Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Bearing Witness

A photo from the Lublin ghetto
In the city of Lublin, in Eastern Poland, in 1992, an avant-garde performance group called NN Theatre was given the use of the city's old Grodzka Gate.  One day an old lady came to see them.  She said she remembered living in the gate as a small child, kept hidden from the outside world.  She had no real knowledge of who she was, and no recollection of her parents.  She did recall that she had been smuggled away, and so she thought that she was probably a Jewish child, who had somehow been protected from the Nazis.

The young Poles who ran the theatre company were astonished and moved.  They had not known about the history of the building they occupied.  It turned out that it had also been known as "the Jewish Gate", and that it led from the old centre of Lublin to what had been the Jewish quarter of the city - an area that the Nazis had completely destroyed.  As a result of this encounter, the theatre company completely changed its course, and set about documenting the Jewish history of their space, so that today it is closer to a museum than a theatre. The Gate still has a performance space, and it is sometimes used - but NN Theatre is now primarily a witness to the horrific history in its locality.  The young man who showed Lucy and myself around the exhibition, and who works with this material every day, was visibly moved by much of what he told us.  To give just one example, there is a series of photographs of a young boy from Lublin during the 1930s - birthdays, holidays and parties - so powerful because they are so ordinary.  The last photograph shows him carefully groomed for his first day at school: it was September 1939.  After that, there is nothing.

The Holocaust hangs like a malignant smog over Poland.  Of the six million Jewish people killed in Europe, three million were Polish. The death camps were almost all in Poland: Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor, Chelmno. Lublin's closest camp was Majdanek.  At the start of the war, the city had 120,000 citizens, of whom 43,000 were Jewish.  Almost all of them were killed.

A few days earlier, I had visited the extraordinary Jewish Museum in Warsaw, called POLIN.  In a very different way from the Grodzka Gate, this is also a theatrical experience.  There are actually very few objects in this museum.  Rather, there are spaces to experience, stories to probe, projected imagery and concealed nuggets of text.  There is a reconstructed wooden synagogue of the 18th century, a little cinema screening Yiddish films of the 1920s, a reconstructed Warsaw street.  And, of course, towards the end there is the horrific material on the Holocaust.  In a narrow but high metal tank with rusted walls, there are graphic photos and accounts, on a very intimate scale, of the act of killing.

I found these exhibits almost unbearable - even more than at the Jewish Museum in Berlin.   Much of this emotional power derives from the long and detailed narrative that precedes the Holocaust section.  As POLIN's website explains: "We present 1000 years of Polish-Jewish coexistence, speaking of cooperation, rivalry and conflicts, autonomy, integration and assimilation. While seeking to confront thorny issues, we also bring attention to bright chapters in our common history."  The Jewish presence in Poland has been huge, ever since the early Middle Ages. POLIN makes much of the tolerance initiated by Bolesław III in the early 12th century, and his recognition of the economic advantages that would be brought by Jewish migrations into Poland.  The history is not always one of harmony, but it is one of cultural co-operation - what the EU would call "integration", as opposed to "assimilation".  The Jews remained Jewish and the Christians Christian - but they lived complementary lives.  In the early years of the Second Polish Republic, the centenary of which is being marked this year, the Jewish population was hopeful for a productive intercultural future.  "Fate has joined us with the Polish people for good", wrote Sholem Asch in his 1928 book Haynt (Today), "and our wishes and hopes belong to both nations, to one road, to a common bright future."

Both museums, in very different ways, offer narratives of hope, of peaceful coexistence, of cross-cultural understanding.  Above all, they bear witness to the horror that results from the dehumanising rhetoric of racism.  Why then, I found myself asking, has Poland moved so far to the political right in recent years?  Why has it become so notably intolerant of ethnic and cultural difference?  Why has the arrival of Syrian refugees in Europe triggered such consternation there, seeing the rise of a home-grown fascism?

There are no easy answers to this, of course - but I do wonder whether the pressing need to bear witness to the Shoah might not have had an unintended consequence in shifting the narrative.  Emphasising Polish history as an exemplar of tolerance through its Jewish past might serve to suggest a particularly deep relationship between a Polish society largely defined by its Catholicism, and a Jewish society also defined by a religion which shares many of the same scriptural roots.  The profound horror of the Polish experience under Nazi occupation might lead to a very understandable reluctance to criticise the state of Israel, with its foundation myth so rooted in the Shoah.  If modern Poland (and other countries in modern Europe) remains traumatised by the events of the early 1940s, then that may be one reason for the deep suspicion displayed towards Islamic cultures and people.  The Israeli state has a tendency to cast itself as a victim of Islamic aggression, and terror attacks by Islamist groups have helped feed the idea of a Judeo-Christian Euro-American world under assault from this inimical "Other".  A society that defines itself by its Catholic religion and its history of coexistence with Jewish people is very likely to be suspicious of Muslim migrations.

The witness that is borne to the Shoah is essential, of course - and so is the narrative of Polish and Jewish coexistence.  But we need to look for other narratives too.  Perhaps we need to bear witness to the remarkable policies of religious and cultural multiplicity practised under the Ottoman Empire.  Perhaps we need to revisit the dynamic and vibrant culture of Moorish Spain, where Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars and artists engaged in profound and productive cultural exchange.

Museums, theatres...  we have work to do.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Brexit and Democracy - A Reply to François Matarasso


Dear François

Thank you for taking the trouble to respond to my questions on Twitter in such depth and with such care.  We are, of course, in agreement on most of the key issues.  Like you, I am sure that the referendum was an appalling idea, and that the key to Parliamentary democracy is that complex questions have to be settled through complex processes of legislation - informed, nuanced processes - not reduced to a simple binary.  Like you, I find the persistence of the outmoded "First past the post" system absurd.  Like you, I am inclined to believe that the best chance of survival now is in the People's Vote campaign, although (like you) I do not feel that this second use of the referendum tool stands any chance of healing the wounds opened by the first, even if it does manage to halt the march over the cliff edge.  I would also be deeply concerned that such a Vote would confirm the creeping doctrine that a referendum is the highest form of democracy, trumping Parliamentary statute, rather than being subject to Parliamentary sovereignty.

