Tag Archives: politics

The conservatism of youth OR Gen Y OR Australia…

The problem does not lie with technology. A glance around the globe shows that the youth of other countries are doing a fantastic job of combining online with offline civic activism. The Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street Movement and anti-austerity protests in Europe show youth tweeting and Facebooking their way to radical street protest. It seems Australia is the only country where youth are cocooned in narcissistic conservatism. They’re more concerned about their own economic future at a time of wild prosperity than environmental destruction or any number of disadvantaged groups.

Brittany Ruppert, a Herald intern, attributes her generation’s apathy to prosperity. They have never had anything to fight for, except home ownership. It’s plausible. But why is a 20-year-old worried about home ownership rather than global poverty, gender discrimination or climate change? The world is more interesting than a mortgage! I’m not sure why Australia has been burdened with such a mind-numbing, spirit-crushingly boring generation of young people. Are they just Howard’s children? Is reducing your dreams to the size of a suburban home the price of prosperity?

All I know is that there is nothing more tragic than a generation without spirit.

via Why oh why, Gen Y, are you so nauseatingly conservative?.

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‘We Are the State’: fighting Putin with urbanism

After dropping out of three different academic programs, [Maxim] Kaz became the Russian poker champion. He is considered a rising star of the non-parliamentary opposition.

His poker career has made him independent. Kaz’s company seeks out talented players, lends them the fees for major tournaments and, in return, collects a share of the prize money. Kaz earns about €250,000 ($320,000) a year, enough to keep his head clear for future political plans.

Kaz gave a much-noticed speech at a major anti-Putin rally, and on March 4, when Putin was elected president for the third time, he captured a seat on the district council of Shchukino, a bastion of Putin’s United Russia Party. The district is home to the Kurchatov Institute, the cradle of the Soviet atom bomb, and the streets still bear the names of Soviet-era generals.

He is currently spending a lot of time attending meetings on kindergarten budgets and building renovations. He is also scrutinizing the activities of administration chief Yeremeyev. Is it corruption when he only obtains the approval of the district council for construction projects after the work has already begun?

Kaz has learned to write petitions and read laws. "We have to understand the system so we can change it," he says. In Shchukino, he pushed for the purchase of park benches so that retirees could sit down and rest. He has the district council meetings videotaped and posts the videos on the Internet.

But Kaz achieved his greatest success last year, when city officials turned sidewalks along Tverskaya Street into parking spaces. He found 50 volunteers who spent a day keeping track of how many drivers benefited from the parking spaces and, conversely, how many pedestrians had to squeeze past the parked cars. The results were so clear that the city quickly imposed a stopping restriction along the street.

It is small victories like these that he talks about in the McDonald’s restaurant on Pushkin Square as he picks French fries from a tray. It’s a new and different way to make life difficult for the Kremlin. In the long run, it could be more of a threat to Putin than any Coordinating Council.

via 'We Are the State': Small Victories – SPIEGEL ONLINE.

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Schaubühne: The Enemy of the People (not quite a review)

Ein Volksfeind. Photo credits: Arno Declair, 2012.

Something more needs to be written about Thomas Ostermeier’s work, if purely because he has been a formative influence on contemporary Australian theatre. Ostermeier is the major influence on Australia’s two most prominent directors of classics: Benedict Andrews (through his work at Berlin’s Schaubühne), whose Australian productions have replicated the Schaubühne aesthetic (possibly to the point of plagiarism, but then, the question of plagiarism in theatre is a fraught one); and Simon Stone (through the influence of Andrews, but not just). However, I don’t quite have the capacity to do that in this text, which will limit itself to a short list of notes on Ostermeier’s new work, a version of Ibsen’s Ein Volksfeind / The Enemy of the People.

1. THE PLAY
I have seen two productions of Ein Volksfeind in Germany this year (the other was by Theater Bonn at Theatertreffen), and neither quite hit the bull’s eye. On the surface, it is a play written for 2012: a study of greedy capital compromising the common good, and the entire society with it. Dr Thomas Stockmann discovers that the spa baths, the motor of development and prosperity of his small town, are contaminated by the waste from the local tannery, and poisoning, rather than curing its visitors. As he tries to mobilise the public, however, he discovers that everybody has an interest to protect. His brother, the town mayor, is more concerned about the effect on the local economy. Hovstad and Billing, his friends journalists, are eager to break the story until the financing of their paper is threatened. The townspeople don’t want to lose business to the neighbouring towns, which are building their own spas. His own family is uncertain.

However, Ibsen’s analysis of the social ills is so of his time and so particular to him, that the play starts to hiccup just when it seems it might deliver some great insight into the global banking crisis. Ibsen, the great liberal of the 19th century, has Stockmann proclaim that the individual is always superior to the multitude, that this society corrupts, that the truth cannot be the truth of the masses, too easily swayed by demagogues. “A minority may be right; a majority is always wrong.” And –

“…the strongest man in the world is the man who stands most alone.”

