Research Area E
The last winter in the Second World War was relentless. In Berlin, people had to burn whatever they could get their hands on, to keep warm. They even chopped down the trees lining streets and parks, and as the war ended, there were hardly any left.
After the war, it became important for the city to plant new trees. To heal wounds, to show initiative and to restore the city to its pre-war everyday-life. From then and until today, all the trees in Berlin have been registered in the «Baumkataster», a large archive of trees.
But today, the trees that were planted in 1945 and 1946 are getting old. Many of them are dying, and a new tree-planting project is on its way. But planting trees costs money, so the question is; who is going to pay for it? Berlin is a poor city. If people want trees, should they not plant them themselves? One is even discussing giving this task to private entrepreneurs.
There is a symbolic side to Berlin’s tree-planting project. It’s about healing wounds, about time passing. It is as if history comes back to remind us about the consequences of war, for the people and for their surroundings. The trees that are gone are irreplaceable – and maybe that is why it should be a public responsibility to replace them.
For many, this has become a political issue, and the old trees of Berlin are now part of a larger ongoing public debate.
THE PUBLIC SPHERE
The public sphere (German Öffentlichkeit) is an area in social life where individuals can come together to freely discuss and identify societal problems, and through that discussion influence political action. (Wikipedia). The term was originally coined by German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. It is usually seen in opposition to the private sphere: The public versus private distinction in Greek philosophy was based on a public world of politics and a private world of family and economic relations. In modern sociology, the distinction is normally used in reference to a separation of home and employment, a juxtaposition which has been seen as the basis for a traditional gendered division of labor (the Oxford dictionary).
The public offers us a place to act politically, states Hannah Arendt. It is all about our possibility to influence ones surroundings, to shape and change the future. For the public sphere to be a place that can offer real political freedom, it must offer a place to act. Without a public sphere, no political life.
Today, our public spaces are changing rapidly. If one looks at a place like Oslo Central Station, a space for travel, transfer and for cervices – and a part of the Norwegian system for public transport – it looks like one unified space, encompassing all a traveller might need, – but in reality there is nothing whole or coherent about the space. It’s cut up between different companies, with one owning the floors, one the information boards and commercial boards, one running the trains, and yet another selling the services of the people working on board of them.
It’s still a place for meetings and interactions, like a town square. It is, as so many things in our time: A hybrid. Part public and part private.
It is the same when we walk down any European high-street. As a colleague of mine discovered, when she tried to arrange a theatre festival for children and youth a couple of years ago. She wanted the festival to be a part of public space, but she discovered that that space was already taken. Nowhere in the central vicinity of Oslo was she allowed to put up signs, boards, posters. It was all sold to commercial interests. If she wanted to enter that space, she needed big capital.
Some say advertising has taken over the public space. That we have sold it, without really understanding the consequences. Today, the difference between the poor and the rich are growing. It’s obvious that some have the potential to influence more than others.
As we witness dying town-centres, as the shopping malls on the outskirts of town thrives, it is as if even the cities themselves are lost in the maze of trade. As if what’s shared, has gone missing, sucked down into a vertigo, deep down to the chore of our economy – where power really dwells.
In the private sphere, we fill our primary needs, Arendt stated. Our focus is upon putting a roof over our heads, we make sure there is food on the table, we see to the needs of family and close friend.
In the private, our hands are tied and our choices are conditioned, states Arendt, but the public offers us potential to think beyond our primary needs. See beyond the needs of our family and reach beyond the immediate. For Arendt, this is the basic premise for freedom, and in this premise rests all political thinking and all our political deeds. Our moral and ethical understanding of what it means to be a political human being. To live a vita activa, an active life (Hannah Arendt, Vita Active, Oslo, Pax Forlag A/S 1996).
MAKING THE INVISIBLE VISIBLE
Being political, states the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere, – is to create new, possible worlds. To imagine future scenarios that does not yet exist. Politics is letting the invisible become visible. It is to give voice to the voiceless. In Ten Theses of Politics, Ranciere writes: «It’s in the possibility of creating alternative worlds, the political potential lies». The political act lies in seeing alternative realities before they are real.
