Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Theatre of Cruelty

From the social point of view the epidemic is insofar remarkable, as the disease passes from the individual to the social status. Here the spectacle concerns all, infects all and overcomes all just like the theatre etc.

Artaud, Outlines for “The Theatre and the Plague”

Approaching and localizing his notion of a true and necessary theatre, that he finally will label as “The Theatre of Cruelty”, Artaud juxtaposes in his poetics the theatre with its doubles, that he identified during his examination of life. In one of the most discussed essays from “The Theatre and its Doubles”, Artaud contrasts the theatre with the plague:

The theater, like the plague, is in the image of this carnage and this essential separation. It releases conflicts, disengages powers, unleashes possibilities, and if these possibilities and these forces are black, it is the fault not of the plague or of the theater but of life.

What he means here with this analogy in relation to his conception of theatre, becomes much clearer if we have a closer look to “The Conquest of Mexico”.
Here Artaud - in the tradition of most historical records – accentuates its two most prominent antagonists, Hernán Cortés and Moctezuma II, and condenses and sharpens therefore the conflict between the Spanish invaders and the Mexican inhabitants for the means of the stage.
But as we can read in the very first lines of his exposé, Artaud is in opposition to most historical writers primarily not so much concerned with the illustration of the individual characters, biographies and motivations of the two leaders, but installs their functions in a more broader context on the stage:

It will stage events, not men. Men will come in their turn with their psychology and their passions, but they will be taken as the emanation of certain forces and understood in the light of the events and historical fatality in which they have played their role.

When Artaud here writes about men as the “emanation of certain forces”, there is no doubt, that these forces are related to the forces that he writes about in his essay about the plague: Forces that are connected to life, forces that might be black. What does Artaud mean with that? And why could it still be relevant?

In our civilized world we aim for safety and security. The civilized human mankind in general tends to the construction of solid buildings and clear defined borders. We define ourselves through all that, what we not are. We try to categorize everything, that seems to be different from us. We try to control and exclude everything what is supposed to become a threat for us. We get nervous, if we can't solve a question, we get aggressive if we are confronted with something beyond our intelligibility. We try to overcome our fears, while we observe, isolate and persecute what we suppose to produce them.

In case of an epedemic, we realize how our constructed borders become permeable. We try to secure ourselves, but there can never be a 100% guarantee. We have to acknowledge something other, that also belongs to our life. Therefore we too have to play our role in the world, a role that we can't define ourselves.
From here we can see why Artaud is not interested in the demonstration of psychological conflicts between characters. Artaud was not an advocator of a realistic theatre, that f.e. would show and explain interpersonal situations like mobbing on a stage claiming to solve and overcome them in real life this way. Neither was his concept of theatre intended to confront us with simple representations of cruelty on the stage. Instead, his "Theatre of Cruelty" applies the very same problems but on a deeper layer. In "The Conquest of Mexico" men become a statement about our relation to the world around us, about the hiding and masking of the unsavory truths about our relations to each other and to the world, that we share. Beneath our connection to the world there lays a specific fonds of cruelty, a gap, that we never can fit totally. It is this essential separation Artaud is speaking about, when he writes about the plague and the theatre. It is a separation, that comes in in this very moment, where signs come into play, whenever we try to signify.

There is something we can't express totally, there is something we can't know, but we have to get along with this absence and our non-knowledge, and we have to prepare ourselves for situations like this. We will always continue to achieve informations our whole life long, but there will be always one step that we are behind.

At this moment, there raise many questions here in Mexico-City. People want to know, how serious the epidemic threat is, they want to know more about the actual effort of the sanctions of their government, and they want to know, why so far only Mexican people have died from the swine flu. There is a call for transparency, and there is one word I heard quite often in the last days, “propaganda”, and this word remembers us that knowledge and information are always connected to power. There lays a big responsibility in these days in the local government, in the governments of the worldwide countries, in the international health organisations, and also in the media. Fear is nothing we should play with, nor something we should try to direct with power, the risks are to high. If its “black forces” become potentized in reality, there is no human power any longer capable of its control.