But Ibsen is also, constantly, a playwright interested in people shaped by their social vices. Stockmann is a vain man, a stubborn man. His brother an astute politician. His friends journalists, Hovstad and Billing, media opportunists. Only Stockmann’s daughter keeps a clean record of idealism, but this is her low social stakes talking. Like all other Ibsen’s plays, so is this one not really about politics, but about people. It has characters looking for an ethical peace of mind, not for social change.

Continue reading “Schaubühne: The Enemy of the People (not quite a review)” »

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There is this thing called ‘right to the city’; women have it too.

1. TRUE STORY. LAST SUNDAY, at about 6am, four of us girls were returning home from a club, here in Berlin, tired and starving, having danced all night celebrating the birthday of one of us. On the corner of Revaler and Warschauer Straße, at a döner kebab shop, we got something to eat and sat outside, at a table. A (very nice) English man asked for some filters in his best German, and got them, and said thank you, and goodbye; we were very sad that he left so quickly. But he left because another man, German, approached us from the other end of the table, and, once the Englishman was gone, plonked himself at our table and started asking us detailed, personal questions, one at a time. We were tired, chewing in silence, not even talking among us, and this man’s insistent question-asking was not merely annoying, but excruciating. About 10 minutes into a conversation which consisted mainly of very polite silence on our side, it occurred to me that this man was a parasite on female politeness, nothing more: one of those men who simply exploit most women’s need not to be confrontational. So I asked:

“Sorry, would you like to go somewhere else? We don’t feel like talking to you.”

Except that he then said: “No.”

I repeated: “We would really like you to leave.”

He stayed. The German girls said it again, this time not in convoluted Australian phrasing, but using the typical German, simple syntax: “Go away. Nobody wants to talk to you.”

He shrugged and cackled and launched into a monologue about how some of us were mean, others neurotic, and some again had problems.

The third girl tried the Croatian approach, and insinuated he had mother issues and wouldn’t get far with women. To no avail. The man must have spent another 15-20 minutes at our table, talking to us while receiving nothing but the phrases above, repeated with firm hostility. “Are you going to leave?” “We’re not interested in talking to you.” “Leave us alone, please.” In the end, it was us who left, having finished our food.

This incident left me thinking because this doesn’t normally happen to me. I usually go out with male friends – and men like the one above never, ever approach mixed groups of people. I am never approached by bores when I’m alone, probably because I look vaguely lesbian-ish. And so I was simply not accustomed to seeing a man behave, consciously, like an arsehole, ignoring or dismissing the opinions that four women had over the matter. It’s not that we weren’t articulating our no well enough, or that he wasn’t able to read our subtle, feminine signs: he simply didn’t care. He was giving us no say on the matter. I rode my bike home with the creepy afterthought that this man was rapist material: he was the type of guy for whom it simply didn’t matter whether a woman agreed with his plan or not; he needed to have the upper hand. And the most awful detail was that my three friends, all beautiful (non-lesbian-looking) young women, seemed somewhat accustomed to this kind of behaviour.

2. MY FIRST TASTE OF THE UNDERSTANDING OF CIVIL LIBERTIES IN AUSTRALIA was getting yelled at by two female friends the day after we stayed out on Lygon St, Carlton, drinking until about 3am. Continue reading “There is this thing called ‘right to the city’; women have it too.” »

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filmic, theatrical polyphony (reviewed: Katie Mitchell’s Fräulein Julie for the Schaubühne, Berlin)

KATIE MITCHELL’S ELEGANT TREATMENT OF STRINDBERG’S MISS JULIE INTERVENES IN THE TEXT IN ONLY TWO, EASILY SUMMARISABLE WAYS: IT PUTS KRISTIN, THE SERVANT WIFE, TO THE CENTRE OF THE NARRATIVE, AND IT REDUCES THE STAGE TO MATERIAL FOR A FILM.

Tilman Strauss, Jule Böwe, Fräulein Julie. Photo Stephen Cummiskey.

We theatre audiences have by now seen hundreds of cameras on stage, following actors, projecting detail onto large screens, adding fleshy detail to the clean, distant clockwork of well-rehearsed theatre. If theatre is so often employed as metaphor, it is because the well-oiled automatism of stage business so naturally projects a deathly, telescopic inevitability. The reason the camera is there—was there, before it became a cliché—was perhaps to simultaneously remind us of the mortality of everyone and everything on stage, and aestheticise it further, beyond touch. The intimacy of zoom and the alienation of the screen. If theatre is a metaphor for society, then video certainly stands for exploitation.

Jule Böwe. Photo Stephen Cummiskey

Katie Mitchell’s video-heavy Fräulein Julie revolves around all these meanings, but to a nobler purpose. In a perfect copy of a 19th century house, dressed in era-appropriate costumes, followed by five cameras and an army of technicians, the actors perform not so much theatre as a live film, in meticulously recorded fragments, which only come together into a meaningful whole on the large central screen. Sound is recorded on stage, but separately: a cellist for the music, a table crammed with quotidian objects is a simple sound desk for incidental sounds, recording booths side-stage for voice. A simple meat-preparing scene splices live footage of two actors performing simultaneously in different corners of the set: one for the face, another for the hands; the clattering of pots comes from the sound desk—and so it continues for 85 minutes. The stage is an unrelenting symphony of small gestures, a dizzying machine.

