http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vgwG9W5tgoI

The New Aesthetic concerns itself with “an eruption of the digital into the physical.”, said Bruce Sterling. James Bridle explains in great detail, here.

I am not into testosterone-driven Sci-Fi aesthetic, and personally hate when things get called New, like that, capitalised. But there is something in here that I’m really, really, really interested in, and it’s not how people make paintings that re-create the pixelated effect. Quite the opposite.

If you are interested in theatre, I think you will be able to follow easily.

I am interested in how reality, as in ‘the non-virtual’, the non-televised, the non-mediated, seems to be becoming a bit of a rare, endangered thing: because it’s getting aestheticised, it’s becoming self-referential and the material of art, exactly the way in which postmodernism made mass media self-referential and material of art.

This is very clearly happening in these videos: Angela Trimbur is not so much in an airport or laundromat, as in a ‘real airport’ and a ‘real laundromat’. Calling her a ‘one-person flashmob’, as some media have, is incredibly accurate, because these works/events share the same ambivalence as to what is a report of what, as a classical flashmob does. Does a flashmob happen in a city square, or on Youtube? Compare the two in these ways: length of existence, meaningful exposure and feedback, targeted audience, number of audience members, and performative attention towards audience experience. Is the performer engaging with the passersby, or smiling at the camera?

Angela Trimbur is, very clearly, smiling at the camera, which is what really flattens these videos for me as expressions of any kind of genuine joie de vivre or public expression. The ‘public’ here is more of a prop, a sign of a public – a little bit like the public and the public space function in Candid Camera. They are a reference to reality, which plays a part in the joke. The joke exists on Vimeo, or on YouTube.

Or, more precisely, it’s not that she isn’t in public space. She is. It’s just that we have a reversal here of the normal, pre-2005 understanding of physical reality as unmediated, and a media representation as a mediated representation of reality. Before 2005 (roughly, that’s when Facebook started gaining traction, I seem to remember), WWW and chat and BBSs and blogs were places where we imitated interaction AS PER physical reality: LOL and ROFLMAO and *hugz* and smiley faces are all references to physical reality. Before 2005, when we quoted a film character in a spoken, physically co-present conversation, it was postmodern and ironic and meta.

These videos represent fully the reversal that has happened since. Angela Trimbur isn’t referencing a film scene in physical reality; not even Candid Camera. She is referencing a concept of a real-life occurrence (‘dance like nobody’s watching’), which she enacts (so that it’s really happening) in real physical space (because that’s the punchline: the people around her), but the whole thing only comes together via social media. The apparatus that is US society + planet Earth is just a semantically laden set for a product called ‘intended viral video’. The meaningful social interaction is not happening in the laundromat, mall nor airport, but in the advancing red loading bars of millions of computers. (This is why my favourite is the Laundromat video: in it, Angela Trimbur is much more involved with the real space and people, than with the video camera.) And semantically, these videos are a response not to the urban alienation of the human race (or some such thing), but to the urban idiot savant trope of sit-com and reality TV canon, of the Flight of the Conchords.

The videos would lose the punchline if they were filmed in a studio, not in real space, but the logic of the punchline is not that of engaging with reality (as opposed to studio/fiction), but that of overly literalizing a trope: exactly like the humour of Flight of the Conchords.

The same thing is happening in performance, as things that used to be non-art increasingly become re-framed as aesthetic experiences: games and playing, human interaction and kindness, confessions and sharing secrets, and fear. All of this is now a normal part of either theatre, live art, or social gaming as represented by artists such as The Society of Coney. The point is not that we’re merely aestheticising reality, but that it appears to happen because reality (of this kind, anyway) is becoming scarce.

It is also happening in basic youth culture, as ‘real’ things such as clothes, food, jobs, communication and identity become seen as expressions of taste, style and epoch (the hipsterising and vintagefying of everyday life), rather than the simple collateral of living.

This is definitely a reflection of a scarcity of a certain kind of reality, just like the introduction of ‘conflict resolution’ as an academic matter in Australian primary and high schools is a reflection of the fact that Australian children don’t play in an unsctructured fashion in numbers high enough anymore to learn how to solve conflicts by themselves (true fact: heard from an educator on conflict resolution). It isn’t my intention to be alarmist just because I grew up before Facebook. But these kinds of changes are insidious because they’re so imperceptible, and very hard to reverse because it will take a long time to understand what their consequences have been. And then it will be too late – just like we never voted on whether to have an obesity pandemic or not.

Finally, nothing mentioned here is automatically true for Germany, Malaysia, or any place in which people live in relatively compact cities, because compact cities force direct socialisation, and direct socialisation is an engine of reality. But they are widely true for Anglophone cities, and all places in which young people are largely third-generation middle-and-outer suburbanites: citizens of places that gravitate towards no immediate city centre.

CITIES, theatre

minus signs (reviewed: Artshouse season 01/2010: works by Rotozaza; Mem Morrison Company; Helen Cole; Acrobat; Scattered Tacks)

Silvertree & Gellman, Scattered Tacks. Photo: Alicia Ardern.

THE NEXT DECADE IN THEATRE AND CONTEMPORARY PERFORMANCE WILL BE A DECADE OF PHENOMENA, NOT OF SIGNS, OF EXPERIENCING RATHER THAN READING PERFORMANCE. THE FIRST ‘SEMESTER’ OF THE ARTS HOUSE 2010 PROGRAM COULD BE NEATLY DIVIDED IN TWO PARTS: AUSTRALIAN CONTEMPORARY CIRCUS AND UK-BASED RELATIONAL PERFORMANCE.

The latter (where the audience become performers and co-creators) is a backlash against 20 years of over-mediatised postmodern theatre. These new works are theatre minus stage, performance minus performers and spectacle minus the spectacular. The audience experience is the event itself: tactile, immediate, immersive, anti-ironic. The semiotic component is minimal, sometimes altogether absent, as the performance exists mainly in the mind of the spectator. It appears, perhaps, as our era abandons questions of meaning and engages with amplified possibilities of doing. It’s almost like a direct answer to Deleuze’s dream of the new non-representational theatre, in which “we experience pure forces, dynamic lines in space which act without intermediary upon the spirit.” And although tested by performance-makers both here (bettybooke, Panther) and elsewhere (Rimini Protokoll), the UK, building on its rich variety of live art, is something of a leader.

This form is too young to have encountered much meaningful criticism in Australia, but every form quickly accumulates knowledge. While I don’t think everything we have seen at Arts House could be called successful, the failures are just as interesting, like the results of an experiment.

Take Rotozaza. Their two shows, Etiquette and Wondermart, promised a new form of expression, ‘autoteatro,’ but delivered a half-hearted combination of pomo referentiality and demanding, mediatised interactivity. Both are no more than voices inside a headset, giving instructions to a single audience member. Wondermart is a walk through a(ny) supermarket. Etiquette is 30 minutes in a café, in which you and another audience member perform an encounter, a conversation from Jean Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie, the final scene from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and much else—sometimes by talking to each other, sometimes moving figurines on the chess board in front of you.

Wondermart, Rotozaza. Photo: Ant Hampton.