Last week, my local MP wrote to her constituents about the People's Vote.  Her name is Joan Ryan, and she is a Labour MP, though significantly to the right of the current leader.  She asked us to return a form, in which we were asked to tick one of three boxes:
  • Yes, there should be a public vote on the final Brexit deal, just in case.
  • No, there shouldn't be a public vote and we should just get on with it, whether it's good or bad.
  • It's an interesting idea.  I'd like to know more about it.
"I'd like to know more about it."  Now, there's an argument for Parliamentary sovereignty rather than plebiscite if ever there was one....

Aside of the disingenuous language, this "voter consultation", or market research, is in effect a mini-referendum on a referendum.  It suggests to me that the root of this whole crisis is in the focus-group approach to democracy that was pioneered by Tony Blair: the idea that policy is just another consumer product, and that in order to "sell" it, you must first find out whether it appeals.  Cameron's appeal to "the people" as a ploy to outflank UKIP in the competition for "market share" was a logical continuation of this. But policy is not a consumer product, and representatives are not delegates.  Joan Ryan's attempt to muster some statistics on public opinion to back the People's Vote smacks of desperation - surely the democratic thing would be to argue in Parliament that such a vote is inherently desirable?

You say that the most compelling point I made on Twitter related to the illegal actions of the Leave campaign, but that "electoral law is quite often broken but that rarely leads to results being overturned".  That is true - but it isn't an argument against overturning the result in this case.  Only today, Tom Watson has called for a "Mueller-style investigation" into possible Russian interference in the referendum. Carole Cadwalladr's reporting on the manipulation of data by Leave has made it clear that this was a deeply anti-democratic campaign, indeed a corrupt and criminal campaign, and that it shared its principal actors with the Trump election campaign, which has this last week been proven criminal.  At the very least, this would seem to make a cast-iron case for the suspension of the Article 50 process pending a proper investigation into whether the basis on which Brexit is being conducted has any validity at all.

You referred to something you wrote in the immediate aftermath of the referendum result - and I find myself doing the same.  This dates from July 5th 2016, and I stand by it today.  The key points about democracy are towards the end of the piece.  In particular, I want to emphasise again the importance to democratic processes of considering significant minorities and their needs.  The Northern Irish dimension, which was completely ignored by both sides in the campaign, is now the biggest obstacle to a "deal" (another commercial term contaminating democratic political discourse).  Is it really "democratic" to force the province to lose the integration with the Republic that has brought peace to the island of Ireland, when the citizens of the province decisively voted against such a decision?

I agree with pretty much everything you say, François; but I can't go with you to the conclusion that "As a democrat, I have to accept Brexit, despite misgivings".  For me, as a democrat, I simply cannot accept it.

your friend
Michael

PS  I've matched your Fountains Abbey with Glastonbury.  Both casualties of a previous occasion when England decided to cut off ties from the continent.
"Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang."

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Multicultural Montréal

Présence Autochtone
I've just spent a week in Montréal, thanks to a grant from the British Council and the Québec Government, who are looking to build artistic and cultural collaborations.  It's a fascinating space for anyone working in intercultural and multicultural performance.  The Francophone Québecois, fiercely proud of their identity, clearly regard themselves as a minority with a drum to bang within the predominantly Anglophone Canada.  The Anglophones in Québec, in turn, are officially classed as a minority.  So that means the two dominant cultural groups are both minorities.  Which doesn't leave all that much room for the minority minorities.

I'd been to the city several times before, particularly to research indigenous work for ORIGINS, and the First People's Festival, Présence Autochtone, is a longstanding ally.  This year the Festival took advantage of my trip, and made me one of two visiting professionals to talk about our work (the other was Jerker Bexelius from the Southern Sámi Cultural Centre in Sweden).  As so often, there was some bemusement, even suspicion, from the indigenous audience as to why a British organisation should want to curate a Festival of indigenous cultures in London - a suspicion that soon disappears when they hear about the healing agenda in what we do, and the positive value constantly placed on the global indigenous movement.

As I spoke about the real need we have in the UK for the positive models that indigenous culture can offer, the Festival Director André Dudemaine remarked that this was like something Jean-Paul Sartre had said during the Algerian War: that the Algerians were not only fighting to free themselves from colonisation - but that they would also liberate the French.  A people cannot be free while it continues to oppress others.  It was a characteristically astute observation, and it also made me realise that, while many First Nations are quite resistant to the Québecois agenda, indigenous Francophones like André inevitably read their position in relation to a French discourse. Until then, I had always thought of the Festival's name as a simple statement of "We're still here" - but I now realise that it relates to a whole tradition of resistance to colonialism.  Présence Africaine, to which I now realise the name alludes, is a pan-African magazine, published in Paris since 1947.  As an exhibition at Montréal's Musée des Beaux Arts reminds me, it was crucial to the development of Négritude, and Picasso provided illustrations, working alongside Aimée Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor.  Sartre and Camus contributed too - even négritude was not separatist, and embraced its allies.

There are allies for the First Nations in Montréal too.  I got to meet Rahul Varma, a playwright and producer who runs Teesri Duniya Theatre (it means "Third World" in Hindi), and who set up the fascinating magazine alt.theatre.  Rahul's company produces a wide range of plays, characterised by a global perspective that links specific communities in Québec with the international.  That has included First Nations, as well as refugees, Palestinians, and people involved in both the Rwandan and Armenian genocides.  I met Johanna Nutter, who is working with First Nations visual artist Nadia Myre as a way to develop artistic practice and cultural reach for both of them.  I met Michael Toppings, whose organisation MAI offers space and support for a whole range of diverse artists.

And yet....   It feels like there's a very long way to go.  When André and Rahul talk about the very low levels of funding and press coverage they are able to access, it doesn't sound like sour grapes - it sounds real.  When the agenda of the provincial government is to promote what it regards as a minority (the Francophones), then it's much less likely to open up to other minorities.  There's no doubt that Montréal is a global, intercultural city - but its arts funding structure and its press don't really reflect that as yet.