The film, contrastingly, is slow, atmospheric with diffuse lighting and mellow music. It could easily be Bergman, or Sally Potter—or a BBC costume drama. Only a few lines of Strindberg’s original dialogue remain, in the corners of our attention. We overhear Jean and Julie’s aggressive flirtation together with Kristin, as she walks in and out of the kitchen, doing her chores, helping Jean, becoming aware, then slowly overcome by anxiety.

Tilman Strauss. Photo Stephen Cummiskey.

The weakest in the erotic triangle, economically and socially disadvantaged, mute and inexpressive, Kristin remains a silent observer throughout the play—but Mitchell generously makes room for her subjectivity. Kristin’s interior monologue—fragments of Inger Christensen’s incantatory poetry—drowns out Strindberg’s battle of the sexes. Kristin’s inner world is brittle but wild, un-intellectual but given to great poetic beauty. Without resorting to excess (hysteria, violence, death), Mitchell sympathetically portrays the powerlessness of a servant woman within patriarchy. The combination of on-stage fret and on-screen disquietude, of relentless physical work and mute anxiety, builds into an immensely compelling portrait of a human being crushed by societal forces. Kristin is oppressed through her work, her marriage, her sex, her lack of education, her inability to react or even critically analyse the events. The tension is not just between theatre and cinema as forms—but between the social and the psychological landscape of the work.

Mitchell’s interpretation is almost too easily analysable: faithful to Strindberg’s attention to socio-economic detail, offering a feminist-Marxist critique via the tried-and-tested assortment of distanciating tools. But the predictability of a thoroughly coherent dramaturgy is countered by the mesmerising, sensuous polyphony of a work unfolding, like a madrigal, on two planes simultaneously: one social realist, another experimental. The overall effect is delicate and masterful, political and poetic, formalist but passionate. A treat.

Fräulein Julie, after August Strindberg, adaptation Katie Mitchell, direction Katie Mitchell, Leo Warner, translation, performers Jule Böwe, Luise Wolfram, Tilman Strauß, dramaturgy Maja Zade; Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, Berlin, in repertoire.

First published in RealTime issue #110 Aug-Sept 2012, web e-dition .

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BMW Guggenheim Lab in Berlin: PR English, asking the wrong questions, and the festivalisation of urban planning.

It so happened that last Tuesday I attended a meeting with the BMW Guggenheim Lab curators, organised by the students of the TU Berlin Masterstudiengang Historische Urbanistik (or Historical Urban Studies). I was invited ad hoc, and had no intention of writing about it, and would not have, were it not for the strange and indicatively unsuccessful nature of the encounter.

Some background: according to BMW’s own head of branding, the company decided to engage in some image-cleaning and reach out to “those people who currently don’t have any particular affinity to the BMW brand and might even view cars with ambivalence”, thus joining with the Guggenheim Foundation and funding an enormously expensive, world-touring, well, 6-year event, a sort of festival of urban planning and design. A temporary carbon-steel building by Atelier-Bow-Bow (very vogueish Japanese architects) is erect for 10-or-so weeks, each time in a different city, and a series of events, from lectures to workshops and tours, takes place. The general theme? Urban problems, challenges, opportunities. The cities? New York, Berlin, Mumbai.

Having had its 10 weeks in NY, the Lab was on its way to Berlin when the trouble started. The site chosen to erect Bow-Wow’s temporary architectural work was an abandoned site in Kreuzberg, in the Wrangelkiez, right on the river Spree.

If you know a single thing about Berlin, you know that Kreuzberg (specifically, the smaller area within it known as Wrangelkiez) has as enormously strong, politically radical community, and a history of resistance to top-down planning. Here is where Berlin’s (and to some extent Germany’s) squatting started, with 160 apartment buildings occupied at once in 1980, around half of which became legalised housing communes soon after. Here is where the residents’ opposition to inner-city demolition led to a wholesale change of the Senate redevelopment policy from greenfield construction of new estates to careful urban renewal of existing neighbourhoods: careful to the historical building form, careful to not displace any residents, and careful to involve them in the planning process. The squatting movement in Kreuzberg led to financing programs that allowed housing communes to renovate the buildings they occupied, to almost every existing social housing policy in Berlin, to the squatting culture that opened up the city’s empty spaces to art and music in the 1990s, and, subsequently, to the image of Berlin as Europe’s party capital, an image that is today Berlin’s only relevant export. Kreuzberg today, again particularly the Wranglerkiez, is struggling under increasing gentrification (the rent-controlled contracts signed in 1980s have largely run out in the past few years, and the rents have risen under the pressure from tourist and temporary residents lured by Kreuzberg’s allure of cool), and there are almost constant meetings, protests and initiatives to come up with new policies that will protect the rents in the neighbourhood, and the rest of Berlin. In a city where 85% of citizens rent, with no industry and the highest unemployment rate in Germany, sharply rising rents are a social catastrophe.