While very engaging in those few moments when the narration matches what’s happening in space (such as when theories of shopper behaviour are confirmed by innocent bystanders in the supermarket), most of both shows consisted of a series of mundane and tiring little tasks. Despite the interactive pretences, they were not so much an experience for one audience member as a performance by one audience member, with the concomitant stage anxiety—even if nobody was watching. The problem was not just that many aspects of the situation cannot be sufficiently controlled by the audience-performer (my noisy supermarket trolley forbade me from following shoppers as instructed; or the concentration required to both quickly deliver lines and hear your partner-in-dialogue). Rotozaza underestimate our anxiety not to let the performance down: a compulsive need to please the dictatorial voice inside the headphones by performing everything right.

.Mem Morrison, Ringside. Photo: National Museum of Singapore/Chris P.

If Rotozaza forgot how unpleasant structured events can be, Mem Morrison went all the way and staged the worst aspects of a wedding ceremony in Ringside. Its entire conceptual spine is the sense of alienation, monotony, meaninglessness and loneliness one feels at a collective ritual. The performance starts before it starts — audience groups are arranged into family photos, well-dressed and carnation-studded as per instructions—and seated around one long table. An infinite number of black-clad women, both attendants, family and brides-to-be, deliver food and crockery. Amidst the flurry Morrison is the only male, unhappy, confused, 12 years old, jokingly told it’s his turn next, sometimes playing with a Superman toy and sometimes MC-ing with his shoe instead of a microphone.

Ringside’s aspirations are sky-high, but the performance never manages to reveal much of its topical menagerie: ethnicity, gender, tradition, multiculturalism are signposted rather than explored or experienced. Morrison’s entire text is delivered through headphones, creating a mediatised distance that in 2010, after 20 years of screens onstage, is as déjà-vu as it is genuinely disengaging. There is a paradox within Ringside: it purports to bring forth an aspect of Turkish culture, but the distanciation intrinsic to the method condemns it as facile. The experience is ultimately of witnessing a whining 12-year-old, loudly airing his discontent at being dragged to a family event.

Helen Cole’s Collecting Fireworks, on the other hand, a performance archive and an archive-performance, is as simple as it is brilliant. A genuine one-on-one performance (a dark room, a single armchair, recorded voices describing their favourite performance works, followed by recording one’s own contribution), it exemplifies the opening possibilities of this new form: no stage, no performers, but a deeply meaningful experience. I suspect the end result will be a genuinely valuable archive of performance projects, as we are encouraged to remember not only the details of these works, but also the effect they had on us.

The reasons the two local circus performances were on the whole much more successful are complex: Australia’s long tradition of contemporary circus and Melbourne’s close acquaintance with both the form and the artists are not the least important. If with relational performance, imported from an emerging artistic ecology overseas, we occasionally felt both short-changed and ignorant, with circus we could comfortably feel at the world’s cutting edge.

Propaganda, Acrobat. Photo: Ponch Hawkes.

Acrobat’s long-awaited new work, Propaganda, points to the long tradition of circus used as Soviet agitprop, educational art dreamt up by Lenin in 1919 as “the true art of the people.” The company’s take is both ironic and deeply earnest, and it takes weeks of confusion before concluding that, yes, their open endorsement of cycling, eating veggies and gardening nude was serious. The tongue is in cheek, yes, when spouses Jo Lancaster and Simon Yates heroically kiss in the grand finale, centrally framed to the tune of Advance Australia Fair like the ideal Man and Woman in social-realist art. But it is a very slight joke indeed.

The specificity of circus could be defined as the pendular motion between crude and dangerous reality and the illusion of spectacle: relying on physical strength more than on representational techniques (it is impossible to just ‘act’ a trapeze trick), it can never completely remove the real from the stage. Acrobat’s previous (and better) work — titled smaller, poorer, cheaper — created tension by opening up the spectacle to reveal the hidden extent of the real: social stereotypes and obligations, physical strain, illness. Propaganda foregrounds circus as this family’s life: from the two children pottering around to the unmistakable tenderness between Lancaster and Yates and the heart-on-sleeve honesty of the beliefs they propagate. The dramaturgical incongruence between the ironic self-consciousness of the Soviet theme, with its inevitably negative undercurrent, and the performers’ trademark lack of pretence, remained the least fortunate aspect of the work. From the message to the magnificent skills on display, everything else was flawless.

Scattered Tacks, by Skye and Aelx Gellman and Terri Cat Silvertree, stripped away spectacle to reveal the essence of circus: awe. Circus is a naturally postdramatic form: its narrative arc fragmented, aware of its own performativity (what Muller called “the potentially dying body onstage”) and constantly anxious about the irruption of reality on stage. Scattered Tacks is raw circus, naked: at times it felt like an austere essay in thrill. It revealed that the rhythm of audience suspense and relief hinges less on the grand drama of leaps and tricks and more on visceral awareness of the subtle dangers and pain involved. Eating an onion, climbing barefoot on rough-edged metal cylinders, overworking an already fatigued body—these were the acts that left the audience breathless. Yet they also achieve poignant beauty. The Gellmans and Silvertree bring Australian circus, traditionally rough and bawdy, closer to its conceptual and elegant French sibling, but in a way that is absolutely authentic.

Australia offers a good vantage point from which to observe the human being. Visiting Europe recently, it struck me how dense the semantics of the European theatre are in comparison. Performing bodies there are acculturated and heavy under the many layers of interpretation, history, meaning. The body here, on the other hand, easily overpowers the thin semiotics of Australian culture, emerging strong, bold and without adjectives, without intermediary. Body as phenomenon, not as signifier. It will be interesting to observe how the emerging interest in theatre as presence, rather than representation of meaning, unravels—and how much this country will participate in this trend. In this season it’s circus, one of the oldest forms of performance, that emerges as the more successful. The relational performance works only rarely overcame the trap of referentiality.

Arts House: Rotozaza, Etiquette, Wondermart, co-directors Silvia Mercuriali and Ant Hampton, Arts House and around Melbourne; Mar 16–April 3; Mem Morrison Company, Ringside, writer, director, concept, performance Mem Morrison, sound & music composition Andy Pink, design Stefi Orazi, North Melbourne Town Hall, March 17-21; Helen Cole, Collecting Fireworks, director Helen Cole, technical consultant Alex Bradley, North Melbourne Town Hall, March 17-19; Acrobat, Propaganda, conceived and performed by Simon Yates and Jo Lancaster, also featuring Grover or Fidel Lancaster-Cole, Meat Market, March 27-April 3; Silvertree and Gellman, Scattered Tacks, created and performed by Terri Cat Silvertree, Alex Gellmann, Skye Gellmann, Arts House, Meat Market, Melbourne, March 16-21.

First published in RealTime, issue #97, June-July 2010, pg. 33.

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CITIES, theatre

shopping for experience (reviewed: a whole bunch of relational/immersive/participatory theatre, including London's LIFT and BAC's One-on-One Festival; Rimini Protokoll, Dries Verhoeven)

Life Streaming, Dries Verhoeven. Photo: Maarten van Haaff.

IMMERSIVE, RELATIONAL, PARTICIPATORY, SITE-SPECIFIC… WHATEVER TERM YOU PREFER (AND I PREFER ‘RELATIONAL’, AS THIS IS PRIMARILY A THEATRE OF SOCIAL AND SPATIAL RELATIONS), THIS FORM DOMINATED THE LONDON SUMMER OF 2010. BATTERSEA ARTS CENTRE (BAC) PRESENTED AN ENTIRE FESTIVAL OF ONE-ON-ONE WORKS, WITH OVER THIRTY ONE-MAN-(OR WOMAN)-SHOWS CRAMMED INTO THE OLD BATTERSEA TOWN HALL IN SOUTH LONDON. THE MORE CENTRALLY LOCATED LIFT (LONDON INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF THEATRE) DEDICATED THE LION’S SHARE OF ITS PROGRAM TO EVENTS THAT COULD JUST AS EASILY HAVE BEEN TERMED MASS GAMING, COLLECTIVE SKYPING OR SCAVENGER HUNTS.

