When I entered the theater to see director Danny Boyle’s production of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at the beginning of June, it smelled like artificial butter, the lighting was poor, and my feet were unceremoniously shoved into a pair of raggedy black flip-flops. If that’s not exactly what one would expect upon entering London’s prestigious National Theatre, it’s because my sandals carried me, not through the doors of the National Theatre, on the south bank of the Thames, but into the Palace 9 Cineplex, in the bustling metropolis of South Burlington, Vermont, USA.
This witchcraft was accomplished thanks to the National Theatre Liveprogram, through which the theater broadcasts its performances live to cinemas across the English-speaking world. Their productions are not only beautifully staged and beautifully executed, but also beautifully filmed. Despite some camera angles that you wouldn’t experience at live theater, I didn’t feel as if I were at a cinema, but seated in the best possible seat in the whole of the National Theatre.
National Theatre Live, however, lacks the bravado of a live production, where even the audience is practically part of the show. The first and only time I was lucky enough to attend an opera at Lincoln Center, I was seated next to a delightful elderly gentleman who wore a top hat and offered to let me share his opera glasses. At Palace 9, however, which was mostly filled with ordinary popcorn-munching Vermonters in khaki shorts, top-hatted gentlemen were scarce. The quick pan of the National Theatre audience, at the start of the film, did not create the velvety fog of drama that envelops any theater after the house lights go down, and before the stage lights come up. And despite the excellent filming, I felt distant from the actors. One of the advantages of live performance is the way that the energy of the audience syncs with the energy of the performers — my relationship to Danny Boyle and the National Theatre, on the other hand, was entirely one-sided. I was lucky to be witnessing this production without a plane ticket to London, but it did not feel like a “theater experience.”
The show played twice, though I was only able to secure tickets for the first night. Benedict Cumberbatch, of BBC Sherlock fame, starred opposite Jonny Lee Miller (who, oddly enough, has recently been cast as Sherlock Holmes in a CBS television series called Elementary, airing in the fall) in this adaptation by playwright Nick Dear. On night one, Miller took on the role of Victor Frankenstein, while Cumberbatch played his monstrous creation. Here’s the twist: on the second night, they swapped roles.
Though I missed the role-reversal, which happens every other night they perform the piece, I could see elements of the monster in Frankenstein, as an unsettling laugh, a crazed, hungry look, or a certain twitch of the jaw recalled the monster’s uncertainty and awkwardness as he navigated the world of the living. It was more difficult to find Frankenstein in the monster, but – true to Mary Shelley’s novel and unlike in many film adaptations, where the monster’s only job is to grunt and drag his feet, arms outstretched before him – some of the most eloquent, heartbreaking speeches came from The Creature. Miller and Cumberbatch had brilliant chemistry, a product of their experience playing, as Boyle says, “two strands of the same part.”
Benedict Cumberbatch as the doctor and Jonny Lee Miller as the creature — and vice versa.
I felt after this performance as I had felt after reading the novel for the first time, struck with how much more there is to the story than just cheesy monster horror. It’s a nuanced and beautiful story, and Dear’s adaptation is elegantly pared-down from the original. The frame of the story, the begin-at-the-end set up with the adventure boat in the Arctic, is gone, as are a few key characters from the book – no Justine, no Henry Clerval. Gone, too, is Elizabeth’s backstory and Victor’s mother’s dying wish. Somehow, though, the alterations in this retelling seemed simply to concentrate its meaning, rather than remove anything absolutely essential.
Added are a few wordless scenes that are exquisite in theatrical translation. The play opens with the monster’s “birth”: alone, he struggles out of a womb-like enclosure and, alone, he figures out how to use his limbs. Soon after, before his human corruption and loss of innocence, we see him shrieking in delight at sunlight, grass, and birds, happy simply to be alive and feeling. In a most chilling twist on the original, the monster’s final act of vengeance against his creator is to rape and murder Frankenstein’s new bride, after which he runs off with the cry, “Now I am a man!” Absent from the book, the rape scene plays at underlying cultural assumptions about gender, wherein “manliness” is determined by sex and violence. And by killing Elizabeth, the Creature destroys “someone … perfect,” a kind woman who wishes to experience the world. More than Frankenstein, the Creature suffers the greatest tragedy in losing this voluntary friend and mother figure. Without Elizabeth, the Creature is left with the tragic assumption that humanity rests on “how to ruin, how to hate, how to debase, how to humiliate … how to lie.”