Political argument is at one and the same time the demonstration of a possible world where the argument could count as argument, addressed by a subject qualified to argue, upon an identified object, to an addressee who is required to see the object and to hear the argument that he or she 'normally' has no reason to either see or hear (Jacques Rancière, Ten Theses on Politics (in) Theory & Event, Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press 2001).
The suffragists worked for a society that did not exist. A political system that would allow women to vote, to participate in democracy on the same level as men. As their struggle and campaigning went on, they had no guarantee that they would win that battle. Neither could they fully grasp what such a society would entail. Many were convinced that giving women access to government would bring the world into neglect and chaos.
In the time of the suffragists, women did not have access to the public. Some of them did acts of civil disobedience just to get arrested. The witness stand became their pulpit. The courtroom became a place for them to be heard. Through giving their testimonies, they could gain a voice by defending themselves, and the newspapers would report what was going on.
EVENTS MAKING THE INVISIBLE VISIBLE
In 1979, there was a hunger strike outside the Norwegian parliament. It went on for weeks. The protest was part of a larger movement against the Norwegian state, as it was planning to dam up the Alta River. The Sami people said stop. This river and its surroundings was a vital part of their heritage.
The dramatic strike, together with the organized demonstrations at Stilla in 1981 (Stilla-aksjonen), made a major impact in Norwegian politics. Although the demonstrators lost the fight, something had changed. The “Sami question”, same-spørsmålet, was now on the national agenda. It was no longer a personal issue of some sad few, or a national minority. For a long time, many people of Sami decent had lived with a feeling of shame. Of being wrong or less worth, – a non-Norwegian. An outsider, invisible. Unable to influence what happened to their culture, their heritage, their land. Through resistance, they gained a place in the public sphere.
The public domain is constantly changing. Today’s state of affairs are not the same as the ones in 1880, as the ones in 1880 was radically different from the ones in 1914. The economy, the debates, our institutions change and exist under different conditions. What we might take for granted now, is not necessarily given.
When women entered the public sphere, our perception of their role in the world changed. Now, we do not lift an eyebrow when we elect a female prime minister. It’s only natural that the Sami people have their own government, that they get taught and can practice their language at state owned schools, and we take for granted that the gays and lesbians have their organizations and their right to practice their sexuality.
Before, that was unthinkable. What was once outside the public sphere, is now inside it. So, who is on the outside now? The mentally insane, the homeless? The growing number of refugees still stored away in camps?
WHAT THE EYE CANNOT SEE
Society surrounds us. We are in it, and it is looking straight back at us. The question is – what can it tell us, and how do we read its gaze?
Once we believed that the earth was flat. We saw it as flat, and knew it as flat. Now we know that there is more than what the eye can see, and as we stand there, watching the horizon, we can at least feel or imagine the curve of the planet earth.
What we know and do not know, shapes our perception. In our gaze lies our limitations, but also the potential for change.
My place in society is very different from that of women only two generations before me. My mother was the first woman in her family to have an education, the first to get a divorce, enter politics etc. Due to the political work of the women before her, she – as well as me – did not need to blow up a mailbox or throw herself in front of riding police to get access to the public. She had her rights, and she used them to fight for mine.
Today, I am free to take part in political life as I choose, – but at the same time, sometimes I wonder. Where is it, that free space for me to act? Is it possible to be free, but at the same time not to feel free?
THEATRE AND THE PUBLIC
In March 2017, Ingrid Fiksdal and Valborg Frøysnes arranged a seminar at Black Box Theatre in Oslo. The theme was the political and the performing arts (https://www.blackbox.no/en/tittel/the-political-in-live-arts/).
I had been invited to interview Morten Spångberg via skype from Stockholm.
The room is filled with around a hundred people, and I ask Spongberg: You have said, more than once, that art’s only real mission is to change the world. Do you still mean that?
His facial expression is open, almost enthusiastic.
Art should not just be autonomous, he says. It is there to produce a space beyond what is useful. Art should be «useless».
– Ein, zwei, drei. Die Kunst ist frei.
After the interview, the microphone gets passed around.
– All this is about struggle, states the activist and theatre-maker Marius von der Fehr.