No wonder, then, that public resistance to a Guggenheim vanity project in the area was huge. An anti-project blog appeared; there was a protest against Guggenheim; letters were sent to papers and the police ascertained that vandalism would be a serious threat (this is an area in which new apartments and expensive cars are regularly vandalised, too). Guggenheim responded to the threat of vandalism by renouncing the Kreuzberg location, and moving to the much nicer, already-mellowed-down Prenzlauer Berg in the former East.

The media largely welcomed Guggenheim Lab as a good investment and media project, but even then with reserve. Berliner Zeitung:

“It all seemed a bit ridiculous, as it’s only about a six-week project, and not a permanent establishment. The coming weeks will reveal whether the debate blows over, or continues with ideological posturing. But the city-state’s politicians can no longer ignore the agitated atmosphere in the inner-city neighborhoods. And the Guggenheim organizers are burdened by high expectations. They want to address the issue of urban living, but so far there is no convincing program. They will need to prove that they want to build more than just a talking shop.”

Süddeutsche Zeitung:

Still, the protesters hit a nerve in the city. For their blackmail they used widespread fears of rising rents, the displacement of the poor into outer districts, and the specter of ‘gentrification.’ … The Senate has yet to find a politically convincing answer to this. As correct as Klaus Wowereit’s rejection of intolerance is, the fears and worries must be taken seriously.

Non-mainstream commenters were openly critical. Berlin Art Link commented on the choice of location thus:

An uncontroversial choice in the Wrangelkiez area where rents have increased by 20% last year, and about half the locals had to leave. One wonders whether anyone from the BMW Lab bothered Googling “Berlin” “Urban problems” or “gentrification” or the like before settling on this spot.

Intercultural Urbanism (a blog) commented on the new location:

The area has been undergoing gentrification, however, and that might not send the best message to citizens in Berlin and elsewhere who worry about what corporate-sponsored “pop-ups” portend for their neighborhoods.

But the most interesting critique came from Despina Stokou in Bpigs, who went to a community meeting in Kreuzberg at which the Guggenheim project was presented to residents, and who analysed it through its use of what she terms ‘PR English’ or Art English. (“The surface of the sentence (and it’s meaning as we know it in the English we have learned or natively speak) is often miles away from it’s actual meaning as used in the PR/Art context.”)

It got hot in the Guggenheim Lab event too. What started off in an already negative atmosphere got worse with the power point presentation. I had to double check, as I could have sworn it was in English and that would make no sense in an 90% German speaking audience in Kreuzberg. It was in German but it really felt like English, with program titles like: Confronting Comfort, Beyond Segrification: Models for Equal Glocalization, FeedForward 2: Co-opting Place, Urban Yoga… People started booing and they were absolutely right. This use of language is common in media circles, (it would not have caused a stir in Pfefferberg, I would have shrugged it away myself) but it is void of meaning, it is constructed only to impress, not to inform. This became very evident in this non-art context, where people just wanted to know how this project would affect their everyday lives. As somebody graphically put: Ich versuche jeden Monat die Miete zu bezahlen und Ihr macht eure Kunstkacke. [I try to pay rent every month, and you’re making your art turds.]

I wish, in fact, I had read Stokou’s article before our meeting with the Guggenheim curators at TU Berlin, because it would have prepared me better for what was going to happen.

Instead of a discussion, we were given a PowerPoint presentation of the project, organised by four curators, each one programming roughly a week of events. Jose Gomez-Marquez, an MIT-based engineer, would be running workshops on how to make stuff from everyday stuff (e.g., a solar-powered coffee grinder). Carlo Ratti, another MIT-based engineer and architect, had a program on the new technologies for sensing the urban. Corinne Rose, a psychologist and artist, the only German and the only person of the four with any experience of living in Berlin, was presenting many small projects with local artists and designers, all around her interest in the aesthetic experience of the city. (To her credit, Rose will put on one event of relevance to Berlin right now: a discussion of the role of Liegenschaftsfonds Berlin, the public body responsible for selling public land, exclusively to the highest bidder. The current discussion in the city has focused largely on whether they should be legally forced to consider other criteria too, such as cultural or social merit.) Finally, Rachel Smith, a Brisbane-based transport planner from AECOM, had a series of events about participation and sustainable transport (cycling, largely). Only Smith and Rose were there to talk, and the focus of the discussion was on their part of the program, not least because the presentation contained very little on the actual Berlin program (and a lot about the many institutions and people involved in making it, as is usually the case with vanity projects of this kind). There would be walking tours. There would be a workshop to teach Turkish women how to ride bicycles. (The program has since been found on the website: buried deep in the ‘Press’ section.)

In a city whose urban renewal policy has been shaped by mass squating of the 1980s and 1990s, a city in which, on any given weekend, about half the programmed events are illegal, a city in which trespassing is a collective sport and commuter-train parties normal, Smith asked: “Imagine if you didn’t need a permit to do whatever you want, what would you do?”

