Saturday 20 April 2019

Building an Alternative to the Death of the Social Requires Time, Distance and Disengagement

Meriam Bousselmi of Tunisia is always fascinating to talk to as she has such a lovely, ingrained philosophical sensibility - and I found myself quoting what she said in this interview at Safe Havens 2018 in Sweden last December frequently over subsequent months. I also like the way she switches between languages when one appears insufficient, though for the reader that requires a little translation,

Michael: Meriam, you occupy a bit of an unusual space in that you are both a lawyer and a theatre director so you occupy the intersection of the spaces we have been talking about. Talk a little bit about how that evolved, how did you straddle both worlds which are often seen as being quite antagonistic or different worlds.

Meriam: I think first since I was a child my ambition was to write books so I really fell into books and I had this ability to be sensitive to the words and the movement of words and I can’t say why I chose that but it was my destiny in a way. But at the same time I had this strong feeling for justice and injustice and I wanted to become the president of the [Tunisian] republic, to change the world and to make myself more famous – which is not working now. And it was the orientation when I got my baccalaureate to choose to orient myself to enrol in a political science and legal university but before I was at university, I started already my career as a writer and play director in the amateur field but then I was in the professional field because I produced some texts, some books and some plays and I stated also to be in international workshops, atelier, projects. So it was both in parallel because I also got for five years training as a dramaturge and mise en scène in the Centre de Arabo-Africaine de Formation et Recherche in Hamra in Tunisia and I had my career as a lawyer. I wanted first to make my political career, so first year of political science I wanted to build my political party so I went to all the parties to see what are the strategies. And then I failed because I realised politics is about compromise and diplomacy, and I am a radical and I could not get what I want in a very direct way, so I said I will seek this through my art and through my work as an independent, and how can I build these inbetween spaces. Actually, I was very interested in these inbetween spaces; sometimes it can be very difficult with both careers as a lawyer and as an artist, they are freelance careers, lifetime jobs, not just office jobs. But I am working in these in-betweens and I have this ability to make the bridge and to try to be a facilitator in both sides. But we also need more creativity in our work; I think we are really missing (there are good project managers, project leaders, administrators) but there are not a lot of creatives, there are not a lot of people having a vision, the possibility to look at things from another perspective, to challenge the structures.

Michael: So you see yourself as a connector, connecting these disparate blocks and trying to build something?

Meriam: Yes, I have this ability because I have training from both sides to fly or to move freely between both sides, but also to create that which is inbetween. Like for example now I am working in research and I am talking about the staging of injustice , so I see how the concept of justice is not just a state institution, justice is a value and we have legal constructions of justice all over the world but justice is also part of the fictional construction of artists and writers and philosophers – and how both these words are communicating, how we’ve moved from a value of fictional construction, from an artistic construction, a creative construction to the state and visa-versa. So to explore what is inbetween and to explore the potential of this inbetweenness because people tend to be organised in entities and not explore what is inbetween because it is unknown. So I like to be in this un errant – it’s a kind of wandering – but I think it’s a very interesting wandering because it’s challenging to me but it’s also inspiring to others, also because I bring different performative languages in both sides. When I am with lawyers, they say “yes, the artist!” and when I am with the artists they see me as the lawyer [laughs]. So this inbetweenness is really je voi sais qua commune rechesse [I know you]; I see this as something rich and something I need to explore with more time and more tools to do my work.

Michael: You certainly have seen this rise from within progressive academia of the need for a multidisciplinary approach – but we’re up against a reactionary mood globally that is about compartmentalising, trying to roll back this notion of the interconnectivity of disciplines into discrete compartments that can be better managed I guess by this rightist and populist demagoguery. So navigating those inbetween spaces, those grey areas, in an environment in which there is this drive to make everything black-and-white…

Meriam: Exactly, this binary narrative or binary approach of the world, I think this is a classical way of knowledge, a classical way of education and a classical way of reflecting the matters of the world in terms of le science dures, le science molles [hard science, soft science]. I think today we need another kind of knowledge, another kind of education, another kind of reflecting the world because with the new media and internet and all this facility today to get information, before if you want to learn something, you have to look for the books, you had to travel, information was not accessible to everyone; today you are at your home and you can connect to several bibliothèques [libraries] in the world, you can connect to several articles, you know what is going on, then you have this, le savoir, the knowledge is not anymore that you are specialised in philosophy or you are specialised only in chimie [chemistry]. If we go back to the Greeks, the philosophers were also the scientists, the birth of science, the birth of knowledge was wide…

Michael: So we went from a situation where knowledge was always a polymath thing, a multiverse, and now we are coming back?

