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How Javaad Alipoor’s Fourth World Trilogy Disrupts What We Think We Understand About History, Politics, and the Internet

British theatremaker Javaad Alipoor’s plays The Believers Are But Brothers, Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran, and Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World all use multimedia to interrogate humanity’s relationship with digital technology. The collection of plays doesn’t have an official title, but I'll call them the Fourth World Trilogy to draw attention to the thematic links between all three plays: technological acceleration, political fragmentation, and the overwhelming sense that everything is spiraling out of control. The term Fourth World is a utopian vision that the performance artist and activist Guillermo Gómez-Peña describes as a “conceptual place” with “no place for static identities, fixed nationalities or sacred cultural traditions.” The internet in the trilogy is framed as the place where this utopia can be glimpsed by allowing people to experiment with creating new identities in an era of global interconnectivity.

Alipoor’s work exposes the epistemological systems—the ways knowledge is absorbed into cultures—that structure the narratives Western audiences unconsciously rely on to interpret their experiences of otherness from around the world. Turning to Gómez-Peña again, otherness in this context means “deterritorialized peoples” whose identities are never fixed or singular, but fundamentally hybrid, metaphoric, and transcultural. I define otherness as those identities who do not conform to the rigid and conformist models perpetuated by Eurocentric narratives of race, ethnicity, and nation. The fusion of documentary and fictional material in the dramaturgy of Alipoor’s three plays disrupt the audience’s perception of how history interacts with contemporary political struggles and shows how theatre is also implicated in these structures.

Two actors online during a performance.

Javaad Alipoor and Peyvand Sadeghian in Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran, performed as part of the Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater. Co-created by Javaad Alipoor and Kirstie Housely. Produced by Javaad Alipoor Company. Photo by Woolly Mammoth Theatre.

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.

Staging Radicalization

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.

Two performers at gaming desks playing Call of Duty on-stage.

Luke Emery and Javaad Alipoor in The Believers Are But Brothers by Javaad Alipoor at the Bush Theatre. Directed by Javaad Alipoor and Kirsty Housely. Stage and lighting design by Ben Pacey. Sound design by Simon McCory. Produced by Luke Emery. Video design by Jack Offord. Dramaturg Chris Thorpe. Photo by The Other Richard.

These interactions create online political realities. Although the media frames the realities inhabited by Trumpian “Make America Great Again” extremist groups and militant Islamists as ideologically oppositional, this purported difference effaces the fact that fascists and jihadis use the same digital tools to organize rallies and spread propaganda. The internet has led to both movements operating as networks rather than formalized hierarchies. Consequently, their hateful ideas can be interwoven into mainstream politics and popular culture. Donald Trump proved that far-right politicians can now meme themselves into power in Western democracies. The multimedia dramaturgy of The Believers Are But Brothers enables audiences to understand how cultural signifiers such as being “redpilled” are part of the “thought architecture”which comprises the sets of ideas and beliefs that structure political narratives of fascism and jihadism. In performance, the juxtaposition of fascist and jihadi propaganda allows the audience to see how social media isolates different communities while paradoxically homogenizing how they express their political views by appropriating images from the same films, television, and computer games. This theatrical investigation of the role digital technology plays in political radicalization reveals how cultural material becomes encoded with new meanings through the networked narratives that the internet engenders.

Performing Subaltern Knowledge

Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World frames the internet as a story about the difference between knowledge and understanding. The true story of unsolved murder of 1970s Iranian pop sensation Fereydoun Farrokhzad—the “Iranian Tom Jones” (an example of translating difference into a familiar cultural referent) — in Germany in 1992 is refracted through a fictional crime podcast investigating the murder and the autobiographical tale of Iranian-Canadian singer King Raam (whose real name is Raam Emami).

