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

This is the second part of a two-part interview with UK-based theatre-maker and political performance artist, Javaad Alipoor. You can read Part I here.

I too have a critical philosophy background and only recently made practicing art my official thing, so the idea of approaching theory as an artist and art as a theorist to transgress the boundaries of each is appealing to me. To circle back to hyper-objectivity – Timothy Morton’s concept of the crisis of the Anthropocene, where we as humans are to deal with definite but huge objects, such as the consequences of climate change – are you creating a space of refuge or shelter, a sense of solidarity in the face of these great challenges?

In some ways I’m doing the opposite of that, though opposites can often be quite similar… The internet is a hyper-object in the sense that it’s an unimaginably large, but definite thing that is very difficult to take responsibility over or manage. In the show Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran, we get you to go on and into the internet. Rather than giving a space of refuge away from that, we’re making a space in which you feel that you are complicit and understand your level of complicity. Then, at the end, we delete the Instagram account used for the show. Part of this exercise is understanding how you are already actively and creatively shaping something. It is complex, in that it is complicated to take agency.

What drives you to engage with these subject matters? Is it anger? 

Funnily enough, it’s often not anger about the subject itself, but rather anger about the stupid way it’s talked about.

The show Believers plays this dramaturgical game: ostensibly I, as a British mixed race and Muslim, am going to talk about Muslims being radical. I start off going, “What’s the problem with young Muslim men?” But we end up asking, “What’s the problem with young men?” Halfway through the show, you realize that actually one of the main characters is this white racist, a sort of incel school shooter. It’s about masculinity and technology, about wealth and consumerism. There, I was really angry about the racist, Islamophobic discussion, and that motivated me to create the piece. But to be honest, my real motivations have to do with the fact that I have been lucky to find theatre and a little section of the global theatre community who is interested in my work.

You mentioned complicity. Do you see an optimal way to face the climate crisis in some sort of collective complicity?

I’m not a climate policy specialist, but I am convinced that one of the tragedies at the moment is that the greatest challenges that human beings are facing are challenges that need a collective global solution. For instance, COVID-19 – and let’s be clear, COVID-19 is related to climate change – anthropogenic climate change, the global refugee crisis… These issues are not entirely reducible to each other, but they are linked. They require collective global action but there isn’t a collective global subject capable of delivering that action. The tragedy lies in that the grand political projects of the 20th century were all built on the idea of one collective subject that would somehow come together, and shape the world for the better. If you’re a Marxist, that’s the international working class, the global peasantry in Africa and Asia. If you’re a feminist, it’s probably women. Everyone had a subject that was going to redeem things.

And of course, that never happened. 

So you are calling for an understanding of the material diversity in this global society project, and then holding people accountable more as individuals.

Somehow there has to be action together. The problem is: we live in a world which is more and more nationalistic, more and more intensely market-driven, both of which optimize individuals and atomize countries.

What’s the third part of your trilogy?

It is going to look at the relationship between violence and theatre and the internet. There’s an Iranian pop star from the 70s named Fereydoun Farrokhzad, whose story I’m interested in. He was a huge star, then he escaped and went to Germany where he got mobbed by people. Then he became a man with no money who lived in a small flat over a shopping mall. He was murdered incredibly brutally in 1990: he was stabbed more than 70 times, his tongue was cut out, and his genitals cut off… The German police never solved the case. 

Now, one thing that’s really interesting about the internet is the way it promises an equality of access to other human beings. I’m talking to you, you’re talking to me, but of course there are great divides in the world. If I think about my own family background, there is this fundamental divide between refugees and people who aren’t refugees. Certain things can happen in the refugee world and they don’t even matter. You know, a lot of the refugees who get to Europe are better off as refugees, because if you’ve got no money and you’re not European… The irony about people not wanting refugees is that the ones who get here are incredibly ambitious, incredibly educated, and incredibly driven. I’m interested in looking at the humanist promise of the internet, which says that everyone can be equal before the screen. In India, for example, more people have access to smartphones than to running water. 

We also got a podcast starting in about two months and we’re working on an installation project called Pop Icons. We’re going to Australia and England and maybe a couple of other countries to work with minority communities. If you’re an immigrant from the Global South, you probably have a box of tapes that your dad or your mom or their auntie brought from back home. With this project, we’re asking people to play those tapes from that great period of migration, the 70s, when everyone came. The 70s is also the great period of pop music: genres like Ethiopian jazz, garage rock, Turkish psychedelia, Iranian farming, and Afrobeat emerged then. Basically we are going to collect loads of these tapes and find a way to share them. 

Thank you, Javaad. I am excited to see and hear these upcoming pieces.

(Top image: Production of Rich Kids: The History of Shopping Malls in Tehran. Photo by Peter Dibdin.)


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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