Tag Archives: theory

Moral Order of a Suburb vs Critical Dialogue

Dear reader, please bear with me while I am having German hayfever (in mid-summer, also, due to the endless cold we have had here when we were supposed to have spring and summer) and am incapacitated from all writing.

Meanwhile, I have been doing some research on something called ‘suburban mentality’, trying to find out whether it exists or not. I have compiled lists of ‘crazy NIMBYisms’. All this was done with another goal in mind, something urbanism-related and not directly theatrical. But, while finding out that ‘suburban mentality’ is (at least in sociology) a Really Existing Fact, I have also found vast swaths of material on how it shapes attitudes to conflict.

How? Badly. According to one classic text, M. P. Baumgartner’s The Moral Order of a Suburb, it fosters avoidance at all cost (not merely conflict avoidance, but person avoidance). If this does not make the conflict disappear, the next tactic is ‘waiting for someone to move away’. If there is a stranger involved, the next step above is calling the authorities; if it is a neighbour, an anonymous report (even if the anonymity reduces the chance of successfully solving the conflict); if it is an intra-family conflict, bereaving the person of something important (such as grounding the child). If the conflict has not been solved by now, the remaining two measures are both extreme and non-confrontational: “A party to such a dispute may show signs of emotional distress, such as depression, agitation, poor performance in school, or self-destructive behavior.” Or, the ultimate sanction, the ‘permanent avoidance’: the spouses divorce, the child moves out of home.

The other text I found looks at how this suburban space provides no public space (what it provides is ‘common space’, a utilitarian, aesthetically neglected, affectively poor, space for getting in an out, collecting rubbish, etc), and, in turn, no ‘public reasoning context’ – the lack of which shapes a non-discursive culture, which leads to a non-conflictual culture.

The importance of conflict in social as well as individual ego-development cannot be overstated. When I use the term ‘conflict’, I do not mean violent or in some way threatening forms of confrontation but forms of sociation where individual interests and world-views confront one another. Conflict is generally seen as dividing segments of any population, but this is generally not the case. More likely, as Georg Simmel pointed out in his analysis of the phenomenon, ‘Conflict (Kampf) itself resolves the tension between contrasts. The fact that it aims at peace is only one, as especially obvious, expression of its nature: the synthesis of elements that work both against and for one another’ (Simmel, 1955: 14). In this sense, conflict gives the individual a stronger sense of self; it develops in tandem with challenges to the way he thinks, reflects, and forms his identity. Lacking conflict, one seeks privacy in order to avoid the public realm which can be a place of conflict. Therefore, conflict performs an integrating task: the individual becomes more integrated into social life through certain forms of conflict and antagonism. In avoiding these forms of conflict, the individual becomes detached from the pulse of public life (Baumgartner, 1988; Greenhouse, 1992). He does not wish to engage it, to enter into it, but rather to shun it creating a more atomized society as well as a deeper sense of anomie within
the subject himself (Sennett, 1974).

Michael J. Thompson, Suburban Origins of the Tea Party: Spatial Dimensions of the New Conservative Personality, Critical Sociology 2012 38: 511

With a relevance and incidental accuracy that is absolutely fantastic (considering that Thompson is theorising about the Tea Party in the US, and I am applying his theories to the Australian theatrical debate), Thompson concludes with the concept of ‘anomic provincialism’:

This detachment from others is not absolute; rather, what happens is that individuals form narcissistic senses of self where their social relations also become linked by what is familiar to them – closed structures lead us not only to avoid public life, but also to forms of self which are alienated from public life and become under-socialized, lacking the capacities needed for public life.

This has an important impact on group-affiliation. These forms of self will seek protection but also a reflection of themselves with others who share similar world-views. As a result, group affiliation becomes tighter, limiting itself to the known. Relations need to be personal; the impersonal (i.e. public) is shunned and feared (Sennett, 1971). The maintenance of certain world-views can therefore be maintained by homogeneous kinds of group-affiliation. Disruptions in the ways of life, in the world-views held in common by such communities, will be seen as existential threats and, many times, provoke strong personal and communal reaction. When individuals are prevented from diverse forms of interaction, unaccustomed to conflict and challenging the self and its predispositions, and relate to one another in ways shaped by anomie and alienation, we begin to see a more genuine picture of the self that emerges within suburban space.

Suburban life can erode the democratic capacities of citizens because they contain, or better yet, are specifically designed around the notion of closed social space. This is very different from mid-nineteenth-century urban planning which placed a primacy on public space. The result of this is a set of spatio-structural constraints upon forms of interaction and intersubjectivity which then lead to a limiting of interpersonal consciousness. The specific character of interpersonal consciousness, as I argued above, therefore leads to an under-developed or mal-developed reflexive consciousness thereby rendering public consciousness either non-existent or so underdeveloped as to be almost practically useless.

Lacking these forms of public consciousness, public reason too becomes impossible and, with time, democratic capacities of open discussion, public debate, toleration, and inclusiveness are all

I have been observing the strange trajectory of the Queen Lear debate, and it seems to me too many speculations from above apply, for sociology not to be relevant.

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REVIEW: The Threepenny Opera

The always-vexing question of the ‘right’ way to do a playtext is particularly vexed when it comes to Brecht; to stage Brecht is almost invariably to fail Brecht.

While Brecht’s influence on modern theatre cannot be overstated, mainly through his theory of Verfremdungseffekt, theorist Brecht coexists with Brecht the dramatist and Brecht the theatre-maker, and those among us who assume that the three are always in agreement imbue Bertolt with a Godlike infallibility, and his words with biblical weight. The reality is more complicated. Brecht’s works did not always achieve his theatrical goals, his plays have worked against his intentions, and while much of the program he set for the new theatre (disrupting the illusion, mobilising the audience’s morality, the use of technology, truncation of catharsis, etc) has been the key force propelling 20th-century dramaturgy, he has not always been the one to find the answers to the questions he has posed. Moreover, the effect and effectiveness of Brecht’s theatre has changed with time: his influence has been so thorough that few of his formal inventions have the same freshness today, and the political milieu of 2010 is thoroughly different from what it was before the World War II.

