poetics of life, travel notes

Brussels.

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As a person who often carry a backpack in public transportation or a luggage in airports it is my duty to condemn with the strongest words those who carried attacks in Brussels today, and to remind you we are not all like that.
… Sounds ridiculous ? Well, don’t ask Muslims or Arabs or anyone to do that.
– Timothée

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J’ai toujours aimé “L’Union fait la force”, pied-de-nez un peu absurde à la réalité d’un pays désuni. Mais ce n’est qu’aujourd’hui que j’en perçois vraiment la portée. Il y a dans cette devise nationale pas seulement un trait d’humour narquois, mais aussi une injonction fondamentale, un rappel que notre identité, à nous qui n’en avons pas, c’est précisément d’être ensemble, forts, même face au néant. “L’Union fait la force” nous dit qu’appartenir à ce pays c’est avant toute chose d’être là avec et pour les autres. Et elle nous annonce ainsi, avec presque deux siècles d’avance, qu’il n’y a pas de place pour l’islamophobie en Belgique.
– Caroline

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Today Brussels is in pain. A city that is my home and a city that I love. We are frightened and confused. A terrorist attack has hit another European capital, just as attacks inspired by an extreme misinterpretation of Islam struck London, Paris, Madrid…just as attacks have flashed and crackled across our continent and our world in the past decades – inspired by separatism, nationalism, leftist extremism and fascism, inflamed by exclusion and division. Today is a day for sadness, for holding our breath and holding each other. Tomorrow is a a day for asking why and hoping never again.
Unfortunately, the vilest segments of the British right (UKIP, Telegraph columists, etc) have already jumped on today’s events, on today’s corpses, to peddle their tired call for European disintegration. We are stronger together, as Belgians and as British, as christian, as atheist and as muslim, as Europeans.
The UK is not in Schengen. Its borders are not “open”. Yet Britain has also experienced terrible terrorist attacks, despite its “closed” borders. European cooperation and solidarity are vital to keep us as safe as we can possibly be. Brussels’ agony is no reason for Brexit. Now shut up and be sad with us.
Can’t believe we are having to say this today.
– Bryn

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I hadn’t cried all day, and now it transpires I am a sucker for the kitsch of violent nationalist symbols after all, because I have just seen a picture of the Belgian flag projected onto the Eiffel Tower and started crying. And then Bryn pointed out that they’ve got it the wrong way round, and so what’s on the tower has more in common with Germany. And now I feel much better. Fuck, this has been a terrible and strange day.
– Catherine

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That moment where sadness and mourning is starting to be replaced by anger, an anger for change and action. Not one filled with hate, but instead one that strives to bring people together, to wake people up out of their long sleep of media-indulged misconceptions, to share my own thoughts and experiences. Yesterday, to me, was a moment to realise that you can’t just sit down and watch it happen, because then the wrong people will take over. I’m a proud Brusseleir, but my identity is much more than that. I’m Brusseleir, Antwerpenaar, Tunisian, Belgian, European, Arab, Muslim, woman, queer and happy to be alive. I feel as much at home meditating in a mosque as I feel being in a packed bar drinking the best Belgian beers with friends and new faces. And no one is going to tell me I can’t. ‪#‎jesuissickofthisshit‬
– Sara

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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, travel notes

The delicately delineated ecology of the Queen Victoria Market

Ah, the great institution that is the Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne’s central and biggest marketplace! The unsung landmark of this town, the bastion of wog values, the shrine to everything we stand for. How unappreciated for the microcosm of Victorian society that you are! How underanalysed, and critically unassessed you remain!

We are now going to make a dent in this tragic cultural omission, by looking at the human fauna of this delicate ecosystem – listing them in order, from the rarest and most in need of conservation, via the common and the abundant, to the most weedily persistent.

