A veil of mystery still surrounds the circumstances of Mouammar Kadhafi’s death, as he was tracked down like a wild animal after the seizure of Tripoli in 2011. A summary execution by the NTC (National Transitional Council) soldiers or a remote-controlled murder orchestrated by the French secret services? Working with this recent piece of history, the Superamas collective is creating a new stage device that gathers together Alexis Poulin, a renowned political journalist, and a former DGSE (in French, General Directorate for External Security) agent. In this casual conversation, revelations unfold outside of the media framework, onto the theater stage, where masks drop and history is rewritten before our eyes.
Superamas was created twenty years ago between France and Austria, and has authored a flurry of plays that toured all over the world (Big 3, Empire (Art & Politics), Youdream, Vive l’armée !, Chekhov Fast & Furious…); they define themselves as an artist’s collective with multifold backgrounds and skills, which converge into a scenic format halfway through performance, choreography and video installation. Mastering the satire of entertainment culture and its modes of representation, the six founding members embrace both informal and highly sophisticated forms. Their “multidisciplinary” shows—provided that this dusty definition still makes sense in 2020—overlap geopolitical history and its mediated representation, truth and artifice, farce and its tragic counterpart. While irony is part of their weaponry, their themes often cling to international current events, where they strive to reveal the cynical machinery of power. But how far can one push the limits of kitsch under the guise of subversion, before risking a free fall into the very matter that one is exposing? Sometimes the snake ends up biting its tail.
Folding the show upon itself and juxtaposing several layers of reality, Superamas operates nevertheless a reversal of perspective in the spectator’s gaze. Are we content with being passive witnesses of history? Can we intervene on the course of events, or is the manipulation of the real another contribution to our sclerosis? Infotainment, fake news, reality show, mass media, social networks, algorithms, AI, among others darlings control tools of the startup nation, are being sifted through their feroce humor. As we approach the agony show of consumers society, Superamas is already leading the parade.
Julien Bécourt : Détournement, appropriation, political satire of contemporary topics are at the core of your performances. How would you describe Superamas’ approach? What are your backgrounds?
Superamas: Superamas is composed of artists from complementary paths: some of us come from industrial design, some from dance, performance, cinema or even cultural diplomacy. This has granted us a large artistic autonomy. From writing to interpretation, through stage direction, dramaturgy, production and different technical departments (scenography, sound, lighting, video)—all those skills that lead to the making of a performance are within reach at Superamas.
Depending on each project’s specific needs, we sometimes have to reach out to external professionals. This has happened for THEATRE (2012), for instance, when we had to hire a 3D modeling specialist to create some images. This is also true for The Man Who Killed Mouammar Kadhafi, where the two main characters aren’t professional actors. This performance features a live interview by political journalist Alexis Poulin with a former DGSE intelligence agent.
With all this in mind, and getting back to your question, it isn’t easy to summarize our artistic practice. We could find a definition that’s a little (too) conceptual, which would be that our performances strive to strip bare the mechanisms of a certain spectacularisation of society. Guy Debord saw this before everyone else: spectacle isn’t anymore a clearly localized and ritualized event. Think about social networks: spectacle is ubiquitous, it has become the very structure of reality itself. Through our shows, we try to shed light on this performative dimension of the real.
For instance: when thinking back about Libya in 2011, what people remember in France is the incredible performance of Bernard-Henri Lévy! Sadly, and beyond his laughable narcissism, his bad actor’s moves had real consequences. It was through him that the NTC, that BHL was presenting as democrats, calling them « Libyan’s Massoud », was invited—and officially recognized—by the French government. Was BHL aware that many of them were radical islamists, or was he carried away by his role as the bard of a « preventive humanitarian war »? In any case, this narcissistic show has contributed to legitimate in public opinion a military intervention which Libyan people are still paying a price for. Then this becomes an interesting subject for us.
Julien Bécourt: How was this project born? The documentary protocol with non professional actors seems quite removed from your previous works, even if one can find some « warrior » concerns as featured in Empire, Theatre or Vive l’armée?
Superamas: This is not our first time working with non-actors. It is even a common tread through our performances. Big 1, in 2002, featured two gogo dancers; in Big 2, it was a Air France flight attendant; Empire, in 2008, was played by a Somali political refugee, and more recently Chekhov Fast & Furious has been written with young people of very different horizons, who had for the most part no stage experience.