In some way we all are infected, and in some way this is why Artauds "Theatre of Cruelty" concerns us all, until today:

It is the social task of the art to create a way out of the fears of its time.
(published in Mexican newspaper El Nacional in 1936)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Theatre and The Life

My dear friend,

I believe I have found a suitable title for my book.
It will be:
For if theatre doubles life, life doubles true theatre, but it has nothing to do with Oscar Wilde’s ideas on art. This title will comply with all the doubles of the theatre which I thought I’d found for so many years: metaphysics, plague, cruelty, the pool of energies which constitute Myths, which man no longer embodies, is embodied by the theatre. By this double I mean the great magical agent of which the theatre, through its forms, is only the figuration on its way to becoming the transfiguration.
It is on the stage that the union of thought, gesture and action is reconstructed. and the double of the Theatre is reality untouched by the men of today.

Artaud, Letter to Jean Paulhan
25th January, 1936.

In my first semester at the University of Giessen, i attended a seminar about Artaud held by Helga Finter. Partly motivated by kind of an exotic interest at that time, i agreed after the introductory session to give a presentation on Artauds intensive encounter with Mexico.
I ordered Artauds Mexico-volume and started to read it during the Christmas holidays. I remember how i was astonished and irritated about Artaud's heterogenous decsriptions of his trip to Mexico in 1936. Did he travel to the Tarahumaras, or did he stay in Mexico-City all the time? Did he take part in the Tutuguri-Ritus, or didn't he?
These have been my very first questions and it probably took some time, until I realized, that they are not very relevant at all. I don't think, that i understood a lot about the true origins of his conflicts with the mechanisms of cruelty, that construct identity, and of the as problematic experienced relation between language and the body, but what really impressed me was the basic necessity, that was inherent to all his writings, despite of - or just because off - all obvious inconsistencies. On the one hand here somebody was writing about an alien country / a different culture, but on the other hand you as the reader got the impression to experience primarily something about your Self.
The Mexico that Artaud had created in his mind had at a first glance nothing in common with the actual Mexico of his time. Mexico served Artaud as a subjective heterotopia, a space of otherness, as a means of escape from the as decadent perceived European culture.
During the last seven years I used to read Artaud from time to time, not with an scientific interest, but more as a kind of source of inspiration, as a footing whenever I felt the ground beneath my feets to become very fragile. Thinking quite a long time about an project dealing with texts by Artaud, I was very excited when i heard first about the call for "German Media Artists" to produce an artwork in Mexico-City, and proposed a concept for an audiovisual installation based on Artaud's expose "The Conquest of Mexico". This small text from the context of his “The Theatre and Its Double”-writings outlines an utopian theatre, that is so much more actual and relevant, than 99% of the stuff that is shown on contemporary stages: A theatre beyond vainness and hasty conclusions, a theatre that takes its material seriously and is no longer subject to the primacies of narcissism or prefabricated ideas.
I think it is quite difficult if not impossible to perform “The Conquest of Mexico” 1:1 on a stage, since the question is how can you deal with the representation of something, that articulates a subjective space, which everybody has to discover – and create - for himself?
The basic idea of my proposal was to construct an interdisciplinary and hybrid media dispositive, where I can research this question in more detail: Constructing something between toy theatre, display cabinet and peepshow, a kind of miniature stage, where not only Artauds first theatrical examination of “Mexico” becomes re-enacted on a small scale as a model drama, but where – via various conjunctions and permanently changing perspectives - at the same time the general mimetic constitution of our thinking and its crisis is reflected.
“For if theatre doubles life, life doubles true theatre”, Artaud wrote in January 1936, two weeks after he had left Paris to travel to Mexico, and for sure his trip to this country was highly motivated by his permanent quest for this true theatre. What did Artaud expect to find in Mexico? Probably, he didn't know exactly, but the gap between what he had imagined and what he experienced couldn't have been much larger.
When I went to Mexico, it was exactly this tension, that I was looking forward to. To re-read Artaud's writings about Mexico in the country with the same name. To concentrate on one text, that deals in a poetic way with a historical situation (the Spanish conquest), which still has a huge impact to the local contemporary cultural and political situation.
The Mexico that I have experienced during the last few days, is really something that was totally beyond my imagination. Sitting most of the daytime on our roof-deck with view on a public plaza, I became kind of an spectator of a very irreal and distant Mexico. But how irreal and distant this Mexico might be at the moment, I can't deny that I am also a part of it. The third wall is simply missing (or at least porous). Whenever you see people coming down the streets with masks on their faces, whenever you hear the sounds of police, ambulance, helicopters or even coughing / sneezing people - quite normal in other days -, you become remembered of the vulnerability of your own body. Nobody seems to know how things will develop further, and this is something that makes at the moment all of us to spectators.
I can't help myself, but I am really happy whenever I see kids in the streets playing soccer or couples exchanging caresses (what seems to increase again). I am happy now about construction noises or if shop owners turn up their music (all restaurants and bars are closed since today) and people in the streets start to move to samples of latin or western pop music. At regular intervals I hear just for a couple of seconds the refrain line of the 007 Theme Song "The World is not enough". One of my neighbours seems to like especially this song.