These gender-related themes are among the many subjects that bubble to the surface of this contemporary retelling. Perhaps Dear’s decision to stay faithful to Shelley’s essence in a drastically different form is a further reflection of today’s cultural zeitgeist. This is an age where Oprah’s last book club read a revamped edition of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, where TV dramas like the BBC’s Downton Abbey and Cumberbatch’s own Sherlock dominate air time, and saucy film adaptations of novels like Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby are shaping up to be big blockbuster hits. This is the age of the period piece, of the online sophisticate, where anyone can be a film critic, book reviewer, or twitter philosophe. It’s an era in which high-brow literature mixes with lower-brow social media, special effects, and attractive actors.
We could see National Theatre Live as culture for the masses – one doesn’t need to be a worldly London urbanite to see Mary Shelley’s words come alive via Nick Dear, Danny Boyle, and Benedict Cumberbatch. In researching the piece after the show, I found zillions of tumblr posts devoted to the production, mostly from young teen girls who raved about the performance and were sending away for Amazon copies of Dear’s script. Sure, they may initially have been motivated by the promise of Cumberbatch or Miller in scant clothing, and a good number of the posts involved strings of exclamation points or OMGs, but many also used it as a platform to discuss the theatrical aspects of the performance, to perform detailed character analyses, or simply to marvel at the beauty of the words and acting. As I read, their posts belied their age and apparent maturity level to reveal the border between fandom and intelligentsia, blurred.
With this “democratization” of art and technology has emerged a desire for intellectual and artistic refinement. The Internet is overrun with photographers, foodies, street stylists, filmmakers, and “curators” (aggregate sites that act as museums of the Internet). We, like Frankenstein, are enthralled with the powers of technology. Yet we also, like the Creature, are both drawn to and repulsed by the technological society that surrounds us. Frankenstein’s monster wants so much to be a part of humanity, technology and all, despite the way it ruined him, but he is also captivated by the power of language and beauty. He philosophizes. He reads Milton. He describes love more wonderfully than Frankenstein ever could: “it feels like all the life is bubbling up in me and spilling from my mouth, it feels like my lungs are on fire and my heart is a hammer, it feels like I can do anything in the world! Anything in the world!”
Frankenstein’s creation acts as a mirror for his own humanity, exaggerating and accentuating his shortcomings and showing that in some ways, the monster is better than he is. In that way, the Creature created by Nick Dear, Danny Boyle, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Jonny Lee Miller is a reflection of its contemporary audience, continuing – like those tumblr tweens – to blur the boundaries between society’s common technology-consumed masses, and its traditionally accepted forms of high art. In the theater with me when the credits roll is a microcosm of Burlington, the town where I grew up. I see University of Vermont professors and college students; a group of thirteen-year-old girls; a family with two younger kids, fighting over their remaining popcorn; a pair of actors; a woman with a huge head full of dreadlocks; an older couple, exiting the theater arm-in-arm; a few couples on dates; a man with a tattoo of a dragon snaking up his tricep; and plenty of other ordinary people, all looking happy and most in conversation.
My dusty flip-flops fit in here. This is not a show made for intellectual elite, nor will it be the next great action or romance film, but here, at the Palace 9 Cineplex, we ordinary people all had a little bit of both.
On Wednesday, April 18, Dr. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla delivered a lecture on the second year of the Arab Spring as part of the NYUAD Global Studies Symposium. A professor of political science at UAE University in Al Ain and the 2005 Cultural Personality of the Year, Dr. Abdulla attracted some 50 members of the NYUAD community to the Downtown Campus for his talk and for the opportunity to ask questions.
The prevailing tone of his presentation was one of optimism. He began by reviewing what he considered the primary accomplishments of the 2011 Arab Spring. These ranged from the more quantifiable fall of four entrenched dictators to the less tangible sense that “Arabs are now in the driver’s seat,” directing their own future.
Turning to 2012, Dr. Abdulla first briefly gestured at the dynamic that he did not want to focus on, pointing out that the day-to-day battles and challenges in places like Egypt, Yemen, Syria should not distract observers from the overall positive regional trajectory. Without denying the obstacles ahead, he asserted the primacy of three encouraging “megatrends” and spent the remainder, and the majority, of the lecture sketching these dynamics.