I had a wonderful evening with Yves Sioui Durand and Catherine Joncas, the founding Artistic Directors of Ondinnok, who came to the very first ORIGINS Festival in 2009 to lead a workshop around their Theatre of Healing work.  Yves cooked salmon and wild mushrooms, and we talked about their astonishing work.  But they were also clearly under a cloud - and it was a cloud cast by two great Francophone theatre-makers who they had regarded as their allies and friends. They are also two theatre-makers whom I admire immensely, and have been privileged to meet and talk with over the years. Ariane Mnouchkine and Robert Lepage had decided to work together to create a piece called Kanata, in which the story of Canada's First Nations would be told.  The only thing was - there were no First Nations people involved, either on stage or in consulting roles.  There was, of course, a protest, and the production has now been cancelled.

For Yves and Catherine, it feels very personal.  Yves worked closely with Robert on his previous production about Edmund Kean and First Nations, Alanienouidet.  Yves and Catherine worked twice with Ariane at the Cartoucherie, helping her company in rehearsals, for example on Le Dernier Caravansérail.  I find it difficult to understand how two such creative and aware people, who already know First Nations artists of this calibre, could not have realised that people would be upset by their decisions.  I do not believe in essentialism - in the theatre or anywhere else: it is nonsense to say that only Chinese people can talk about China or African people about Africa.  But globalised, multicultural, post-colonial spaces require globalised, multicultural, post-colonial dialogues and collaborations in order to achieve the complex art that can reflect their kaleidoscopic realities.  It isn't enough for those of us from the former colonial powers and the settler communities who see ourselves as allies of the colonised to represent them and to tell their stories on our stages.  They will still be our stages, and the action of representation so comes to reinforce rather than undermine the imbalances of power.  Our stages, like our cities and our politics, have to be shared.

[Research trip supported by the British Council]

Monday, July 09, 2018

MORE THAN WORDS: Silence, presence and secret languages

Guest blog by Marieke Schippert
MORE THAN WORDS - London workshop
In March, my 9 year old son and I flew to London for a training in an international setting. It was named MORE THAN WORDS and was about finding ways of communicating with people without words, for example with people with whom we don’t share the same language. Some of the tasks were meant to be done in the city: listening to the sound of different districts and neighbourhoods, observing the body language of people there, and determining ways of communication without sharing the same language.

Silence

As a single mom, I had to bring my son to the training in London, and we performed the tasks in the city together. The first tour brought us to Tottenham. First of all, the buildings there spoke to us. They said, that the people there didn't have too much money, and not so much space. Many of them were drying their clothes out of their windows. The shops there said, that many people there were immigrants, who wanted to preserve parts of their lifestyle in their new home: we saw lots of shops that made us feel like being in African or Asian countries.

Soon after arriving in Tottenham, my son purposefully directed me to one of the centres of communication without words: the playground and sports area in the park.  In that park, there were different public sports facilities: a football field, a basketball court and some fitness devices. Two young adults were playing football, without talking to each other. My son wanted to play as well, so he moved closer and closer to them, until one of them kicked the ball in his direction, inviting him to play. They communicated perfectly without words.

Another young man was shooting hoops on the basketball court. He was very good at it. Some admirers stood by and watched him play. They as well communicated very well without words - he knew, that they admired him, and they knew, that he appreciated them watching.

In the fitness area, there were several different people using the fitness equipment. Very diverse people of different ages, from very young to quite old, different skin colors, singles and couples, men and women. Together, they performed an act of ballet: Without talking, they freed the fitness devices and changed from one to another in perfect harmony, sensing the wishes of the others. Specially two people, a couple, seemed to know each other for a very long time - they were in perfect harmony and matched perfectly. They had a routine they performed without talking at all. They always changed the devices at the same time, did the exercises in the same rhythm. The communication between these people was just like a dance routine.

No wonder people, who work with refugees, often use sports as a means of coming together, getting into contact and achieving something together. Sport is one of the best, most efficient ways of communicating without words.

Presence

While we were in the park, school finished, and the pupils came out of a school nearby. Many of them crossed the park to go to the subway or to catch a bus. The girls were walking two by two, close together, talking quitly with one another. The boys were walking two by two as well - but talking very loudly, shouting all over the place, sometimes walking with great distance between them, expanding their conversation over half of the park.

Even if I couldn't understand their words, I could still read their body-language. And that language is gendered, influenced by gender roles. The girls were saying: "We better stick together and don't take up too much space!" and "We‘d better not attract too much attention on us!", while the boys were saying "I/We own this place!".

Their behaviour told me a lot about the society they live in. I understood, that men and women are not equal, that men are allowed to take up way more space than women, and that they are taught from a very young age on, that they rule the world. Girls are taught to hold back, to be pleasant and to admire the boys. The society they live in must be fundamentally gender biased.

Another presence that marked my son and me very much was the presence of Black people in London. Coming from Berlin/Germany, we were in awe. My son is Black, I am White. In Germany, even in Berlin, we are very often stared at. People keep asking themselves how we are related. My son gets stared at, touched without even asking and asked a lot about his Blackness. He was overwhelmed when we were in Brixton, waiting outside the subway for a friend. He was amazed by the great number of Black people that came out of the subway – they were the majority! That is an experience that he never makes in public German spaces (only in empowerment settings). He loved seeing so many Black people in the subway in general, and also finding them in very different professions in London. Their presence was very empowering to him.

The presence of Black people in London versus their presence in Berlin tells a lot about racism and postcolonial relations. For us foreigners, the situation in London seemed a bit better than in Berlin, but many housing areas still seemed quite segregated, which shows how both societies are still fundamentally structured by racism.

Secret Languages

In Tottenham, we went into a little café. Inside, there were two men speaking an african language, two men speaking french, and two men speaking a slavic language. As they all spoke different languages at their tables, they were able to have a very intimate ambience while talking. My son and I spoke German, which seemed to be unusual to the others, since they looked quite a lot at us. But we, as well, had our intimate language. It still matters a lot, what language you speak - the reactions vary very much depending on what counts as "normal" in that area, and what prejudices people have about people speaking your language. In general, speaking French for instance provokes other reactions than speaking an African language in a public space. These reactions are racially biased. These biased reactions are a very powerful way of communicating without words – most of the micro-aggressions linked to racism and other forms of discrimination are exercised without saying a single word. Looks and body language are more than enough to be very clear about what a person thinks about someone else. As we get more an more conscious about racism and discrimination in general, people often start taking care about the things they are saying – but we should focus as much on our general expression and body language. They are way more unconscious and direct ways of communicating and reflect what we really think, even if we don’t say it.