Finally, Brecht the technician and dramaturg has always been undermined by Brecht the epigrammatist. The strength of Brecht’s writing is in his one- and two-liners: ‘what is robbing a bank, compared to founding a bank?’, ‘Would it not be simpler if the government simply dissolved the people and elected another?’, ‘unfortunate is the land that needs heroes.’ There is no opportunity for a good aphorism that Brecht would not use – his epic theatre, in a sense, is an epigrammatic theatre, intended to kick us about with little paradoxes – even when the totality of the work around the two-liner doesn’t hold too well as a result. This is the problem with his musical works: how could a man like that not enjoy a form that is terminally fragmented between songs and prose, a form in which every fifteen minutes one gets to put an accent on the last verse?

The Threepenny Opera was Brecht’s first blockbuster, a huge hit despite the shambolic way in which it was made – or perhaps precisely because of it. It is Brecht at his least cohesive: a plot taken from John Gay’s 1727 opera, a plot only loosely translated into Victorian London slash Weimar Berlin, with characters launching into songs often completely disconnected from their theatrical situation. It was shaped significantly by the strong creative input from everyone involved in the first production, and John Fuegi (perhaps exaggeratedly) credits Elisabeth Hauptmann, Brecht’s lover at the time, with good 80-90% of the text (for which she received a pittance, as is often the case with career-minded men). The day before it opened, the whole crew proclaimed a looming disaster. Instead, it became an overnight success. Brecht himself couldn’t quite admit that the bourgeoisie was enjoying his scathing, subversive critique of their moral universe. But the bourgeoisie hummed the catchy tunes, loved the dark humour: the epigrammatist won by a mile.

This is why it’s difficult to talk about a success or a failure of a production of The Threepenny Opera. Who decides? Can we judge it by the amount of alienation and political commitment it shows? Brecht had read Marx by the time it opened, in 1928, but it would be another full two years before he first tries to sketch the principles of ‘epic theatre’. We cannot really demand from the works of a young man to demonstrate the thinking of the old, not even with theatre’s peculiar understanding of temporality (which is to say, a play is always atemporal to a degree, as it exists now as well as then). How can we judge it by the extent to which it fulfils a program it probably never fulfilled?

Eddie Perfect and Paul Capsis. Photo: Garth Oriander.

Michael Kantor’s production, currently playing at the Malthouse to sold-out houses, has all the usual flaws and merits of a Kantor production. It is no different in style and execution to his many other productions, and this may be its one salient failure: it doesn’t demonstrate an attempt to grapple with the peculiarity of the material as much as give us more of Kantor’s usual concoction of elements. From Peter Corrigan’s mannerist set to the uneven cast (which includes cabaret performers and trained singers of diverse skills), it is an impressionistic rendering rather than a smooth dramaturgical machine. It is gratuitously camp; it is soft on piercing critique and hard on vague gesture.

Kurt Weill’s score is delivered intact by Victorian Opera, generously, for Weill’s music is still bliss to the ears. Anna O’Bryne as Polly Peachum is a revelation, a gorgeous singer and a fierce actress, giving a raw, rude sanguinity to an often neglected role, while Paul Capsis’s majestic Jenny steals every scene (including many in which Jenny doesn’t appear). Eddie Perfect, on the other hand, grows croaky towards the end, and plays a Macheath with vile temper, rather forgetting any sense of fun – but then, it is fair to assume that Perfect was not cast for his vocal abilities. The greatest failure is, without a doubt, the set and the costumes (and I confess to feeling alarmed by this statement: what does it mean when so much of the production hinges on the way the stage is dressed?). There is no point in discussing the way Raimondo Cortese’s precise translation, which re-sets the play into contemporary Melbourne, clashes with the outrageous, no-era costuming, or how the faux-constructivist panel sits meaninglessly behind a set designed, awkwardly, unnecessarily, distractingly, as a boxing ring (demanding the rope pulled down for certain fourth-wall-breaking songs, but not for others). I did not detect any intention for making a coherent statement, against which incoherency could be judged a failure. The rare moments in which the production pulls together (such as the grand repeat of Mack the Knife before the interval, and Mack’s icily cynical pre-hanging speech) do not so much underline the confusion of the rest, as simply look out of place.

In this city, we have spent too much time lately discussing the finer points of camp, and the departing AD of the Malthouse is largely responsible. We have discussed its moral backbone, its stylistic variations, its humour, its targets. Enough. Can the Threepenny be campified? Demonstrably, it can. Does it improve? No, but neither is it particularly harmed. If you take Lotte Lenya’s words seriously, that it is the “subtleness behind the obviousness that gives strength to The Threepenny Opera”, then it ought to be admitted that there is not a lot of subtlety in this particular production, not in, above, or behind it. Perhaps a stronger directorial hand would have wrestled some poignancy into this wild, unruly text. Perhaps we would have seen through our modern-day bourgeois morality. These aren’t the right questions to ask. What we have, instead, is a somewhat perverse celebration of the criminal underworld, with singing and lavish dresses. That cutting, mean Berliner humour has been blown up into something a little farcical, a little broad. Does it matter? Only if you have serious expectations from yet another Kantor camp operetta. And only if you are serious about this whole business of staging Brecht ‘right’.

On the other hand, the production has sparked some soul-searching on the part of the GP (which is how those who go to the theatre lovingly refer to those who don’t). As non-GP, I am both surprised, puzzled and pleased. Perhaps this is exactly the theatre we need. Or deserve. I suspect Brecht would see the humour.