The common theme of the megatrends was reconciliation. First, Dr. Abdulla argued that the Arab Spring represents a reconciliation between global history, which for the past several decades has been moving toward democracy and liberalization and economic openness, and Arab history, sometimes labeled as immune to this tendency. No longer can people make such claims about Middle East and North Africa exceptionalism, the professor declared. The second reconciliation he noted is between Islamists and secularists, who are learning to accept each other’s political presence and to govern together. Finally, Dr. Abdulla spoke of a reconciliation between Arabs and the West. In his opinion, the Arab Spring broke the confrontational mindset of 9/11 and provided a common meeting ground, such that America is flirting with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Islamists are stepping back from their anti-American discourse.
“Megatrends are what matter more than anything else,” Dr. Abdulla concluded. He predicted that the second year of the Arab Spring will be even more successful than the first. “The glass is not half empty,” he insisted; “the glass is full to the brim.”
Many of the questions posed to Dr. Abdulla after the lecture interrogated his optimism. The general thrust of the queries was whether such optimism is wise when there is so much to be discouraged about, including the poorly covered uprisings in Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia, the region’s persistent economic disparities and problematic demographic trends, and the challenges of creating new constitutions. Throughout, Dr. Abdulla maintained his positive line. He clarified that he is most interested in the intellectual aspect of the megatrends and that although the future will be difficult, he chooses to be optimistic.
Questions also probed Dr. Abdulla’s view on the situations of the Arab Gulf states. Although not all countries in the Gulf have experienced street-level protests, he rejects the idea that they are exempt from the processes of change sculpting the greater Arab world. He affirmed that, like all Arabs, citizens of the Gulf states deserve to have more rights, more freedom, more meaningful elections, and stronger media. Moreover, he is sure that these things are coming and declared that the nations of the Gulf will be more democratic in the near future, with the UAE leading the way.
Such a move toward democracy could augment the already weighty presence of the Gulf states in the Middle East and North Africa, a phenomenon which Dr. Abdulla has termed the “Gulf moment” in his writings. But, he pointed out in a post-lecture interview with NYUAD historian Dr. Andrew Patrick, if the Gulf does not make reforms in line with those of the burgeoning Arab democracies, this “Gulf moment” could be short-lived.
Whether in the Gulf or the rest of the Arab world, a key factor for Dr. Abdulla in all these processes of change is that they come from within. As he said to Dr. Patrick, forced political shifts like those in Iraq will not be as genuine and lasting as those demanded and enacted locally. He suggested that in the wake of the initial uprisings, the next major event will be the establishment of a successful, self-driven democracy to serve as a model for the rest of the Middle East and North Africa.
Especially with a regional example to look toward, Dr. Abdulla firmly believes that the new dynamics set in motion by the Arab Spring will only continue to gain momentum.
Caitlyn Olson is a Global Academic Fellow at NYU Abu Dhabi.
Journeys, the NYUAD Arts and Humanities Initiative for 2011-2012, explores the physical, intellectual, and artistic journeys of NYUAD students. The event will take place on May 10, 2012.
Historically, journeys have shaped the world through exploration, conquest, commerce, imperialism, migration, displacement, pilgrimage, and tourism, giving rise to relations between different people and places. Paradoxically, the process of interacting with other places and people have generated discovery not only of others, but also of the self. Suggested topics include, but are not limited to, the ideas mentioned above.
Electra Street is sponsoring a set of panels that will take place during the Journeys event. The panels will present work done in the Humanities by students at NYUAD about journeys and related topics.
Some some suggested topics are:
comparison and commensurability
place and space
translation transnationalism wandering
The deadline for submission is April 26, 2012. Please send all submissions and questions to Electra Street at firstname.lastname@example.org with “Journeys Panel Submissions” in the subject field.
The NYUAD Global Studies Colloquium is an interdisciplinary forum for dialogue and exchange that seeks to build ties with other universities in the Gulf and wider Middle East. Established in the Fall 2011 by Saglar Bougdeva, Dale Hudson, Lauren Minsky, Sheetal Majithia, and Sana Odeh, the Colloquium addresses the pressing need for new understandings of emerging socio-political issues in the MENA region within a global framework. Recent events in the region have challenged scholars to reevaluate assumptions and epistemological models that currently structure knowledge of this region and its social, political, and cultural development, in fields ranging from the social sciences, area studies, arts and the humanities. The Colloquium hosts MENA-based scholars whose research addresses these emerging issues. The particular topics covered by speakers will include: colonial, postcolonial and neoliberal forms and legacies of empire; comparative understandings of Enlightenment thought and universalism; social media and youth culture; women in politics; nationalism and national identity; artistic and performative cultures; civil institutions; and the role of universities.
