Ahead of our Being European: Before the Referendum festival on 18 June, Sam from Acheulian Theatre talks to us about where theatre is at in Germany right now and where European theatre is going next
From radical conservatism to radical new forms via #normcore: Theatertreffen 2016
- RADICAL CONSERVATISM
‘I have a question: why is everything here so conservative?’
Onstage, the jury bristles. German theatre is renowned for inventiveness, vitality and rigour. Theatertreffen is its biggest showcase. ‘Extremely ill-informed,’ the jury concludes. The question comes from a young Swiss artist. She persists. Why is there not more diversity? The jury is indignant. ‘Theatertreffen is about city theatre. City theatres work for the city. German city theatres are not responsible to the rest of the world.’ It’s a display of insularity that floors me, and which I don’t recall in previous years. ‘But look at the city!’ Says someone else. An artist from Paris calls bullshit. What he’s seen at this year’s Theatertreffen compares poorly to the German theatre he’s seen there. What gives? Why’s there nothing new?
‘Of course nothing here is new!’ says juror Peter Laudenbach: ‘Newness is old-fashioned! Neoliberal!’ It’s a revealing admission, one that wouldn’t have been made in previous years. It signals aesthetic reactionism in the face of extreme geopolitical uncertainty and, I suspect, newly hegemonic tendencies of a city confronting itself as capital of Europe.
At the same time, he has a point. Defining itself by radical breaks with the past, the avant-garde is locked into a cycle of constantly superceding itself. What is important now, argues critic @borisgroys, is not newness but time — time to build what the avant-garde always abandons. Groys’ point is as good as Laudenbach’s is disingenuous. It traces a macho and egoistic tendency in art and ideas of cycles of destruction and manufacture, privileging an ideal ‘product’ — and often the career of the progenitor — over tangible and enduring changes in lived experience.
Boris Groys: Time to build
But it’s also true that our modelling of reality repeatedly proves itself inadequate. The present is one of radical uncertainty requiring radical solutions and, on an aesthetic level, one of them is admitting new models of thinking, and of making art in general and theatre in particular that eschews the monolithic production in favour of ways of working that are evolutionary rather than instantiative — responsive, like other organic beings, to the circumstances of its ‘life’ as an entity. It’s this I understand when Russian underground-artist-turned-artistic-director of Moscow’s Electrotheatre, Boris Yukhananov, talks about ‘new processuality’.
2. THIS IS #NORMCORE
#Normcore came to theatre, like most things do, a few years late. Normcore was defined in 2014 for a post-authentic era by trend agency K-HOLE as about empathy and connectivity.’ Writer Christopher Glazek explains: ‘#Normcoreis simultaneously queer-ish and post-identity politics. Its spiritual grandfather is minstrelsy…’ Normcore goes beyond trend. Rejecting spent notions of self to flow instead within the matrix of life, it proposes a radical popular ontology.
At the Theatertreffen’s Camp, Berlin-based collective Talking Straight introduce themselves as a bunch of remarkable people who’ve had a reallyremarkable week with other really remarkable people — International Forum delegates — doing really remarkable things. They’re speaking English. Because that’s — you know — normal. And remarkable. Erika from Hungary is up first, wearing a brown polo-neck sweater, boy-cut jeans and brogues — standard #normcore apparel. She fiddles inside her bag, takes a swig of water, and hands it to another cast member, who fumbles it back into the bag. Weakly encouraging smiles are exchanged, and Erika climbs onto the table on her hands and knees into an objectifying position. Others follow. Each does a turn.
Es sagt mir nichts, das sogenannte Draußen — It says nothing to me the so-called outside — is a text for one person and several voices, performed at the Maxim-Gorki theatre by four actors distinguished by different coloured baggy sweatshirts. The divided subject is a generation of identities drifting through digital clouds above a body entombed in capitalist reality. Her anxieties are political correctness — ‘Should I say the global south? Or countries of below-optimum income structure?’ — fluid sexuality and incoming messages — ‘OH. MY. GOD. MINNA!!!’ — and the loneliness of the drunken fuck — ‘Of course, I wouldn’t want him to commit to anything as fucking heteronormative as arelationship’ — and twin totems held tight against death: the perfect body and fleshless hyperconnectivity.
Writer @SybilleBerg lands confessions like punches, diffuse and specific enough that the audience, laughing and squirming in embarrassment, recognize aspects of themselves they’d thought uniquely theirs. But everyone else in the theatre is doing the same. So where does that leave you? Or me? Or any other self? In #normcore theatre done as well as this, surfaces and depths switch places. Our ‘ inward’ thoughts are revealed as not only superficial but commonplace, scripted by collective neuroses travelling networked pathways between individuals penetrated by technology. Identity is revealed as an illusion, which, like all concepts, is useful only when it understands itself as such.
3. GOING BASIC
Normcore though, has a double. Whereas #normcore ‘just cops to the situation in hand’, writes Glazek, ‘acting basic’ is ‘appropriating an aestheticized version of the mainstream’. Why does that matter? Because ironic distance is vulnerable to collapse. Just as ‘stupid on purpose’ became simply stupid, ‘aestheticized appropriation of the mainstream’ becomes merely mainstream and — potentially, in present times — something much more disturbing.