– Yes, says Jaamil Olawale Kosoko, an American poet and a guest Frøysnes has invited to the festival. It is struggle to understand the world we are living in, and he says, quoting the intellectual, black social activist Bell Hook and her book Teachings to Transgress: – I came to theory because I was hurting. The pain was so strong that I felt it was almost impossible to go on living. I came to theory because I was desperate. To understand, to be able to grasp that which was going on around me, and maybe to make the pain disappear.
Later in the session, Helle Siljeholm and Ingri Fiksdal guides us through the official story of Norwegian politics on culture and the arts. Through the nationalist movement in the late eighteen hundreds, through the second-world war – and in a brief moment, Nazi-uniforms and dancing girl in Norwegian national costumes flicker across the white foyer walls.
It’s impossible, Fiksdal and Siljeholm states, to see the birth of Norwegian art institutions and culture-politics detached from the Norwegian nation-building project. Today we take our institutions for granted, it’s as if they have always been there. We trust in them, but they were once instigated to build the foundations of a new, Norwegian State. What is their true purpose today? And while listening, the thought strikes me, – maybe we are not building a welfare state. Maybe we are slowly dismantling it. Maybe the nation-building project, as we know it, is over. Maybe another Norway, and another vision of Norway is being established as we speak, – one where culture and the arts are seen as parts of a marked economy, maybe even first and foremost as commodities.
A HARD RAIN
Black Box Theatre was established in 1985. There was a need for a programming scene in Norway at that time, a colleague tells me. We needed to create a space for the performative arts in the public sphere.
Today, the theatre functions as a hub for national and international theatre performances, and it has been a stronghold for the avant-garde. It is also a venue for seminars and events like this one, and several performances has been programmed too, for the event.
The day’s seminar is getting over.
I’m cold. I feel flat, numb.
A part of me wants to go home, but I pull myself together. I want to see Kate McIntosh’ performance Worktable (https://www.blackbox.no/en/tittel/worktable/).
We wash our hands before we enter the black box. Then we are seated side by side along long tables all covered with white paper tablecloths. As we sit there, different objects are passed around. A fistful of earth, a hammer, the dried out cranium of a small bird. When the objects has circulated, I am asked to take the hand of my neighbour. I sit there, her hand in mine. I guess this should have produced a feeling of closeness, even community.
I feel nothing.
Then it all gets completely dark, – and then it starts to rain, a hard rain of tiny little bullets drumming against our shoulders, the table. There is laughter, bewilderment. I sit totally still. Exhausted by all the words, by us, by the dark. The smell of earth and the drumming sound against the table, and all of a sudden, I feel sick.
I feel lost, trapped inside myself, and as soon as the performance is over, I grab my coat and sneak out. Down the stairs, out into the sharp, almost bitter night air, and I am already freezing as I lean my shoulder against that large, heavy door trying to push it open.
Why, I think, does a theatre, this public place for community and spectacle, have such a heavy door?
THE POLITICAL ART PER EXCELLENCE
As I stand in front of that heavy door at Black Box Theatre, I have no hope of making a real difference. I don’t even know what I want to. I feal fear, and my fear rests in this one terrible thought, – how can I be sure that the change is going to be for the better?
It’s as if I’ve lost my innocence. I feel trapped. I have this sensation that it is all going in the wrong direction, that there is something wrong with our system, our democracy. I feel no urge to do something, but I do nothing. I`m told that I am free, but I feel stuck. As a citizen, in this city.
I walk back home. Its late march, no sign of spring, but only two days later, it’s there. On my way to work through the botanical gardens in Oslo – a low sun, warm and brilliant, makes me look up and notice a sign. It says: we are renewing our row of cherry trees. I walk this way almost every day, and I never even new that there were cherry-trees there. And now, they have to go.
The trees are tall and dark. The stems withered, and crocked like huge, tarred, twisted bones. As my eyes take them in, I can see that the row of trees stretches out in two symmetrical lines. Once they must have lined a road, I think. Now the road is gone, and only the trees are left, and this image comes to my mind. An icy cold street in Berlin. Wartime. The winter of 1945. The sound of an axe, of a tree falling. A group of people huddled around a fire – and then some months later, the thin, wavering trunk of a young tree where the old one once stood.