The Tourist

Self-explanatory. Tourist may be an American or Swedish backpacker, a high-minded photographer documenting the life among the ethnics, a flurry of pastel-wearing Queensladers, or timid Melburnians from the outer suburbs, tasting the rough inner city – it is not their outfit or their hometown that defines them as a tourist, but, in the eyes of the other QV Market goers, their tendency to walk slowly, turn awkwardly and unexpectedly, block important circulation routes with their backpacks and fanny packs and parasols and whatnots, take photographs of bread or toilets, and generally make themselves an odious human obstacle on purpose. Tourists tend to keep in uncircumventable packs, and are often overheard making comments of highly embarrassing kind to everyone except them. (E.g., a snippet of dialogue un-self-consciously performed by a group of American backpackers in front of the Iranian nut-and-sweets stall circa May 2011: “‘Turkish Delight’?! What’s that?!” “You don’t wanna know!”)

The Wandering Hipster

Nobody knows what these creatures are attempting to get out of the experience. While The Tourist is deeply inhaling the atmosphere of anxiety-free food consumption and vibrancy such as only people of colour possess, The Wandering Hipster resembles one of those children dragged to very exclusive cocktail parties by their Gen-X parents, and withdrawn to a corner to sulk in a significant fashion. They often sit in inopportune locations attempting to merely hang out in a casual manner, as if the market were a highly desirable social setting, out of which they cannot escape, such is the strength of the finger they hold on the pulse of town. The do not buy anything, possibly because fresh food is exotic and intimidating. Once they overcome such fears, they graduate to become The Confident Hipster.
Continue reading “The delicately delineated ecology of the Queen Victoria Market” »

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CITIES, how the world works

Swimming pools, Muslims, and the burqini in Dandenong

Very interesting opinion piece by Julie Szego in the weekend’s The Age on a women-only Ramadan event at the Dandenong pool, at which all women aged 10 or up must be covered from knees to neck if they are to attend. The comments are a predictable mix of people saying “Try and ask for a similar concession in a Muslim country”, “THIS IS A WAR”, “Why aren’t they assimilating?”, “Islam is the only religion that wants to take over the world” on the one hand, and “it’s an issue of equity”, “some of these women are isolated” and “so, according to your argument, I should be able to turn up to my daughter’s wedding in the nude” on the other. The article, however, does try to analyse the issues: women’s rights, the requirements of public pools to serve whatever community they have living around them, issues of equity, and tolerance. It’s up online, for anyone to read.

It is, however, interesting to read the discussion if, like me, you come from a slightly different angle: I have spent years trying to find a proper sauna and swimming pool in Melbourne, ie one that doesn’t require a neck-to-thigh cover for women. All the therapeutic benefits of sauna are cancelled out by sports swimwear, especially of the full-torso female type, and it is not just beyond unpleasant to sit in 90 degrees covered in lycra, it is also stressful on the body, and potentially dangerous. I could frame it as a discrimination problem: if men can get away with tiny speedos, why aren’t women allowed in topless? But I think it is more probably a prudishness problem (see, for example, the case of a Brisbane sauna-as-art). It all gets much worse when I raise the question of mixed-sex sauna: the immediate, automatic answer this seems to provoke is ‘EWW’, or ‘why would you want people other than your boyfriend to see you naked’?

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Compare and contrast.

Now, two things. First, it must be clear by now that I really cannot see Australia as the land of freedom to show one’s body as one likes. The whole argument of Western secular liberalism which celebrates the body, or even of some Aussie tradition of baring flesh, is simply not correct. There is a reasonable amount of Puritan disavowal of the body going on, or of sexualising all nudity at all times. As the Finnish artists themselves remarked, “there are cultural differences” between Finland and Australia. And, you know, it would be impossible to argue that this prudishness is not in any way connected to religion. The subject of nudity in the Australian society is so touchy that it’s ridiculously hard to even raise it in polite conversation without everyone getting red in the face and starting to crack jokes about paedophiles. (Which is, frankly, ridiculous. As is the oft-made remark about not exposing children to adult nudity. Children, especially toddlers and very young kids, could not care less.) Compare Australia to Scandinavian countries, to Germany, even France or Italy or Croatia, all places in which such scandalous behaviour as topless sunbathing (and swimming) and mixed-sex nude saunas, happens without much drama.