After Alipoor’s disarming, low-key introduction, he steps behind black gauze and becomes framed by a circle of slowly moving stars and light beams that represent the endless information vectors that flow to and through us when we are online. He ponders where he should start his research for the show. This image of Alipoor cowed by the majesty of cyberspace represents the inadequacy of artistic or critical interpretations acting a substitute for confronting the void between “the world you want to live in and the world you are forced to live in.” This line is spoken by King Raam to explain how the internet cannot transmit what he calls “subaltern knowledge”—the politics that occur in the margins and remain largely invisible to the mainstream. Alipoor describes this gap as a “void” because the attempt to understand otherness through allegory transforms the other into forms that can be classified and studied. Thus, all the particularities and complexities of marginalized, transgressive, and non-conformist communities in Iran and the Global South become like everything else online: data floating in and out of networks, waiting for someone in the West to consume them before moving on to the next shiny thing that captures their eye.

This is not about understanding the world as it really is through objective reporting or cultural analogies, but making the hidden political struggles that bring about real change visible through performance.

The internet becomes a metaphor for the interactions between the subtle, intricate, yet often invisible historical forces that change the world when Alipoor directs us to click random hyperlinks on Wikipedia. The categorization of information on websites like Wikipedia filters otherness into digestible packages of stories. It shows the futility of Westerners trying to interpret the political realities in the Global South by molding our limited cultural frames to make otherness known to us. The line “an apple is a pomegranate” recurs frequently in the performance as a metaphor for how misleading such comparisons can be. Both apples and pomegranates are fruits, but saying one is the same as the other brings one no closer to understanding what the key differences between them are. The internet massively amplifies this effacement of difference by translating the history and peoples of the Global South into cultural signifiers that Western publics are familiar with.

Like Fereydoun Farrokhzad, Raam and his family were persecuted by the Iranian government. They were forced to flee to Canada after his father was imprisoned and murdered by the state police. His emotionally affective story is juxtaposed against an obnoxious podcast host crafting a documentary series about Farrokhzad’s murder. Asha Reid moves frantically about a studio pinning paper to corkboards and tying string between documents before smugly recounting how she will establish the “truth,” which is to say the most convincing, facts of the case. In a similar way that Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran denounces the de-humanizing effects of projecting one’s life on Instagram, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World presents the format of a murder mystery podcast as a form of cultural translation that mistakes knowledge about a person for understanding the deeper significance of otherness.

A still from Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World.

Asha Reid, Raam Emami, and Me-Lee Hay in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World by Javaad Alipoor with Chris Thorpe at Battersea Arts Centre. Directed by Javaad Alipoor. Co-created by Natalie Diddams and Javaad Alipoor. Dramaturg Chris Thorpe. Scenic Design by Ben Brockman. Music composed, directed, and performed by Me-Lee Hay. Music by Raam Emami. Production and Video Design by Limbic Cinema. Sound Design by Simon McCorry. Photo by Chris Payne.

King Raam embodies a kind of information vector that is inaccessible to Western audiences without his presence, someone from a subaltern community who cannot bring the world they are from to a Western audience and who cannot take them to that world. Learning what these differences are without technological filters and hackneyed cultural metaphors requires what he calls a “different kind of understanding.” This is not about understanding the world as it really is through objective reporting or cultural analogies, but making the hidden political struggles that bring about real change visible through performance. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World ends with Raam performing his song “The Hunter” in Persian with cellist Me-Lee Hay. I do not know what the song is about, yet in that moment in the theatre I understood it spoke to a desire to be free from tyranny. The void between our worlds wasn’t closed because this wasn’t necessary for the political reality of an Iranian exile to become visible to me, even if just for a fleeting moment. The internet may feel like the bridge that connects worlds, but Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World makes the important argument that the political realities people are experiencing in the Global South only become meaningful for Western publics when they are pulled into the world of globalized liberal capitalism through mediated narratives on media formats such as podcasts.

The Fourth World trilogy consciously situates theatre as the space where audiences can reflect on how societies within globalized liberal capitalism no longer follow the trajectory of increasing personal prosperity and limited government that many political leaders and cultural figures thought were inevitable developments at the start of the millennium. The nation state, as an idea of a political community, no longer feels sufficient in a globally networked and culturally hybrid world. The plays demonstrate how performance disrupts historical understanding by refracting those narratives through the lenses of colonialism, imperialism, and enslavement transmitted from the Global South. The Fourth World trilogy utilizes theatre as a keystone of democratic life by asking who we are becoming during these times of radical change. Asking the question through performance opens a space to invent futures not yet imagined.

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