Meriam: Overspecialisation. And now we are coming back. We don’t have another solution because the complexity of the world needs a perspective where you can have different levels of analysing what is going on, a situation or a fact or a change in society. We cannot for example look at what is going on today with the rise of right-wing or popularism or liberal democracy without having notions of what is happening on the economic side, what is happening with the cultural side, what is happening with group psychology: you have to look at it with different eyes and to have this scientific knowledge, you have to look widely, you have to look at the inbetweenness, the intersections, in order to understand. It’s also a very speedy change; we don’t have the time to recognise how our societies are changing.

Michael: There are uncomfortable inbetween spaces as well, particularly for those who are stateless or undocumented migrants, that sort of thing. How do you navigate those spaces – because you actually want some sort of solidity, you want some document, you want a home of sorts?

Meriam: I am in a search, and I am observing and I am trying to make an interpretation of what are the changes, to be more reflective of what the changes are and what is behind this changing and where this changing is leading. And I think the main important question today we are neglecting, a lot of artists as well, and this is where I am not happy, is that we are driven all the time to react to the immediate questions, to be more [engaged] in comments like journalists and not visionary, not having the time to think of what will remain, what is the next, what is the alternative? It’s not enough to be critical because it doesn’t add a simple scratch to the system; it’s good…

Michael: But you need to build an alternative.

Meriam: Exactly. And for that you need time, and you need distance, and you need other tools, and you cannot be immediate. Today if you are an artist you are invited to talk about the release of your new book, you have one hour, we will ask you for fifty minutes about your idea about what is going on with the right wing, what do you think about the situation in Yemen, what do you think about the situation about immigration, did you hear about the new robot who feels more human, and what is your fear about the future – so everything, and then ten minutes about your book! So you have to be the expert of everything and nothing, so you have to collect information and some words work better so you have this performative language as well to give a proximative answer and to give this idea that you know everything. No-one dares to say “I don’t know, I’m sorry I am working, please ask me about my field. I need one year or two years, and I was just concentrating on that” – and it’s not the topic of the day. No-one dares to say that because we have self-censorship, we have this pressure to not forget that artists they are all the time making this self-censorship because they want to succeed and if I make this, will it be good for my career or not? If I have this space, I have to show that I am engaged. I mean for me sometimes today, disengaging seems to be the most clever way to say “no” because when the mainstream narratives instrumentalise the vocabulary or instrumentalise the notions that come up from the left or from the defenders or the opponents to the mainstream narratives, this is a problem. Who is engaged? Everyone is engaged. You ask everyone, he will vote for a right-winger and he will say “yes I paid twenty euros, yesterday I went to see a Syrian group playing music to support Syria,” I mean, it’s crazy. Everything is confused and everything is instrumentalised. Radicalism today is be completely against, to disengage, voila! 

Michael: I was very intrigued by that brief conversation we had on email before we came here. We were just playing around, I guess with some ideas around poetry and philosophy and the notion of death. And that’s the ultimate question that confronts us all, but one of the themes that has raised up in this conference is the death of the social, how society, and the notion of solidarity is dying off and how we are really facing that. Can you perhaps reflect a bit on that?

Meriam: Yes, for me we live in times when we think that we are engaged but we are superficially engaged, we are engaged because we – I don’t want to say all of us, but I can say the majority – a lot among us, they are making business out of victimisation, out of playing the role of the hero who is going to save the victims. So this binary way to look at for example artistic freedom: we have people displaying victimhood and people displaying as the saviours, the heroes, the one who will save the world. This is not a balanced situation because in both sides there is an interest. The big difficulty today when I think about poetry and philosophy is to produce beauty and value. We live in a neo-liberalistic society where everything is tout le monetaire, everything is monetised, so nothing is outside of money. I would like with you tomorrow to make a conference in South Africa or in Tunisia but we need for that to get the money, and to get the money what do we need? We need this applications proposal, we need to master the language…

Michael: Of the donors, to speak in their terms to their interests.

Meriam: Exactly. Already we put for ourselves frames because we have to get the possibility to do it. So pure beauty, this poetry of art for me, I don’t want to politicise art; I think art is political but I am against politicising art; art is important in itself because it’s useless, its way [is] to challenge the structures, the conformists, the orthodoxies, to bring new sight, to bring this pause from everyday life, to bring a moment of release, it’s in itself giving you space to rethink your life. So why should I again politicise art and say we are supporting Syrian artists at risk – because what means artists at risk when everyone is at risk, everyone who is producing in any country is at risk because he is challenging, whatever he is doing. When Paul Klee put feet to the pillars when he was six years old and his teacher said “please you have to draw the aqueduct” and among twenty pupils, one child, Paul Klee, chose to put shoes to the pillars and since then the aqueducts are walking; he opened something in reality that no-one before him saw, no-one drew aqueducts with shoes; it’s completely a new opening in the world. And when you open something like that it is creating for you the ability to see the world in another way, even in your everyday life. So poetry for me is a high form against what we can sell and what we cannot sell, and I think beauty today, the ability to produce beauty, which is not saleable, which is not a product…

Michael: It’s not prettiness; it’s truth.