Second, I am always struck by the disingenuousness of packing together “liberal Western values”, “Enlightenment principles”, “feminism” and “women’s dress rules”. Call me bitter, but it is the same as coupling Capitalism with the struggle for workers’ rights; or, not very correct. Sure, there is a geo-historical link, but to say that one of the essentially Western (as opposed to Eastern, Muslim, or less-developed) projects has been equality of sexes is a gross overstatement, conveniently forgetting the fact that the universal suffrage, equal rights, and women’s lib were fights. As Tony Myers writes in the book I’m currently reading:

The [Enlightenment principle of] cogito [ergo sum] is the basis of the centred subject, or, as it is more commonly known, the ‘individual’. The consequences for this model of subjectivity are compelling. For example, until recently, it was generally accepted (by men at least) that only men were masters of themselves. Women, on the other hand, were supposed to be subject to passions and feelings which they could not properly control. That is to say, women were not centred subjects but decentred subjects. They were, therefore, not ‘proper’ individuals and were treated accordingly as second-class citizens, subject to the rule of the masterful men. In fact, the mastery of women formed part of the larger project to dominate the natural world itself (of which women were held to be a part). The results of this project, which is sometimes referred to as the Enlightenment Project, can be witnessed in the devastation wreaked upon the environment. If it seems a little harsh to rebuke a philosophical model with the destruction of the planet, it is perhaps worth remembering that only a subjectivity which thinks it answers exclusively to itself would risk the destruction of nature and not expect to be held accountable for it.

Or, as a great man of Enlightenment said:

Since dependance is a state natural to women, girls feel themselves made to obey; they have, or should have, little freedom… Destined to obey a being as imperfect as man, a woman should learn to suffer – even to suffer injustice – at an early age, and to bear the wrongs of her husband without complaint. You will never reduce boys to the same point; their inner sense of justice rises up and rebels against such injustice, which nature never intended them to tolerate.

(Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, IV: 710-11)

But, the point to make here is that Enlightenment did mark the beginning of a quest for knowledge in which nothing was sacred, nothing was beyond questioning. In particular, tradition. If there is any way in which feminism was Rousseau’s baby, it was in the call to question everything. This is why the ultimate paradox of defending the bikini because of our “recognised tradition of secular freedom” is deeply absurd: if there is anything contrary to the spirit of secular inquiry, it is upholding or banning practices based on how well they fit in with our “tradition”.

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I am a little dispirited by the argumentation of both sides in this debate.

On the one hand, I don’t think there is anything particularly logical or reasonable in demanding that women cover from neck to knee in a swimming pool, just like I don’t think there is anything reasonable in having to wear clothes to a sauna. I agree with Szego, it seems to me important to remember that there is a principle at stake here, a principle of the female body not being automatically sexual, not being automatically shameful, and not being required to cover (or bare). Muslim misogyny is misogyny alright. David Gilmore writes, in a sweeping comparative analysis:

Muslim misogyny is really not so much an attack on women as it is a flight from woman “as the source of uncontrollable desires in the male self”. Islamic misogyny, like all others, is a flight from inner conflict over women; misogyny is the psychic consequence to male ambivalance and turmoil. The reification of this struggle that occurs in Islam is similar perhaps to what occurs in Christianity, Hinduim, and Buddhism, except perhaps for the added biographical ingredient of the Prophet’s apotheosis of sexual anxiety into lithurgy. One may say that St Paul and St Augustine played similar roles in forming Christian theology.