The Threepenny Opera. By Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Text: Raimondo Cortese. Lyrics: Jeremy Sams. Director: Michael Kantor. Conductor: Richard Gill. With: Casey Bennetto, Paul Capsis, Judi Connelli, Jolyon James, Melissa Langton, Amy Lehpamer, Anna O’byrne, Eddie Perfect, Dimity Shepherd, Grant Smith, John Xintavelonis. Malthouse, Merlyn Theatre, May 28 – June 19. The season has officially sold out, but more tickets may become available closer to each performance. Check the Malthouse website for updates.

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problems with cultural studies…

[Nigel Thrift’s] theoretical propositions suggest at least three crucial elements that any accounts of everyday life must contain if they are to be plausible and interesting. First, they must be respectful of the social practices through which the everyday unfolds. They must recognise that much social practice is different (but certainly not inferior) to more contemplative academic modes of being in the world – embedded as they are in the noncognitive, preintentional and commonsensical. Second, they must contain a sense that practices (and thus the subjectivities and agencies of which they are a part) are shot through with creativity and possibility (even though these are ‘constrained’ and limited by existing networks of association). Third, the everyday should not be viewed as a world apart from more rationally grounded realms of social action such as ‘the state’, ‘the economic’, ‘the political’, or whatever. Rather, what needs to be recognised is how all elements of social life, all institutions, all forms of practice are in fact tied together with the work of getting on from day-to-day.

Seen through the filter of these criteria we can begin to make more sense of the substance source of Thrift’s unease with human geographic work about the everyday. Cultural [turn] was largely built upon a commitment to a particular politics of representation, and it remains obsessively focused on representation. This obsession not only implicitly downgrades the importance of practice, stressing as it does the symbolic over the expressive, “responsive and rhetorical” dimensions of language. It also has an alarming tendency to a slip into simplistic (and often exaggerated) narratives based on highly romantic stereotypes of both politics and persons. Thus, to take an example close to the concerns of this paper, white professionals living in an ethnically diverse area of North London, and eating out at its ethnic restaurants, are not reaching out towards some kind of engagement with the existing community (ambiguous, limited, and inadequate though that may be). No! They are ‘eating the Other’, and are implicated, despite their protestations, in a process of cultural imperialism intricately bound within a complex historical geography of racisms!

Alan Latham, 2003, ‘Research, performance, and doing human geography’, Environment and Planning A, vol.35, pp.1993-2017.

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QUERY: what kinds of theatre experiences have you had?

Andrew Haydon’s last post, on what may be Nicholas Hytner’s ultimate right-wing play, has made me think about the kinds of experience one can viably have in the theatre (or outside the theatre, geographically speaking, but in a performance). This because Haydon’s post is concerned, on the outer edges, with the dangers of enjoying a play that has no moral core, or one that is dubious at best.

It’s that old Brechtian problem, on the one hand – followed through by the phalanx of post-Brechtians, who more often than not misunderstood Brecht’s original query. How does one make political theatre (which is to say, theatre that makes people do things)? Or, what happens with our social conscience once we’re in there, and what once we’re out? And what about the unintended results? What if the moral of the story grates against the audience’s sensibility? What if it insults them with simplicity, or offends with a controversial surface hiding a complexity?

These questions are as old as art itself – Aristotle is already asking and answering them. But theatre has been changing recently, moving into another kind of audience experience, and the question of effect is coming up again, with new material to work with.

I started off, fresh from reading about Castellucci’s Dante trilogy and Jan Fabre, by trying to taxonomize, in the simplest terms, the kinds of effect that theatre can have on me.

1) There is, of course, the simple enjoyment of a text – which to me is by far the simplest of them all. It’s the pleasure of being read to, in many ways, the pleasure of radio and of listening to certain kinds of pop/folk/rock music. A lull punctuated with moments of strong empathy (or humour, or aesthetic enjoyment of a well-made phrase). This is a very common effect of much theatre that strives towards literary qualities: this is how I experience a great deal of Beckett (especially late, wordy) this way, but also most monologues, Anita Hegh’s Yellow Wallpaper, performances by Humphrey Bower, the garden-variety radio play, or Abbey Theatre’s beautiful Terminus. (Not all wordy plays work their magic successfully, of course: these are the shiny examples.)

What bothers me here is that, first, the ‘being read to’ aspect of this enjoyment is fairly serious – I often find myself in a state of light hypnosis, and the soporific effect means that afterwards I often can’t tell whether I thoroughly enjoyed the experience or was bored to sleep (indeed, as much as I enjoyed Terminus I can no longer recall the first thing about it). The second problem is that, although so much theatre seems to have this outcome in mind, it is in no way specific to theatre and, were it its only raison d’etre, we would have discarded the form long ago. The third is that there is no moral aspect to it: it is a sensuous pleasure, as tactile as having a bath. Yellow Wallpaper may have had a feminist point of some sort – but all I remember is the pleasure of listening to Anita Hegh crone herself into madness.

2) Perhaps now is the time to do away with those audience experiences I think of as unsuccessful.
2a) is the technical, critical experience of someone who either makes or judges a lot of the same, who looks at the execution, the skill, whether any new ideas are brought in, whether they are developed well, what the shortcomings are, where the dramaturgy could be tightened, what useful solutions could be appropriated. This is a thankless and joyless way of experiencing a work of art, and the reason why so many artists hate theatre, music producers cannot listen to music recreationally, and literary editors watch sit-coms in their spare time.