The first guest of the NYUAD Global Studies Colloquium was Elizabeth Kassab, who has taught philosophy at the American University of Beirut, Balamand University, Yale, and Columbia. She is currently a researcher at Erfurt University. Her recent book Contemporary Arab Thought: Cultural Critique in Comparative Perspective(Columbia University Press, 2009) explores various schools of critical thinking in the Arab world. She first charts the Nahda, the “renaissance” or “awakening” in 19th century Arab thought, before engaging the 20th-century struggles to achieve independence, development, cultural and religious pride or democracy.
The book grapples with the fact that Arab thought has been cast as an expression of an ahistorical and essential “Arab malaise”. In response to this scholarship, Kassab’s work shows the political and historical roots of the Arab predicament. She goes beyond approaches that consider Arab thought as exceptional or self-referential by linking it to African, South Asian and Latin American perspectives, thereby demonstrating the similarities between various postcolonial conditions and the importance of engaging in comparative work.
In an interview with NYUAD’s Pascal Menoret on 2 November 2011, Kassab related the intellectual history of the Arabian Peninsula to her larger project. She argued that the economic, cultural, and educational development of the UAE and other GCC nations has produced a very interesting contrast to the many cases of pessimism she examines in her work. She argues that liberal arts education can play a crucial role in the years to come, and draws am enticing picture of the contemporary Arab literature. [Numbers in brackets indicate notes at the conclusion of the piece.]
My first question is about Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates: how does the country fit in the map of the Arab World you draw in your book?
I often visit the Emirates and this is an extremely intriguing place for me, because it is such a different corner of the Arab World. The very concept of Arab World intrigues me even more when I am here. First of all, there are no wars. Coming from Lebanon, I often ask myself: how come that the Emirates do not have civil wars among themselves? I am fascinated by the invention of the Emirates and by how these regions came together and function.
Another contrast with us is that this place is a success story. We have inherited a long history of defeats, failures, disasters and humiliations, all things that you don’t find here. We are obsessed by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Emirates are far away, they belong to another constellation: the Indian Ocean, the connection to Africa. The whole geographic set up is different.
Since the oil boom, anybody coming from our part of the Arab world would say that it is only about money, that Emiratis don’t have any cultural or historical depth. With this buying of museums and importing of universities, NYU and the Sorbonne, it is easy to say that they are just buying stuff. Well, I think that the story should be more complex than that. And hence to use the word I like to use in connection with my perception of this place: it is an intriguing experience, which needs to be understood and explored more.
I rarely get to talk to Emiratis and my bigger mystery here is: what are their goals in initiating this intellectual and cultural experience? In Doha, some of the slogans of the Qatar Foundation are hilariouschallenging: think! Imagine! Does the Qatari government realize what that means in terms of political implications? And whom are these slogans impacting? The students? Governments in the Gulf want to become global, and these universities cater to students from Malaysia, Indonesia, the Far East and the U.S. But what is the place of the Arab World in all this? Are Arabs the poor relatives, the problematic agitators that the Gulf wants to forget about? Does the Gulf have an Arab ambition?
How would you map out the traditions of critical thinking in the Arabian Peninsula?
The idea that this place is a cultural desert does not hold anymore. Thinkers like Mohammed Jaber al-Ansari, Mohammed al-Rumaihi, Shafiq al-Ghabra, Khaldun al-Naqeeb, Turki al-Hamad, Abdallah al-Ghathami  are connected to and participate in the general issues of the Arab World. While working on the Mashreq and the Maghreb, I asked myself: is there such a thing as “Arab thought”? Yes, as long as there is a universal discourse and common preoccupations in which all these people participate.
There are also wonderful thinkers outside the region, like Madawi Al-Rasheed. She epitomizes the great qualities of the radical thinkers I have worked on: lucidity, sobriety, sharpness, clarity. And my question to you at NYUAD is: when you speak about Arab Crossroads, are you in conversation with these people?
Madawi Al-Rasheed was on my dissertation committee, and my students are currently reading her, as well as Abdul Rahman Munif.