At the Barbican, during the same period, You Me Bum Bum Train entered history as their fastest-selling show ever: part theatre, part Thank God You’re Here, it turned each audience member into the protagonist, made to improvise their way through a series of dramatic situations in front of the supporting cast of 200. With so much emphasis on you, the spectator, forgive me if the rest of this article privileges the second-person singular.

one-on-one festival

An immersive event in its own right, One-On-One Festival was possibly its own greatest achievement. The least one could sign up for was a marvellously organised afternoon of mingling through a building crammed with secret one-man wonders, appointment card in hand. The atmosphere was surprisingly welcoming, even festive: performers and spectators crossing paths in the same courtyard and café, recommendations exchanged, friendships commenced, queues spontaneously forming outside the rooms with hidden gems on the strength of on-the-spot word of mouth. Repeatedly diving into a 2-or-3-minute intensely collaborative performance, being in turns swung and shaken, kissed and sung to, frightened or intellectually challenged, by the end of the day one had no personal boundaries left to speak of.

Despite being cumulatively great, One-On-One also demonstrated how quickly an emergent genre can settle on a limited range of solutions. One kind seemed tailored to break through fears of intimacy: Abigail Conway’s On Dancefloors invites you to dance; Emma Benson sings a song with you in Me You Now. Most radically, Adrian Howells gives you a bath in The Pleasure of Being: Washing, Feeding, Holding, while Ansuman Biswas’s more open-ended 2 FREE offers the possibility of engaging with a naked, blindfolded man. However trivial they may sound conceptually, these were some of the most powerful performances in the festival, spoken about in hushed, almost spiritual tones. You found yourself entering these rooms with the same mixture of compulsion and terror with which you might climb into a roller-coaster (and they certainly act as a kind of psycho-social one, including the lag with which you process the experience afterwards). But if theatre is ever genuinely life-changing, it is in the strangely liberating afterglow that follows consensual nudity.

Another, quieter type of performance centred on material reality, and the tactile dimension of the experience generated, not so much inter-personal intimacy as greater understanding of how the world works. Barnaby Stone’s A Little Bit of a Beautiful Thing is a story of a wooden beam, a finely polished slice of which you will receive at the end. In Ray Lee’s Electric, your body becomes a conductor. Another focused on creating a first-person narrative, employing cascades of clever sensory illusions: for the 10 minutes of Just For a Moment, by Three Blind Mice, you have a drink at a pub, lie on the beach, dance Macarena in the world’s most terrible discotheque, witness a fight and have to be walked out of the pub at the end of the night, despite being blindfolded in a single room. Stan’s Café use mirrors, projection, costumes and clever framing to generate a 240-second film noir before your very eyes, with you as the chief villain, in It’s Your Film. While these works were longer, more carefully shaped and satisfied some of that need for dramatic spectacle that drives people into theatres on perfectly lovely summer days, their beauty again seemed to derive chiefly from the promise of intimacy, of being made-to-measure and the soporific pleasures of being touched, rather than from well-executed tricks.

The most accomplished works brought together the cerebral and the felt, offering an encounter while questioning its limitations. Sarah Johns’ Below plays with your perceptions: dragged into a dark room, her performance catches you before you can make sense of where you are. Facing a mirror and a singing girl, your focus shifts abruptly from one detail to another, resulting in a series of mesmerising, well-defined impressions, as if in a film. And of course, towering above the rest, is Ontroerend Goed’s trilogy of brief, but flawless works that boldly question the gullibility of the audience.

As Peggy Phelan writes, theatre has always been a meeting place, always offering the promise of a communion, an exchange—even across the proscenium arch. The relationship between audience and performer is, in her words, “the always already unequal encounter [that] nonetheless summons the hope of reciprocity and equality” (Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, Routledge, 1993). Relational performance is the inevitable end-product of this quest. Yet in it, intimacy emerges not only as a tool and a goal, but as a major concern: can we have it, how, by what means and why do we desire it in the first place? A number of works at BAC traded on the false promise of quick intimacy, and most fell short: after all, the obvious difficulties of building a rapport with the actor in five tightly scripted minutes cannot be overcome just by holding hands. Ontroerend Goed’s Smile Off Your Face, Internal and A Game of You capitalise on this disingenuousness. Internal, in particular, set up as a speed-dating session followed by a sweetly cruel group debrief, builds the illusion of a budding attraction only to break your heart (comparing notes with other viewers is soul-crushing). Yet, for all its oversharing, Internal provides a dose of needed realism in a universe made of caresses. It stands as a reminder that there is no such thing as conveyor-belt romance, no intimacy on a mass scale, and that audiences often give their hearts away too easily.

Best Before, Rimini Protokoll. Photo courtesy: the artists.

lift 2010

The polar opposite of the high-concept One-On-One, LIFT 2010 was a festival with an identity crisis. Rubbing shoulders were weekend events for kids, formalist community theatre and the occasional think piece. Yet here, too, the most interesting works were from the relational family.

Rimini Protokoll’s Best Before is a computer game for the whole audience. Represented by a globular multi-coloured blip, for two hours you live as a proud citizen of Bestland, making personal choices (tertiary education? children? buy a house? own a gun? try heroin?) and participating in collective decision-making (legalise drugs or guns? form an army? welcome immigrants? equal capabilities or a diverse population?). As the game progresses, you reap the fruits of some decisions and suffer the limitations of others, while your range of choices progressively narrows as you age. It is a game of consequences, but also of chance—some blips are randomly wiped out by epidemics and war while, ultimately, the whole population dies of old age. I found the end unexpectedly poignant, realising that there was no final payoff for all my prudent life choices (I had grown old with a big family and plenty of real estate). I suspect the experience varies according to your age and life experience, but also audience demographics.

Bookmarking the game is Rimini Protokoll’s trademark presence of non-performers, or rather ‘reality experts’—in this case, the game designer, a game tester, a lobbyist and a traffic flagger whom the other three would have passed by on their way to work. Their guidance and stories serve both to contextualise gaming in the real world, to relate Bestland to the political choices that Vancouver has faced, and to reconnect our personal choices to non-virtual consequences. The tension between the two aspects of Best Before, which never quite connect, is a productive one, even though I found the four Canadians’ lives infinitely more intriguing than my avatar’s cyber-shenanigans.

The real treat of the festival was Dries Verhoeven’s Life Streaming. The concept is minimal: in a makeshift internet café, each audience member conducts their own video chat with a young person in Sri Lanka. In the interstices of the poetic, but tightly orchestrated structure, filled with pre-prepared text and film and guiding us through such topics as the tsunami, loss and grief, my interlocutor and I manage to insert a real conversation about life, healthcare, the scent of the sea and lying in bed with total strangers. The work keeps the question of its own intent open, incorporating sensorial stimuli to create an exuberant experience not unlike a perfect holiday in South-East Asia, while at the same time allowing for an unusual degree of self-propelling interaction. Consequently, you come away with a real connection to a human being—if you so wish. Like Ontroerend Goed’s trilogy, Life Streaming raises big questions about art, reality and intimacy, but lets you choose your own answers.

to shop or not?