2b) on the other hand would be the detached experience of a narrative artefact, which I relate to drawing-room plays (particularly the ‘relevant’, ‘current’ and British kind). I am pretty sure these days, particularly in Anglophone countries, students are taught in school to read literature this way, and it scares me shitless. It means watching a play with the kind of focus one usually applies to reading a newspaper: the story narrated represents, in a condensed form, some kind of real occurrence (therefore can be more or less accurate), the journalist can bring in a more of less pronounced bias (which can therefore be detected as either broadly liberal or conservative – for those are the options available to journalists), and the article is phrased in such a way as to offer a conclusion, a moral or a solution to the problem (which can be translated into this or that effect in the real world, with which we can agree or disagree, based on our own personal ethics). Finally, depending on the prominence of the article (where in the paper, what paper), the article can have an effect on the public opinion (which can therefore be assessed as beneficial or dangerous for the society).

The problem with this reading is, simply, that art is not journalism, and that the criteria of accuracy, bias or political effect do not apply. Or, they do to the extent to which any theatrical work also has an informational role in our lives. But this approach forgets every other reason why we experience art: fun, pleasure, catharsis, hearing stories, and turns it all into sheer learning. So what happens with a sci-fi or fantasy story, or a musical with only the faintest relationship to reality? It must become a guilty pleasure, I suppose. Which may be the other side of the 2b) coin.

3)Theatre as the movies (or dinner & theatre). The lower-brow form of the above, and about as common, depending on a cinematic theatre production (for example, an upbeat four-hander involving one adultery, one misplaced diamond necklace, one murder and a number of witty remarks); the default form of enjoyment aimed at by Brecht’s kitchen theatre and everything serious people don’t like. Also: musicals and most stand-up comedy. For two or so hours we are thoroughly diverted from our lives, distracted from being aware of our relationships, our shortcomings and limitations, our bodies. An exercise in transcendence common to all good stories. When it’s over, it is over – the only way to recreate the experience is to find another, equally good story. The same won’t do. Except in the case of circus, in which the adrenaline rushes back and forth just the same each time.

4)Then there is that form of high empathy, ending in shall-we-say catharsis (but it doesn’t need to: Brechtian theatre has managed to wrestle the audience without it). It happens with cinema as well, but not as strongly – so much so, that I wonder if it doesn’t deserve a separate category. This is one of the strongest emotions art can provoke, very specific to theatre as an artform, and certainly one of biggest reasons why I go to the theatre. It’s quite distinct from just any empathy with just any human story, in which (as Salinger and Kundera have both noted) one is crying in the stalls deeply moved by being deeply moved by such a deeply moving human story, and therefore assured of their own depth and sensibility (all the better if the weeper can personally relate). It is that intense, heavy and complicated tangle of emotions which can be perceived as ‘positive’ or ‘negative’, but are mainly just complicated. I have found Brecht-informed theatre to be particularly good at producing this effect: Brecht’s own Mother Courage, Kantor’s last production of Happy Days, Andrews’s War of the Roses or Sasha Waltz’s Medea have all had that effect on me. I suspect it’s what Alison Croggon referred to as ‘grief’ in regards to Barrie Kosky’s Women of Troy. In cinema, Lars von Trier achieves the same effect (and von Trier owes a lot to Brecht). Quite apart from our usual misunderstanding of Brecht as cold and unemotional, I would say that he was among the first to understand the theatrical power of pushing the audience through a quick succession of highly diverging emotional states, until a moral and affective disorientation of sorts if achieved: very rich and language-less at the same time.

It is the point where theatre most closely resembles ritual. It is collective, for one thing: the sheer emotional assault on each spectator means that your individuality cannot be contained, your sense of self capitulates and spread over the surrounding seats. The other thing is that it cannot be verbalised easily. It often results in rapturous applause, and yet audience members cannot talk about it later. It makes one think, though. Its effect lags – like one of those very deeply affecting dreams. It is possibly the strongest effect that ‘traditional’ theatre can have, but I have also found it in Tanztheater, and in a lot of postdramatic theatre. I also suppose this effect can be to some extent induced, as in horror films and theatre, or by incorporating obscene or abject elements.

5)Theatre as text. Postmodern theatre, highly referential, can consciously work to create that detachment that critics and practitioners often feel. The smarter such theatre is, the more pleasure an audience member can get from reading it as a series of references to other works, other concepts, to ideas. It provokes an intellectual, rather than emotional engagement. Performance essays, conceptual dance, and anything with a stronger formalistic bent can work this way. Rather than gushing with feeling, in these works one reads the stage like a visual essay, and one leaves feeling smarter, fuller, more conscious of the world. Works that strive for this effect can let signs be signs – such as in Wooster Group or Elevator Repair Service, in which a cup of coffee is primarily ‘a cup of coffee’. Like any pomo art, it depends enormously on the general education of each audience member – some Castellucci works, for example, are nearly meaningless without the right frame of reference.

6)Games or experience. There is a transformative quality to a lot of contemporary performance that is based around the audience: not merely interactive, but working on the audience. The stage itself can be completely empty, the effect entirely performed on the audience’s bodies. Bettybooke’s brilliant en route and numerous other audio tours, site-specific this or that, durational theatre, being blindfolded, having a one-on-one performance in a hotel room, children’s theatre, and even works of Jerome Bel, a wide gamut of contemporary theatre seems particularly interested in being an experience, the way climbing up the Eiffel Tower or bungee-jumping, a walking tour of Melbourne or a gig is an experience. Much children’s theatre is so too. And whatever insights you are supposed to glean through the experience (about yourself, about the world, whether you’re meant to come to terms with your prejudices or feel liberated, lengthen your attention span or genuinely experience boredom, or just play – as in Panther’s Playground), the constellation of signs, or the depth of your emotions is secondary to the experience of having had an experience – it is the only kind of theatre that can lay a legitimate claim to changing its audience. It seems to me unwise to even differentiate between a 15-minute thing in a booth or an 8-hour durational event: what happens in both situations is that, unlike in the ones above, one is made acutely aware of oneself – your body, your voice, your entire life – and of the situation one is in – the theatre, the seats, the building, the city. At its best, the effect is deeply empowering and somehow wisening. I have sat through 3-hour explorations of boredom which resulted in an almost religious ectasy. I have climbed laneway walls in Melbourne wearing headphones, feeling that the entire city was mine. I have done and said things with complete strangers that felt absolutely natural – and yet, of course, my entire life was transformed by doing so.