That is great! What is nice about Madawi Al-Rasheed is that she does not stay in any ivory tower but writes a weekly column in al-Quds al-‘Arabi and speaks often on BBC Arabic. And of course, reading them does not mean that we should agree with them, but they are engaged in critical thinking, which is of great value.
How would you describe the “Arab predicament” or “unhappy consciousness” you mention in your book?
That is a wonderful question to raise here in the Emirates, where I don’t think there is any unhappy consciousness. Coming from where I come from, it is fascinating to be confronted to this happiness! When you come here from our part of the Arab World, you see success, you see prosperity, you see openness to the world, especially in the Emirates. In these places it is strange not to be confronted to a predicament, but to witness success.
Now, what about political participation, which is the great source of unhappiness in our part of the Arab World? Is it even an issue? Do people suffer from the lack of it? Is it a priority for them? Are the rulers thinking in that direction? I don’t know, but it seems to me that what is such a heavy predicament in our part of the world that simply does not seem to exist here, or might exist in different ways.
And of course, it is different from one place to another, and one has to look carefully at individual settings. But one can be sure of this contrast between the state of mind we come from – humiliated, defeated, poor, disgustedfrustrated – and what you see here.
Is it an ‘Arabiyya sa‘ida, a new Arabia Felix?
Good question! Another interesting question is: given these differences, what impact does the “felicity” of the Gulf have on the more damaged part of the Arab World? Should it even have an impact? If we look at universities in the Gulf, what is the impact of higher education in liberal arts for instance? Imagine if it was to happen in Egypt, where 80 million people could be impacted, not a few hundred thousands. And lastly, a propos impact, of course we know that it is one thing to promote chemistry and engineering, but humanities? Ha, that is the million-dollar question.
Why are there so few humanities programs in the region, and what could be done to change that situation?
Liberal arts or critical humanities will promote critical thinking, which bears political implications. These regimes and some of the conservative societies do not necessarily want to promote that. We know what happened to social science institutes in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia: after decolonization, they tried to function but were shut down. These governments do not want to find out about social problems or hear any critique.
There is also a general mediocrity: one of the big failures of post-colonial Arab governments is education, and mediocrity breeds mediocrity, corruption, neglect, ideological indoctrination … Have you watched Omar Amiralay’s film Tufan fi balad al-Ba‘th,  in which he interviews a school director in the Euphrates region? The guy candidly speaks about his school, and you understand that the state has produced generations of poorly educated, fully indoctrinated, repressed people.
One of our Emirati students told me: I am happy to study in English, but I wish we had Arabic-speaking universities that attract people from all over the world.
It is an excellent remark and we could look at older experiences, in Lebanon for instance: the American University of Beirut or the Université Saint-Joseph. What is the impact of these liberal education institutions? The trouble is that they might have had an impact only on their graduates. In the past, these institutions trained an intellectual and political elite. Today, tThey tend rather to produced students who wanted one thing: emigrate. Most of them became engineers and businessmen and doctors, which is understandable: in all societies, critical thinkers are a minority. I taught at AUB for ten years and we all saw young people wanting one thing: earn the degree and leave.
If we look outside of the Arab world, how does the Arab predicament compare to other issues in other regions of the world?
Everything Arabic and Islamic is seen as being exceptional, as being explained in self-referential ways. It is a circular thing, and people typically answer the question: why is this or that so? by saying: because it is Arab, or because it is Muslim. It was important for me to open the windows and the doors and to look elsewhere. Are other peoples on this planet raising similar questions, do they face similar predicaments, similar cultural, intellectual, political challenges?
A South-South dialogue is key: to escape our focus on identity, we need to know that other peoples have suffered from similar predicaments. We tend to think that we have these problems because we are who we are, and it is not a very fruitful track of reflection. Whereas if you start looking at structural problems, at economic, political, historical problems, then this sterile focus on identity moves to the background. I am all for posing the Arab question in a comparative perspective, and a program like yours could probably do that, too.
What region of the south is the closest to the Arab world?
Sometimes it is the most remote people who tell you something about yourself. When I read South Pacific authors, I recognize concerns that I have been obsessed with. Indian subaltern literature is crucial and Indian post-colonial thinking is amazingly mature in comparison to ours! Africans have fantastic discourses too. Every place is a candidate to becoming global, and the Gulf has actually the means to open up and get connected.
