The Job of Complicating: An interview with Javaad Alipoor, Part I

By Biborka Beres

The Javaad Alipoor Company is a UK-based theatre company led by artistic director Javaad Alipoor, who has been envisioning and creating extraordinary virtual theatre performances since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. His work has not only adapted to the challenge of transitioning theatrical performance from physical spaces to the virtual environment, but it has made extraordinary use of new tools and means, creating, for example, Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran. The show is a deep, historical exploration of a car crash involving the children of the Iranian elite as well as the present-day climate crisis, using Instagram Live.

I asked Javaad how his unique, politically-loaded storytelling informs his vision for the future, and how it helps him to engage with wide-scale, systemic issues such as consumerism and the climate crisis.

Can you tell me a little bit about how the idea for the performance came to you? This performance connects some seemingly disparate dots – how did you manage to do this in one virtual piece? 

This is the second part of a series of plays that I have been developing about contemporary technology and its relationship to contemporary politics. The first part was a play called The Believers Are But Brothers, which opened at Edinburgh a couple years ago and went to a few places in Australia, the U.S., and Europe. One of the things that interest me about the contemporary world is this seeming contradiction, where so-called technological progress gets quicker and quicker (although if you’ve seen Rich Kids, it probably doesn’t surprise you that I don’t necessarily think of it as progress), but at the same time, it seems to unleash a very ancient part of human beings. On the one hand, social media helps people connect; it gives shape to, for example, the #MeToo movement, and it helps Egyptian Democrats overthrow a dictator. On the other hand, it helps the far right all across the world: Bolsonaro, Orban, Germany, Brexit… The first part of the trilogy was about three young men who get involved with violent extremism through the internet, using an app called WhatsApp and its secret messaging feature. Two of them were young Muslims in the UK, then there was a white boy who supported Donald Trump. It looked at the radicalization of people who feel like losers.

Production of Rich Kids: The History of Shopping Malls in Tehran. Photo by Peter Dibdin. 
On the left: Javaad Alipoor.

I’m of mixed background myself; my mom’s English and my father’s from Iran. I speak Persian and I follow the news from the country. The rich kids of Tehran have actually become a real issue. It’s not just Iran, but a lot of developing countries: Zimbabwe, China. The people running these countries want to seem anti-imperialist, so in Iran, if you’re powerful, no matter how much money you’ve got, you don’t show off. Your whole justification is: you only care about Iran and Islam and standing up to the Americans. The problem is these guys have kids who don’t have those responsibilities, but have Instagram. That’s what I wanted to make a show about. I consider myself to be a bit of an anthropologist, so what I find interesting about the internet is the way it gives you an insight into super niche people’s lives. I can, within a few clicks, go on the websites that ISIS used to recruit people. Or I can see the Instagram accounts of people who are the children of dictators in the Middle East. 

Where that intersects with climate change is that I am not only an anthropologist, but a political artist, too. And a political artist has a very specific job to do.

How did you decide to explore climate change in this context, moving from political critique to locating it within a greater context, and talking about consumerism, for example? 

I would say that this is the job of a political artist. Then there is the job of a political intellectual or a political activist. I’m lucky I get to do all of these things. I write occasionally for The Guardian or The Independent about cultural politics or Middle Eastern politics. I’m a very political person and I’m immersed in lots of different campaigning groups. I was part of a movement in the UK, which started after Brexit. I don’t know if you’ve been to the UK much, but there has been a lot of very intense racism, not only against Polish people but against Blacks and Asians as well. Yes, a lot of these people are guest workers, but many of them have been here for three or more generations. The movement I was part of was about showing solidarity with them. There, I knew what the answer was. If I know what I think should happen, I write an article about it, or I might come and knock on your door and ask you to sign a petition, or say, “I think you should vote this way at this election.” However, there are deeper questions that are fundamentally about our relationship to history. Now, I don’t know what the answer to those are. This is where the tools of a theatermaker or filmmaker come in, since we have ways of developing an argument that can keep contradictions in our art. People ask me, especially regarding the show about radicalism, “What do you think we should do?” And I’d say, “Well, what I think is the thing you just watched.”

Yes, that speaks to complexity, but there’s also a high level of specificity in it. 

That’s what I mean when I say that a political artist has a specific job. It’s the job of complicating. I mean, I reckon our politics aren’t a million miles away from each other. So when I make a show like that, I’m not teaching you anything. We share a lot already. My hope as a political artist is to be able to complicate issues and to make people feel complicit and implicated in something greater than them. And also to give people provocations and things to think about. 

I found that a lot of artists believe performance is not about proving anything that’s already been proven scientifically, but about creating an intimate relationship between people and facts. What is the relationship between your work and scientific facts about the climate? 

I used to be a community worker until I was about 27. My academic background is in philosophy and religious studies; I wrote my Master’s thesis about psychoanalysis and Sufism – mystical Islam. I don’t necessarily trust the idea of scientific facts. That doesn’t mean climate change is just an opinion to me; I just think science is not what most people think it is. It’s certainly not the only domain of truth. 

I consider this question more in terms of commitment. I am more committed to critical theory and to philosophy than, say, scientific facts. In this show, I’m trying to explore how the fundamental political and moral challenge of climate change is to understand it as what a lot of philosophers of science say it is: the great challenge of the Anthropocene.

There’s a great post-Deleuzian philosopher called Timothy Morton, who wrote the book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the WorldHe makes the point that the great political and moral challenge we face around climate change is reckoning with non-infinite, definite but huge objects. This laptop I’m talking to you on now is going to take 25,000 years to break down. So I should take responsibility for something for 25,000 years – see, this idea is huge, but definite. And it is challenging the tradition of political and moral thinking about how we should act. Because if we think about human beings, as I say in the show, we are used to thinking in two kinds of timescales: we either think about me, my children, my parents, or we think about the infinite, God, Mohammad, or Moses.

That’s really difficult. What does that even mean? So, my relationship is to that kind of critical philosophy and critical thought rather than to scientific facts. I’m very pessimistic about the state of the world, as I think a lot of us are. I’m pessimistic about the possibility of truth coming from any of the specific and very mutilated categories of, let’s call it late capitalism. One has to be kind of radical about it. We might look at theatre and think most of it doesn’t really have anything to say about the world, but in the same way, most philosophy that happens in universities doesn’t have anything to say about the world either. These are mutilated, alienated, little forms of stuff. A friend of mine once told me to always approach these issues from the other direction. If you’re doing critical thought, engage with it like an artist, and if you’re doing art, engage with it like a critical theorist. I try to do that in my work. 

Thank you, Javaad.

In the second part of this interview, we discuss Javaad’s motivations to make work in theatre, tactics to engage with the climate crisis during COVID, as well as his plans for upcoming productions. 

(Top image: Production of The Believers Are But Brothers. Photo by The Other Richard.)

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Biborka Beres is a senior student at Bennington College in Vermont, USA, studying dance, drama and philosophy. Her interests and works lie at the intersection of socio-political change and the performing arts. In her interviews for the Artists & Climate Change blog, she is continuing her process of exploring how the arts can create models, practices and imaginary worlds which allow humans to coexist peacefully with nature and with each other.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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