A ROW OF OLD CHERRY TREES
The renewing project of the cherry trees at Botanical Garden at Tøyen consists of the most brutal of acts. Plainly chopping down the old ones.
I see them on my way to work. I see them as they stand. I see them as they fall. The path is dry beneath my feet. The sky high above me.
Later on in the day, I come over an article in a Sunday spread. The headline is big, white in gothic fonts on a black background and states «WHITE RAGE», but it’s the pictures that catches my eye. White men mainly, with cagy eyes and aggressive postures. One poses in front of a Nazi flag. Europe is undergoing enormous change, the article states. It is focusing on a new hate among white males in Europe, and the violence that follows in its footsteps. A hate against immigrants, Jews, gays, lesbians and women.
We are about to see big changes, it states: – England will go for Brexit at the end of this year. Trump is going to be elected as president in the United States. History is unfolding ever more crazy and wild, as we strive to write it ((Ronny Berg & Stian Eisenträger, Det hvite raseriet, Oslo, VG 2017), my translation)). And hatred is growing, because people feel fooled.
In his introduction to the book Not Just a Mirror – Looking for the Political Theatre of Today, Florian Malzacher, a German curator, tries to look at political theatre today in connection to political activism and political theatre per se. The performative arts today is struggling, he writes. Struggling to find its place in the current events and debates. We live in a time of crises… time seems out of joint. Economical disasters, outrageous social imbalance, growing right wing populism, millions of people forced into migration, various religious fundamentalisms, and an unprecedented ecological catastrophes to come (Malzacher, Not Just a Mirror– Possibilities in political theatre of today, Berlin, Alexander Verlag 2015, s. 11).
And when theatre tries to respond to all this, Malzacher seems to state – the responses fall short.
On 20. March 2017, Per Christian Selmer-Anderssen publishes an essay on theatre in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten: Has political theatre become a display of self-hatred, he asks. Have we become experts of self-torment?
He titles his essay: The Art of tormenting ones audience, and his starting point is the performance #negrophobia by Jaamil Olawale Kosoko, performed in connection with Frøysnes’ and Fiksdal’s seminar on politics and the performing arts at Black Box Theatre.
What is it, he wonders – that makes us rich, white people love this kind of political theatre? Are we ashamed of being the kings of the rubbish-heap?»
Kosoko’s performance is about pain. And it puts the audience on the spot.
In #negrophobia, Kosoko picks up some of some of the themes that he has been mentioning earlier on in that day. He talks about the pain he experienced when his brother got shot in the streets, and how, sometimes, it can be a political act to keep the memory of a dead brother alive.
The performance is a mix of poetry, visual extravaganza, ritualized grief and a call for political awakening. At its chore is a call for a new interpretation of the black, male body.
Kosoko’s performance is a political statement, a problematizing and a way of giving witness. Giving witness to experiences that are fundamentally different from mine. Written out from another space in time at the other side of the globe. In a country where nation-building and slavery became inseparably linked, and where the black body, through this process, has been objectified and politicized.(https://www.blackbox.no/en/tittel/negrophobia/).
We meet a transsexual black body in the form of a coloured, male, transsexual dancer, there is an altar with his dead brother’s shoes, and these shoes functions as relics. It becomes clear to us that his performance is as much a ritual as it is a spectacle, and that Kosoko is the high priest of this ritual. At the end of the performance, Kosoko turns himself into a figure, a totem. Covered in textiles and attributes, burning with incense he becomes almost sculptural, a thing, an artefact – and the thing he becomes is both fascinating and repulsive. He is just as much a thing as a ceremony master. An object as a man. The figure, almost trans-human in character, makes me think of Julia Kristeva’s term abject. The abject as something to be admired, worshiped or desired (Julia Kristeva, the Powers of Horror, London, Columbia University Press 1980). He does not belong here with us. He is what society cannot accept. The taboo. A body out of place.
Watching the transformation from man to totem is like watching pain become a figure. It is pain contextualized.