In a city in which everyone rides bikes everywhere, a city with fantastic cycling infrastructure, and a culture of utmost respect for cycling, Smith was posing questions relevant only to cities, such as Brisbane, trying to deal with chronic car-dependency and related health problems: “How can we get more women and children on bikes?” “How do we negotiate between the lycra cyclists who hate parents riding bikes with their children, and vice versa? Could we establish 7-metre-wide ‘cycling superhighways’, fenced off on both sides, for safe cycling to work?”

You only ought to have spent a day cycling around Berlin to understand why the local students’ eyes glazed over at these ‘exciting’ proposals. In this city, one is allowed to cycle both on the (very wide) footpaths and on the (very wide) roads, and the continuous network of paths and crossings means that one genuinely has about 7 metres of cycling space in most parts of the city. The fencing off, a typical example of monofunctional urban-design thinking, would make no sense in a streetscape dotted with shops, apartments, things to get off one’s bike and do. In fact, the only place where having fences on both sides of a bike path would not be a nutty idea would be in the middle of a freeway. But this is not that kind of city…

Finally, Smith programmed an event in which we establish a “No Excuse Zone”. This deserves some explanation. If a group of AECOM urban planners meets in the centre of a CBD, each rides their bike in a different direction for exactly 20 minutes, then stops, maps their position, and draws a circle connecting them all, the resulting zone around the CBD is the “no excuse zone”: if you live within this residential area, and don’t cycle to your CBD work, you have “no excuse”. This is an excellent example of a moralistic, guilt-inducing, feel-awful approach that is so often used in Australia, that costs money, solves no problem and serves nobody. Just like desire lines trod through lawns, people queuing at wrong ends of a bar, or accident-prone intersections, non-cycling-friendly cities are a design problem, not a behaviour problem. People cycle in cities that have low car speeds, pleasant and safe cycle lanes, good street lighting, high residential density, and high density of shops and services on the street. Otherwise, cycling is unsafe, boring and impractical. Berlin has all of it, and there are quite probably more bikes on its streets than cars, at any one point of the day. Furthermore, Berlin has no CBD: it is a polycentric city. Where would you begin your 20-minute radial ride? In Alexanderplatz, a low-density wasteland? To watch Rachel Smith talk about cyclability in Berlin, apparently completely uninformed about any of this, was about as strange as it would be if she gave a speech in Italy about how to make pasta.

The first glaring problem was pointed out in one of the early questions. Smith and Rose insisted on having met with many Berliners, involved as many as possible, and shaped the program around urban problems facing Berlin. “Can you go back to your list of Berlin issues, please”, asked one student, “and explain how you are going to address each one in your program?” Well, there it was. Gentrification? “We have one whole day devoted to it.” Lack of industry and jobs? There will be one event on the day themed ”. Berlin’s over-reliance on tourism as an export industry? “One Planet Tourism, the world-leading tourism consultancy, will be working with local tourism businesses, to teach them how their businesses can be made more environmentally sustainable and economically sustainable, in the current climate of crisis.” (I hope you don’t have to be an urbanist to notice that this does not address the problem of ‘over-reliance on tourism’.) Rising rents? “Oh, I don’t think we’re doing anything specifically about that.” “So”, said the student, “the most important issues facing Berlin, gentrification, rising rents and unemployment, you are going to address all in one day?”

Begging the question was: how in the world do they think that, whatever is said or achieved in that one day, will be relevant for Berlin? Relevant to the point of justifying the stress on the existing neighbourhoods that the Lab would bring, relevant to the point of making up for the insult and injury of having an international mega-corporation orchestrate a supposed discussion about the city, bypassing all existing channels of communication and community and government groups? I was going to ask, simply, how they understand the benefit this would make to Berlin. But the questions kept coming, and they were not generous. The curators responded: we are hoping we could create a platform for a dialogue. “But there are already many platforms like that here!” the students responded. The fact that the event was corporate image-cleansing was brought up a few times: how does this not compromise the event?

“How did you decide on the location?” Apparently, they thought that Berlin was not using its riverfront enough, so they rented a boat, sailed down the river looking for an empty lot, and then found one. “I think that’s quite insensitive, actually”, recapped the student. Rachel Smith seemed genuinely confused about why their chosen location caused so much stir. “I come from Brisbane, and they would have done anything to have such an event in their city. Any Australian city, Sydney, Melbourne, would have done anything to host BMW Guggenheim Lab. We have marvelous speakers coming to speak for free. We have One World Travel, the world leader in tourism consulting! We have the man who founded Surfers Against Sewage! We have the people who run Copenhagenize website! In Brisbane, when Richard Branson gave a talk, the tickets were selling for AUD$2,000! There are some really cool people coming here!”

This was, finally, when it all descended from satire into farce. It was perhaps terrible enough that we were greeted to an expensive program that posed no questions of any relevance to the city. But to be there, concerned about the influence that such globally-visible vanity project will have on rising rents, and be told that this is about seeing some “cool people” speak, was not even offensive; it just showed what a gap there was between Guggenheim Lab and Berlin. To have a talkfest programmed, with the large majority of speakers either coming from international consultancies or media, bloggers and dispensers of internationally diluted best-practice, and call it engagement, city-building, anything but festivalisation of urban planning, would be believing one’s own lies; one’s own PR English. Brisbane perhaps can’t tell the difference. But Berlin has had a history of good planning; it can.