Body language and the tone of the voice are secret languages that also told me al lot about the people in that café in Tottenham. Even if I couldn’t understand what these pairs were saying, I still got to know a lot about them. First of all, that they had some relation to a country in which a different language was spoken. Their way of speaking, their voice, and their attitude, told me a lot about them : How they were feeling, a little about their character, and something about the relationship between them and their counterpart. I could also get some information about what kind of topics they were discussing, or at least, what the topic meant to them emotionally. For example, it was easy to tell, if they were discussing work topics, private topics, leisure topics or if they were fighting. It got very clear, if the topic was serious and very important to the person, if it was emotionally charged, or if it was a light topic.

Without words, we can understand very important things: emotions, relation and intentions. What’s lacking, is the concrete theoretical content. We maybe can’t discuss very theoretical issues without a common language. But we can use emotions, relation an our intentions to communicate in a very profound way. That means, that we need to get involved in a different way that what we mainly see as a professional relationship when we work with refugees for example. We need to go into a relation with them, show and share our emotions, and be clear in our intentions. On that basis, understanding will be easy. We also need to reflect the basis of our work and be very self-aware and self-scrutinizing about our own biases and prejudices. That is the foundation for going into an open, un-biased and true relation and communication.

Marieke Schippert works with NARUD - an African community organisation in Berlin.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Controlling the Narrative

The Town Hall Affair
In the week that saw Robert Lepage's new production SLĀV closed in the face of accusations of racism, I want to explore some of the underlying issues which may be leading to the wave of protests sweeping over intercultural performances recently.  SLĀV is far from the first production by a white male director to be condemned in this way.  Think of The Orphan of Zhao,  In the Depths of Deep Love, and Exhibit B.  In most of these cases, the question of casting to race (or not) has been central -  but Exhibit B had an entirely black cast, and was still widely (and in my view very unfairly) denounced as the racist work of a white director.  The question seems to me not only who performs a role, but, perhaps more crucially, who controls the narrative.

The question has been at the heart of three very remarkable productions I've seen over the last few weeks.  In The Town Hall Affair, the Wooster Group reproduce the famous 1971 “Dialogue on Women’s Liberation”, chaired by the pugnacious novelist Norman Mailer.  Or rather, they reproduce the documentary film called Town Bloody Hall, produced by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, and released in 1979.  In the play, excerpts from this film (and from Mailer's own vanity movie, starring himself as a film director running for President) are played on screen, while the actors synchronise the dialogue, right down to the ers, ums and coughs.  The effect is at once very funny and deeply disconcerting.  It points up that, just as Mailer, Germaine Greer and Jill Johnston battled for control of the evening through the use (or subversion) of the conventional structures of a panel discussion (and the production redresses the balance by allowing Johnston the last word that Mailer had not admitted); so the filmed record, just by being a mediated record, has itself become the narrative.  By reproducing the dialogue of the film, the Wooster Group dispute its absolute authority.  As Theodor Adorno argued, in mimesis there is a kind of doubling - a hint that the "reality" of the "real" (or here, of the accepted narrative, which is perhaps the closest we can come to the "real") is not absolute.  By exposing the performed nature of the "real", they suggest the potential for alternatives - other ways of doing things.

Lady Eats Apple
Back to Back Theatre's Lady Eats Apple also disrupts and disputes a received narrative - in this case, the book of Genesis.  There are two gods - one played by a learning disabled actor, one not.  The god played by the learning disabled actor creates a man and a woman - also played by learning disabled actors.  He says that they are perfect.  He also says that they are not very intelligent.  In the play's final act, this Adam and Eve, expelled from Eden to become cleaners in the vast space of the Barbican auditorium, take tentative, delicate steps towards an intimate relationship.  They also try to revive the god played by the neuro-normative actor: but he is dead.  Of course he is.  We can't rely on the old myths any more - we have to re-create ourselves in our own image.

Fatherland
In Fatherland, another superb LIFT show at the Lyric Hammersmith, these questions are applied to our own country, and to personal relations between fathers and sons.  Subtitled Songs and stories from a forgotten England, the play endeavours, through staging verbatim interviews, to find a theatrical space for working-class men from the North of England.  These are voices we rarely hear on our stages - "I've never even been in an effing theatre before" says one interviewee - and have rarely heard in our political spaces either.  Until, of course, the Brexit referendum, which another character calls "an opportunity to kick Westminster in the bollocks."  The tensions between the men portrayed in the play and the men who made it are palpable - and deliberately not resolved.  If theatre aims to "give voice", does that not suggest that somehow "voice" is something in the gift of theatre-makers?  Does our control of "voice" and "narrative" not undermine our intention to disturb and challenge?  Are we not every bit as much part of the status quo as the political system we think we are battling?  As one of the characters in Fatherland says to the author and directors: "You're going on a little daytrip to get ideas and make it seem like you really care about what life is like here for people like me....    and you don't.  You just don't."


Monday, June 04, 2018

Imperious spaces

Hellerau
A couple of weeks ago, I was in Germany for a meeting on our MORE THAN WORDS project, and took the opportunity to pop down to Dresden, where Avatâra Ayuso was showing her extraordinary new dance piece UKI - a collaboration with Ink elder Naulaq Ledrew.  I'll probably have more to say about the performance at a future time - today I want to write a bit about the theatre itself, and some thoughts it stirred around space, history and culture.

Hellerau is on the outskirts of Dresden.  Travelling there does not feel like a journey to a major European arts space: the suburb sits within a forest, and is deliberately not "urban".  It was built in the early 20th century, as Eastern Germany's version of the Garden City movement - with the vast Festival Theatre incongruously surrounded by rather twee, Hansel-and-Gretel style workers cottages. The theatre site, on the other hand, is vast and imposing.  It reminded me of the Cartoucherie in Paris - partly because of its sheer scale and the resonance of workmanlike celebration in the spaces, and partly because, like that disused ammunition factory, it carries a military history.  That's good for a theatre - these are spaces where explosions should happen...  

In the case of Hellerau, however, engaging with the history remains a challenge, to say the least.  The theatre's website coyly remarks: "in the 1930s it served as a military camp; later the Soviet army used it as their barracks."  The 1930s were, of course, the Nazi era - and it's clear how the combination of the theatre's austere and imposing facade and its folksy surroundings made it deeply appealing to deranged nationalism.  The open space in front of the theatre used to be called "Adolf Hitler Platz".  Of course, that name no longer features on any map, but the space has never been re-named, and so suffers from an uneasy anonymity.

