Sisyphus, Nietzsche, and the perfect burger

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Together with Julie Mughunda and Yuni Mahieu, Farbod Fathinejadfard and Joost Maaskant developed a performance about the less visible aspects of the on-demand economy. Focusing on the workings of delivery services, the piece raises questions that reflect a deep critique of our neoliberal society. We sat down with Farbod and Joost to discuss UBERmens, which premiers at NTGent on 29.02.2024. The Avant Premiere is free for Different Class members on 28.02.2024.

From idea to performance, how did UBERmens develop? 

Farbod: Today, there is an uber for everything. We live in a very demanding world; technology is advancing quickly and it’s giving us almost everything we want. Companies and platforms are sprouting like mushrooms, ready to respond to our wants and needs.

Joost: Or they create needs themselves.

F: Indeed, they either respond to a need or they create one. And it all goes through a positive framework, “It’s innovative, flexible, good for the consumer,...”, which in some cases can be true. But there is also a darker underlayer of this economy that is often not looked at.

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J: The theme is the on-demand economy and we use examples of delivery services like Deliveroo and Uber Eats to develop this. We recreate such a company in the performance. In this economy, there’s a working-class of riders who are basically controlled via an app, via an algorithm on their phone. Some companies offer hourly wages while at other companies, couriers end up in a sort of false self-employment or independent status, and are offered payment per delivery. This develops into a race to the bottom as couriers are squeezed out as much as possible for the lowest possible price.

So, it's research into that kind of labour, actually. How does the on-demand economy work? And also - who are we within the on-demand economy, as Farbod and Joost? Or as Yuni and Julie? What effect does that system have on us?

There are companies and platforms sprouting like mushrooms, ready to respond to our wants and needs

I think it raises important questions. As a consumer, you sometimes feel uncomfortable about purchases or orders because you know that the economy is not ethical in many aspects.

F: It’s an important point because we don’t often stop and consider how we interact with these services and other people. I order a lot of things without considering the consequences my order might have on various aspects of society. But with one click you set a whole system in motion, a tsunami, and that is very difficult for me to wrap my head around. You have to imagine, it’s millions of these tsunamis every day. But some people are stuck in this system, dependent on the clicks to earn money to survive.

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J: Of course, not every rider is a victim. Some people are very satisfied with the job, just do it part-time or earn a little extra. But indeed, some people depend on it, and here it’s possible to raise that ethical question. We make many references to the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who pushes a stone up the mountain and reaches the top, only to watch the stone roll back down. Sisyphus has one moment of rest and then goes back down to push it back up. It’s a metaphor for being human, and we also associate this symbol with the riders.

F: We view the riders, carrying a bag with deliveries, as carrying this stone, like Sisyphus. And we imagine them transporting the consumer’s dream. The restaurant and the company create this dream: for example, a ‘perfect hamburger’. And we, as consumers, fall into this trap, because the ‘perfect burger’ is rarely as good as you imagine it to be.

<img class="editorial-image-50-left" src="https://cdn.prod.website-files.com/61eebcc683107b99137f4423/65ccb8717d18a3ca47178bc5_AD_240209_DC_Ubermens-15-2.jpg"/>

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J: What is also interesting is how companies use philosophies for their names or slogans. They take a concept from a philosopher or religion and implement it, ‘boom’, in their marketing. ‘Uber’ is frequently used like this, so we also used this idea in the design aspect of our fictional company, ‘UBERmens’. Our slogan, ‘With our product you become the best version of yourself’, actually comes from Nietzsche’s concept of ‘übermensch’.

<img class="editorial-image-50-left" src="https://cdn.prod.website-files.com/61eebcc683107b99137f4423/65ccb87156cb7e4554b1e7c0_AD_240209_DC_Ubermens-19-2.jpg"/>

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You are both not just involved in theatre, but also in other art forms. What are the strengths of theatre? What makes it stand out as an artistic medium?

J: Two things that make it stand out to me. Firstly, it’s a living event, not just something on a screen. It’s a bit of a cliché answer but I agree with it. [laughs] Moreover, I think theatre is a kind of sum of other arts. You can combine music, visual arts and text, and make it all work together. The disadvantage of theatre is that after it’s been played, it only lives in the mind and is gone. Or it is not really gone, but it must resonate within the audience itself.

I think theatre is a kind of sum of other arts. You can combine music, visual arts, text, and make it all work together

F: Because it’s live, you can travel in your thoughts at the moment. As an actor, you can be affected by the audience's reaction, and vice versa. I am sometimes so touched by the reactions that I do not expect while I’m on stage. That is theatre. I think it is one of the most beautiful forms of speaking to each other.

<img class="editorial-image-50-left" src="https://cdn.prod.website-files.com/61eebcc683107b99137f4423/65ccb86987b206c227d68a74_AD_240209_DC_Ubermens-7-2.jpg"/>

<img class="editorial-image-50-right" src="https://cdn.prod.website-files.com/61eebcc683107b99137f4423/65d387e8f632834a4325baff_AD_240209_DC_Ubermens-8-2.jpg"/>

<div class="editorial-banner"> <div class=“editorial-credits”> @ntgent </div></div>

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