Notes From Berlin (Part II)

One day on the bus I asked Meiyin, “What is the word for the study of how one experiences the world?” and from the seat in front of us our new friend Magnús Þór Þorbergsson, Assistant Professor of Theater at The Iceland Academy of The Arts, answered, “You mean phenomenology?”

Phenomenology! Yes! Of course! Oh, phenomenology, where have you been all my life?

Rimini Protokoll’s Remote Berlin, a sound walk, was interesting because of where it located the performance – in the head of the participant. Like Ant Hampton and Tim Etchells’s The Quiet Volume it might be characterized as phenomenological performance in that it does not modify external material conditions so much as it creates a persistent conceptual frame for the experiencer. Sinan, in his halting English, was trying to say as much.

When I was in college I walked a friend of mine home one night after a concert. It was late; she lived in a slightly sketchy neighborhood and there had been a series of off-campus rapes. As we ascended the stairs to her flat, we paused before the landing and she looked into a window. “Do you see that?” she said, indicating the reflection of her front door in the landing window. Yes. “Every night when I come home I stop here and check that window to see if anyone is waiting in the vestibule by my door. That’s what it’s like to be a woman.”

I had seen countless plays and movies and heard stories about violence against women, about rape. I had attended a Take Back The Night rally. But this was the first time I actually got it. Right, exactly. Looking at an issue through a set of experiences and history that doesn’t go away.

One can imagine performance as a kind of applied phenomenology, an ongoing experiment in intersubjectivity, an attempt to bridge the experience gap through intentional liveness.

In university I studied archetypal and psychological approaches to literature with Dr. Leland Roloff, a white-maned patriarch with sonorous voice and imposing presence. He told many stories and I have no idea which ones were factually true but they all resonated with a greater, cosmic truth.

He told the story of a rural tribe, first introduced to the television. They watched it for a few days and turned it off, leaving it unheeded in a pile of junk. The anthropologist asked, “Why don’t you watch the television? It knows so many more stories than your village storyteller!” And the tribal leader replied, “Yes, but my storyteller knows me.” I can still hear Dr Roloff intone in his resonant voice, “Ah, that story!”

Dr. Roloff told the story of interviewing graduate school candidates in South Africa in an office with a window and an impressive view of the ocean. He was meeting with a candidate who was very promising but seemed distracted, unfocused and unable to concentrate. Finally he stopped the interview and asked the student what was the matter. The student replied, “I’m sorry but I’m from the interior of the country, I’ve never in my life seen the ocean before.” Ah, that story.

One day towards the end of the trip, Sinan shared a YouTube video of the show he had directed in Baghdad and was bringing to Berlin in a few days. The language barrier made it hard to understand at first, but I came to learn that the story of the play was of a prostitute who seeks refuge from a street gun battle in the home of a devout Muslim woman. At first, the woman refuses the prostitute’s request but then relents, and what ensues is a volatile conflict that causes both women to question their identities. Here’s some video, in Arabic:

I will admit that at first I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I couldn’t understand the language, the video was from a workshop and, from my Western perspective, the form was familiar. The Muslim woman, costumed in oversized prayer beads, seemed cartoonish; shouting has never been my favored acting style.

But Sinan narrated the action as we watched, and I began to be drawn in. At the 3:19 mark in the video, you will see the prostitute aggressively clanging finger cymbals in the face of the Muslim woman, who cowers in fear. Sinan told me that Saddam’s secret police used to clang finger cymbals like that when they raped the Iraqi women they had arrested and were torturing. To me, it just looked like a loud fight. To an audience that lived through the terror of Saddam Hussein’s regime, this scene resonated in an entirely different and more horrifying way.

So when we, as artists, encounter work for the first time and when we ourselves make work, do we ask to whom we are speaking, do we think about the spectator, about their experience of this moment? Are we mindful, aware, curious and cognizant of our own biases? Are we receptive to the experience of phenomenological interpenetrability? When we practice intentional liveness in the creation of works of ephemeral art are we similarly attentive to the construction and contexts of our physical and experiential space? Are we using situation awareness? Or are we being willfully blind to our contexts as we attempt to impose a rigid and unwavering ontological certitude on others?

I thought about Dr. Roloff’s stories when our group met Annemie Vanackere, the newly appointed director of the Hebbel am Ufer (HAU) theater. We had only been there a short time, and after a cursory overview of the venue she opened up the floor to questions. My colleague Magnús from Iceland asked her what she might be planning to do differently than her predecessor and Ms. Vanackere flew into a rage. “I will not answer this question! If you were a member of the press I would throw you out! Why does everyone ask me this? Would I come to an institution that I thought was broken only to change everything?”  She continued on a defensive– and frankly embarrassing – tirade for a good five minutes.

It is understandable, given the role of the institutional director in German theater, that Ms. Vanackere might be defensive, given that she is a Flemish woman taking over a cherished institution that was previously run by a German man. But even so, she reacted as if she had no idea of who we were, or interest in why we were there.

