Monday, June 04, 2018

Imperious spaces

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.

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.