(David D. Gilmore, Misogyny: the Male Malady, p.217)

But this treatment of women does correspond to the same sentiments, fears and neuroses in the Australian culture, however secular it may be on paper. There is a corresponding prudishness on the Australian side, that all the talk about “Western liberal values” and “secular principles” cannot hide. In fact, what complicates the debate to such a large degree is precisely the way in which Australian commentators seem themselves unsure of whether there is or isn’t a principle at stake, or whether we are simply debating degrees of exhibitionism. Szego:

The Brimbank spokeswoman explained that [the swimming pools required that the] ”participants should be dressed appropriately, as is expected of a centre used by children and families”.

It seems to me that, until someone remembers what that principle may be, commentators can go hoarse talking about how the burqini “run[s] counter to the West’s more than 500-year struggle for individual freedom” (Szego). In practice, we are bound to get all confused about who is allowed to see how much skin on whom before we all have to blush and go “ooh”.

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CITIES, policy & design

Changing the Face of Australian Theatre

Changing The Face Of Australian Theatre

By Jana Perkovic

Mainstream theatre companies aren’t working hard enough to engage with the diversity of contemporary Australia, writes Jana Perkovic

If any one issue has troubled Australian theatre of late, it has been that of diversity.

In a country that prides itself on egalitarian inclusivity, why do we see so few non-white faces on stage and behind the scenes? Why are there so few women directors? Why is our theatre by and about white, Anglo-Celtic men?

These questions routinely meet a series of standard answers. Indigenous theatre is thriving. Our arts centres bring in the Chinese Ballet and Greek rebetika. There are women aplenty in community theatre.

But by and large, these are exceptions to the rule.

The Sydney Theatre Company’s 2010 program promises to bring over entire productions from the US and the UK — but does not stage a single contemporary text of non-English origin. What does this imply about the state of our cultural diversity? A self-proclaimed “Australian Shakespeare” company, Bell Shakespeare, casts almost exclusively white actors. What does this say about what Australians should look like? To be fair, Bell Shakespeare’s 2010 season will feature Leah Purcell in King Lear — but here again is the danger of accepting the exception to the rule as a proof of revolution.

Mainstream theatre is nation-defining territory, and Australia’s mainstream theatres have been very good at excluding — together with any home-grown, “experimental” performance — any face, voice or attitude that strays from a very narrow understanding of what Australia is. If art provides a way to collectively imagine our world by telling stories about who we are, how we came to be this way and where we are heading, then onstage, “our” stories are still stories of mateship in the bush and middle-class white suburbia, the range of “our” characters reduced to the semi-articulate Aussie bloke (with the occasional girlfriend or wog neighbour thrown in). Think of the sugarcane cutters in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Don in Don’s Party and the Removalists, and the emotionally constipated Anglo families of Tom Holloway.

This tendency leaves a lot of people out of work. The scandal of the year arose over the lack of women directing main stage theatre and culminated with Melbourne University demanding that the Melbourne Theatre Company employ an equal opportunity officer.

Yet theatres aren’t your average workplaces and equal opportunity in art can be difficult to defend. Neil Armfield’s defence of the all-male directing season at Belvoir St Theatre? Predictable: they were chosen on merit only. Few self-respecting artists would attempt to argue that the arts ought not be a meritocracy, and talent, alas, has always been very unfairly distributed. What if our best directors really are all men?

The problem is more complex, aesthetically and historically. The worst thing we have inherited from British theatre is an extremely narrow view of what theatre should be — amplified, without a doubt, by a colonial fear of not getting it right. British and American theatre traditions, visually fairly dumb, have been clinging to naturalism — a 19th century style characterised by literal representation of realistic events on stage — and for many critics this remains the only right way to “do” theatre, even though the best contemporary Australian performance has outgrown this aesthetic.

In 2007, Lee Lewis opened the can of worms that is the lack of racial diversity in Australian theatre, advocating cross-racial casting of classics. If we assume that the actor transforms on stage, she asked, why do we only allow this power to the white actor? If blackface is a theatrical cliché, why should there be a problem with a black actor playing Hamlet?