But there is psychological resistance. Rather than talking to poor relatives, Arabs look at those who are faring better than them, and this explains our interest in Europe. I understand that an Arab might say: what can I learn from another miserable fellow in Africa, in India or in Latin America? But talking to miserabledowntrodden people like us might teach us a lot about better ways of dealing with our problems. If the Emirates and the Gulf region can contribute to that, great!
Among radical Arab thinkers, who is looking at those connections to other worlds?
Not many people, which reminds me of the Arab fascination with Japan, from the 19th century onwards. Numerous Arab thinkers spoke about Japan but who among them knew anything serious about it? And we are still talking about the Japanese success story: Mas‘ud Daher recently wrote two books about Japan,  but few people really know the country. The big preoccupation was with Europe: Latin Americans, Africans and Indians were also fixating on Europe.
Ruth Benedict never visited Japan before writing The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. The most famous American anthropologist of Japan was une anthropologue en chambre …
Yes, but for Arabs, Japan was not another field of knowledge; it was a model.
How in your view did the 2011 Arab revolutions impact the production of critical thinking?
It is too early to speak of impact, and most intellectuals are surprised, trying to follow up, fascinated, happy and also concerned. The Arab media on the other hand keeps asking: do we need intellectuals, if they were not able to predict the revolution or to shape it when it happened? I would say that a lot of intellectuals are involved in the political events, Syria being one such case in pointat least in Syria. And even if intellectual work happens on one level, and political activism on another, there still is a strong parallel between the intellectual scene and the street.
First of all, both movements are inward looking. The critical gaze is no longer towards the bad Westerners or towards Israel even, but against one’s own government, one’s own state of affairs. Critical intellectual have been moving in that direction for at least three or four decades and the street is now catching up with them.
Secondly, Arab critical thinkers focus on the political. It is something that struck me precisely because I was not studying political contestation: I was examining cultural critique. For these authors, our cultural malaise is caused by political factors. And movements on the street are primarily political: they protest against the way countries are governed, against rulers, against political disenfranchisement.
Thirdly, intellectuals and the street moved away from ideologies. Arab thinkers are greatly critical of ideologies and focus instead on the importance of critical thinking. And people walking on the street are more interested in nailing bad management than repeating slogans about this-or-that-ism.
Last thing, the whole leadership business. Arab intellectuals realized that they were no longer interested in the avant-garde role that they could have had in the fifties or the sixties. They realized that this business of one-thinker-saying-it-all-and-having-followers no longer existed, that people were not looking for that. On all these points, I think that intellectuals and the street are in tune with one another.
Why is it that intellectuals did not create the revolution? I do not think that intellectuals create revolutions, and it is not books that get people in the streets: it is a basic sense of revolt against injustice. What will ultimately push you to face cannons and thugs is really that sense of khalass, enough! you cannot take it anymore. You need guts, not a brain, to take to the streets!
What Arab books would you encourage our students to read?
If I were to make suggestions in shaping Arab studies, I would encourage students or anybody trying to understand the Arab world, myself included, to read Arab newspapers. Many daily newspapers have good opinion pages, and there is a whole debate going on. It takes a lot of time every day but you cannot have a sense of what is going on without reading newspapers, watching television, being on Facebook.
Then: read Arab literature, read fiction! My One of my great heroes is Saadallah Wannous,  who said it all, early on, in his theater. One has also to be aware of the art scene in the Arab world. It should be said of Arab thinkers that they are thinkers, because many people in the region and outside of the region have no idea that these thinkers even exist! They are perceived as local, not worth reading, nothing in your education exposes us to them. This battle needs to be fought if we believe in critical thinking, because nothing has helped so far to disseminate the works of these people. Or else, bon, let me read Descartes and consider myself educated!
 Bahraini philosopher and political thinker (born 1939).
 Kuwaiti political thinker and sociologist (born 1942).
 Kuwaiti political scientist (born 1953).
 Kuwaiti sociologist (1942-2011).
 Saudi novelist and intellectual (born 1953).
 Saudi literary critic (born 1946).
 Saudi-born anthropologist and political scientist, professor at King’s College (born 1962).
 Saudi-born novelist, author of Mudun al-Milh (Cities of Salt) (1933-2004).
 Omar Amiralay (1944-2011), Syrian director and political activist. His 2003 documentary A Flood in Baath Country analyzes official propaganda in rural Syria.
