Punk Rock Immersion
The audience’s mobile phones are an active element in the dramaturgy of all the plays. Having to switch attention between the phone and the live acts produces a sense of what the Javaad Alipoor Company calls “punk rock immersion” in their manifesto. These productions plunge audiences into fractured information and invite them to piece it all together. The company states that the purpose of this technological immersion is to frame digital information as a reality that can be played with, manipulated, and altered into shapes and versions that can inspire political action.
The audience receives political memes like the alt-right icon Pepe the Frog and questions such as “How many Muslims live in this country?” via WhatsApp during The Believers Are But Brothers. The social media feed slowly immerses the audience into extremist political subcultures rife with misogyny and racism to show how online radicalization can become part of people’s everyday interactions. Flooding the audience’s phones with rape and death threats from the 4thelulz chan is a brutal illustration of how social media can pour nightmarish images into the most intimate corners of people’s lives. The mobile phone becomes framed as a portal to otherness, a means of connecting with people and ideas entirely distinct from our own that are not visible in the offline world.
These productions plunge audiences into fractured information and invite them to piece it all together.
Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World starts with Alipoor walking onto a bare black stage carrying an iPad, dressed in spotless white trainers, khaki trousers, and smart blue shirt buttoned down to his belly. His outfit reminded me of the archetypal TED Talk speaker—technologically savvy, coolly confident, ready to impart his expert knowledge. The theatrical analogy is quickly undermined when Alipoor invites the audience to take out our phones and click through random hyperlinks on Wikipedia. This very familiar task represented the dangerous fantasy that we can possess total knowledge about the world through information overload without considering the systems that classify knowledge into regimented, disconnected subjects which efface the relationships between ostensibly unrelated histories and ideas.
The interaction with the phone is taken a stage further in Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran, which uses a curated Instagram feed to tell a fictional story of two young Iranian lovers who die in a car crash. Alipoor mixes this story with a live narrative about the immorality of mass consumption and gentrification in the Middle East, littered with references to the Anthropocene, the history of colonialism, and the philosophy of technology. Alipoor and the actor Payvand Sadeghian skillfully navigate this dense material, utterly confident and in control of the performance. I saw Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran as a live stream on YouTube during lockdown in 2020, so the sensation of digital immersion was especially acute. As I sat watching the story unfold through my computer and iPhone, I asked myself why I should treat the actors as more reliable narrators of history than the information I read on Wikipedia or on Twitter. I, like many Western theatregoers, experience the cultures and politics in the Middle East as media, not as a lived reality, and theatre is no more able to close the gap between them than social media is, but then imparting a definitive narrative of Iranian history is not the intention of the piece. More important than imparting knowledge of Iranian society, Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran shows the power of narrative to organize the messiness and complexity of history into stories that feel authoritative. The performance shows the audience that interpretations of history are highly contingent on contemporary political contexts to become meaningful.
The internet turns ideology into visually interactive and entertaining material that younger generations use to construct and project new images of themselves to feel like agents of historical change.
The Believers Are But Brothers explores the manipulation of history and political narratives in the context of the so-called “crisis of masculinity”: a generation of young men feeling they have been robbed of status, power, and prowess by liberals and feminists. The production takes a broader look at how the internet fuels intense political polarization as extremist subcultures jostle for positions of dominance. A fictional story of three men, one white American and two British Muslims, displays male resentment and feelings of inadequacy as expressed through white supremacy and jihadism.
Alipoor and the Operator character, played by Luke Emery, sit opposite each other at computers scrolling through hateful posts on 4Chan and playing the first-person shooter game Call of Duty throughout the performance. Their screens are projected onto the gauze that separates them and then intermixed with a live stream of Alipoor’s face as he describes the process of online radicalization. Alipoor tells the audience how these characters become players in ideological battles on social media: the internet turns ideology into visually interactive and entertaining material that younger generations use to construct and project new images of themselves to feel like agents of historical change. Alipoor and Emery use multimedia to effectively represent how the surface layer of the Internet—the websites we interact with every day—is a stage to perform extremist politics through the appropriation of material drawn from popular culture, such as modified clips from violent computer games.