Elinor Fuchs argues that relational theatre is the last step in theatre’s commodification: after the ice-cream in the interval, now we can get ice-cream during the performance. Indeed she terms it “shopping theatre” (The Death of Character: Perspectives on Theater After Modernism, Indiana University Press, 1996) as it can so closely resemble a walk through a department store. It allows us to buy a reproduction of an experience that could not be bought otherwise. The physical set up, finally, is remarkably similar to a brothel—the room, the queue, the illusion of unique relationship.

However, I am not sure I entirely agree. At its worst, relational theatre combines the direst aspects of amusement parks and popular psychology, perhaps. But at its best, it incorporates the most conceptually interesting aspects of drama therapy, while allowing us to see our own experience through a critical prism. It highlights the qualities of everyday life, in all its mundane materiality, without distortion, in ways naturalistic theatre has consistently failed to achieve. Finally, the illusion of intimacy, of giving, which has existed for as long as theatre, can now be scrutinised in genuinely interesting ways. Relational theatre allows the exploration of the encounter between the artist and the spectator, an encounter that may be obviously staged, but is also more frank about its limitations. Once there are really only the two of you, the artifice becomes first disappointing, then bearable and finally, perhaps, genuinely empowering.

One-On-One Festival, Battersea Arts Centre (BAC), July 6-18, London; LIFT 2010: Rimini Protokoll, Best Before, created by Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi, dramaturg Tim Carlson, game design Brady Marks, video design Candelario Andrade, set design Andreas Kahre, sound design Stegan Smulovitz, with Duff Armour, Brady Marks, Ellen Schultz, Bob Williams/Arjan Dhupia, June 30-July 3, Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA); Life Streaming, director Dries Verhoeven, dramaturg Nienke Scholts, technical production Joffrey Kranen, Silk BV, National Theatre, June 23-July 4, LIFT Festival, London, June 23-July 13

First published in RealTime, issue #99, Oct-Nov 2010, pg. 10.

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CITIES, theatre

incendiary performance: christoph schlingensief (Interview: Anna Teresa Scheer)

ART WITHOUT BORDERS, EDITED BY TARA FORREST AND ANNA TERESA SCHEER, RECENTLY PUBLISHED BY INTELLECT, IS THE FIRST MONOGRAPH ON CHRISTOPH SCHLINGENSIEF, THE GERMAN THEATRE AND FILM ARTIST WHO DIED IN JULY 2010. IT IS THE FIRST ENGLISH LANGUAGE RESOURCE ON THE MAN CONSIDERED TO BE ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT 20TH CENTURY ARTISTS OF THE GERMAN SPEAKING WORLD, BUT ALSO THE FIRST ACADEMIC STUDY OF A VERY PROVOCATIVE OEUVRE. I SPOKE IN MELBOURNE WITH ANNA TERESA SCHEER ABOUT THE ARTIST AND THE BOOK.

First things first: Schlingensief is almost entirely unknown in Australia.

In 2008, when I returned to Australia, I realised Schlingensief’s work was among that which had really impressed me during my 14 years in Germany—especially when I realised how apolitical Australian art had become in the Howard years. For example, there was no attempt to test the sedition laws. People seemed afraid of losing the support of the funding bodies. Schlingensief, by contrast, had gone out on a limb time after time, in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. He was arrested twice and wasn’t bothered about the consequences.

In Germany, I was used to him being a household name—an unusual position for a theatre artist. It became especially apparent to me that his work needed to be written up when I began my postgraduate studies. He’s not mentioned in any of the ample literature that was coming out on politics and performance. American and British perspectives dominate the field, and still focus on people like Augusto Boal. Even Baz Kershaw, in The Radical in Performance, still talks about The Living Theatre and the Welfare State International from the 1960s.

After nearly 30 years of work, not much has been published on Schlingensief. Of course, there were articles in German papers and magazines, but that’s not the same as a scholarly, referenceable book. His work wasn’t considered serious—which didn’t detract from its power, from it being always sold out at the Volksbuehne in Berlin. The writing that did get published was primarily from his own collaborators. I was interested in how other people thought about the work, how it could be understood. In this book, we move from Adorno to Brecht to Goffman, looking for interpretive context.

We know Schlingensief as a theatre-maker, but his theatre career was an accident. He was an underground filmmaker when Matthias Lilienthal invited him to work in the re-established Volksebuehne in former East Berlin.

An incredibly smart move for Lilienthal, to pick up on a man who says his films were only ever going to be shown in cellar cinemas. Schligensief was invited after making the third film in his German trilogy, Terror 2000: Intensive Station Germany, which lampoons Germany’s memorial culture—politicians laying wreaths at every opportunity, the Gladbecker hostage disaster, the plight of the asylum seekers—piling up a lot of stuff together using very unaesthetic, trashy means. The film was called sexist, racist, every negative epithet you can imagine. And he was invited by Lilienthal to retort to critiques in a stage production.

I am intrigued by Rocky Dutschke ‘68 (1996), an early theatre work in which he tried to confront the Left’s nostalgia for the 60s and uncritical emulation of kinds of protest that are now futile.

It tried to re-create the 60s: Schlingensief in a Dutschke wig inciting people to go into the theatre, then out again for a protest, a love-in in the theatre…It inquired into the leftist mythology of Rudi Dutschke [assassinated leader of the West German student movement in the 1960s], seriously asking: is anything like this still possible, or are we all postmodern super-cynics and resistance no longer imaginable?

He really targeted the Left’s idealism: ‘We’ll still find the working class, who will revolt and take over.’ He wasn’t interested in that sentiment. You could absolutely not describe him as a leftist in those terms. He was an anarchic spirit, whose line was one of inquiry.

In your book cinematographer Sandra Umathum reflects very personally on what it meant to experience Rocky Dutschke ‘68.

The difficulty of writing about Schligensief’s work is that it was different every night. He throws dramaturgy overboard, gets rid of previously made agreements with the actors; he will on the spur of the moment upturn the whole thing. Key sections may remain—or maybe not! Schlingensief’s theatre work was not fuelled by a great love of theatre, of wanting to follow in Brecht or Grotowski’s footsteps. He was experimenting with theatre like a child with plasticine. What can you do with this? He was interested in the way theatre was never finished, but happened anew each night.

Rocky Dutschke ‘68 was the first performance in which Schlingensief used non-professional performers, a practice he continued throughout his career: people with disabilities, the homeless. In Hamlet in 2001 he conscripted a bunch of reformed neo-Nazi youths. He was not interested in the ‘show me your wounds’ approach in which we turn up to be compassionate. The audience is not allowed complacency.

He was not doing it to elevate the status of a minority, but to get to the core of societal problems—and not in a linear or simple, causal way. People forget how turbulent Germany was in the 90s. Moving the capital back to Berlin, the ‘media chancellor’ Gerhard Schroeder, then the bombing of Belgrade, the first time German troops were employed since WWII. Germany was outraged: this happened under a red-green government! Then the ongoing reunification debate: will we become the great nation of fascists again? All these things swirling around, as if in a washing-machine. And that is how these productions looked: like questions, with actors representing contemporary politicians, with references to the Nazi past…but always as this “past that will not pass.”