Aesthetic appropriation of the mainstream? Step forward, Mittelreich.Presented by the Münchener Kammerspiele at the Deutsches Theater, the title means both middle-rich and middle-kingdom. A story of migration from East to West Germany after the war, its focus is the unhappy existence of the middle class in the middle distance into which the post-war era has now receded. Women are raped. Children are sexually abused, men are warped by self-loathing and privilege is revealed as a burden, but somehow, with gramaphone records and church choirs, Mahler, Brahms, and Wagner, they carry on and make do until their funerals, at which they reap the post-mortem prize of sentimental words.
If Sogenannte is #normcore, Mittelreich is ‘acting basic’. The Theatertreffen jury is also acting basic — at least if they’re not being straightforwardly conservative, which is a possibility. But they’re also being #normcore — rejecting the new (different) as a neoliberal commodification of forms. As a whole, Theatertreffen seems to be hovering over these several positions, acknowledging the need for new forms, not quite ready to provide them. Normcore is a critical step. But it doesn’t go far enough, because it works on a purely social level — at the level of individual human beings encountering each other. To raise it to the level of onotolgy, we need to go a step further and get rid of the privileged human subject altogether.
4. ENTER OBJECT-ORIENTED THEATRE
Object-orientation consists in encounter. To participate, an entity must be scrubbed-down, mortified of notions of ‘self’. Appropriated identities may be a tool for doing to. The first object-oriented theatres were virtual: Multi-user dimensions emerged in the 70s and 80s as textual spaces filled with ‘objects’, manifested through descriptions of objects that give rise to possibilities of experience as they are encountered. As the repercussions of human-centred ontologies make themselves known, new modes of being are sought to better comprehend the relatedness of experience.
Object-oriented theatre is an emergent form, predicated on the ‘ungrounding’ of the Cartesian cogito (Deleuze) and the ‘denaturing’ of ecology (Morton) as a means of shedding the anthropocentrism idealized in theatre. Understanding that objects — objects here simply meaning non-human stuff — exist in relatedness to each other, equivalent and independent of humans’ relatedness to them, is ontology’s copernician revolution, depth-charging a model of (human) being already riddled with holes and challenging theatre to imaginatively explore the cavity. But these expeditions are yielding rather than expansive. The new territories opened lie within ourselves.
Back at the Theatertreffen Camp, a woman in suit jacket and skinny jeans introduces herself. Fiona is from New Zealand. Fiona wants to introduce Rosemary. Fiona is concerned that Rosemary hasn’t been given a chance to speak. Rosemary is the plant on the table. We’re asked to be quiet, but Rosemary still doesn’t speak. A microphone is brought. Roesmary still doesn’t speak. Fiona is concerned. Rosemary has been fetishized, objectified. We’re asked to close our eyes. Through the microphone, a male voice ventriloquizes Rosemary in an invented pan-European language. Fiona is upset. Rosemary has her revenge. Animated by performers chanting the names of kitchen herbs, pot-plants clatter against windows, and launch themselves across the stage in an orgy of soil and essential oils.
5. Clearing the ground
I read this year’s the conservatism of this year’s Theatertreffen as an aesthetic reset. By reminding itself of its core capabilities, theatre makes space within itself to digest the (problematic) correctives issued by performance and theappropriations of visual art and artists’ theatre. ‘The political moment is set to endure,’ commented outgoing Theatertreffen juror peter Laudenbach: ‘Theatre must integrate this aesthetically. Political commentary is not sufficient.’
But neither are formal changes at the level of aesthetics — or, more precisely — style. Integration must go much deeper. This was clear among the projects proposed at the Stückemarkt pitch, which invites artists to compete, Dragon’s-Den style, for a €7,000 co-production with Schauspiel Dortmund next year. The ideas — among them the posthuman condition, black holes, audience-contingent process, the performer as a channelling body for processing information — root themselves more or less firmly beneath the Cartesian ground.
At its best, #normcore clears that ground of being of subjectivity. Object-orientation digs beneath it into the geological substrata, opening the matrix in which humans operate in collaboration with other entities, where subject-object relations collapse into interdependence. At a formal level, this means that for theatre to respond to the eco-political moment, it needs to move away from the German model of visual theatre prioritized as a necessary corrective to textual hegemony, and further, beyond the polyphonic anti-Wagnerian model formulated by Heiner Goebbels, which still cleaves to formal codes.
The gestures of the Talking Straight Collective and their International Forum collaborators toward object-orientation remain just that. One of the artists told me that the group understood the performance as ‘pretending to do a presentation’ — so, still operating at the level of ‘acting basic’. But it contained within it features of emergence. Breaking with the militant tendency of the avant-garde, #normcore is driven by emotional need: ‘In normcore, one does not pretend to be above the indignity of belonging’ says K-HOLE. I’m not sold on the term object-orientation as a term to describe emergent theatrical forms. Strategies remain to be worked out. But whatever it’s called, its core is to raise this principle to the nth power, envisioning a theatre in which, instead of being held hostage to vain fantasies of mastery, humans belong once more to the world.
All quotes originally in German are my own real-time translations. I will gladly make any corrections.
This blog was originally posted on this website.