When writing on the abject, literary critic and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva took the term further. Using it as a tool to explain why we are repelled or frightened by phenomenons that our societies cannot tolerate. To explain our reactions to groups that our society would not accept. Phenomenons like xenophobia and anti-Semitism, misogynism and homophobia. She was the first to see the term in connection to cultural criticism or analysis. Kosoko’s performance talks directly and indirectly about the black male body, seen both as object and subject, and he talks about it from a personal point of view, as a black male himself, living in that objectified body. He transfers the pain of the abject, the helplessness and the rage of the rejected, feared and desired body on to us, and maybe that is what creates Selmer-Anderssens reaction.
Kosoko’s performance is a grid. A grid consisting of poetry, politics and theory that he forces his personal pain through. He insist that this grid is created by a system, a system that we all are a part of. And it is as beautiful as it is painful to watch.
As the performance comes to an end, he hands the microphone and a text to one in the audience. And as the mike passes from one to the other, he leaves the room: They named us and we believed them, audience member after audience member reads, and we do not quite know whom the text is referring to. Who are these we, and who are the ones that were being named?
There is no answer. Kosoko, the ceremony master, has left the room. He has left us there. Exposed to the space, to the words, to our voices. The sound of them as we say the words, and for some brief moments there, under Kosoko’s performance, I can feel the hate. Not the white supremacist kind of hate. Another kind of hate. A hidden and dark one, deeply connected with fear. With an imminent threat of violence.
I am a Norwegian, middle aged woman. I am a part of what the ultra-right call the «feminist elite». The white, feminist elite. Educated, working, at the moment inside academia. I can, if I want to, be a part of that group that sets the agenda. Through this, I have access to power. But how do I use this power?
Kosoko’s Performance is a reaction to the reality he is living in. McIntosh’ performance offers another type of response. It tries to re-sensitize us. It insist on the theatre space as being first and foremost a communal space. A shared space. Maybe she is trying to instigate a feeling of connectedness and community, but all I felt, as the hard rain fell from the ceiling – was a void. All through the event, there in the room with the rest of the audience – I did not feel connected. I felt cut-off. Cut off from the rest of society, and I thought: where do this performance speak from?
We had a spent a day discussing, but was this debate really a public debate? It felt as if we were occupying our own little bubble, shouting at each other inside our own food chain, while the world went on minding its own business. From the centre or from the periphery? And how come I feel numb and alone, there – in the middle of what is supposed to be my own community, and as I enter the bitter night outside I think: the context we are in shapes us, and it shapes the art we produce.
And as an artist among other artists, what have I just witnessed? Someone just talking to themselves? A mumbling in the dark? And this constant examining and re-examination of ourselves that we practice all the time in the art-world – what is it good for? Whom does it concern, beside ourselves? Are we just dancing with our own reflections? Constantly repeating our own truths? Is this all just an echo-chamber? And as I struggle to open the heavy door to Black Box Theatre and enter the world outside, I look back at the building and think; is this a public space? Somehow, being in it felt semi-private. Sitting in the dark, holding hands. Passing a hammer, the dried out skeleton of a bird between us. The weight of the hammer was dead and dull. The cranium felt frail and dry, and as we lifted it gently, letting it travel from hand to hand and I knew that that gesture, however beautiful it was, would never change anything.
The public sphere is not a term, it is a space for action that we can visit and occupy.
The theatre is not an institution; it is a praxis, and a body we can inhabit.
Rooms that can be closed and rooms that can be opened.
I live, I produce, I consume. I dance, I shout, I write, but in a way it feels fake, performed. As an assumed freedom, as if the public sphere is constantly elsewhere or gradually disappearing, and what I am really doing is sinking deeper and deeper into that which is private. That which won’t change anything. That all I am doing is shouting, writing, acting out in my own echo-chamber. Like a shadow-dance. It’s like dancing with my own ghost.
Sometimes, it is as if my political freedom is a role I have been given. A part I should play. Is public life today just theatre? Am I first and foremost a consumer, and then a citizen? The artist in me, overshadowed by the commercial acts I have to perform, trying to sell my services and my work? Is the only free space I really possess, my freedom to buy things? To sell myself?