In the end, many of my questions were simply too cruel to ask. How can BMW Guggenheim be useful to Berlin? It won’t, and that’s not its intention. Berlin, the capital of European cool, will be useful to the Lab. It will add to its image of relevance, real grit, and internationality. It will cost money, be another tourist attraction for a few weeks, and then move on leaving little behind. As some German media have commented, it is the same stuff as usual, only much more expensive. But, if the meeting we had on Tuesday is anything to go by, the Lab curators might be completely clueless about the feathery weight of their work.

Further reading:
Frankfurter Rundschau, Guggenheim Lab startet nach Protesten
RBB, BMW Guggenheim Lab – das Program steht fest

NY Times, Amid threats, BMW Guggenheim Lab withdraws plan for installation in Berlin neighbourhood
Der Spiegel, German press review on Guggenheim Lab relocation in Berlin neighborhood
Der Spiegel, Guggenheim Lab cancels ‘high risk’ Berlin project

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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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Groups can be creative too.

Basically, what I learned from Japan is that creativity isn’t solely the domain of individual artists or inventors. Groups can be creative too. It took me a while to realise this, but when I did it made me happy, because it resolved an apparent conflict between two of the things I hold most dear: collectivism and creativity. I think you can say that Japan is capable of producing both the cliches of the manga industry and the originality of someone like Yuichi Yokoyama, whose quirky abstract mangas depend for their impact on twisting the conventions of mainstream manga. It’s not like Yokoyama defies manga, or appears courtesy of divine lightning.

– Momus, The Rumpus Interview

This feeds into a number of conversations I’ve been having recently, through which I have unearthed the roots of my own understanding of a meaningful life in the diet of socialist-approved children’s books my generation grew up on in Croatia; books in which gangs of smart children come together and make awesome things come through, generally accompanied by either a complete disinterest, or active sabotage, of adults (Vlak u snijegu, Družba Pere Kvržice, Junaci Pavlove ulice, Emil i detektivi, Blizanke, Koko i…). This, to me, ties directly to the fact that the most interesting initiatives in art, politics and design in Central Europe (not merely post-socialist, but all of Central Europe) are collective pursuits (art, design and curatorial collectives, magazines, festivals, movements, protests), as well as to the fact that contemporary young Australia is woeful in all of these categories. Coming together to work on a bold, brave project is shrouded in a kind of sublime poetry over there. Here, people shudder and say I hate group work, and ‘arts management’ is understood as the art of midwifery for many individual little geniuses.

Groups can be creative too.

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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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RW: The Economist + Addendum

1.

With The Economist, the little MKA theatre draws to a close an impressive year. Pushing for new writing in all forms (domestic, international, staged, rehearsedly read, commissioned, unearthed), its effort in getting dramatic text seen and heard has really made it apparent how little dramatic text one could get to before. We did not know what we did not have, yet it seems indispensible now, and that is certainly a great compliment to the MKA.

2.

The Economist, a theatrically astute meditation on Anders Behring Breivik, is one of the most exciting theatre works I have seen this year. The writing, joyous and rich, has been put on stage with great dramaturgical and directorial intelligence. There have been a few kinds of dramaturgy which this country has had a lot of accomplishment in: the anxious surrealism (Katz, The Rabble), the middle-class dreamy realism (Holloway, Hardie), the high-concept performance (Elbow Room, certain kinds of puppetry and circus); but until this work I do not think I have seen any political theatre worth writing home about. Even in its own, suburbanly evasive way, The Economist points to a homegrown way of tackling big questions that, on its own, is enough of a reason to recommend it. The season has been extended, and closes in a week’s time.

3.

In a nutshell, The Economist is based on the life and work of Anders Behring Breivik, the 32-year-old Norwegian who, earlier in 2011, killed 77 people in the Oslo area, largely teenagers on a summer camp associated with the Norwegian Labor Party. Fuelling Breivik’s one-man terrorist attack was a murky soup of right-wing ideas and beliefs: islamophobia, anti-feminism, white supremacy, cultural conservatism, ultranationalism, anti-multiculturalism and antipathy to something called ‘cultural Marxism’. Interestingly, only days before the premiere of the play, a panel of experts found Breivik insane, rather than a cold-blooded murderer, re-igniting the debate on whether a white European enacting right-wing beliefs is immune from the label of terrorism.

It seems that the consensus is that, no, he can only be an exception – Breivik’s misdeeds cannot be equated with his entire civilization, the way Al Qaeda for many synecdochically represents an entire violent, West-hating Islam. Alison Croggon thinks this is bad, Melbourne’s tabloid press (which kicked a small fuss over the play) that it is only natural. However, The Economist intervenes in this debate rather interestingly, bringing to life the many obsessions, delusions and shall we say quirks of Breivik’s existence. Desire to join the army; militant anti-feminism and general inability to treat women as human beings; delusional paranoias; fears of disease, extending to wearing a mask indoors and refusing to eat his mother’s food; obsession with his appearance; and, of course, a raging conviction that Europe must be defended from a range of evils (Marxists, Arabs, women) by the power of Knights Templar et cetera.