Was he an heir of Brecht in that sense?

Yes—the audience had to sit there and critically engage with their own society and socio-political problems, because he wasn’t telling them what to think.

PASSION IMPOSSIBLE, 1997

Passion Impossible was an inquiry into the city of Hamburg. Schlingensief was invited to create a work at the Deutsches Schau-spielhaus in Hamburg, Germany’s largest theatre [whose production Pornography was presented at Melbourne Interntional Arts Festival in 2010].

At that time, Hamburg station, which sits opposite the theatre, was literally a camp for the homeless and drug users. To get to the theatre, you had to step over their bodies. Schlingensief was essentially a moralist and found this situation unbearable. He first suggested to the administration they tear down the facade of the theatre and turn around the seats, to face the theatre across the road, the theatre of misery. The theatre rejected the proposal ‘for technical problems.’ Instead, they agreed to sponsor a benefit gala, to raise money for a mission.

The seven-day event Schlingensief staged was a mission in the former police station down the road and a series of mass events in public space. You had him standing outside the theatre in a policeman’s jacket with a megaphone, encouraging the theatre patrons to “come away from this ugly bunker! There’s nothing in here for you!” Like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, he would encourage people, having bought their ticket, to leave the building and come to the mission, which was a real mission—with beds and a soup kitchen. Here they had an open mike, a small stage and people could speak about whatever they wanted. He had an accordion player, the Salvation Army band, people singing songs…All sorts of little moments of what could be called entertainment.

Was this real or just a provocation?

It wasn’t clearly outlined. The theatre had publicised the event. The audience would buy tickets, then walk 200 metres up the road to the mission. You were paying to be involved with the people you would normally completely ignore, would never encounter in your daily life, or could have easily dealt with for free!

Participating in it was a provocation to oneself. Some of the stories of the homeless people were just awful. Early on, at the benefit gala, Schlingensief appeared with a decrepit battery chicken, and asked: “I want to see how much money can be raised to save the neck of this chicken!” People in the audience started protesting but he said, “We eat these chickens every day. What do you care about its life? I want to know how far people will go. We’re all addicted” — addicted to one’s own sense of doing good, of being a good citizen. We responded to the phone call, turned up at the benefit gala, did our little bit, even if otherwise we don’t really care. But now we’re really worried about the chicken!

But the main provocation was to the Lord Mayor by getting the citizens to eventually march up to the Town Hall, asking for the mission to continue. It became permanent.

I found Passion Impossible fascinating because it took it right out onto the streets. It is not dissimilar to Augusto Boal’s invisible theatre. There was a lot of media around. Questions were asked: Is he serious? Is this a charity campaign? Is it performance? Of course, it was all these things. And it evolved into an actual campaign, which he couldn’t have planned in the beginning. The work really asks: can art do something that politics can’t, create impetus for change? It questions our idea that artists can at best be pranksters. This is very different from watching The Chaser boys having a good time.

PLEASE LOVE AUSTRIA, 2000

I remember the reverberations from Please Love Austria (2000) as it made news throughout Europe that summer. There were riots!

2000 was the year when the liberal Austrian government became the only one since WWII to form a coalition with a far-right populist party, FPÖ, led by Jörg Haider. Sanctions were imposed on Austria. All of Europe was aware of Haider’s anti-immigrant campaigns.

Schlingensief was invited to create a work for the Vienna Festival. It was planned that shipping containers would be placed in the centre of town, on the Opera Square. These containers would be the living quarters for 12 asylum seekers for a period of seven days. Inside were webcams streaming to a website and Austrian citizens were encouraged to vote out their least favourite inhabitant, who would be taken to the border and deported. The winner would get 35,000 schillings and the possibility of becoming an Austrian resident by marriage. It followed the Big Brother format, which had just appeared.

It was only when Schlingensief, opening the show, revealed a large banner on the container, which said “Foreigners Out.” that it stopped being a game, or even funny. This is a well-known right-wing slogan: “Germany for Germans, Foreigners Out.” Jaws dropped. It attracted growing attention. People were coming through town for the festival and Schlingensief was there with a megaphone, exhorting tourists to take photos: “This is the future of Europe, this is Austria, send this to your friends at home, dear Japanese, dear Americans!” Austrians were shocked: “Besmirching our country!” Schlingensief kept publicly inviting Jörg Haider to meet with the asylum seekers—involving him in the performance, in absentia. The national boulevard press, the Kronen-Zeitung, were writing every day: “This Schlingensief clown is costing you money, dear readers.” Schlingensief retorted that they were just writing the program notes to his event.

The Left were campaigning against Jörg Haider. They saw the “Foreigners Out” banner simply as a provocation, accusing Schlingensief of misusing asylum seekers for his project. They marched around the container, demanding that he set those inside free, showing mind-boggling naivety — these were real asylum seekers, all with cases pending.

In the end they stormed the container.

Jumped on the roof, destroyed the banner, demanded a meeting. The asylum seekers had to be evacuated. The protesters then realised these were real asylum seekers and had to question their own activities. When they finally left, Schlingensief raised the ante by putting up an SS slogan that had been used by an FPÖ member: “Loyalty is our Honour.”

In that moment, it was as if Schlingensief reminded everyone that we were watching an art performance and that the real issue was only being represented. It questioned the efficacy of removing a symbol as a political action.

The Left-Right binary looked pathetic. The Right couldn’t take down the sign and government officials taking down an artwork would look pretty stupid. On the other hand, leftist protesters, making insane demands, weren’t effective either. Set the asylum seekers free — for what? Where?

The show wasn’t so much about the asylum seekers. Austria was televised around the world—the theatre was the Austrians, watching each other perform. Whatever happened, Schlingensief incorporated it into the work. That was the fun aspect of it. He didn’t have to rise to the bait or argue that this was a serious piece of political art. He would say: “I’m just repeating what Haider has been saying.”

Kerstin Grassmann, "Kandy" Mamounata Guira, Amando Komi in Christoph Schlingensief's award winning 2010 work Via Intolleranza. Photo: Aino Laberenz.

Slavoj Žižek calls this “radical overidentification”— an artistic position where you critique by overstating, by taking a claim to its absolute extreme to reveal its ugly possibilities.

Please Love Austria was a perfect example — the asylum seekers being forced to learn German, do callisthenics… It’s not as if Austria changed when the project left. That didn’t see the end of the coalition. But it showed how art can be directly involved in events of the day, in a very radical way.

In the book you point out the connection between Schlingensief’s work and the neo-avant-garde of the 1950s. You write about “an art practice that emerges from the social sphere—and that develops out of the active, creative participation of the viewer.”

The comparison with happenings is not wrong — everyday life, spontaneity, experiments. Schlingensief didn’t start something with a blueprint of how it should end, but set it in motion like a wind-up toy, to see where it goes. In Germany he is often considered the inheritor of the legacy of Joseph Beuys. Beuys’ discussions, definitions, ideas—of social sculpture, of an expanded form of art — Schligensief co-opted for his own ideas on an expanded form of theatre. Getting rid of the fourth wall, people leaving the theatre for the streets. That became really clear in 1998, when he ran his own political party in the German election.

Christoph Schlingensief (right), Chance 2000—Vote for Yourself (1998). Photo © Aino Laberenz.