Many of todays new playwrights, like Roland Schimmelpfennig, Kristín Eiríksdóttir, Jonas Hassen Khemiri and Lisa Lie expresses dance-macabre like these. This struggle between the pull of the private, the struggle to reach into the public, to gain freedom, to try to get a voice, even to change ones surroundings. These texts does not only expose or narrate a crises – the text themselves are in a crises. These crises are played out both in language, in composition, in and between the characters, and in the plot. They are played out in hybrid-like forms that re-theatralizes the spaces they exist in. Here worlds are created, and here worlds are torn down. Here you can meet democracy masked, and unmasked.
These texts asks questions like – when we know that all can be sold on a marked, even a child – and that the market is there – one of the things one can look at, is in how many ways can it be sold. What forms and expressions this dance of selling and buying takes on. Commerce is no longer just that which drives the global economy. It has become performative in itself. It entails and plays out its own spectacle, and through that, it even performs us, it performs the public sphere itself.
THE ART OF CRITICAL THINKING
At the chore of political theatre is criticism. Critisism of our society, of its controlling mechanisms. Of consumerism. Even of art production and representation itself.
During the festival at Black Box, at the end of my interview with Mårten Spångberg, he turns his focus on resent changes in critical thinking. Everything changed in 2005, he states. Our economical system had learned a new lesson. To put it simply, one could say that by going through the biggest crises in decades, the finance capital and the economy became friends. Friends in a cannibalistic manner. I remember, he says – how the state saved the banks. How the taxpayers money mended the failing finance marked. I think it was in 2005, that the finance capital learned that you can make money on the crises itself. After that, critical thinking changed character.
I grew up in France with the traditional critical thinking, Anne-Cécile Sibué-Birkeland says. I still think it has a tremendous potential. Now that everything is shifting, it is our turn to stand firm. To fight back.
Sibué-Birkeland is the artistic director at Black Box Theatre. The programmer that programs the festival, and curates Kosoko’s #negrophobia and McIntosh’ Worktable. Through programming this performance, and the seminar, Sibué-Birkeland insists on the theatre asking once more: What is the political in performing arts?
Both performances wants to connect with the audience and has developed different strategies to do that. In McIntosh’ space, peas rains from the ceiling. We are left to it, seemingly together, in the dark. It’s supposed to be a collective, sensory bombardment.
Kosoko, on his side, exposes us to each other in a different what. We are, in a more traditional sense, watching a performance played out in front of us. Although the audience is placed in different stations spread out in the room, the action is centrally placed and the performers takes the space and performs in front of the spectators.
I’m in the botanical garden at Tøyen. The sun breaks free of the clouds, and that’s when I notice them. The cherry trees. The way they stand in two lines. Once they must have lined a road, but now the road is gone and only the trees are left. They are old. Dark. Sick but beautiful. Four of them already axed down. Only the stump is left, exposing the cherry red of the wood. In the bright, spring sunshine, you can clearly see the marks where the edge of the axe has splintered the wood. Hard, vertical plains in the soft trunk. The axe that strikes, the hand that holds it. The tree that falls.
Chopping down trees in a public park is not a private act. They have been put down as a part of a public program. This is a public park. These trees belongs to us. They are public trees, and just for a second, as I stand there, looking at the trees, at the road that must have been there, I do not feel confused or lost or sick. Saddened by the beauty and the age of the trees, certainly, but filled with a feeling of care, too. And duration maybe. These trees, that are being planted now, I think – will be here when I myself am long gone.
Hannah Arendt writes that this world we live in, is not just something we share with each other – we also share it with those who lived here before us, and those that will live here after us. Only in the visibility of this perspective, can the world survive this passing of generations. It’s in the nature of the public life to face, and think inside, such a timeframe. Otherwise, the world sink down in oblivion and neglect. Politics is also that which we mortals try to save from being lost in time (Hannah Arendt, Vita Activa).
Political acts takes place outside our private rooms and motives. It’s a place where where you do not act out of private needs, or your own desires – but to the best for others. For this to happen, freedom is essential. Freedom from worrying about food, protection, honour, shelter, health – because, as a friend of mine, a doctor from Ramallah once said: A man needs bread, before he needs a book.