 Mas‘ud Daher, Al-Nahda al-‘arabiyya wa-l-nahda al-yabaniyya: Tashabuh al-muqaddamat wa ikhtilaf al-nata’ij [Arab and Japanese Renaissances: Same Beginnings, Different Outcomes] (Kuwait: Al-Majlis al-watani li-l-thaqafa wa-l-adab, 1999), and Al-Yaban bi ‘uyun ‘arabiyya 1904-2004 [Japan in Arab Eyes, 1904-2004] (Beirut: Markaz dirasa al-wahda al-‘arabiyya, 2005).
 Syrian playwright (1941-1997). He notably wrote Haflat Samar min Ajl Khamseh Huzayran [Entertainment Evening for the 5th of June] (1968), Al-Fil malik al-zaman [Elephant, King of all Times] (1969), Al-Malik huwa al-malik (The King is the King) (1977), Tuqus al-Isharat wa-l-tahawwulat [Rituals of Signs and Transformations] (1994).
Enchantment, the apocalypse, documentary or fantasy fiction: these forms often strive to describe human beings’ relationships with Nature – be that magical, terrifying, dreaming of reunification, nostalgic, sorrow-filled or vacuously optimistic. The ways we imagine Nature (with a capital N) in all of those representations is rooted both in Enlightenment values and in Romanticism’s response to them. We are still driven by the Cartesian separation of mind and body that serves as a lens with which to frame exploitative ventures. And in both reason and fantasy, the monolithic binary of Man vs. Nature remains a useful concept with which to define our selves and our actions.
The poetic response to the Enlightenment – specifically Romanticism – gave us two legacies: one, a sentimental Hallmark Cards rendering of the natural world, and two, the birth of Environmentalism. Both positions maintain that Nature is over there, while we are over here.
As a critical response to this nature/culture divide, I began a body of work in 2006 now gathered under the title Crossing the Waters. The eleven animated pieces addressed flooding and climate change: Weather and water as fact, and weather and water as metaphor. I became interested in the network of relationships at stake between human and non-human animals, plants and the weather, and the network of anecdotes that surround a given site-specific scene or event.
There are several features to these works:
First, almost all of these works are rotoscoped – this is an animation technique of drawing, frame by frame, on top of video.
Second, despite the fact that these works look like unified fields, each one is essentially a collage, cobbled together from disconnected sources. Many of these works have a futuristic or fantastic tone to them, but all of the source material for the rotoscoping was footage found on the internet. The internet can be seen as an interdependent ecosystem in itself – a competing and complementary meme pool. All of the footage I use is “real” in other words, it might resonate for you as something you saw somewhere before, from news or stock footage sites, or on youtube. As the author William Gibson said, “The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
Third, nearly all of the elements in the works are composed as loops. Because hand-drawn animation is labor-intensive, using looped character behaviors is efficient; but these loops also possess a distinct stuttering personality that imbues a sense of brokenness, and I think they poke a hole in the rendered surfaces of the landscapes I portray.
Finally, I look at these works as moving paintings more than narrative cartoons. They are reminiscent of Asian wall scrolls, in both their formats and in the way the landscape is moved across the screen. The works in their entirety are also loops, intended to be lived with ambiently, rather than watched on a schedule, the way you would a film.
The animated, carnivalesque tailgate party of the 18-minute video Slurb loops and stutters like a vinyl record stuck in a groove. Slurb – an architectural slang word that collapses “slum” and “suburb” – encapsulates a dreamy ode to the rise of slime, a watery future in which jellyfish have dominion.
There is a history of satirical illustration, epitomized by J.J.Grandville in the 19th century, in which animal-headed humans are deployed in the telling of troubling social narratives. Slurb is that kind of cartoon. Facts of the ocean’s radical changes in acidity and oxygen levels form the backbone of the animation; overfishing, dumping, and climate change’s heating of ocean currents have already triggered a reversion toward a depleted ecosystem in areas of the ocean larger than the state of Texas.
Slurb was a commission for a site-specific temporary public art work in Tampa, Florida – it premiered in 2009 at an outdoor festival called “Lights on Tampa.”
Tampa — the entire Gulf Coast as you know including New Orleans — is at risk for flooding — for the Gulf, it’s hurricane season. And the volume of these conditions is worsening from climate change. For “Lights on Tampa,” I wanted to make a piece that addressed this, and to create a confluence of facts and speculations that were specific to the Gulf Coast and also global in scope.