Is there anything that I’m missing? Even excluding all those half-experiences, in which nothing satisfactory happens, is there anything missing from this list? I have excluded happenings, for example, because I’m not entirely sure whether there was a political aspect to them that would separate them from being just an ‘experience’. I haven’t overtly included visual theatre in any category, because I’m not sure there is a particular kind of experience associated with it. I suspect there is a lull of imagery as well.

I am interested in this because we so often seem to discuss the moral, emotional etc effects of theatre (or any art, for that matter), yet it seems to me we have not fully figured out how theatre (or any art) actually affects us. In particular, some of you may know that I’m very interested in pornography. Well, pornography is often subject to ludicrous statements on its effect on people all the time, and often equally ludicrous defences (I happen to think pornography is experiential, rather than semiotic or a work of non-fiction). I first ran into this knowledge gap when trying to define the experience of consuming pornographic artefacts, which I thought was much less reflexive, or self-reflexive, than literature would have it, and much more interesting.

It also crops up in political theatre, for example. What does it mean for theatre to be political? Is it supposed to rally the masses, or just toe the liberal party line? What is a right-wing play? When should the masses rally? At the opening night, or three years later? Is Doll’s House a political play? And then obscenity. What is offensive in theatre? How does it offend? Who does it offend?

The other is that the same theatrical work can be a complete success or a failure, depending on what interpretive frame we’re applying. A 7-hour performance installation can have zero semiotic content and wasteful dramaturgy, provoke no emotion, and yet be a magnificent experience. One man’s unengaging play can be another’s brilliant essay into the techniques of staging. There are ways of seeing, I’m sure, that need to be learned before we can properly understand certain works.

I am hoping to get a few additions to my categories. So this is an open call. Your help would be most appreciated.

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Shut Up and Give Us Art (notes in progress)

Always Choose the Worst Option;

the strategy of over-identification
• Artists/Art are not legitimate political players.
• Artists should stick to what they know.
• Art is expected/demanded to experiment and criticize – just don’t go too far, don’t be radical.
Constructive Criticism
• Artists cannot just criticize, they must provide solution
• No solution? Then shut up.
• This is the way the existing order/authorities to neutralize criticism
Equally so, the existing order creates illusion that the system is receptive
• Door horizontality and transparency
• By assuming the same position as the critic
• Yes, we know all that already, what’s new?
• Art’s role shifted into the socially conscious art / socio-artistic projects / creative consultancy
• → NGO’s, Artist without Borders
• Here art regains its credibility: concrete artistic interventions that provide solutions / relief
• P.25 Pierre Bourdieu – the 2 pronged system: one creates the social wasteland, the other is asked to patch it up and to appease the victims.

(NOTE: Bourdieu text not cited in the original)

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Review: Nomads

Nomads, part three in an ongoing project that started in Sydney in 2006, by Hans Van den Broeck plus dancers, is exactly the sort of theatre I love, the reason why I endure hours and hours of pretty dancing, of actorly acting, of witty dialogue and realistic set design. Every time I go through a door into a dark space with seats, I hope to see something close to Nomads. It is not the most pleasant theatre. It is, I imagine, tremendously frustrating to many. It is, first, not the kind of theatre that showcases skill: any theatre practitioner – and most theatre-goers, unfortunately, are also theatre-makers – will likely be underwhelmed. It is also not theatre that makes one feel anything much, which will inevitably frustrate any casual audience member. It doesn't tell a story, has no plot, makes no effort to lead the spectator, step by step, into a journey, the logic of each scene, or the sequence thereof, is never explained. It has all the predispositions to be labeled self-indulgent.

But. Just because this type of theatre-making, shall we call it European (although a particular kind of European, it is also not something normally found elsewhere), is not a common type of theatre-making in Australia, doesn't mean we should shun it as opaque et cetera. In fact, let me tell you how we could approach it. We could approach it like a sonata, or an early Renaissance triptych. It is certainly no more than a historical accident that we approach theatre like we approach the pilot episode of a sit-com? With minimal intellectual engagement, and infinite impatience? What if we approach it with an open mind instead, actively thinking our way through, with patience and willingness to adapt our sense of time? What if we are ready to wait, let the theatre take its time to show and tell, ready to do our own bit of work, ready to think?

Hans Van den Broeck, a psychologist by training, may be best known as one of the founding member of Les Ballets C. de la B., a freeform collective of dance extraordinaire. The overriding logic behind the project really appears to be the exploration of the relationship between Hans and the dancers, and his working methodology. At the heart of Settlement, the second stage, just like Nomads, was the very concentrated rehearsal time, two weeks with an assembled group of people, based on a strong concept, and a detailed scenario constructed beforehand. The resulting work is understood as finished, not a work-in-progress. Not unlike a real society, it is the free-form collaboration with an open, complex reality that emerges.

Settlement. Sydney, 2007.