Arendt’s thoughts were inspired by the polis of the ancient Greek. She looked back to be able to look forward. To have, as a reference point, a semi-democratic Greek City-state lost in history, might seem banal, illusory, even naive – but for Arendt, the perspective proved productive.
A POTENTIAL ECLIPSE OF PUBLIC LIFE
Arendt wrote before, during and after the second world war. She asked, what now?
She wrote about her worries for the of a consumer society. About –The rise of consumerism to a position of political dominance and the resulting eclipse of public life. (Trevor Norris, Studies in Philosophy and Education, PhD, Philosophy of Education, Theory and Policy Studies in Education, OISE/UT DISSERTATION 2008).
She herself lived in the shadow of totalitarian regimes and ideologies: Nationalism, fascism, – but even inside that polarized political climate, she was able to look to the future. In the potential development of a society she would no longer be a part of. And in doing so, she took intellectual and personal risks.
– My dream is a theatre in which the walls are transparent, – stated Sibué-Birkeland when she got the position as artistic director for Black Box Theatre in 2016. (Verdensteateret, Morgenbladet).
– This theatre is a part of this city. This city is a part of the world. We live encircled by membranes, but the membranes are porous (my translation).
I ask myself, how transparent and how porous are they?
If the public sphere is in a state of erosion, wouldn’t also the space for us to act politically, to influence our future start to erode? And what would be the consequences? Will we be forced back into the private, into our very limited powers as consumers? What tools do today’s society offer us, what hindrances are there, and what risks are we willing to take?
Does the performative arts as such offer us a pulpit, a place where we can act politically? Where we truly and freely can express ourselves? And if it does, what kind of space is this and what role can it play in the public?
The public sphere, states Habermas, is something we engage with. To engage with something means that you have to make an effort. To engage in the public means to engage with other people. In it, you can face becoming visible. Exposed.
Lately, I have been thinking that art cannot do this alone. We have to get organized. To create alliances with others. Other artists, scientists, activists and intellectuals – because the space we have been given inside this consumer society is so limited. Because parts of the public sphere has become commercialised, even bought. Because the real hate and the real power hides in corners of society, theatre does not seem to reach. Because “power” – is somewhere else.
There is a tendency of re-alignment, in the art world today.
Artists re-align with activists, local social movements, scientist and sociologists. Looking at power from different angels. This has been a strong tendency in documentary theatre the last years. Here one develops strategies to take power on straight at hand, following strategies developed by groups like the Yes Men, whom, as they state on their own web-page: … have used humor and trickery to highlight the corporate takeover of society. One, so to say – starts knocking on the doors. Visiting the power where the power lives.
The Norwegian theatre-maker Pia Maria Roll uses both these strategies in her performances, and have sometimes, like in her last performance Ways of Seeing (2018), and her previous project National Apology (2015), managed to catch the attention of the public, the media and the state apparatus. In the aftermath of the performance, and the events that followed, the populist right wing party, Fremskrittspartiet, even suggested to parliament to remove the public funding from Sibué-Birkeland’s Black Box Theatre, for having programed the performance.
One always says, that if one wants to locate power – all you have to do is to follow the money. Maybe one could also say: to locate pain, one needs to follow the hate. Ways of seeing confronted the connection between state racism and control of power through surveillance. It turned the surveillance on to the power-figures themselves, and filming them, having real activists on stage, calling these right wing politicians racists – but the strategy, artistic at its chore, was not recognized by the politicians as such. They were not recognized as art/theatre strategies, as strategies developed under a long tradition of critical thinking in theatre, now combined with scientific research and political activism. The power-figures exposed, saw it as hate, as an insult, as a disturbance of the private sphere. An invasion of their personal space. They did not know the world and the language of the theatre, and Pia Maria Roll had to face the sanctions of that apparatus. An ignorant apparatus that does not recognise art when it sees it. All it can see is a mirror. All it can see is itself.
Pia Maria Roll and her team tried to create a crack. They tried to tear a rift in the membrane between art and society, between the powerful and the powerless. Between pain and power, and for once, we could actually feel some kind of tremor – but so far and still, the membrane stays intact and seemingly solid.
