Is there politics in theatre?
an article by Rainer Hofmann

It is 2016. The world has changed considerably in the last two years. Or maybe it has not changed so much, but the changes have reached our safe and quiet Western sphere. You might say: If you don’t go to the problem, it comes to you. The war in Syria is not new, the breeding-grounds for terrorists are not new, refugees fleeing from that war are not new, but now they reach the Netherlands, Austria and mostly Germany. It is ethically unacceptable to delegate the problem to Greece, although a lot of governments are exactly doing that.

Our democratic consensus is in danger to get crushed between terrorist attacks and nationalist populism. You might ask yourself, where have humanism and empathy gone? How come, fear is bigger? How come, that people do not trust the democratic system anymore and answer with violence and racism? A lot of the protests are clearly grounded in undemocratic thinking, be it the Trumpism in the US or the protests and violent attacks on refugee infrastructures in Germany. In Overvecht some people demanded on a transparent „More Orbanism!“ referring to Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister who reigns his country in a feudalistic manner handing out important jobs to political friends. Where has the idea of Europe as a realm of shared values and mutual responsibility disappeared? In the financial crisis? But maybe for most people Europe meant never more than travelling without border controls or change of currency.

It seems more urgent than ever to deal with political issues in theatre too. Europe might be shattered in a few years. People might wander homeless across the continent for a long time. Hate might determine the political debate even more. Fear might be the dominating emotion. National interests rule. Social Coherence, shared values and a feeling of mutual responsibility are disappearing. But is theatre the medium to address these developments? What is the responsibility of artists and arts organisations in this situation?

As a festival SPRING does not want to give an answer to this question, but it wants to pose it. SPRING presents some artists and performances that take clear positions in the current political and social discussions. Not in the sense of political recommendations, but by exploring what both their role as artists and that of the arts in general should be.

Edit Kaldor tries to build a „Web of Trust“, so the title of her performance, a new social media platform, which she brings to the theatre and which will be the stage of her performance. She gathers people with social and political discontent from around the world, who want to take matters in their own hands. The performance does not represent „activism“ but it uses and displays activist methods, tools and dilemmas. It might activate audiences to take a step from passive discontent to active engagement. The boundaries of arts and politics blur.

Direct confrontation is the method of Dries Verhoeven and his one-on-one installative performance Guilty Landscapes. The visitor meets one person on a screen, clearly coming from a poorer area of the world, and this person is looking back. He sees you too! He is reacting to you, going into a dialogue with you, confronting you with the social and economic gap between the two of you. It is an intimate encounter bringing a far off world closer than we might wish for, and showing how we are part of that world too.

The Estonian theatre company NO99 went some steps further. They entered the realm of politics. They founded Unified Estonia and started a party campaign for it, suggesting an alternative to the established Estonian parties. They left the arts pages and entered the political pages. They placed posters in public space, not advertising a show, but themselves as politicians. They secretly vandalized their own posters, heating up emotions. Established parties saw a new opponent on the political field, people were hoping that a theatre company would be a political alternative. The climax was a big party event which attracted 7.000 visitors including high-ranking politicians. Would they really do it? Would they enter politics as the Icelandic comedian Jon Gnarr did, who was elected mayor of Reykjavik after the financial crash of the country?

NO99 made a film documentary about this process titled Ash and Money, which will be presented at SPRING. This film gives the whole project an additional twist. The film shows less  a political alternative, but an instruction for populism.

SPRING asked Tim Etchells to make an intervention in public space based on his online and book project Vacuum Days, a calendar announcing every day an event referring to news headlines, current affairs, gossip and political rhetoric. SPRING places 100 posters in the inner city of Utrecht without further comment. They take over advertisement spaces with a content, the origin and sender of which are unclear to the bystander. Why are the posters promoting these events? Where do they take place? Or is the advertisement already the event?

All these artists are looking for more than representational forms for political issues. Edit Kaldor is researching and creating new ways of community-building and alternative political communication, Dries Verhoeven is offering a direct confrontation which takes the visitor out of the passive position as arts consumer, Tim Etchells hacks the public space and NO99 simply started a political campaign.

All of these works share a sincere attempt. The times of dealing ironically with social and political issues are over. The cultural theorist Timotheus Vermeulen says we live in the age of metamodernism, which is a reaction to the postmodern age of relativism and irony: „Grand narratives are as necessary as they are problematic, hope is not simply something to distrust, love not necessarily something to be ridiculed.“

Where can this serious approach lead to? Is there art with an impact? What can the impact be? Can we create new stories which build new social coherence? But is the role of art really creating coherence? Is it not questioning roles and habits? Looking behind mainstream narratives?

The Flemish activist and philosopher Lieven de Cauter said in Rekto Verso: „There is only one real form of activism and it is political activism.“ De Couter calls artistic activism (artivism) „a blurring of spheres“:  „Art can change perception only in a sort of slow motion, almost in retrospect. (...) Art’s political value, from Greek tragedy to contemporary art, is extremely indirect. But. Let us believe in the mimetic power of art and the power of mimesis.“

SPRING is showing current developments in the performing arts. We do not see these political approaches as an imperative, but as a proposal of artists, which we are happy to discuss with our public after the shows, at the city symposium or at a public interview with Tim Etchells. It is 2016. To be continued.

Rainer Hofmann

 

Some of these questions can be discussed with Timotheus Vermeulen who is invited as Festival Fellow by SPRING and the Centre for the Humanities of the Utrecht University. Together we host a city symposium on „Aesthetics & Activism“ discussing these issues more in depth.

Also, in response to this article Timotheus Vermeulen -  wrote a reaction adressing the issues brought up in this article. Read it here.

 

We could mention some more projects concerned with political issues although less on the edges of art and activism: Nástio Mosquito’s concert performance Si Eu Fosse Angolano questions identities and our need to give others a clear identity in a postmodern, globalized society. The Japanese production Time’s Journey Through a Room by chelfitsch and their director/writer Toshiki Okada is a portrait of the ruptured Japanese society after the disaster of Fukushima, a society which – in Toshiki’s mind – is haunted by lost hopes, ghosts and unresolved conflicts. And we could mention Re-enactment of the Now by the young Dutch director Davy Pieters and Theater Utrecht. Davy Pieters looks back at today (as if today was the past), creating distance and perspective, questioning e.g. why we seem to be unable to take measures against climate change.

 

2016 is the beginning. It marks also the  start of Urban Heat a project by the network Festivals in Transition, which invited 22 artists from all over Europe and beyond to do research on arts and political processes, on participation and community engagement. In 2018 SPRING will present some of the performances which will be developed in this project and give a context with a conference organized together with Media and Culture Studies of the University.