and sit down and write. This particular work I wrote with my brother, we worked the text together but, at the same time, I am one of those theater directors who can only deal with one vision, and that reflects in the way I work with my actors. I have to have my own vision from the very beginning and then go to rehearsal and, of course, evolve it (for me that's what rehearsals are for). I have worked with most of the company for a long time so they understand my vocabulary, what I am asking for.
The obsessive dances possessing the dancers. A fierce ball. A dance of skeletons mingled with 1920's foxtrot-steps and dervish dancers. The way the absurdity of the language pervades the absurdity of the movement and gestures and builds a cruel-crazy world, repetitive, repetitive…
Essentially I believe—just like a lot of pioneering choreographers, especially contemporary choreographers—that we are in a constant state of motion, that we never stop moving, no matter what. I feel that dance and movement are an essential part of human experience. I use dance all the time in my work, dance informs my work a lot. In "Quotations..." the dance appears as a combination of different things:
American dance forms, Middle-eastern dance forms, Meyerhold’s biomechanics…quite often you can express so much more through dance than through the use of language. Dance is more universal but at the same time more abstract than language. I like that.
The frenzy of imagery, the nervousness of the soundscape. Screams. Images and descriptions of torture and pain. A surreal countdown. Time is always running. “LET THEM BE." “HOLLYWOOD.” “SARAJEVO!!” Silly songs. The horror. Grasping for air to survive in the Ruined City. The masks of colorful fierceness. Some unknown culture. The Arabic texts. The Arab narrator. The stones. The inventions. The confessions love. The beasts. The woman- horse biting her hand. The absurdity of it all.
I really don't care about narrative at all. I am against narrative, I am against character, I am against plot, I am against story line...it seems to me absurd to do that today. It would be like painting in an impressionist style in late twentieth century...but unfortunately American theater doesn't have an understanding of this progress. That's why directors like Bob Wilson or Richard Foreman have never been appreciated here. I am not saying that my work is similar to theirs, but it has the same non-linear, abstract mode. I think Americans don't understand my work at all because the tradition of the American theater from Arthur Miller to Tony Kushner or David Mamet is based on narrative and characters. That work has a value but I don't like it. It bores me. It doesn't appeal to my aesthetics, it doesn't stimulate me intellectually. I think is too easy, too facile. I like work that is very complex, like mathematical equations. I do not like work that is too easily digestible.
Women-as-nurses. Women holding each other’s breasts in delicate posture. Two women in the play.
Gender for me is somehow a form of control. Often in my work you will see gender being exchanged. Not something as easy or facile as woman playing a man or man playing a woman—that's obvious. But a whole notion and contextualization of womanhood or manhood is something that I am always questioning. I do believe that men and women are two completely different species (just like Burroughs, I think), that the war between the sexes—somehow is a real one, because we really don't understand them and they really don't understand us. But at the same time I feel that if we just accept that and not try to do something about understanding each other, then it will always be just an endless sort of running around, of not getting anywhere.
The sound of electric shocks that blast the stage white. The loving and the touching and the killing. The overdubbing voices. Naked skin. Surfaces that cannot touch. The distortions in the videos. Porno films, kung fu films, I930's gangster films. The tender final embrace that closes the piece.
It is very easy to just give up all hope and just say "I am just going to roost in my own ennui." It is very easy to do that and of course a lot of people do. But as an artist I feel it is extremely important to be aware of the environment and of your surroundings because ultimately what you are writing about is on human experience. No matter what you're saying, it is about human experience. What you are creating is about human experience, even if it is very mainstream and conservative or very, very abstract. Even if all the writing that you're creating was but shapes and forms, it would still relate to a certain idea that is instigated by being human. So it is unavoidable to always put into question and examine the different characteristics of humanity, of progress and evolution.
Death. Redemption. Resistance.
I think that there is always the possibility that a sense of destruction, a sense of self-destruction, can also lead to redemption. But it is a real waste of time to think about redemption in those terms. The next project that I am already working on is called "Leaden Tears." It is about redemption and the concept of personal, private absolution, a private redemption, rather than religious redemption. I think this is such a private issue that we need to find our own way through the tunnel. What I am against is dogma, I think whatever we do we need to do to it in order to get free. Like Genet, for example. Whatever he did was to get freer rather than get more knocked down, a bit more imprisoned by the dogma of society. And for me that is a real lesson, that is a real inspiring role model. Because so often we are so concerned in how we are perceived that we forget that what this society will ultimately look like will be because of its individuals.
In the ruined city hope only happens at the last moments of an individual despair—the one of the dying man by the soothing green tree on the bare white stage: "Are you ready to go, my son?" Alone by that tree he resists—the only promise of a future that is left.
This man by the tree represents the ruins of the body, more than anybody else in the piece. The actor himself is very sick and I wrote a monologue with him in mind and of course myself and many friends who are going through... problems...and Ron Vauter died the day this interview was made. So, he represents a certain kind of ruin of the body, a physical ruin that is really coupled with bravery and hope and love, and a sense of eternity that has really nothing to do with the body, that is more deeper, more profound. I think that hope is within the individual, basically. I think as long as we just retain a sense of dignity about ourselves and a sense of intelligence, clarity of vision and not just rebel for the sake of rebellion—but certainly rebel when we are being injusticed—and as long as we do not buy into the media feeding-frenzy and the establishment imposing their will on us, as long as we resist that, as long as we resist mainstream and the claws of the dominant culture, and the media, and press—the police—as long as we do that and do it intelligently, and with thought, through our art for example, there will be hope inside us...
André Lepecki is Professor and Chairperson at the Department of Performance Studies at New York University. Editor of several anthologies on dance and performance theory including Of the Presence of the Body (2004) and Dance (2012). An independent performance curator, he has created projects for HKW-Berlin, MoMA-Warsaw, the Hayward Gallery, Haus der Künst-Munich, Sydney Biennial 2016, among others. Author of Exhausting Dance: performance and the politics of movement (2006, translated into eleven languages), and of Singularities: dance in the age of performance (2016). AICA-US award “Best Performance” 2008 for co-curating and directing the authorized redoing of Allan Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (a commission of Haus der Kunst 2006, performed at PERFORMA 07).