The extent to which Breivik’s madness is fuelled by societal input is entirely up for discussion, not least because he has, so far, acted in isolation. There is no army of Breivik. I am not sure that equating one kind of violence with another is the right methodology to discuss the broader questions of cultural orientalism, economic and cultural consequences of colonialism, and the general inadequacy of neo-liberal economics, fuelled rather more by ideology than any praxis, to nurture developing economies into prosperity. But, while MKA artistic director, and author of The Economist, Tobias Manderson-Galvin, was quoted in the said local tabloid press saying that Breivik was “no madder than John Howard or Peter Costello”, the play does not in any significant way say the same. Quite the contrary, The Economist is a portrait of a delusional psychotic. It produced an even less tangible connection between a society and an individual than The Baader Meinhof Complex did in regards to its own Red Army Faction – and the latter was generally understood as a thorough critique of its subjects.

4.

What happens in the play, though? Breivik has been renamed Andrew Bolt Berwick (a mash-up of one of Breivik’s pseudonyms and our own right-wing rabble-rouser Andrew Bolt), but otherwise it is a biopic. A series of vignettes from Breivik’s life – imaginatively dramatised, with great recourse to his many, many, many writings, from diaries to manifestos – is presented in almost-chronological order. Breivik held in the police for graffitying. Breivik undergoes plastic surgery in the USA. Breivik takes steroids in the gym. Swedish neo-Nazi singer Saga gives her condolences to the bereaved families. Breivik joins a hunting club. Breivik buys a gun in Prague. Breivik buys prostitutes, but is unable to have sex with them. There is pop-flavoured humour in each and every scene, drawn out by the strong performances and snappy direction. It is driven by Breivik’s loopy, increasingly unhinged worldview. The world of the play morphs from a hipster Scandinavia into a semi-surreal Image-Fiction of sorts, in which our own reality is mirrored through the ironic prism of psychotic delusion. It is beautiful throughout, but that is part of the irony.

Addendum: 4a.

The irony here is of a particular, post-2006, hipster kind. The entire cast is clad in a weird, IKEA-coloured uniform of beige pants and red jumpers, supposedly clothes Breivik was wearing when arrested, but also a colour palette of Scandinavia if there ever was one. There is a deer head on the wall. There is a Norwegian flag. Picture-perfect Scandinavia is among the first things mentioned in the text, and it is not the Scandinavia of welfare state and progressive taxation, but a Scandinavia of designer furniture and Roxette. In terms of mood and feel, this production takes not so much the political-satirical angle, but a detachedly-twee atmosphere-building found in all those films featuring Jason Schwartzman or Michael Cera. In other words, this is not a critique of some political evils of contemporary Norway, as much as a parodic picture of some dreamy, dislocated, retirement-village-like foreign land. The real event that is the pretext to this text seems rather accidental to the imaginative universe created atop. What happens in the play is rendered with such ironic over-the-topness as if the fact that it really happened is either uncertain or accidental to the text.

5.

Van Badham, the dramaturg and director of the play, is a major contributing force to the success of the production. The text has been pruned into a tight, dramaturgically cohesive work to an extent rarely seen in unfunded independent theatre in Australia. Taking enormous advantage of the simple space, and a few props, the cast of six announce each scene with its stage directions, use the props at hand to create a live score to each scene (effective, engrossing and much commented upon), and inhabit a vast range of characters gender-neutrally. Cast as Breivik is Zoe Dawson, a tall, blonde, slim and female human being, while the remaining cast is largely dark-haired, bearded, male. Masking tape Xs mark the location of objects.

All this Brechtianism has a funny effect of safety: we are simply not allowed to plunge into empathy for Andrew Berwick, the delusional right-wing terrorist. But Brechtian inquiry into systemic conditions of individual problems is, as I wrote earlier, not included: very, very few connections are ever drawn between Berwick the individual and Europe as a social context. In one, the family-friendly face of the neo-Nazi underground, Swedish singer Saga, expresses shock and horror at being nominated one of Breivik’s idols, in a honeyed, toasty voice, and ends with some best wishes, throaty and motherly-sounding and warm, for a strong white race, and a Nazi salute.

6.

More moments of this sort would have been in consonance with the production’s Brechtianism worn-on-sleeve, but they would have also counterpointed some of the stranger effects of the staging. For example, it is very hard not to sympathise with Zoe Dawson, whose girliness makes Andrew Berwick look like a helpless victim, and neutralises the violence directed towards women (of which there is much). Thus there is an extra layer of irony in this production: while the text is largely driven by the surreal humour of Breivik’s delusions (and ironically detached in its own right), the staging takes to the letter much of our (pre- or just conscious) sympathy for him, and depicts Andrew Berwick in a way so easy to empathise with that, if we shut our ears, this really could be a neo-Nazi text in which a young blonde woman is tragically led to her own demise by a crooked society of short, dark, bearded men. Something akin to The Birth of a Nation, or The Sound of Music (in Zizek’s reading).

7.