CHANCE 2000—VOTE FOR YOURSELF, 1998

It started off with an event at the Volksbuehne. Schlingensief had a circus performance set up in a tent—the “electoral circus.” But at the same time, he started his own media campaign on national television about Chance 2000 – Vote For Yourself (1998). He was encouraging the disabled and the unemployed to run as political candidates. “None of these people in the Bundestag represent you. The idea that you will be represented by someone else your whole life is ridiculous—you have to prove you exist. Get involved in starting your own campaign.”

He toured Germany in a bus, campaigning non-stop. It wasn’t a completely serious attempt to form a political party. He would say, “Unlike all other politicians running in this election, the only promise I am going to make is that everyone will be bitterly disappointed.” Then he decided that the people who joined the party were too boring, left it and set up the Schlingensief Party. He wouldn’t let those he rejected into his new tent, but after two days they reunited. A very clever German reviewer commented that Schlingensief gave us a short run-through of democracy in a week. Parties, factions, reuniting, splitting up, another leader emerging, and all happening with such a turbulent tempo!

Germany was baffled: vote for yourself? Is he lampooning the election? The party got 30,000 votes. But the idea wasn’t that they would take over the Bundestag, but rather “prove you exist.” In this world, where the only voices we hear are those of rich politicians, who are these faceless unemployed people, apparently numbering six million? He was demanding you make yourselves visible in a world that’s trying to erase you.

There was a lovely offshoot action of Chance 2000. Schlingensief announced that the six million unemployed would join him to jump into a lake, Wolfgangsee, where Helmut Kohl’s villa is, to raise the water level, flood Kohl out and give him cold feet. The police were sent to the village, all sorts of preparations were in place. Schlingensief turned out with about 300 people. But Kohl ‘participated,’ against his will, in a performance. It doesn’t really matter if it did or didn’t happen. People saw the clips, it was national news that there hadn’t been 6 million people, only 300.

Schlingensief really understood the sound-byte world we’re living in—he created a mythology around the work, pretending things would go further than they actually could, and were bigger than they actually were.

How did Schlingensief’s work fit into the German theatre context? I remember when Denise Varney [Theatre Studies, University of Melbourne] showed a clip from Please Love Austria in class there was incredible consternation about whether such an action was legal or not. In Germany, Schlingensief reached the status of a star. He directed an opera for the Bayreuth Wagner festival. He was not living in a live art ghetto, the way one would expect here.

Events such as the one he staged in the election campaign of 1998 made him nationally prominent, while internationally it was Please Love Austria. He became the biggest name in art in Germany. After years of people saying it wasn’t real theatre, the fact that he wasn’t going away and was finally invited to direct Parsifal at the shrine of Wagner in Bayreuth, meant that he was finally accepted. On the other hand, he never became an intendant of a theatre — people didn’t trust him on that level. But after he contracted cancer, when he was only 47, he released a book—his cancer diary, titled Heaven Can’t Be More Beautiful Than Here — and it became a bestseller.

SHOCKED PATIENTS

He started a website, Shocked Patients (www.geschockte-patienten.org). The first thing he found out as a cancer patient is that you lose all autonomy. People start shoving tubes into you, no one talks to you, they talk over you. You are again erased. He created a forum for people diagnosed with terminal diseases, cancer and ALS [amyotropic lateral sclerosis] to write about their experiences, to have their own voice.

He had previously created a performance called Art and Vegetables (2004) at the Volksbuehne, in which, centrestage, was a woman with ALS, in bed, able to write messages by blinking at a computer screen. The woman, Angela Jansen, was quoted in the program, saying, “I’ve got everything I need, it’s just that I can’t move.” He used that as a reference to German society of the time. The woman now became the forum moderator.

It’s not as if he avoided scandal, he sought the media, did things knowing they would provoke a reaction—saying unkind things about Lady Di, for example. But there is also his metaphorical language: “Jump into the lake and give Kohl cold feet,” or relating physical sickness to a social sickness and lethargy.

One of the reasons it’s hard to talk about Schlingensief’s work is because he covers so many forms: happening, performance, theatre, film, activism, politics. It’s hard to sum up his work. One motif is, perhaps, visibility, the other is putting himself in his work. And particularly interesting to me, in these times of complete social inertia — I’m thinking Australia now — is his idea of movement, getting out of torpor and lethargy. He often took to the streets with groups of people. “Move! It doesn’t matter where we’re going. I don’t even need a plan.” No need for direction – you just move. “We’ll figure it out as we go.”

Tara Forrest and Anna Teresa Scheer eds, Art Without Borders, Intellect Books, 2010; www.intellectbooks.co.uk

First published in RealTime issue #103 June-July 2011 pg. 24-25.

Note: I am particularly proud of this article, which is, to my knowledge, the first mention of Christoph Schlingensief in the Australian media, arts or otherwise. Schlingensief is without a doubt one of the most important theatre artists of the 20th century, and the publication of Scheer’s book was an important occasion, not just in Australia, but worldwide.

Anna Teresa was a fantastic interlocutor. I cut my questions down to the bare minimum, giving most of the space to her, to describe the importance and social impact of Schlingensief’s work. Even so, the article ran at twice the word-length commissioned.

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CITIES, how the world works, poetics of life, theatre

Let them make pancakes: talking to Sivan Gabrielovich

This interview was first published on 16 September 2008 on Spark Online, and is normally available here.

"What Do You Think About Me?", still from the exhibition

Sivan Gabrielovich’s new project, opening on Wednesday 19 November at the Meat Market, a video installation titled What Do You Think About Me?, brings together members of the Israeli and the Palestinian communities together for a series of discussions, workshops and interviews. It is a rare moment of viewing these two groups thoughts and concerns about who they are, and what they think of the other.

Gabrielovich is rushing to finish the installation, neck-deep in cutting 60 hours of video footage down to 3. “I have these visions that I’ll be editing as the people are entering the gallery. I’ll be just putting the DVD in the player.” Continue reading “Let them make pancakes: talking to Sivan Gabrielovich” »

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CITIES, poetics of life, theatre, travel notes

The Museum of Broken Relationships

I remember when this opened, some years ago, under the name ‘Museum of Failed Relationships’. I liked that name better – it echoed of wars, revolutions, fallen heroes and honour in defeat. Broken… eh… anything can break. I visited it in June 2011. I was at the end of a relationship, that moment when all sadness gets a bit grimy already, and I was in the right mood to read about the ‘ex-axe’, and similar exhibits. In anyway, it was one of the most enjoyable museum visits I’ve ever had in my life, and I recommend it to anyone.

Gallery
CITIES, theatre, travel notes

The art of wrapping

I bought many things on my recent trip to Japan. It was hard not to: just about everything on sale in Japan was eminently worth buying. Food, drinks, books, shoes, humble boxes, ceramics, paper goods, whatever I set my eyes on was simply beautifully crafted, with precision and care. Even more, it was all displayed with such respect for the object that it made everything seem meaningful, valuable, important.

Even more importantly, every item purchased was so lovingly wrapped for me by the shop assistants that many of the things I bought I didn’t have the heart to unwrap. I felt, in a way that might be quintessentially un-Japanese, that I might ruin some crucial quality of my buy by getting it out of its paper packaging.

So take a look at this humble little thing, a papier-mache box, I bought in a shop in Asakusa, and religiously carried around for a month after in its original packaging. Watch as it comes apart, the thing of beauty (見事) that it is.