Her interaction with a group of colleagues respectfully gathered to learn from her experience was the veritable embodiment of the stereotype of the haughty European culture snob and demonstrated the conflict between Europe’s expressed democratic ideals, its practices and self-image. Even after she calmed herself, she continued to speak as if she had no idea who was in the audience or interest in learning about us. She revealed that she had indeed made changes at the HAU during her first year, and that she hoped to make the HAU more inviting, inclusive, welcoming and transparent—the irony of course being that she was completely unable to be inviting, inclusive, welcoming or transparent in her personal comportment.

When my colleague from Bangalore, Mr. Prakash Belawadi, politely asked Ms. Vanackere what criteria informed her artistic decision-making process, she parroted the Western curator’s default bromide, “Well, of course, we all want to support good art.”

But this signifier “Good Art” becomes increasingly useless when no-one interrogates what the phrase actually means: what are the qualities and characteristics of “good” art and who determines those qualities, characteristics and aesthetic frameworks? The refusal – or inability – of curators to articulate and justify their qualitative judgements belies the inherent cultural and class biases of existing curatorial practices in performance.

When curators  render judgement from on high of what is good and what is bad without explanation or acknowledgement of their own influences, interests and biases, they do both artists and audiences a disservice. This disservice is aggravated exponentially when curators like Ms. Vanackere respond defensively and derisively to innocent, innocuous and sincere questions from sympathetic colleagues.

Our encounter with Ms. Vanackere gave me new perspective on those late nights in New York in January at Under The Radar and Coil, when the European curators gather to drink and debauch, discuss and make deals.

I pictured any one of them – all white, mostly male – looking down from the windows of a luxe Manhattan cocktail lounge at a heterogeneous group of nameless faces from around the non-Western world, brown skinned and possibly of different faiths and wondered what they would see? Would they see these people as colleagues or presumptive upstarts for the uncivilized world, merely inferiors to be either educated or ignored? Perhaps these curators think there is nothing to be learned from other cultures and perspectives, other ways of being in the world?

Americans are constantly reprimanded for our provincialism, but experience suggests that the European curators are collectively often as incurious and self-satisfied as the most provincial American.

Elite curators in both Western Europe and The United States take their cultural authority as a given and as such resist interrogation through an elaborate self-performance of smoke, mirrors and misdirection. This cultural authority is frequently predicated more on class bias, privilege and the self-affirming echo chamber of an exclusive inner circle than any quantifiable or identifiable merit. They frequently move through the world with imperial arrogance, from festival to festival in an insulated bubble, willfully blind to the conditions in which the rest of the planet operates. At least in the visual arts curators are required to write about their ideas, articulate their artistic choices and then defend them publicly. Not so in performance.

1999 saw the publication of a book called Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity that made a comprehensive and convincing case for an extraordinary range of non-heteronormative behavior among animals. Sexual behavior in the animal kingdom is as diverse, complex and multivalent across all species as it is in homo sapiens. Equally fascinating was that this behavior had been observed and described in great detail by zoologists for hundreds of years only to be mischaracterized due to the cultural biases of the scientists. They lived in a world where homosexuality and non-heteronormative practices did not exist or were considered so deviant as to be without precedent in the “natural” world. They saw it, but couldn’t see it.

This is the panel of judges for Theatertreffen:

Judges for Theatertreffen 2013

Judges for Theatertreffen 2013

And here are the faces of TCG’s recent “I Am Theater” campaign:

TCG's "I Am Theater"

TCG’s “I Am Theater”

Germany – and most of Western Europe for that matter – may aspire to cultural inclusivity but their cultural biases are so deeply rooted as to be invisible to themselves. They see it, but can’t see it – a condition, I suspect, that underlies many of problems when the West (including The U.S.) seeks to “”help” or fix” other cultures without actually understanding them.

At a welcome lunch hosted by the Federal Foreign Office, the Division Head made a speech extolling Germany’s commitment to the soft power of cultural exchange. I admire and applaud this, and I am a grateful beneficiary of their largesse. The fact that they convened a diverse group of theater practitioners from around the world for a week is, to me anyway, demonstrable proof of the success of this strategy.

At the same time, I couldn’t help but be struck by the disconnect between the aspiration and the reality. All of the government officials and functionaries, diplomats and administrators were white. But the young team assembled by the Goethe Institut to guide our group was a veritable Benetton ad. The team consisted of Boris Abel, Özlem Cosen, Natalija Yefimkina and Moritz Meutzner – all of them excellent, capable, friendly and knowledgeable guides. Over the course of the week we learned that Boris is of mixed German/Cuban origins, Özlem of Turkish descent and Natalija emigrated from Ukraine as a child. Moritz, who was indubitably German, rounded out the team.

I’ve been in the theater my whole life; I’m not unaware of stagecraft.

Over the course of a week of theatergoing in Berlin I saw no brown, black or yellow faces on stage, no Turks or Arabs or Muslims or living Jews. In our seminars we saw no people of color as artists, directors, dramaturgs, curators, critics or educators.

This isn’t really a problem except insofar as we are living in an increasingly diverse and culturally complex world and Germany’s noble efforts towards global reconcilation – for that is how I feel compelled to characterize it – require more than stagecraft and beautiful glass government buildings admirably reinforcing core values of transparency and openness. It means actually including diverse voices in the systems of power and civic space.

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