In the uproar that followed, many missed the subtler side of her argument: diverse casting has fared much better in those forms of theatre that embrace metaphor more openly. In this she counted opera and ballet but also contemporary non-Anglo theatre. The directors who have most consistently challenged whiteness on Australian main stages have been Benedict Andrews and Barrie Kosky (who cast Deborah Mailman as Cordelia in his King Lear for Bell Shakespeare) both of whose work betrays a suspiciously “continental” aesthetic. Their takes on Brechtian non-naturalism has consistently troubled our critics.

The best performances of 2009, in my opinion, were Cate Blanchett and Pamela Rabe as Richard II and III in Andrews’s vast, extraordinary The War of the Roses. The production shone a brilliant new light on a well-known text and revealed the interpretive range of these familiar actresses. The two women did not play men — not for a second were these drag performances — but embodied privilege and greed for power respectively. It was the boldest, finest, interpretation of Shakespeare Australia had seen in a long time.

As British critic Andrew Haydon has argued, the issue is not just about casting non-white, non-thin or non-male protagonists. Theatre creates meaning as much from the non-verbal signs it puts on stage as it does from the script. It does not need to be set around the block last Tuesday in order to be relevant to our lives.

On the theatre margins, companies like Back to Back, Rawcus and Restless — which work with people with physical and intellectual disabilities — play an important political role. Seeing these performers on stage, we become aware of the incredible beauty of bodies we normally consider unsightly. Such performances challenge our perception of who Australians may be, and what stories they may have to tell.

Yet aesthetically, their work is equally important. Back to Back is considered to be one of the finest theatre groups in this country — and this is doubtlessly a result of their innovative work methods. Their Food Court — an almost-wordless performance about bullying set to the music of The Necks — was among the most acclaimed theatre shows of 2008.

Because big theatres and big critics shun such experiments, they effectively nurture audiences who cannot read stage metaphor. Yet metaphor is not some avant-garde pretence but the basic building block of theatre.

Unlike film and television, which capture the world as it appears, theatre imaginatively creates its own reality. In this world, dying heroines find breath for entire arias, girls in white tutus play snowflakes and swans, and one woman’s existential despair is communicated by her burial waist-deep in earth. If we insist on theatre that amounts to live television in a classy setting, we betray our ignorance of the artform itself. Cordelia, after all, would have premiered as a man in a corset.

As long as we see the problem as one of loud minorities demanding political correctness, we fail to see that most of us, in fact, are excluded. After all, even though “arts arts” are patronised mainly by the white and the wealthy, it is the women, city dwellers and Australians of non-English-speaking background that research has identified as most appreciative of the arts. The same study shows that the elusive protagonist of Australian drama — country male, Australian-born of Australian-born parents — is the least likely demographic to think of arts as important in his life.

Lally Katz, who came to Australia from New Jersey with her parents when she was eight, writes plays immersed in whimsical surrealism. That she is not considered to be one of the most important Australian playwrights is a disgrace and it may be due to her gender, but it is certainly also related to her aesthetic. Yes, her Ern Malley mourns the fact that he doesn’t really exist, and her Canberra becomes an island with a volcano. Are these plays less Australian for their deviation from the suburban script?

As long as we keep thinking of Australian theatre as a narrow stream of tales about mateship and the outback, we restrict its capacity to help us imagine a shared present, let alone articulate an alternative future. For whatever reason, we are afraid to play.

Affirmative action is a good thing in principle, but the goal should not be simply to hire new hands to do old work. What we want, ultimately, is a greater range of perspectives and styles. We want new, imaginative universes in our stories so that we can understand better what this country is all about. We need diversity because we want innovation and excellence, not despite of it. We do our theatre no great service by protecting it from the best artists we have. Armed with an outdated and unimaginative idea of what theatre may represent, Australia, our main stage, remains as dull as dish water.

Originally published on 8 January 2010, on NewMatilda.com.

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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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