The box itself is gorgeous; after all, that was what I saw on the shelf in Asakusa. However, the multiple layers of packaging added an entirely new level (or layer) of beauty to it. The habit of wrapping a square item in a square sheet of paper by rotating it slightly was common to my experience of Japan: many very humble items came to me wrapped like that, in very humble shops and from people who clearly weren’t any sort of paper artists. The folds in such a wrapping process result in many very small, unusual corners. It was only once I had unwrapped it, and examined the paper, that it became obvious that, despite the seeming haphazardness of the angle, and the irregularity of the little folds created along the way, there was great thought involved in the technique. It was only once the wrapping paper was laid out that the symmetry of the folds was revealed:

After returning from Japan, I spent at least a month gripped by what my boyfriend called a case of post-Japan blues afflicting all Australians. Nothing, to put it simply, was good enough anymore. What would have seemed like ordinary customer service until my departure for Tokyo suddenly looked like gratuitous acts of random and deliberate rudeness. I was appalled by shop assistants across multiple states shrugging and declaring that they weren’t really good at wrapping, instead handing me some brown paper and letting me do the job myself, if I was so keen on having my bought goods packaged. In a bookshop in Brisbane’s South Bank, adjacent to GOMA, a bookshop that purported to be a classy joint, I had to quite warmly insist to the shop assistant that his wrapping skills would certainly be adequate before he deigned to wrap the pile of books I had just bought with the intention to give as presents. And not to say anything about the quality of the purchased goods. After Japan, quite simply, nothing was good enough anymore.

Japan is certainly heaven for anyone with a love for applied arts – Japanese arts are all applied, and Japanese culture values application enormously. But being there reminded me strongly of the little pleasures of living in Europe – travelling a few kilometres whichever way and experiencing a thousand microfelicities upon finding something new, beautiful and native to the local area to savour, touch, perhaps bring back as a little present (omiyage, お土産). And I remembered my visit to Perth, my first travel in Australia outside of Melbourne, walking through shop after shop, all of which could have been called Cheap&Nasty (dot-painted boomerangs, koala keychains, postcards of men holding pints of beer), and wondering how it was possible that so many people had spent so much time settled on that corner of the Earth without producing, appreciating and refining a single thing, a single item special to them. A single thing worth making with care, displaying with respect, wrapping with love and selling proudly to a visitor.

One could make the age argument (Australia is so young!, has not had the time to produce papier-mache boxes worth raving about!), but it is an insincere argument. What makes the Asakusa box special is not the thirteen hundred years of Japanese civilization. It is the care with which it was made, the care with which it was displayed, the care with which it was wrapped upon purchase, the care which naturally extended to my own greater appreciation. Such care comes with respect for the craft, and appreciation of beauty that is a degree separate from the utility, cost or status value of the object. It is materialism in the proper sense of the word.

It is care that Australia lacks, not history. After all, most of what human beings do, as a species, is rather banal: growing and eating food, building shelter, hitting balls of varying shapes according to varying rules; some paved roads here; some drying racks there. Civilization and culture are not so much the sum total of our operas, marble horsemen and bell towers, but of our ability to imbue with meaning and purpose these everyday activities that we have shaped our life around. What makes Italy a deeply satisfying place to live in is not the ruins of the Colosseum, but the way Italians talk about food and football: not as guilty pleasures, but as activities of cosmic importance. (As of Japan; look no further…)

To be able to tell why something that you do matters, it is not enough to bullshit (marketing thrives in Australia as well as in Italy), because a narrative of that sort is not a lie. It is definitional, and generative. It is born by giving a voice to one’s own innate sense of what is important, and it makes others care for it more. It forms, by default, a community. But it requires an opening up, and it makes one vulnerable. Especially if the context is that of a place in which it is considered somehow embarrassing to care.

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CITIES, poetics of life, theatre

Vertical multiculturalism

You have to be the most humourless disco sceptic not to like this Turkish gem:

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Clã – Competência Para Amar:

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Against horizontal multiculturalism – by which we intend a socio-cultural activity oriented towards minorities, or a decorative employment of mainly non-European expressive cultures (Brook, Barba, Mnouchkine), a moussaka which tries to convince us, with a bit of Indian make-up, majestic Japanese costumes and roars of two to three dark-skinned actors, that it is engaging with the rest of the world. But the methods of composition and employment of these piled up sensations/sensationalisms are still intact in their Westernness. In contrast to this – let’s say it calmly – colonial approach, artists of the so-called vertical multiculturalism, working on the transects of different cultures, struggling to break through the simultaneity of different cultural identities with a sort of schizoanalytical approach, are building a unique, innovative art. Such an actor manages to hold, within his mental habitus, multiple different archaic combinations and ways of being while his body emanates the gestic essence of modern theatre, which gives a vertiginous dimension to the internal, ritual element. The same can be said for the above-described directorial interventions.

–Gordana Vnuk, Pogled iznutra

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CITIES, poetics of life, theatre

RW: Attract/Repel

The more I wanted to write this review quickly, the more I wanted it out and about, succint, streamlined and brilliant, the more I was tripping over my own inarticulation. The enthusiasm I had for writing seemed to derive from not knowing what it was I had to say, nor how. Why such caution before a very positive review? Because the praise I had to offer for Attract/Repel came from an unusual place; because of an avoidance of reviewing the previous show by Melbourne Town Players. Because the material does not easily lend itself to a watertight argument that can neatly encapsulate all that it does as a show. Finally because this review immediately follows a fascinating, if at times painful dialogue that grew out of a condemnatory critique of En Trance, a show that made artistic and dramaturgical choices that failed precisely where A/R succeeds.

If the foyer chatter on the opening night was anything to go by, we were in a minefield of opinions, impossible to exhaust in a 1,000-word review, no matter how well-chosen the thousand. I was midway through my annual contemplation of multiculturalism, having just found the perfect interlocutor. That, about 100 hours into the discussion, I discovered the interlocutor was more precisely the sensei, having written the text which seminally, famously, taught me all my thoughts on multiculturalism back in 2006, did not help. I was arguing with my spiritual uncle, if not exactly father, it turned out, and he was more than happy to keep challenging my hasty (but oh so quotable!) conclusions.

Terry Yeboah and Fanny Hanusin. Photography by Naomi Wong.

“Seeing a work that deals with topics I’ve spent solid three years thinking about”, I complained to Neandellus soon after, “makes it harder, not easier to write about. I have too many half-formed, unquotable thoughts.”

“Make your sensei write it”, was his suggestion. If only! Sensei (whom we’ll call ‘Ian’) declared he knew nothing about theatre, and was happy with correcting me. So I started:

Amidst the uneven, but fulsome praise for Attract/Repel circulating the foyer on opening night, it was apparent that this show’s merit arises in its slipping almost un-noticed across a series of borders that themselves are rarely ever acknowledged as such.

But ‘Ian’ was already slapping me on the wrist: “What you mean to add is: Borders which some have named the borders of whiteness, with quiet encroachments of the real into everyday fantasies of white supremacy in multicultural Australia.”

He continued: “The truths enacted through the show operated on an inversion of the assumptions presumed normal to a functional society, a logic more dependent on the potential for misunderstanding, misrecognition and mistaken identity.”