Has Germany really come to terms with its past?  These days, the discourse around Nazism is deafening in its silence.  It was an attempt to confront that past that led to the Baader- Meinhof Gang, and (more productively) to much of the disturbing power in the drama of Heiner Müller and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.  Gerhard Richter (himself from Dresden) uses his art to tackle the deliberate suppression of memory in German culture.  Otherwise, all you see are a few ghosts - the little bronze plaques that mark the last sightings of German Jews in the streets of Berlin, the Jewish Museum, bizarre survivors like the Olympic Stadium.  Hellerau is full of ghosts - and to my mind it would be a much more powerful and evocative arts space if it were to embrace that, rather than rebuilding everything to a de-historicised, virginal blankness.  I would love to see it preserve the military "look", the imposing vastness of the square that threatens to become a car park, the peeling plaster on the outer walls of the former barracks walls.  In such a space of memory the wonderful progressive initiatives of the theatre - its Refugee Arts Centre, its Intercultural Garden - would acquire deeper meaning and resonance, being located in a continuum with history.  I can see it is uncomfortable to maintain that past - but it is actually what gives energy and hope to the present and the future.

Translations
I was still mulling these thoughts when I went to see Brian Friel's great play Translations at the National Theatre.  The reviews for this production have been adulatory, and justifiably so.  Translations remains one of the greatest plays about the process of colonisation - the way in which systems of oppression are established in the minds of the oppressed, partly by a discourse of superiority, but also by a wiping out of language, of history, and so of identity.  In my mind, it sat with Hellerau in a ying and yang relation - if oppression is made through the obliteration of folk memory, then might not that process be just as dangerous when applied to the oppressor?

The National's decision to present the play is laudable for precisely that reason.  It is the second time in recent years that a great post-colonial play, a theatre piece striking back against our country's imperial history, has been staged in the Olivier Theatre (the first was Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman).  I can see the reasoning - and yet somehow the vastness of the Olivier space, its sheer imperial bombast, its architecture of national arrogance, militated against the play's attitude of delicate resistance on a human scale.  Translations is set in a hedge school - a space that is theatrically powerful in relation to the invading army precisely because it is small and poor.  And the most effective response to the army does not come from anger or (offstage) violence, but through the cultural engagement followed by the schoolmaster Hugh and the emotional engagement of the "peasant" Máire.  It's one of the play's many provocative ironies that Máire views the English language, and her burgeoning love for the English Lieutenant Yolland as a means of potential escape into a "modern" world; while Yolland responds to the "authentic" and "natural" world that Ireland and Máire seem to present to him.  Their great scene of mutual comprehension and incomprehension - when Máire the "uneducated" switches from Irish to Latin in an attempt to communicate and the "educated" colonist doesn't even realise she has done so - is played with great delicacy and warmth; but I couldn't help feeling that its point was intimacy and physical proximity, and that the scale of the theatre was expressing almost exactly the political opposite of the play.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

With Teatro dell'Argine in Bologna


It was Friday afternoon in Bologna’s Contemporary Art Museum, MAMbo.  We were clustered around a pair of huge photographs – an artwork by the Albanian migrant artist Adrian Paci, who now lives in Italy.   Francesca, the facilitator, was asking us to describe what we saw.  Some people commented on the huge effort the artist (whose photographic artwork is a self-portrait) was making to carry the inverted roof on his back.  Some mentioned the pain that must result from the rope that tied it around him.  Others mentioned the strange coldness of the studio space which held him, and others again his near-nudity.  “He’s wearing a diaper,” commented Ann Birot-Salsbury, with a characteristic combination of American directness and European irony.  Slowly we began to reach towards more nuanced and informed, but also more subjective responses.  Wasn’t Bologna full of images in which near naked, bearded men in “diapers” were shown as suffering?  Was the shape of the inverted roof like the wings of an angel?  Or of Icarus?  If this was Icarus, in what sense might he be flying too near to the sun?  Were the photographs perhaps an allegory of the refugee situation in Italy – a man carries his home on his back, tied to him like cultural baggage – and flies too close to a perceived source of light and energy.  None of these responses was “right” or “wrong” – and they said as much about the people making them as they did about the artwork.

This approach, Francesca explained, was the way she engaged groups of learners - whether those were schoolchildren, students, migrants or refugees – with the museum’s collections.  She then led us into the next stage of her workshop process, asking each of us to create through drawing and writing a “suitcase” that we would carry with us on a metaphorical journey – a case that contained an object, a memory, a place, a person and a meal.  Given that we had been thinking about and talking to refugees all week, the exercise proved astonishingly challenging and moving.  It was not simply an exercise in constructing a personal or cultural self, a sense of identity: it was also an exercise about loss.  In choosing what (or who) to take on a voyage, you are forced to contemplate how much you will leave behind.

This brilliant and simple workshop, based on visual art, exemplified what for me is emerging as the strongest element in THE PROMISED LAND project – the need to develop a pedagogy that recognises and embraces subjectivity and viewpoint as necessary and productive attributes of cultural difference; and so celebrates learning as a creative process, which unlocks and reveals new ideas beyond the existing knowledge of either the learner or the facilitator.  This approach was not only seen in Francesca’s workshop, but also through the working practice of our host organisation in Bologna, Teatro dell’Argine, whose development of drama through games and improvisation ran as a constant thread through the training week.  I particularly responded to a game in which the participants were given a hoop, which was used as a mobile window: the person holding the hoop at any moment “seeing” something through it, and responding to it with words, movements and sounds that are followed by the rest of the group in chorus.  On the Thursday evening, we were able to see the developing outcomes of such practice, when we attended a rehearsal of a new production based on the myth of the Tower of Babel, performed by Argine’s ESODI group of young people, which includes a high proportion of refugees and migrants.  The extraordinary levels of openness and trust which the company had unlocked in these insecure and potentially traumatised young people was a joy to behold: the sense of welcome and safety in the room extended to us, as a group of outsiders, accepted into their warm-up games with eye contact, physical contact and deep emotional warmth.  This combination of playfulness and trust was the key to the creative energy we witnessed and experienced that evening.