The main difference in The Man Who Killed Mouammar Kadhafi is that Alexis Poulin (the journalist) and the ex-spy (who prefers to remain anonymous) do not follow a predetermined script. Even though there is a blueprint for it, the interview is broadcasted « live ». The public will be free to ask questions to the former intelligence officer. By the way, that’s what spices up the show: no representation will be the same, and we cannot forecast in which direction the performance will be heading.
This is really new, actually! We don’t know of any other occurrence where a former spy has accepted to reveal, face uncovered, the backstage of his job on a theater floor. When Alexis Poulin told us about his encounter with this witness, his initial idea was to make a documentary or to publish a book about what he heard from him. It hasn’t been easy to convince him to come forward to testify in the context of a play—even though the format is still documentary. But we managed to do this, and that’s where the « live journalism » project started.
Julien Bécourt: The execution of Kadhafi has raised many questions, but the circumstances of his death remain more than dubious. How did you convince the journalist and the former agent to participate in your project? What were the obstacles?
Superamas: It all came quite naturally with Alexis, during a boozy dinner at a Thai restaurant near Gare du Nord, in Paris. Actually, one of Superamas’ members and Alexis were both students at the IPE (Institute of Political Studies) in Grenoble during the 1990s…
As for the spy, the process took a little longer. He pointed out ironically how we had recruited him the previous summer, as a « human resource » would be picked up by a case officer. In intelligence jargon, the bait used by spies to recruit new agents is MICE, which stands for Money, Ideology, Compromising, Ego. In his case, ideology was the winning lure: he couldn’t digest how things had been handled in Libya in 2011. But who knows, ego might have played a role too in his decision to accept the challenge? Considering how low entertainment workers wages are, for sure money wasn’t at stake!
Actually, we haven’t met many obstacles along the way, meaning that neither authorities nor intelligence have forbidden us anything. On the other end, some of the witnesses that we wanted to interview have rejected us outright. An arms dealer and a colonel from army intelligence, for instance. The biggest issues have been the sanitary crisis and the travel bans. Luckily, Géraud Didier, the director of the national scene in Maubeuge (théâtre le Manège) has allowed us to finish up the play in excellent conditions, inviting us at the Manège as soon as the lockdown was over. His support has been crucial.
Julien Bécourt: Your shows cast doubt about their degree of fiction and reality, all the while analyzing social topics embedded in current geopolitics. Can you tell me more about your work method and your conception of stage direction?
Superamas: It is true that the articulation between reality and fiction is at the core of our work. The boundary between those is increasingly porous. This is nothing new, but we feel like this phenomenon is accelerating. It is evident with fake news, or conspiracy theories: truth becomes an option among a wide range of more or less fantasist opinions, or more or less consciously distorted facts. This is really disturbing, and doubtlessly this is one of the reasons why we are interested in this problematic.
Our work method depends first of all upon the nature of a current project. A play like Chekhov Fast & Furious, that was conceived with four groups of ten people each, based in Amiens, Vienna, Maubeuge and Reykjavik, cannot be written in the same way as a documentary project involving a journalist and a spy. The former was composed through several workshops, where improvisations slowly built up the script. The latter was edited from documentary material that was so dense—because we got it first hand—we could have scripted a ten-episodes tv series out if it!
In the same way, the project itself leads us to the production. You cannot direct non-actors the same way you would work with stage professionals. For the simple reason that they are not playing a role or a character: they are themselves. On the opposite, you can give them a framework, hoping that this can support their proposition. That’s what we have tried to do with The Man Who Killed Mouammar Kadhafi. Running counter to our former shows, we have chosen to use the classic mediation effects (sound, light, video) with parsimony, so that the dialogue, in its complexity, could be heard as clearly as possible.
Julien Bécourt: You are exacerbating the contradictions that are proper to the contemporary world in order to reveal conditioning mechanisms, in particular through popular and entertainment representation. Despite the seriousness of your topic, humor plays a central role. What kind of reaction are you expecting from the spectator? Do you want to arouse both laugh and critical thinking?
Superamas: It is true that several of our shows so far—even though they couldn’t be defined comedies—carried a certain weightlessness. Which, by the way, doesn’t prevent reflection. Humor is often about shifting our way to look at things. Laughter stems from the unexpected collision between two supposedly uncorrelated elements. In order to build this connection, one needs to be thinking. And because this connection is surprising to the receiver, it gives back more matter to reflect on. That being said, the subject of The Man Who Killed Mouammar Kadhafi does not follow this structure. And we haven’t worked on it through that lens.