I saw Settlement in Vienna. (To read more about the development, check Frances D'Ath's blogging on the creative process, straight from July 08.) The two performances behave according to a very similar logic, are directly comparable in the questions they ask, and the answers they offer. Both follow very literally the type of coexistence they inquire into, and, while similar, come to very different conclusions. I should have expected: settlers, nomads. While Settlement was a stationary community, a third of the space covered with tents, a brook running past, Nomads follows the performers as they sit down and leave again, sit down and leave; the first was all clogged energetic pores, the second is airy and forgetful. Both shows take the community of dancers, performers, through some typical activities: travelling, sitting down, eating, socialising, entertainment, violence, trauma management. They have some similar preoccupations: both begin with a figure of the outsider joining the group, but while Settlement closes with the outsider still largely isolated from the group, he blends in with the nomads quite quickly. Altogether, Nomads is a much more positive show (although this may be a simplistic way of putting it). It reminds us that the things we have inherited from the millennia of hunting and gathering are the pursuit of ecstasy and the ability to forget. Settlement, instead, dwelled upon the structures that bind us together.

We must not lie for the sake of others
We must respect the loneliness of others
We must combine our thoughts
We only take as much as we can use at any one time
We must look people in the eye at least once every day
We must try to laugh at least once a day
We must say audible things to one that all may share
We can contest a rule if it interferes with our sense of liberty
We should try to wear our pants inside out and back to front
We can take a nap in somebody else’s tent if the tent flap is open
We must be at first considerate
You must have your brush in hand before entering the kitchen area

-excerpt from the Settlement rulebook

I found it a little jejune, comparatively speaking, although this may be a reflection on my personal history. Coming from a federation that fell apart and into a civil war, I grew up in an artistic environment endlessly preoccupied with dissecting the fundaments of society. If there has been an idée fixe in post-Yugoslav art, it has been the question of neighbours turning against one another; the real tangibility of the threads that bind us together; the dubious stability of peace, of order; the illusory harmony of cohabitation. Settlement, in this context, merely scratched the surface of real life.

Nomads opens with performers, ragged up and saddled with boxes, milk crates, backpacks, pacing in a circle. One of them has a small child on her back, which will be discarded before the beginning of the show. From then on, a series of scenes plays out, in the big space of Carriageworks's Bay 8, on the sand, with projections covering one or two walls, and an intermittent soundscape piercing the big space made entirely of concrete, sand and light. There is no strong link between the scenes, no meaning spelled out, just the endless, prolonged, trickling continuty of people and space. It is not theatre for the easily bored and, while aesthetically pleasing, it is poles away from spectacle. It is theatre that lets the mind wander.

While there are no weak scenes in the 90 minutes of Nomads, some stand out as exceptionally potent. Once the walking circle has broken into a chain reaction of simple movements, a collective dance that the wandering outsider can join in, a makeshift settlement is established. Like a vulture, a peddler appears, offering Con-fession! Con-fession!, setting up his trolley with a microphone, a dividing screen, and a blinding light. One has sinned because she has stolen, food, clothes, thoughts and dreams. Return the box, he tells her. Nomads are not allowed to hoard. Another one falls in love with the priest. Visibly disconcerted, he tells her that there is a sacred vow, and leaves. Nikki Heywood, curious, takes his place. She too leaves after a story of a man who doesn't get laid, unable to work around the experience. While there is nothing more to this sequence, the travelling shrink packs up and leaves, there is an entire essay in it on the exclusion of professions from quotidian life, on the need to distance those who filter the detritus of normality. From executioners, entertainers and fortune-tellers to the burakumin.

The nomads turn the performance into a fashion show, with a moment of obvious analogy with Settlement: people exchanging clothes, again and again and again. There is homogenisation within the group, but also joyous collectivity, in this long dress-up-and-down. At the same time, with pictures projected on the wall, and the role-playing of the catwalk costuming, with nomads, gypsies, witches and cowboys impersonated, it is a bit of a satire on role-playing. It energises the audience, and it takes a bit of effort to calm down afterwards, continue with the slowness that's so characteristic of the show.


While Settlement had little to say on intimacy, or private life of others (whatever happened, happened inside the tents), Nomads gives a long thought to sleep, with long chains of hugging, on one hip, then the other. The chain is broken and remade as the group turns upside down, left to right, sits and shifts in discomfort. There is a need for comfort and a need for space that are clashing within this scene, like they clash when one shares a bed with another person, that exist on stage as presence, not representation. And then, the performance mutates into one of the most curious, most enigmatic parts of Nomads: a woman lies on the mattress. Within moments, other members of the community shake her off, and a careful, consensual battle for the mattress begins. With the music getting louder and louder, people push and pull the mattress in different directions, jumping on it, sneaking a few minutes of lying down, before they're shaken off by others, who don't necessarily try to steal it for themselves, just limit the time anyone gets on.

At the time, I was absolutely intent on reading it as an illustration of drug-bound communities. Managing the mattress, limiting everyone's time to minimal, seemed to be a perfect illustration of, say, acid-dropping circles, keeping in check by not allowing anyone, not even oneself, too much time unaccountable. Now, however, as I'm thinking about it more, it also appears to be a simple principle of managing commons, a scarcity. At the same time, the spinning blanket dervishes remind us that the pursuit of ectasy, trance, is something we have inherited from our nomadic past, and that major religions have sprung up in the desert for a reason. The scene closes with Lizzie Thomson, held up high on a mattress by everyone else, drawing a red door in the projected desert landscape, and knocking (it's a loud, miked knock). Joe, let me out!, she says. I'm ready! Joe, if you let me out, I'll let you in!

In the immediate aftermath, the performers, drenched in loud, energetic music, yet visibly exhausted, turn to walking into a wall. It seems clear that they're chasing a flickering projection, which disappears before they can come close, and it also seems clear that the music is meant to invigorate them, make them persist, rather than illustrate the mood. There is not a tremendous deal of conviction in the way they hit the wall, again and again. What makes it more poignant, however, is the shift that happens as they start leaving things. They walk into the wall with flowers, and leave the crushed flowers by the wall. Chair, leave. Water bottle, leave. Like the road shrines to the victims of car accidents, like the flowers left for victims of suicide bombers, so are these little souvenirs to violence, martyrdom, scattered by the wall.