So, what do we do if the walls between the different membranes are not porous, as Sibué-Birkeland wants them to be? If they are there to stay. Impenetrable. Do we have to tear them down?
Do we yet again have to de-mask power? Trigger the pain. Knock on its doors. Awake the hate.
Is that the way to regain a free place for art in the world? Is that a way to reinstate a “real” public sphere? Not dominated by the few, but owned by the many.
Everything is connected; Sibué-Birkeland said when she got her position. I believe strongly in a communal intelligence, she said. We are stronger when we stand together.
My fingers are attacking the keyboard as I am writing this. I don’t know what I am feeling: anticipation, aggression, fatigue or just resistance. It is as if this is as far as I can get. Like there is a mental ceiling stopping me from reaching any further. A heavy door I keep trying to push open.
The thoughts keep spinning in my head.
– I came to theory because I was hurting, stated Kosoko during the seminar at Black Box Theatre on the 11th of March 2017. – I came to theory desperate. I came to theory to understand, and more importantly – to make the pain go away.
Why did I come to theatre? To understand?
To stop myself hurting?
To find a place in the world?
Every transition entails pain in some way or another, and every transition calls out for something to prevent that pain. If you don’t want the world to change you, you need to change the world.
And an image comes to my mind, once more – of waking up in post-war Berlin. In a city where there isn’t a single tree to be found. Bare, thinned out, robbed, grey. How sad a park, an avenue is without a single branch, a bud, a trunk.
In Berlin, there is a «Baumkataster». An archive were all the trees are registered. Now, the old trees are dying. Not chopped down as firewood, it is just their life-cycle that has run out. It’s time for new trees to take their place. The question is – who’s responsibility is it to replace them? Does it belong in the private. Is it the responsibility of the man in the street, the marked, the state, none?
What should stray and what should go and who decides?
I lift my hands from the keyboard. I look at this text. For a second, all I want is to delete it. I could. It would be so easy. With a keystroke, it could be gone. There is a connection there, I think, between the theatre and the trees. Between what we takes for granted and what needs to be redefined, defended, renewed. Thought about, fought over once more. Maybe, if we have to look at what role we want to play in the political life, we also have to redefine what we want to do with that role. With trees and with theatre. What spaces, what worlds do we want it to create? I think of Lisa Lie’s humpbacked women. I think of Kristin Eìriksdottìr’s mythically morphing families, Christian Lollike’s horrendous team-parks, of Schimelpfennig’s Chinese restaurants. I think about new and impossible worlds. The rewriting of the classics. The spilling of ink. Then, slowly, I click save. I close the article down. There it lies, deep hidden inside my computer. I create a blank, new page. Slowly I start putting down four new words:
Arendt, Hannag, Vita Activa, Oslo: Pax Forlag A/S 1996
Berg, R. & Eisenträger, S., Det hvite raseriet (in) VG 2017
Flatø, Emilm,Verdensteateret (in) Morgenbladet 2016
Kristeva, Julie, Powers of horror, Colombia University Press 1980
Lehmann, Hans Thies,Tragedy and Dramatic Theatre. London/New York: Routledge 2016
Malzacher, Florian, Looking for the political theatre of today (in) Not just a Mirror – Possibilities in political theatre of today, Alexander Verlag 2015
Norris, T., Studies in Philosophy and Education. PhD, Philosophy of Education, Theory and Policy Studies in Education, OISE/UT DISSERTATION.
Ranciere, Jacques (2001). Ten thesis on Politics. (in) Theory & Event. John Hopkins University 2008
The program of Black Box Theatre 2018, for the performance Ways of seeing, by Pia Maria Roll – https://www.blackbox.no/en/tittel/ways-of-seeing/
The video for a National Apology (2015) http://www.scenekunst.no/sak/om-teater-og-ytringsfrihet/
About the Yes Men: https://www.theyesmen.org. Kunsten å plage sitt publikum, Aftenposten: https://www.aftenposten.no/kultur/i/LzX9x/kunsten-aa-plage-sitt-publikum
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