From our Artistic Director: Media Manipulation & the Arab Spring

On 14 July, Catalan artists Insectotropics return to Bell Square with a performance of The Legend of the Burning Man.  This is a searching investigation into how our understanding of world events is manipulated by media.  It follows the story of how a local incident in a small, rural Tunisian town sparked protests and revolutions across an entire region that became known as The Arab Spring. 

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Mohamed Bouazizi – the man who triggered the Arab Spring
Mohamed Bouazizi grew up and lived in Sidi Bouzid, a small rural town in Tunisia. In a context of 30% unemployment, he had worked in various jobs since he was 10, and became a full-time street vendor of fruit and vegetables in his late teens. He had abandoned his dream of attending university in order to earn money to support his family. 

The town was stifled by corruption and, according to local people, Bouazizi had been harassed and abused by local police officers for years.  Because he could not afford to bribe the police officers, they regularly confiscated his small wheelbarrow of produce.  With no other way of earning a living, he had no option but to continue his life as a street vendor. 

On the morning of 17 December 2010, Bouazizi went to the fruit market as usual.  Again, the police officers began harassing him, supposedly because he did not have a vendor permit (even though no permit was needed to sell from a cart). 

Many conflicting accounts report that Bouazizi was either slapped, spat at, beaten or insulted.  All agree, however, that he was humiliated by the local official.

Bouazizi went to the governor's office to complain but the governor refused to see him. Incensed, Bouazizi bought a can of paint thinner, returned to the street outside the governor's office, doused his body with the liquid and set himself alight. 

As he caught fire, people around him panicked and tried to help.  People ran inside for a fire extinguisher but it was empty.  They called for the police but nobody came. It took 90 minutes for an ambulance to arrive. Suffering burns over 90% of his body, he was taken to a local hospital and then onto a specialist burn and trauma centre.  Eighteen days later, he died, having remained unconscious until his death.  He was 26.

The Start of the Revolution
Several months later, in March 2011, the Washington Post noted that, 'Revolutions are explosions of frustration and rage that build over time, sometimes over decades. Although their political roots are deep, it is often a single spark that ignites them - an assassination perhaps, or one selfless act of defiance. '

And so it was in Sidi Bouzid.  Outraged by the events that led Mohamed Bouazizi to set himself alight, protests began in Sidi Bouzid within hours, building for more than 2 weeks as Bouazizi lay dying in hospital. Attempts by police to quell the protests served only to inflame the social unrest. 

As Tunisia's unpopular President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, visited Bouazizi in hospital with a camera crew, the crowds raged at his hypocrisy. 

In early January,  the police woman who had humiliated Bouazizi was arrested - but it was all too late to appease the wrath of the people.

After Bouazizi's death, more than 5000 people joined the funeral procession in Sidi Bouzid.  Many chanted of revenge. The protests spread, eventually reaching the capital, bringing anger and violence to the streets.  Ten days after Bouazizi's death, President Ben Ali finally fled the country, ending his 23-year rule which over time had become a dictatorship. 

The Role of Social Media
On the day after Bouazizi set himself alight, a small crowd gathered in front of Sidi Bouzid's City Hall to protest at the treatment of the street vendors. A cousin of Bouazizi filmed the protest on his phone and posted the video online.  A blogger in Tunis, who had continually challenged Ben Ali's regime, saw the video and recognised the significance. 

Whilst Ben Ali's officials had censored the Internet for years, they had missed the recent, sudden growth of Facebook in Tunisia. The blogger posted the video on Facebook and news of the protest spread quickly. Protesters in nearby towns took to the streets.  Al-Jazeera broadcast the video repeatedly for days and the protests spread rapidly across Tunisia. 

Over the coming months, this wave of protests spread further afield.  Another anti-government blogger in Egypt similarly used Facebook to organise mass protests.  And still the stories spread further, enveloping Libya in civil war and threatening regimes and monarchies across the region. 

The Legend of the Burning Man
The artists, Insectotropics, say that The Legend of the Burning Man is a performance which revolves around the media and the manipulation of power, reflecting a reality in which we are all part of a web, but that nobody seems to recognise themselves as a spider. 

It is a powerful, quite brutal and explosive spectacle. It is presented as live performance, painting, projection and music, on a large cube of screens, set high above the audience. The audience move freely around the 4 sides of the cube, seeing the show from all angles.  Just like reality itself, or news reporting, if you see something from only one angle, your perspective is incomplete.  In every moment, on every side, there are different things happening, all to be seen from another angle. 

In Tunisia, there are many viewpoints about who Mohamed Bouazizi was.  The flood of social media led to world wide debate. Many in North Africa and the Middle East see Bouazizi as a hero, who inspired the region's young people to revolt against their autocratic governments. Others reflect that he was not interested in politics and just wanted to stand up for his own dignity - and perhaps the dignity of all Tunisians. 

Others believe that the media storm that followed Bouazizi's protest was fuelled by Western political agendas.  One local in Sidi Bouzid told a Western journalist, 'Mohamed Bouazizi is not our hero. He is your hero'. For some Tunisians, he is not really a political hero but a media creation of outsiders who wanted change in the region. 

So The Legend of the Burning Man presents these partial, manipulated and alternative viewpoints.  The images are manipulated, things become icons that are not, public opinion and emotions are manipulated. 

Insectotropics is a collective of artists, set up in Barcelona in 2011. Made up of painters, musicians, theatre and video artists, they fuse artforms and create a unique language to tell their stories.  Their shows are 'made live' so audiences see the process as well as the finished product on screen.  

Their work is powerful and political.  Some of you may remember their dark retelling of Red Riding Hood at Bell Square in 2015.  In my opinion, this is one of the most interesting shows we have had at Bell Square.  A Spanish blog, Desde El Patio, says, 'If La Caputxeta Galactica (Red Riding Hood) was an acid trip, The Legend of the Burning Man is like crack'.

Come and see for yourself at Bell Square on Saturday 14 July at 9.45pm when it is completely dark. Recommended for age 14+