In between these layers of irony and a scaffold of utter craft, I don’t know that it is possible to even talk about an overall effect. I might speculate that we are distanced from Anders Breivik the terrorist, but encouraged to empathise with the poor Zoe Dawson, who happens to commit exactly the same murders as Breivik, but in fiction. In this reading, we can indulge in our little anti-social fantasies while never having to admit that they follow through to real deaths. Or, perhaps, I could conclude that Zoe Dawson’s Berwick is cut off from his social context while the playwright itself, and the entire theatre-going conversation around the play insists on Breivik as a symptom of a right-wing conspiracy. Therefore, the play sells itself to an audience as a work of ideological certainty, while it really tells a much more complex story of psychological disturbance, effectively subverting its own promise. Or, that this is a complex issue where the goal of the artist is to say: “See, Herald Sun accuses the arts of being a waste of taxpayer’s money on left-wing propaganda, but what we have really created, and continue to create, is complex and sophisticated analysis of a troubled human being, and we do that with our men as well as with yours…”. In this reading, the entire political purpose of the play might be to get an upper hand with the right-wing population of Australia and the right-wing media itself, all while having a very long laugh at the poor delusional Breivik…

All of these readings are possible, and I don’t think any one excludes the others. It is certainly a work wrapped up in multiple ironies, far and far beyond anything that was happening when David Foster Wallace was writing about irony. It is, in a certain sense, totally heartless; and it is also, in another sense, amoral – irony is a disavowal.

8.

It is also troublingly close to the in-yer-face forms that were blossoming in Europe throughout the 1990s, that have been superseded there, and that I cannot praise for originality for that reason. There seems to be some kind of law in place that Australia lags only ever about 10 years behind what is happening in the mainstream elsewhere (the margin is another story, more complex), and I would like to see that law revoked.

9.

But, for all its moral shortcomings, The Economist remains political theatre, and more interesting political theatre than anything I’ve seen in Australia in a very long time. It is also technically excellent. And I will always rather see something as bewilderingly thought-provoking as The Economist than something I know I will simply like.

Addendum: 9a.

I need to qualify my last paragraph: there is a moral shortcoming to this text, and it is its detached irony. The problem with all irony, but particularly the post-1970s irony of young people, and even more particularly of the one exercised by twenty-somethings in Australia in 2011, is that it is a self-conscious irony fuelled by:

1) naïveté about how the world works, fuelled by general lack of variegated and diverse life experience (suburban upbringing, lack of international travel, Australian media isolation from wider world and limited participation in social, political, etc global trends)
2) a sense of personal deficiency born out of a perceived absence of real life experience (the meaning of which is personally defined, but also societally as 1) )
3) a self-consciousness born out of 2)
4) an awareness that an entire cohort is feeling 3), and therefore this collective sense of individual deficiency is statistically incorrect, which results in
5) a suspicion that, if the feeling of 4) is universal, then somewhere down the line we have all been lied to, and there is no real life to be experienced in the first place…

…which brings to life the particular unreality and aestheticism in creating the hipster Scandinavia in The Economist, and is a troubling angle from which to be political. But:

6) all of this is further complicated by any international travel one does, or real experience (in the form of armed conflict, fame, enormous personal wealth, association with famous figures or places or events, etc). Such experiences, if in sufficiently small doses, add enough social capital to one’s life to get them ahead in the rat race of irony. If I may draw on personal experience now, I was told by a young male theatre artist from Melbourne, once upon a time, that he feels like he needs to travel to a war zone in order to experience ‘weird shit’.

The moral issue is that, in The Economist, the Breivik massacre and events leading up to it, are in no small dose presented as some such weird shit.

10.

The question of sensitivity/respect should be brought up now. It is not-a-little-bit alarming that almost every review I have read of the work insinuates that there is some political analysis in place here, although, to their credit, they all specify that it is in the service of dark humour. Is this disrespectful? Quite probably so, actually.

But how does one show respect to something one does not understand? Certainly not through false sympathy, in which one draws on one’s experience of pet hamster dying in order to conjure up emotions likely to experience at a massacre… There is a great deal of such theatre in Australia (and with a good justification, for this is a very peaceful country with a keen interest nonetheless in the dramatic human interest story, from however afar), all with political pretensions, and most of it is shit. It is falsely felt, its emotions insincere, its analysis inadequate. The naive irony of The Economist is, paradoxically if you wish, a more genuine response to a tragedy than false reverence would have been, in which we stand in silence while we feel the hysterical urge to giggle.

Further reading:
Cameron Woodhead
Chris Boyd in The Australian
Eugyeene in Promptside

Onomatopoeia on the controversy surrounding the play

The Economist by Tobias Manderson-Galvin, directed by Van Badham. Design by David Samuel, sound design by Nick McCorriston, lighting design by Julia Knibbs, costumes by Chloe Greaves. With Marcus Mckenzie, Zoey Dawson, James Deeth, Conor Gallacher, Sarah Walker and Peter Paltos. MKA Theatre, MKA Pop-Up Theatre, 73 Nicholson St. Abbotsford. Season extended until 16 December. Book here.

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