These thoughts were given focus through the brilliant framing talk we were given by Simona Bodo.  Developing the ideas behind the MAMbo workshop (which she attended with us as a participant), Simona suggested an antithesis between a culture of CONSERVATION and one of CONVERSATION – with the implication that European cultural and educational institutions need to respond to the changing demographics of the populations they serve by making a shift away from a paradigm that privileges the preservation and passing on of existing knowledge and towards one that uses culture as a resource for creative interaction.  HERITAGE, she suggested, needs to be questioned as a concept: it suggests that history and culture are somehow owned by virtue of birth, whereas the current moment of post-coloniality, cosmopolitanism and mass migrations suggests a need to engage in the global interconnectivity of cultural production, of the art and artefacts held in museums, of the texts and myths that become contested spaces in the dynamic theatre of the 21st century.  If we discard HERITAGE and embrace HISTORY as narrative, process and conversation, then we are opening ourselves to learning, to dynamism and to democracy in its fullest sense.

Simona Bodo’s talk also drew off the work of Naomi Klein in relation to the rhetoric of crisis.  To portray something as a crisis, argues Klein, permits the holders of the narrative (particularly governments) to ignore underlying and ongoing causalities, to suspend legal and moral obligations, and to generate a climate of fear and hatred.  This echoed the words of Chiara De Carlo, who works with the refugees living at Opera Padre Marella (OPM).   In Italy, she told us, the rhetoric of a “refugee crisis” has been employed to shift policy and undermine legal process, effectively denying refugees their human rights as defined in the Universal Declaration 1948, and (specifically to refugees) the Geneva Convention 1951.  That sounds very abstract and legalistic – but when talking to Paul (name changed to protect identity), a young man from Nigeria living at OPM, it became a flesh and blood reality.  Paul had been a professional football player in his home country, but had fled after a violent event, possibly involving the deaths of his parents, had traumatised him (1).  He crossed the Sahara, and came to Italy on an over-crowded boat.  In a way he was one of the lucky ones – he was housed in a caring and nurturing home at OPM, and had the chance to act with ESODI and to play football.  But he had also experienced racism and violence around the game, and, after two years, he is no further down the path of acquiring refugee status or knowing whether he will be able to remain in Europe. 

Paul is being held in a limbo outside social narrative or cultural engagement.  
He is being objectified – not empowered. 
Conserved – not conversed with.  
He is not a statistic in a crisis, but a young man who has experienced deep suffering and loss.
He is also resilient, determined and moral.  
Our European societies can only benefit from honouring the contribution he can make.  
*
I wrote this piece as a report for our steering group on THE PROMISED LAND - and there will be more about the week on the project blog soon, from the viewpoint of one of our German partners.  But I felt I needed to publish this today, in the light of the news from Italy.  The President may have prevented the populist parties from appointing a Finance Minister who wants to leave the Euro - he has not intervened to stop the appointment of an Interior Minister who wants to deport asylum seekers and migrants.  Matteo Salvini's declared intention to deport 500,000 "illegal" migrants presents an immediate threat to people like Paul, whose cases have not been decided, and whose well-being, safety, possibly even lives, are in great danger if they are returned to what Salvini terms "home".  The policy is in clear breach of the Geneva Convention, and it is essential that the international community, particularly the EU, insist on the rule of law.  

(1) I should point out that this information was offered spontaneously by Paul in conversation with two of us, and was not elicited in any way.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Pocahontas and After



Two images, each showing two young women dressed to show their culture, their pride, their sense of self.  The first image dates from 1907, and shows The Misses Simeon, from the Stoney-Nakoda people of Western Canada, photographed by Byron Harmon.  The second was taken a couple of months ago by John Cobb in Marlborough School, West London, and shows a pupil of Iraqi heritage called Rose Al Saria, pictured with her sister.  It was Rose who chose the particular archive image as the basis for her self-portrait, and who conceptualised the way it would be configured and posed.

This pair of photos is just one example in Border Crossings' exhibition Pocahontas and After, currently on show at Syon House in Brentford, until at least June 2nd.  The exhibition - which people have been saying is as thought-provoking as it is visually stunning - represents the culmination of a sustained period of education and community work, beginning with the ORIGINS Festival last summer.  During the Festival, we not only held a ceremony for three indigenous women to commemorate Pocahontas at Syon, where she had stayed in the summer of 1616: we also brought indigenous artists into direct contact with the diverse communities around the House, in the two Primary Schools where they led workshops and study sessions, in the wonderful CARAS refugee group, and through our network of committed and energetic festival volunteers.  In the following months, a distilled group from each of these partners has been working closely with heritage experts from the archives, Native American cultural consultants, and our own artistic staff to explore the ways in which Native American people have been presented in the past.


Their journeys into the archives have been rich and challenging.  What we think of as "realistic" photographs of indigenous people often turn out to be nothing of the kind.  Edward Curtis, for example, apparently carried a chest of "authentic" costumes and props with him, which he used in his photographs to recreate the life of "the vanishing race" as he imagined it may have been in some pre-contact Romantic idyll.  In other words, the archive photos are often about the photographer and the viewer, far more than they are about the subject.


As our volunteers came to realise this, they became more and more assertive of the need for agency in contemporary portraiture.  Complex and fascinating decisions started to be made, placing the generation of meaning in the bodies of the people photographed.  One subject, Inés Achabal, showed her tattooed back, with its macaws symbolising her home city of Caracas, in response to Curtis's "bon savage archetype" in his 1909 image of an Arikara girl.  For an indigenous Samoan living in London, Sani Muliaumaseali'i, a 1914 image of a mask dancer from the Pacific North-West provided links to his own complex and multi-layered persona.

What I love about this exhibition is that the meaning generated does not reside in one image or the other within the pair - but is rather in the energising of the space between, the dialogue between past and present, between different cultures, between human beings portrayed in different ways.  It seems to me to be at once of way of honouring the indigenous subjects portrayed in the archive photographs, and of reinventing the form that was often too reductive in its attempts to categorise them.

Thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund for supporting this project.  Photos from the British Library and the Library of Congress.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Training Weeks

More Than Words - photo by Julia Slominska
The last two weeks have been spent in workshop rooms.  Not developing a new show.  Not engaging a community.  Not even training people for a specific artistic project.  It's just been a wonderful, open opportunity to exchange ways of working and the ideas behind our approach with like-minded people from across Europe.  What a great thing Erasmus + funding is.  How silly we would be to lose it....