I am sure, if this is over, the whole city will dance.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Reading Artaud in Mexico-City

In the context of the first "Mexico Scholarship for German Media Artists" (Werkleitz Centre for Media Arts, Goethe Institut Mexiko) i arrived on Monday evening, 20th of April 2009, in Mexico-City, where i will work 2 months at the Centro Multimedia del Centro Nacional de las Artes, developing the audiovisual installation "The Conquest of Mexico" after a text by French theatre avantgardist Antonin Artaud. After the first three days of basic orientation, where I was introduced to the different workshops of the Centro Multimedia - a wonderful institution dedicated to the development and reflection of New Media Arts -, and where I became an rough and impressive overview of prespanic Mexican culture in the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, the Mexican government announced on Thursday evening the national outbreak of a swine flu epidemic in Mexico-City, that soonly became described as a "public health emergency of international concern" by the World Health Organization. Official institutions, schools and universities in Mexico City became closed, Masses were canceled, and soccer plays had to be performed without audience in the stadiums. People in the streets and public transport systems try to avoid physical contact as well as huge gatherings, while police and members of the mexican army are instructed to identify and isolate possible infected people at the stations and the airport of the City. Locally you get the impression that the Mexican government does the best it can do in such a situation, but you can feel a certain helplessness in the city, since the people have no experience with a situation like this and do not know how to behave in these days. The shops, restaurants and bars are still open, sometimes you hear music from different corners, but the public spaces are said to be much more quiet than usually. Very often you see people with dropped masks in the streets, and you ask yourself if these cheap accessoires really have any other sense than appeasement.
For the last two days I decided to spent as much time as possible in my small appartment in the old cultural center of Mexico-City, that I share with Mexican artist and curator Eusebio Bañuelos, and from where i wait and see how things are developing further. We discussed a lot about the political situation in Mexico, and also about how paranoia and invisible menaces become major issues in the globalized world. Earlier this year I was supposed to be right now in Sana'a / Yemen, where we had been asked by the German embassy after the very good experiences in 2007 to realize again a site-specific installation in public space, this time to celebrate the 40th anniversary of German-Yemeni history and the 20th anniversary of the reunification in both countries. However, due to security reasons in February 2009 the German Federal Foreign Office canceled all outdoor projects in the area, and so I am right now sitting in Mexico-City, facing a completly different threat and paranoid situation, that also makes future developments quite unpredictable at the moment. At the moment I only go out to get some food in the supermarkets near the corner or for short evening walks, sitting most of the time on the roof-deck, reading, conceptualizing and planning about my proposed installation. I brought two books by Antonin Artaud with me, the Mexico-Volume edited by Luis Cardoza y Aragón, and his "The Theatre and Its Double" writings, and by closely reading them I try to make the best out of the actual situation...