Meriam: Absolutely. It’s like Kafka says: it’s like the knife which is scratching my mind in order to make me see the reality of what I am and what the world is, and I think it’s this difficulty of saying we are missing solidarity because solidarity means that I believe in you; I don’t do it because I am waiting for something else, I am not waiting for recognition, I am not making money, I am not doing a network, I am not selling a concept, I am not applying a concept. Solidarity for me means, for example, those people during World War Two they were hiding children and they never say it and after fifty years someone found some documents [but] but they did it because it was their ability to judge.

Michael: So when you say I believe in you, it means I see you, I actually truly see you. 

Meriam: Exactly. And I judge that I am in a position to do something in order to allow you a chance, or the ability to get something, but I don’t do it out of an obligation. I do it out of trust.

Michael: You are not a symbol for me, you are not a tool in my design. You are different to me, you are your own, but I see you as your own.

Meriam: Exactly. And it’s me who is taking the risk, it’s not the other who is at risk, and the balance of the relationships are different then and this is beauty. Beauty is to recognise the human in you – and this human is enough, that makes me stand up and say I judge for myself that it is my duty in these circumstances that if I have something to do for you I will do it and I don’t need anyone to tell me or to give me the tools to do it, I will find myself the tools to do it. And this kind of beauty is what is missed because we are in very indifferent societies, and very egoistic, individualistic societies, which is why we also need this balance with a big movement, because if we look at the last five to ten years we have this rise of this movement for artistic freedom. It started with journalists and then moved now to artists and is now moving to female or feminist discourses; these movements which are from civil society they are part of the system. For me everything needs to be explained by economics and one of the most important books I read in my life from a contemporary writer and Nobel Prize winner, the Bengali writer Amartya Sen, wrote a book. He’s a scientist but he was very interested to understand why there is this injustice and inequality in the world and he tried to look at what is going on in the economic structures, and how economics shape values, and I think his book The Concept of Justice, is a very interesting as a vision of how our world is shaped and what the economical system makes wrong. He will open a window for making counter-narratives, but counter-narratives that are based on the money they get from this system so it’s just like performing all the time that we are trying to make the change. But why this change never comes when all of us are willing to change the situation, is because it’s just performative, and what makes things change is solidarity, so out of institutions, out of the big mass movements, what we shape in a collectivity is the exception, and beauty also is an exception. As I said what will remain when we read the texts coming from the Greek era, or I read Lalla [the poet Lalleshwari], or I read Omar Khayyam, the same guys left this world one thousand years ago but I stay connected to their writing, so human beings will always face the same difficulties in another context and with other tools, but we have the same existential questions and we can connect through that. Me or you as artists we are so excited to get recognition, to see that others are interested in our work, but a book is written to go through time, traverse le temps; a book is passion, it has time, it has no problem to stay there for five thousand years and someone will read it later. The writer is in a hurry, the book is not in a hurry, the painting is not in a hurry, we are in a hurry, humans are in a hurry. That is why also this kind of responsibility if we see how we are shaping policies, and how we are doing architecture, how we are treating with nature, with overproduction, with climate change, we are just interested in tomorrow and today but not in the long-term. The programmes we are selling here [at Safe Havens] or trying to do, they are maximum two years, nothing after two years. Ask our colleagues: after two years, what are people supposed to do? They will try to be the heroes of their lives and find a solution to stay and if not, they have go back. Do you think that it is easier to go back and to start from the beginning, how difficult for them to restart again from zero after leaving and coming back with nothing? No-one has an answer. I am for the second time in Malmö; I am so happy to be here and to exchange with colleagues and to have more open-heart conversations and these small tables were a good idea, but since last year I am asking the same question and no-one has an answer. As a student, I don’t want to get a fish every night, I want you to teach me how to hunt my fish. This is the investment we have to do as writers or as architects or whatever, because the word is not only today, it’s also the future like other people before us in humanity made a transmission of knowledge, of architecture, of books that we read and we seek in it consolation, we seek in it wisdom, we seek in it healing to continue.