The Gulf used to have a healthy shrimp fishing industry. But pollutants, overfishing, and warming have worldwide altered the oceans’ chemical balance, rendering it acid and deprived of oxygen. The result isn’t only a significant decrease in diversity but also a phenomenon referred to as “the rise of slime;” slime consists of toxic algae and jellyfish — primordial forms that survive well in these conditions.
Trawling boats that used to be fitted for shrimp catches have reconfigured their nets to catch jellyfish for the Asian market, where they are considered a delicacy.
I wanted to transpose class and cultural concerns, and ask questions about who and how we might thrive in new conditions. I started to research and cast my characters … Looking for ways to soften the dismal blow, as it were …
I wanted to make something that had the feeling of Grandville’s satirical illustrations, creating deceptively delightful hybrid creatures…
car-wrecked mermaids …
a macabre Stephen King chorus …
with traces of ethnographic portraiture…
that mined a rich history of traditionally aquatic lifestyles…
and portrayed contemporary people accustomed to living on the water, like the Intha tribe in Myanmar (known as “the legrowers of Inle Lake”) whose waterways are now getting too polluted to remain sustainable. Similar aquatic ways of life exist throughout Asia.
The isolated and unsustainable upper class in Slurb would live in model homes straight out of an optimistic design expo on amphibious living …
… while others appear to be having a tailgate party from hell.
With Slurb I wanted to make a travel narrative, one that unfolded like a Chinese scroll painting, and circled around continuously like a carousel, one that would take you from the city of Tampa, and follow its landmarks out past the broken highways, and into the suburbs, and then back around again.
2009 predated the recent British Petroleum disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. When I made Slurb, there wasn’t the same public upset around the already-transformed state of the oceans. Now the piece is encoded with a very different resonance, regarded as documenting a decimated but survivable future.
Slurb accounts for a complex inter-tangle of people, animals, and the weather. I would characterize this as an expanded definition of Nature.
After several centuries of institutionalizing (and creating a kind of fetishistic mortuary known as) “The Museum of Natural History,” many interdisciplinary efforts are moving us toward viewing our selves and others — equally — as part of a dynamic ecology. One could go further, perceiving us all as a living database that contains a nature/culture network inclusive of genetically modified, opportunistic and invasive species; new migratory behaviors of animals in flux from climate change; and the post-industrial landscape and its weedy colonies; to mention a few filters. The landscapes that I am eager to investigate and describe are shared by humans, animals, plants, machines, and fantastic species, from monsters and fairies to transhumanists and furries. This open redefinition of Nature offers a structural framework in which to methodically – and playfully – tie diverse locales and populations to their inevitable connections with others.
Marina Zurkow is a New York-based artist and a professor in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. This piece is adapted from a lecture given at the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute on 10 October 2010. The video above is excerpt from the short film Slurb ( running time 17 min. 40 sec.), which features music by Lem Jay Ignacio. Click here for more information about the film. You can watch the entire Institute lecture below.
there is the sea and there is me
dreaming of skin to sing like waves
to wash out all deliberation of beauty
in this melancholy scrub of sand-worn
paradise, the colossal fossiliferous sharks
beholden always to incandescent venus
rising on foam out of the sea,
dripping disdain for those who shine
only at night in shadows of fireflies
spinning webs of flickering light.
feasting on the fatigue of my yearning
they circle, relentless unseeing
yet all-seeing in their ill-wrought way.
so serve me up in a mirror of pearls,
i’ll break the chain of judgment into
shards in the immaculate indomitable sea.
i woke to a fall-er green
i woke to a fall-er green
and too-tight beat-up jeans
feeling within me seeds unseen
observing my face in a looking-glass
framed the familiar lineaments
seemed somehow changed
to gaze, to dance, soñar, brillar…
crooks shilling the green light at
the end of the dock—wasn’t it all
so close now? right here in my
tendered skin, burrowing, feasting
or more precisely a rabbit burrow,
the sheer fertility (futility) of fur
and sweat and mania in my silk mine but not mine in this brave
new world of fakerity, pretend
(portend), todo por la plata (verde)
fuck-up. knowingly, will i brand myself
with this brand ubiquitous trendy
and tawdry? musty eye entails adulate
(minus some excessive vowels)? now
upon the brink of various milestones,
to be forced to enter that dreaded force
of cubicles and briefcases? inevitable
but dreadful, terrible…to draft-dodge?
yes, please, i’ll cross the border
into a starrier world,
viviré de absenta y tierra verde.
April Xiong is a first-year student at NYU Abu Dhabi.