Our first week was the Theatre Training for the MORE THAN WORDS project, so the room was filled with Italian clowns, Hungarian dance therapists, Polish performers, architects and photographers, German academics and community workers....  and so on!  The fact that not everybody starts from a performing arts viewpoint is challenging, of course - but also wonderfully liberating, in that theatre practice starts to be seen from different perspectives, including by ourselves as "trainers".  I found myself connecting a lot of the exercises we use for devising plays with ideas about architectural space, social space, and therapeutic needs.  Involving people from other sectors in a workshop helps to pull you out of the "theatre box" - to see theatre as a wider, socially responsible force.

MORE THAN WORDS emphasises non-verbal approaches, because it's to do with working across cultures, often when there is no common language.  Because this week was focussed on training the trainers, there needed to be some conversations and reflections - but the purest moments were the ones that moved away from this into movement, music and imagery.  As the first partner to offer this training, we had the tricky job of defining parameters - but I think that was done clearly enough for the subsequent work to build on what's been achieved so far.


Last week was also about Applied Theatre, with a group of Italian practitioners joining us to learn how theatre techniques can move into social spaces to empower communities.  Because that covers such a multitude of practices, we alternated the week between practical exercises drawn from our own cross-cultural work, and engaging with other artists who approach performance in different ways.  Hannah Conway led a workshop on music for Applied Theatre, and Kelly Hunter took the group through her extraordinary methods that use Shakespeare as a way to develop creativity with autistic children.  Dave Carey of Chickenshed showed the group some examples of how that theatre has made changes in the lives of disabled children, children in the care system, and young people at risk of offending.  It was incredibly affirming of the form and what it can achieve socially...

At the same time - I always worry about making a case for theatre that sounds too instrumental.  It's not because theatre can affect social good that it needs to exist - it's because it IS social good.  Just trying to make sure that remains at the forefront of all these discussions.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

De-colonising the colony, de-colonising the market

The Stiff Gins
Last week saw me back in Brisbane, for the third (and last) edition of APAM to be held there.  It was, as in 2014 and 2016, an incredibly rich source of inspiration for the next ORIGINS.  For one thing, it was a wonderful chance to re-connect with many of the artists and companies who have been to the festival in the past, and friends whose advice has been useful along the way: Rachael Maza of Ilbijerri, Rachael Swain from Marrugeku, Merindah Donnelly from Blak Dance, Wesley Enoch, Rhoda Roberts, Amber Curreen, Ali Murphy-Oates, Jack Gray from Atamira, Andrea James, Jacob Boehme, Louise Potiki Bryant, Tanemahuta Gray from Taki Rua....   and no doubt many more in the blur of the week!  It's also very valuable to hear them say how important ORIGINS has been for them, and to learn from new people I've not met before how the festival's reputation has grown across the indigenous world.  It matters that we do this.

APAM's indigenous representation has grown dramatically during its time in Brisbane, and not only in terms of indigenous Australians.  This year, there was an entire First Nations Exchange, with people from New Zealand, Canada, Taiwan, Mexico and Norway.  There is a clear sense of a global movement to de-colonise the arts, and to assert the value of indigenous culture.  It feels very important to be part of that.

At the same time, the week raised questions about just where we sit within the global indigenous movement.  In the wake of the Australia Day protests last month, there was a palpable sense of anger from some of the indigenous artists present - an anger that is entirely justified while their people remain so totally dispossessed of their lands and the wealth they contain.  It's one thing for the world to value indigenous arts - it is quite another for it to set right historic injustices.  Until there is a real move towards genuine equality - including economic and political equality - the anger will, quite rightly, remain.

And this has implications for the arts.  In his keynote talk, Jacob was very frank about the way in which enduring power structures continue to marginalise indigenous artists.  It was a speech that felt uncomfortable for any white person involved in presenting indigenous culture.  Including me.  We have to ask whether we are simply perpetuating an exoticisation of the "Other" - whether just by following the structures whereby we pay money to indigenous artists to perform, we may perhaps be complicit in neo-colonialism.  At APAM's closing event, Rachael Maza read out a declaration from the First Nations Exchange, stating that APAM should not continue to be a market, but should be re-configured to follow the preferred mode of operation in indigenous cultures - a model based on developing long-term collaborative relationships, rather than on cultural production being turned into a commodity that can be bought and sold.  At the same event, the young Canadian First Nations artist Moe Clark made an impassioned case to de-colonise the marketplace, stating that the songs and stories of indigenous people are the lifeblood of the culture, and cannot be bought and sold, reproduced and mass-produced.

They are, of course, quite right.

So ORIGINS also needs to ensure that its programming is not conducted on a colonial, commercial model.  We need to maintain the deep relationships we have developed with indigenous artists, companies and elders, and to cultivate new ones.  We need to ensure that the indigenous people themselves are full engaged with the question of why something should be programmed in London - what it will mean in that space, and how it will speak to that audience.  If we are sharing their cultural productions because we want to affect change in our own society, then we need them to share that desire.  If we bring them to London as an act of healing - then we need to know that they want that act to happen.

Perhaps we have always known this in some way.  But it matters to write it down.  To be clear about the equality at the base of what we are doing.  To recognise how programming puts our values into action, and cannot be watered down.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

The Promised Land - Adana. Guest Blog by Eleanor Brown (CARAS)

Lucy Dunkerley meets Syrian women in Adana 
After a week spent in Adana, Turkey, it’s time to distil some thoughts. It was the beginning of a two year Erasmus + project led by the remarkable theatre company, Border Crossings. CARAS has had a long-term partnership with them, sharing skills, experience and enthusiasm for working with people from all over the world. During January, I went with them as a volunteer, exploring the situation for Syrian refugees who have crossed the Turkish border, and considering ways to place that within a wider context.