I will not disclose the ending, strangely funny and unexpectedly beautiful, although I could keep rambling on each long scene in this magnificent performance. There is a lot in a show like Nomads, and any attempt to analyse, I feel, kills the magnificent, slow and mature vagueness with which it paints images on those enormous, concrete walls. It is very airy theatre, of the kind that can really disorientate, confuse and frustrate the audience member that wants to be touched or entertained. It is not immersive, with the music video logic, like much of the home-grown non-narrative theatre. It is quietly visual, slow and uneventful, and pleases mainly to the extent to which one can fill the evening with thought. There is an echo of Brecht here: a thinking and smoking spectator, where smoking was precisely the a sign of dispassionate contemplation. But it is also Wilsonian, perhaps: intermissions at your discretion without the signposting. It is worth suspending your expectations, and allowing yourself the discursive and observational freedom normally reserved for classical music or a modernist novel, and just let the images, concepts and stories wash over you, before deciding what it means.

Nomads. Directed by Hans Van den Broeck. Performers/collaborators: Kathy Cogill, Nikki Heywood, Rowan Marchingo, Tony Osborne, Lizzie Thomson, Vicki van Hout, Nalina Wait, Anuschka van Oppen, Joe Jurd. Video design Sam James. Sound design James Brown. Lighting design Sydney Bouhaniche. Project convenors Nikki Heywood and Rowan Marchingo. Production manager Jenn Blake. Residency showing at Performance Space, Sydney, 27 – 29 November 2008.

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A post that slipped under my radar a near-month ago, Andrew Haydon in the Guardian theatre blog complains, with the characteristic spirit of advocacy, that mainstream Anglo-American theatre tradition remains absolutely married to the idea of literal-minded mimesis.

In itself this is not a new idea, but he relates it back to the political question of representation on stage:

There is virtually no hint that anything but the text can invent meaning on stage beyond dumb representation. This is partly why arguments about the “politics” of the physical proportions of actors are possible in the first place. Because a thin woman on stage finds herself representing nothing more than a thin woman, or, by extension, thin women. It's like we've grasped the idea that something on stage is pregnant with meaning, but, thanks to our abandonment of metaphor and our largely normative, descriptive so-called “political theatre”, the level of representation simply gets plugged into boring complaints about “pretty” girls getting all the jobs.

I would be terribly interested in exploring this idea further. Particularly the abandonment of metaphor.

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The stage is theological for as long as its structure, following the entirety of tradition, comports the following elements: an author-creator who, absent and from afar, is armed with a text and keeps watch over, assembles, regulated the time or the meaning of representation, letting this latter represent him as concerns what is called the content of his thoughts, his intentions, his ideas. He lets representation represent him through representatives, directors or actors, enslaved interpreters who represent characters who, primarily through what they say, more or less directly represent the thought of the “creator”. Interpretive slaves who faithfully execute the providential designs of the “master”. -Derrida

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notes on Japan: mono no aware

The meaning of the phrase mono no aware is complex and changed over time, but it basically refers to a “pathos” (aware) of “things” (mono), deriving from their transience. In the classic anthology of Japanese poetry from the eighth century, the Manyôshû, the feeling of aware is typically triggered by the plaintive calls of birds or other animals. It also plays a major role in the world's first novel, Murasaki Shikibu's Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji), from the early eleventh century. The somewhat later Heike monogatari (The Tale of the Heike Clan) begins with these famous lines, which clearly show impermanence as the basis for the feeling of mono no aware:

“The sound of the Gion shôja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sôla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.” (McCullough 1988)

The well known literary theorist Motoori Norinaga brought the idea to the forefront of literary theory with a study of The Tale of Genji that showed mono no aware to be its central theme. He argues for a broader understanding of it as concerning a profound sensitivity to the emotional and affective dimensions of existence in general. The greatness of Lady Murasaki's achievement consists in her ability to portray characters with a profound sense of mono no aware in her writing, such that the reader is able to empathize with them in this feeling.

The films of Ozu Yasujirô, who is often thought to be the most “Japanese” of Japanese film directors, are a series of exercises in conveying mono no aware. Stanley Cavell's observation that “film returns to us and extends our first fascination with objects, with their inner and fixed lives” applies consummately to Ozu, who often expresses feelings through presenting the faces of things rather than of actors. A vase standing in the corner of a tatami-matted room where a father and daughter are asleep; two fathers contemplating the rocks in a “dry landscape” garden, their postures echoing the shapes of the stone; a mirror reflecting the absence of the daughter who has just left home after getting married—all images that express the pathos of things more powerfully than the expression on the greatest actor's face.

The most frequently cited example of mono no aware in contemporary Japan is the traditional love of cherry blossoms, as manifested by the huge crowds of people that go out every year to view (and picnic under) the cherry trees. The blossoms of the Japanese cherry trees are intrinsically no more beautiful than those of, say, the pear or the apple tree: they are more highly valued because of their transience, since they usually begin to fall within a week of their first appearing. It is precisely the evanescence of their beauty that evokes the wistful feeling of mono no aware in the viewer.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


Jerome Bel: The Show Must Go On

the water does not intend to reflect the moon
nor does the moon intend to be reflected in the water:
how calm and serene rest Hirosawa's waters!


18.x.2007. The Show Must Go On
Concept and direction: Jérôme Bel. DJ and Technical director: Gilles Gentner. MIAF. Playhouse at the Arts Centre. 16-18 October. Co-produced by Théâtre de la Ville, Paris; Gasthuis, Amsterdam; Centre choréographique national Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon; Arteleku Gipuzkoako Foru Aldundia, Donostia, San Sebastián; and R.B., Paris.