Concerning critical thinking, we can only hope that we are able to stir up some. Wanting « to arouse » it seems too pretentious. Our intention—when we build up a performance—isn’t necessarily to provoke a reaction of a feeling. We are ourselves touched by current events. A State lie, for instance. What we can do as artists is to give shape to this personal (or collective) feeling, that later others will maybe apprehend. But this intimate work is not ours anymore, then: it only belongs to the spectator. And the same work can raise a multitude of reactions and feelings, all of which are equally legitimate. Once it is achieved, the work flees its maker and belongs to those who discover it.
Julien Bécourt: Your work model is multidisciplinary—it spans theater, choreography, video, music and performance. Do you think that this variety of mediums enables new formal possibilities within the framework of theatrical performance?
Superamas: For sure, every medium opens up a field of formal possibilities of its own. Each translation of a single idea into choreography or video will necessarily differ. For us, it would be inconceivable to stick to a single mode of expression, when other forms would allow us to express more precisely or with greater strength the initial dramaturgic intention.
However, we are not fetishizing multidisciplinarity, nor do we consider it as an object of its own. It is not about piling up artistic skills or media in a logic of virtuosity, or to be up-to-date. It’s more about having different tools at hand and being free to choose the right ones when needed.
Consequently, our shows vary a great deal. For THEATRE, which was really about modes of representation in the East and the West, about figuration and the use of perspective, it was « dramaturgically » mandatory to have multiple points of view. Then we decided to involve dance, text, video, opera, 3D and even « water ballet »! On the other hand, for The Man Who Killed Mouammar Kadhafi we have chosen an economy of production in order not to lose the attention and the gaze of the public.
Julien Bécourt: In the play Empire (Art & Politics), you put forward a quote by Arthur Cravan (« glory is a scandal! ») while addressing forms of power and historical domination correlated to economic globalization, expansionism and imperialism. Do you think that theatre, operating a ‘mise en abyme’ that calls into question its own codes and function, could still be a tangible tool for resistance and thought?
Superamas: A tool for thought: we put our hopes in there. A tool for resistance: as well, maybe. But first of all we should agree on what it is that we are trying to resist against. There cannot be a unique answer to this question. Unless we consider theater as a homogenous whole. Which it is not, luckily.
Also, Superamas doesn’t claim that theater’s vocation is to change the world. But who knows, maybe, during a show, at a certain time when certain mysterious conditions are reunited, it can change a world. A single spectator’s world—who is experiencing on that night some kind of trouble, or shock, or surprise, because of a certain world view that she had never considered before. But this is not something specific to theatre. This is true for any art form.
What is clear, for us at any rate, is that the kind of theatre that we are interested in has to call into question representation. When we practice theatre, we are questioning what it means to be practicing theatre. Because if we skip this question, we settle for a repetition of tradition. By the way, this is not a judgment of value, or a proof of quality: one can flawlessly reproduce in a respectful manner an ancestral tradition, achieving a sublime outcome. Or on the contrary, disrupt form and codes and go awfully wrong. This only means that we are involved into this kind of research. With the hope of not going awfully wrong…
Julien Bécourt: How do you choose your roles among writing, video, lighting, stage direction, interpretation?
Superamas: We could add to this list sound, scenography, as well as production, administration, communication. Those latter domains, by the way, are as important as everything else in the making of a show…
We have been functioning for twenty years with an horizontal organization. Today this may look trivial, because this model—now belonging to start-up culture—has been talked about ad nauseam by the media. But for us it’s never been a trend. Because twenty years ago, start-ups were called SME, or TPE (French for small and medium-sized businesses). SME sounds less sexy, but the reality of it stays the same…
So, in our horizontal SME, in our artistic kolkhoz, or let’s say in our collective, to use another well-worn term—which wasn’t so, when we choose it—, there is no hierarchy, there is no boss nor a demiurgical director. Everyone is paid the same way, and everyone has her or his say about the artistic and strategic orientations of Superamas.
Some projects are carried on by the whole collective. Some others are developed by a tandem, and some by a single person. But systematically at some point through the work, other members intervene depending on their own competences and skills.
Those are at large our general principles. Of course every show implies a different organization. In terms of financial and human means, The Man Who Killed Mouammar Kadhafi is one of our lightest projects—tasks have been distributed very easily. Superamas has done the stage direction collectively, while journalist Alexis Poulin and the ex-intelligence agent are on stage. One of us has been dispatched in order to represent Superamas on stage. This person plays the « director » of the interview—as would be a radio broadcast director—and performs/manipulates during an unexpected scene. I am not going to develop on this, as there is some surprise effect that shouldn’t be spoiled, you see…
Translation by Antonia Carrara
Cover: The Man Who Killed Mouammar Kadhafi © Superamas