“That’s exactly what I was going to say,” I nodded hastily, and continued:

It is quite different from The Melbourne Town Players’ previous work in not being veiled, stripping away most of the veneer of artiness, leaving the art instead. Yet A/R has been shaped with a clear eye and a strong dramaturgical hand into an exquisitely crafted work, building a rich spectrum of thought and feeling out of associative nuances. It takes courage and maturity to recognise the theatre in four people on chairs talking about their personal experience, and it was, indeed, beautifully crafted theatre. 

Four performers, fluorescent tubes, and a wall painted blackboard-black. A/R is beautifully ordinary, threateningly postdramatic perhaps, as the actors ask and answer personal questions, tell funny stories (and tales about racial stereotyping, from the butt-end of essentialising assumptions, tend to be hysterically funny), find dead ends to arguments, change direction, change key, but ultimately, and intentionally go nowhere in particular. Where was the dramatic development?, complained one person whom Ming-Zhu Hii would have, in the days of Mink Tails, labelled identifiably white. I looked at ‘Ian’ for answers, and he obliged:

“The lack of a progressive movement to a climactic denouement is one of the show’s great strengths, instead presenting a series of plateaux oscillating between affective highs and lows – disgust and desire, anger and joy, sufficient to illustrate the tenor of its thesis. It was true to the subject matter. There is no resolution to the problem – you go from feeling elated because you’re accepted, to crashing down because of some racist remark; you solve a problem, you find another. Attract, Repel.”

Fanny Hanusin. Photography by Naomi Wong.

Relieved, I could go on:

How to talk about A/R, which can be read as a very successful moment in the Australian political theatre, without getting factional? It is a beautiful work, but its strengths and innovations really shine when looked at as political theatre – and the political discourse now needed to be employed would likely be alienating. 

There is a strong nod to Jerome Bel’s Pichet Klunchun and I – far more so than to circus acts like an oak tree: the staged conversation is personal and unforced, improvised-looking rather than scripted for theatrical friction. While A/R does not quite reach the same magnitude of light-handed yet devastating effect, there is no shame in not being Jerome Bel. There are moments in the show of similar gentle, but enormous, destabilisation of effect. Right after a reasonably heavy story of racial discrimination, Terry Yeboah starts talking about his white girlfriend, and unexpectingly breaks out saying, She’s here tonight! Hi, baby!, and she responds! The effect of turning our heads back into the audience, seeing someone normal, socialised, unremarkable, in the place of a villain, belies interpretation. 

It could have so easily gone wrong many times; the politics of the effect are more noteworthy than the politics of the representation that occurred. By definition, political theatre tries to ‘make things happen’, as Caryl Churchill once said; in Michael Patterson’s book Strategies of Political Theatre, British playwrights overwhelmingly defined political theatre as theatre that has an impact on the audience, that affects them beyond the doors of the theatre building. In other words, whether what is staged is four children playing, or racial tension, is not the deciding factor in whether a theatre piece is political or not.  

By keeping the performers as performers, and the audience as audience, A/R renounces the very role of theatre as a heightened state of exception that, by definition, confirms the rule. In order to build resonance in a string of moments, anecdotes and effects that are inherently unremarkable; it strips away the entire frame of ritual, purification, deeper meaning and condensation that has been hanging over textual theatre like an Aristotelian hangover, and that political theatre in particular doesn’t know how to do without.  

Yet it is not all just pussyfooting detail. The interventions are real, but subtle. From the moment she draws a CHINK SCALE on the wall, rather than spitting on its implicit racism, Jing-Xuan Chan and the others proceed to explicate the variety of positions they may occupy depending on the situation. We are immediately in very interesting territory. Here, rather than mere victims of incipient racism, is an illustration of strategic essentialism.

‘Ian’ nudged me sternly: “I don’t think you understand what strategic essentialism is. In this case, it was used as a tool in the hands of skilled players on the field of identity politics, as elaborated in the discussion post-En Trance, with the provocation as much in language and speech-acts themselves.

“Like Fear of a Brown Planet?” I wondered. The the political intervention of the humorous, very light-hearted A/R, a gritty show with a smiling face, is in the performative act of saying what are to some, unsayable things – again. There is here a more serious question whether the ultimate effect isn’t lost on those audience members who found the language simply failing to align with their truth; is the alignment noticeable, recognisable when it happens? Notice the ‘again’: it is the iteration that matters, that sets down a possibility of a pattern, and that gets recognised. Without going deeper into a discussion that can get bogged along the lines of you don’t understand; it has never happened to you, which may be as correct as it is unlikely to make one any friends, it is hard to finish this point. 

‘Ian’ pondered: “One of the chief problems we have experienced coming here was the deeply normative tolerance prescribed by Australian multiculturalism. Just like the whiteness of the true Australian skin: always invisible to itself, denied, yet something for all to comply with, more or less, by degrees, for acceptance to accrue.”

I jumped in: “The mind-numbingly idiotic language…”

“I think you’ll find you mean ‘mind-numbingly essentialist’…” ‘Ian’ sighed.

Alright. The mind-numbingly essentialist language, according to which Australia was diverse because of the many cuisines on offer, the maintenance of cultural identities by the shimmying of traditional dances on Federation Square once a year, was taken extremely seriously, elevated into a sort of magical language for getting by in life. To anyone aware of how much more complicated cultural pluralism is on the ground, this was the equivalent of one infant’s babytalk imposed on all the kids in the kindergarten as the right language for that age. But here it was, an invisible, white language, neatly split into politically correct nonsense on the one hand, and bureaucratic proscription (“if you don’t like it here”, “we choose who comes to this country…”) on the other. All the messy rest, heretically non-compliant with our Platonically ideal multiculture, exeunt. 

Georgina Naidu, Terry Yeboah and Jing-xuan Chan. Photography by Naomi Wong.

This is why there was sheer thrill in A/R when acronyms FOB and ABC were discussed, points marked on the CHINK SCALE and nuances of being called ‘nigger’ dissected. It was both a reclamation and exposure (again!) of ground that was true, existing, and all but invisible. 

“All well and right,” Neandellus popped his head through the window. “But is there any formal innovation there? Is it good theatre?”

“It’s very good political theatre…” I stumbled and looked at my sensei for argumentation. He was trying to make a bed for himself under the table, and looked frankly disappointed with me:

“Performative politics – i.e. the politics are iteratively done rather than represented. Butler makes a distinction between performance and performativity. Its important not to conflate them. The formal innovation is in lack of denouement.”

“Performativity and performance. One that accrues and one that’s mimetic, right?” I was testing my argumentative powers.

“Yes”, allowed my spiritual uncle. “Sort of. It will do. Mimesis is out of fashion. Accrual is in. But the plateaux bit is important. No orgasmic endings. Just more and more plateaux and deferral of climax.”

There was nowhere for the conversation to go after that. We politely retreated, happy to know we had just seen a great show.

Guerrilla Semiotics would like to thank Ian Woodcock for his generous support during the realisation of this project.

Attract/Repel. With a cast including Jing-Xuan Chan, Fanny Hanusin, Georgina Naidu, and Terry Yeboah. Music by experimental jazz guitarist Yusuke Akai. Sound design by Russell Goldsmith. Lighting design (inspired by Dan Flavin) by Damien McLean, with lighting concept support by Rachel Burke. Concept and direction by Ming-Zhu Hii. Producers: Nicholas Coghlan and Shalini Nair. Development Supported by Full Tilt Creative Development. The Store Room, 17 September-10 October 2009

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