In 2006, my Croatian friend Petar insisted that I be his delegate at MIAF '06 and witness Jérôme Bel. He was adamant. I had to see him. Unqualified, unmodified by adjectives, this Jérôme Bel. Except, of course, that he was crazy, but madness is a constant in art. So I went. And to this day I cannot define what it was that I saw. I walked out with a strong feeling that everything was beautiful and life worth living. But why?

Recently, I saw Thom Pain, a play meant to break conventions, tear through the form, show us raw feeling, but also a play endlessly plagued by acting. I witnessed it as spontaneity enacted, performed, and unconvincing, a quirky but superficial recombination of formal clichés; the paradox exploded in full force when the actor interrupted the final applause to ask for donations, explained the history, operation and purpose of the fund in question, and gave an example of an acting colleague struggling through illness. This sudden moment of real life on stage had me in tears before I realised what was happening. It was as if the emotions of the play, behind the play, finally found a suitable release point.

May I compare it to Kim Ki-duk and his elaborate constructions of situations, situations improbable, unrealistic? In Kim Ki-duk's world, grandiose combinations of people, places, events, emotions, serve to illustrate comparatively small intellectual points (intellect being but a fragment of human reality). The problem is that so much of life, of humanity, of existence, is fundamentally indescribable, unshowable, unrepresentable, comes out spontaneously when nobody is looking, nobody is acting, nobody is writing or directing. The truth of art – for myself, of course – is born in the moment the artist forgets the artist, the work and the purpose, and expresses some of that light of life. I'm sure there is more than an element of fairly simple Euro aesthetics in this, but think Zen: He who deliberates and moves his brush intent on making a picture, misses to a still greater extent the art of painting. Draw bamboos for ten years, become a bamboo, then forget all about bamboos when you are drawing. In possession of an infallible technique, the individual places himself at the mercy of inspiration.

In The Diary Project, Renata Cuocolo pointed out: What has always fascinated me is the way in which people can stay at the window or on the veranda all day long, looking outside not getting bored, but if they go to the movies or to the theatre they immediately complain about feeling bored. Renata Cuocolo, herself an artist.

The Show Must Go On, this year's gift to us (and might there be more?), explores this front line between the real and the artificial image, and real and artificial experience, and creates something very special in the process. Most of the art, contemporary art, that does work on this distinction, I find displeasing, self-conscious, banal, and not bringing anything new into the picture, just the insistent, insecure clamor of why do you look at me? am i special? am i that special? just how much? i'm not! or am i?. Like the reaction of one confronted with someone else's love. Not Bel, though. For whatever reason, he succeeds. I find it hard to paint a picture of why?, therefore!, by these means!, this is his secret! But it works for me, for the person sitting next to me, for that guy behind me giving the standing ovation at the end, for the excited 12-year-old. Perhaps it's the sweetness. I myself am not a fan of brutalism in arts, of that in-your-face violence towards the spectator. Why not try to reach the television-viewer instead, the computer-game player, the sports audience, or at least those who go to musicals? Theatre bunch, themselves attending theatre very rarely for pure spectacle, are already likely to be engaged in arts production, asking themselves the same question. And that is, after all, why a theatre performance would have any more significance than watching the street.

So in a sense, The Show Must Go On makes us watch like we would watch the street. He pokes the theatre form just enough to get us there, and yet not forget to be engaged emotionally and intellectually, to give it the importance we rarely give to street-watching. He does that by doing all kinds of unexpected, un-theatrical things to the stage, performers and the audience, but there is never brutality to it. He plays pop songs. Performers assemble on the stage only to put their hands in their pockets and look at us, the audience. They lights go off. The performers will leave the stage, then come back. Dancers without ballet training will perform ballet clichés. Performers without singing talent sing. People will hug, and dance a sentiš under muted red lights. At one point, even the audience is given a chance to perform, with the lights on us, and the entire performing ensemble looking attentively. (To Matt's dismay, only some use the opportunity to dance a dance back. He has since suggested attending another performance only to right this wrong.) It's all unexpected, it's all vaguely puzzling, but there is the same sense of purpose that exists on the street at any given hour (even 5am). It's some sort of life on stage, but not as a representation of some off-stage life, it's performers living on stage, being what they are and doing what they do in the most honest way. The sound technician comes on stage to dance alone on Only You, and after a minute, having had an idea, he jumps off the stage to his technician desk, turns the volume up and the lights down, and returns. After an entire songful of random actions, jumps, clenches, bangs, finishes, the dancers not only stop performing, they take a minute to be tired. They take their jumpers off. Go off-stage and come back with bottles of water. They breathe heavily. They wait for the next number. There is no affectation to it, but no purposeless banality either. It's Bel saying, these are performers, you are audience, i direct: let's see the possibilities of the situation.

In fact, what's most compelling about the performance is its ability to glean most spontaneous audience reactions. In a less benevolent world, this would include a great number of patrons leaving, but this night, instead, there are people rocking on their chairs in beat with the pop songs; patchy singing along; laughter on all sides, and it's the most beautiful thing, bursts of laughter from a person or two, contagiously spreading over the auditorium and dying quickly, then again; there is a final applause that in itself could be a staged scene, with standing ovations on one side, people leaving on the other, and groups of happy patrons simply sitting in their seats, enjoying what's certainly not the end of the show. Until everyone has left, it's not over.

There is no incitement to grand collective audience participation, and none is likely to happen in a city like this. It's not a show of universal love&collective harmony. There are witty moments, and happy moments, and moments of individual responsibility. But there is never despair, never any suggestion we might be better off observing the street outside. Afterwards, there is palpable joy in the air. Joy. There doesn't seem to be in Bel's work any intention to teach us, and nor does the audience seem to intend to learn secrets about life. But in the end, how calm and serene rest Hirosawa's waters.

by Jana Perkovic

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