Adana is a beautiful place - a golden yellow train station standing in a square surrounded by fluttering flags strung between lampposts and date palms, orange trees heavy with fruit lining every street, poinsettias grown to glorious shrubs showing off their deep red foliage and putting Christmas window-sill versions to shame; streets that fill with the smell of grilled aubergine and kebap as night falls, hookah cafes with apple scented tobacco smoke on the air; and mosques dating back to the 1500s, calls to prayer rolling and echoing between Turkish delight shops, market stalls, and clouds of swooping pigeons. There are shops with stacks of functional, everyday pottery; baskets of herbs; furniture makers; and street cats galore. There’s a great, turquoise river that curves through it all, and a back drop of snow-capped mountains towering in the near distance. It feels like the sort of place that gets on with things without much fuss.

We were a group of academics, business people, theatre practitioners, educators, writers, students and NGO workers, all sharing our understanding and experience of the current refugee crisis. During our time together we began to understand the specific legal context of Turkey, the migration routes of refugees to Turkey and beyond, and to think deeply about how we each respond to the opportunities and challenges this brings.

Finding shared ground with refugees wasn’t hard: swapping plant names with Kurdish park gardeners (poinsettia is ‘Attaturk çiçeği’, orange is ‘portakal’, and crocus is ‘çiğdem’); talking to Bushra, a young Syrian woman striving to learn Turkish to pass the entrance exam to university, who declared a love of Shakespeare; and meeting Fatima, a shy three-year-old who liked counting and loved her dad. These are the ordinary, exceptional people who become refugees, bounced between systems that are confusingly complex and disempowering, navigating an unplanned new path, and hoping for home.

In the NGOs ‘Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants’ and ‘Support to Life’ we heard stories about the current situation: informal tent settlements dotted throughout the city, the challenges of supporting a transient population making a meagre living through migrant agricultural labour, tension between local and new populations and concern about rising costs of living for all, and the challenges of supporting children traumatised by spending their early years in a war. Amongst workers, there were familiar narratives of resilience and hope finding their way through a context of limited resources and restricted options, and a drive to raise awareness and bring about change with compassion, hard work, and front-line action.

Coming back to London and life at CARAS helps to create a wider context. In Turkey, we were with people at the start of one of the world’s huge forced migration routes. Many Syrians will remain in Turkey under temporary protection, and some might seek citizenship eventually, but for others their migration will continue. Some will be granted third-country resettlement in EU nations, some will ultimately consider it safe enough to return home, and others will make their own way via informal networks through Europe to reach a place that feels safe to them; others still will achieve their ambitions, gaining well paid employment and opening up opportunities again: Abdullah wants to continue his medical studies and be a heart surgeon, Burhan is an engineer, and Roshan is aiming to continue her career as a researcher in biochemistry.

Crossing the vast distance that is Turkey by air, seeing snowing mountains and plains, patchworked fields, a blue expanse of coast dotted with islands, rivers and power-stations, hilltop wind-farms, tiny villages and the great metropolis that is Istanbul brought home just how far people flee in order to feel safe. It’s not just Syrians crossing into neighbouring countries, but Afghans embarking on enormous overland journeys, sub-Saharan Africans crossing the harsh expanses of desert and the treacherous Mediterranean sea, everyone driven by fear and nurturing an aspiration to reach a place that allows them to live freely and safely.

People we meet in London are sometimes at the end of their journey, although some will have applications refused and will continue to be moved. The context in the UK is very different too- we are not experiencing a mass humanitarian crisis on the scale that Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Italy and Greece are. But we are working with the same human needs for connection, advice, access to support, and recognition of trauma and the ongoing impacts of forced migration. We face similar myths and stigma about asylum seekers being given better support than others (have a look at these for some myth-busting: asylum accomdation and asylum support payment report), and an ‘othering’ of refugees that prevents people meeting connecting on a human level.

As this project continues, there will be time to consider alternative responses, how we work together across sectors and throughout the EU, and to deepen our understanding of a whole host of human experiences. Stay with us. Follow the story. Next stop: Bologna.

Read more on the dedicated PROMISED LAND blog.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Power and Abuse

Vicky Featherstone
The year begins with the news that Vicky Featherstone - Artistic Director of the Royal Court - is the "most powerful person in British Theatre".  At least according to The Stage, which publishes an annual list of the "top 100".  In all fairness, I should say that it uses the term "influential", rather than "powerful': but the fundamental point would still seem to be that these are the people who can make and break careers.  Which makes it feel rather paradoxical when you look at the reasons behind the choice of Vicky for the "top spot".  Almost all the coverage, and the judges' own citations, are about the stand she took on sexual harassment in the theatre, in the wake of the scandals around Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Max Stafford-Clark etc.  Surely the whole point of these scandals was that they centred on men in positions of "power" (or "influence", if you prefer - theatre careers often develop through "influence"), who made use of those positions for their own sexual gratification?  Surely, if this calls anything into question, it is the very existence of the power structures that make this behaviour not only possible but endemic?

What Vicky did in response to the scandal seemed to me the opposite of "powerful".  She made the space of the Royal Court available for people to speak with impunity about their experiences.  She then made an ill-judged decision to pull Rita, Sue and Bob Too out of the Royal Court's programme on the grounds of its vague association with Max Stafford-Clark - a decision that she then reversed in response to public criticism.  I think she was right to reverse the decision; and that it takes a lot of bravery to admit, so very publicly, to having made an error of judgement.  Is that "powerful"?  Not in any conventional sense.  You wouldn't catch Harvey Weinstein backing down in public, would you?

And this seems to me to go to the heart of it.  Theatre should not be about "power" and "influence" at all.  It should be about talent, creativity, collaboration, and a sensitive, nuanced response to the complexities of the current moment. Such responses are achieved through open discussion and considered debate, not through "executive decisions". My friend Donatella Barbieri gave me a copy of Mary Beard's Women and Power for Christmas - and it's worth quoting at length:

"[We are] still treating power as something elite, coupled to public prestige, to the individual charisma of so-called 'leadership', and often... to a degree of celebrity.  [We are] also treating power very narrowly, as an object of possession that only the few - mostly men - can own or wield...  On those terms, women as a gender - not as some individuals - are by definition excluded from it.  You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure.  That means thinking about power differently.  It means decoupling it from public prestige.  It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers and not just of leaders."

This is how theatre works when it is truly meaningful, and not just a career ladder to pointless stardom.  But the journey towards that new and better way of the art form operating in society will not be helped by the perpetuation of The Stage's "power list".  Let's just scrap it, shall we?

And brava Vicky Featherstone, for suggesting better ways.