Friday, September 2, 2022

Kiosk Festival - Interview with Artistic Director, Michaela Pašteková

Michaela Pašteková heads Kiosk Festival in Žilina, Slovakia, together with Martin Krištof.

This interview was conducted on the seating bank of Mestská krytá plaváreň Žilina (Indoor Swimming Pool Žilina), apparently the first Olympic swimming pool of then-Czechoslovakia, approximately 30 minutes before the festival finishes. As we witnessed the final performance of the festival, the durational Dead in the Pool by Tereza Sikorová & Tomáš Moravanský (CZ), we reviewed the 4 days of the festival this year, what just happened, and the festival theme of ‘After Human’.

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Richard Pettifer: How did the week go? How are you feeling?

Michaela Pašteková: Tired! And still deeply involved in the festival. I’m waiting for the time when I will be able to step out, and reflect. But the festival will be finished in 30 minutes. Then, I will see how I really feel.

So you’re inside the world of the festival still… is it a nice world to be in?

Yes. I’m doing this festival for the fifth time, it’s sometimes stressful but filled with different emotions. You see friends, there are a lot of hugs and kisses, then you have to make hard organisational things, then sometimes you are angry with your colleagues, and so on. So I leave with all sorts of emotions. Every year I say “this is my last year”, but on the last day I realise, this is the work that I love. Some years on the last show, I start crying with a mix of sadness and happiness. When I see how people are happy and they have fun, in the end, I say “ok, let’s do it again next year”.

  Michaela Pašteková. Photo: Marek Jančúch

I guess it’s very intense?

Actually we are working for the whole year, on different things – and July is very intense. The last years I learned that in the evenings I have to dance a little or have a drink. There has to be time to have some talks with artists and people around the festival, it’s really ok to be ‘one of them’ in the night. We really do everything from dramaturgy to production, buying food for technicians – we are not a hierarchical institution, when someone needs help, we do this or that. Because of that, it’s so intense. You have to be multitasking.

What’s the theme of the festival?

“After Human”

“After Human?”

We didn’t want to call it ‘Posthuman’. We didn’t want to work with this field of theory. The theme is in a process of coming to mind over the year – it begins when we are choosing the performance and pieces, looking to see if there is some connection between them or common topic. Sometimes, there are things that directly influence the theme of the festival – maybe 3 years ago, one of our buildings burned down, and it was one of the biggest dance platforms. It was a big disruption to our plans. So we switched the theme 2 months before the festival to ‘Burnout’ – it was a reference to this fire, and also physical or mental burnout. This After Human – it started following this year’s invasion by russia. Somehow there was a connection to this war – we saw the theme from another perspective. We didn’t want to make it post-apocalyptic (maybe it looked like that because of the weather during the festival!), but a certain pessimism was probably unavoidable – wouldn't the world actually be a better place without us? The theme was also inspired by the fact that some pieces and performances work with artificial intelligence or some non-human things, and start to eliminate the human. And we adapted also to these theatrical things, and we started to think, if theatre can exist without the human, when no-one is looking – and if something like performance can exist without human touch and contact. It’s not a new topic – but it’s always present in art and theatre in some way.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Kiosk Festival Epilogue: 'Before and After'

 

Before every show comes a sense of nervous anticipation. The murmur of the audience dips with the house lights, a hush settles in, making a hollow in the room. Suddenly the faint sound of breathing is amplified, along with the slight friction of one surface rubbing against its neighbour, trying to find a good fit. Perhaps there is a creak from a floorboard backstage, as an actor slightly shifts their weight. Perhaps she was already prepared, and the creak comes from some mysterious, magical source - as unknown as the beginning of the universe.

So it was, perhaps, before the birth of humanity - supposedly the greatest show on earth. Did it ever really happen? Like any really good show, the time seems to have flown by. The reviews are in, and it's a mixed bag. There's plenty to celebrate, but at times, particularly towards the end, the cast an crew somehow seemed a bit lost. Was it supposed to go like this? Wasn't there a different script written for us? It seems, at some point, as though it became a bit difficult to focus on the narrative.

Over four days, the puddles under the overpass adjacent to STANICA Cultural Centre offered a backdrop to dramatic spectacle both humane and inhumane. We watched robots, humans, machines, screens, nothing, and each other, contesting the narrrative, each with their own claim to centrism. Day 4 added to this with Dead in the Pool (reviewed here back in May) and Exergonic Odyssey, an installation from collaborators Zebastian Méndez Marín, Lucia Kašiarová, Juraj Poliak, and Andrej Boháč, a vast underground playground of gags. The show fitted in perfectly with the often-playful approach to a serious theme.

 
From Milo Juráni's installation White Man and his Plan (to Save the World)
 Photo: Natália Zajačiková

Were the locals of Žilina impressed? It's hard to see how the theme of "After Human" can connect with the lives of Slovakia's third-largest city - it seems place of continuity of tradition, if nothing else. But the interruption of the festival to daily rhythms may yet prove meaningful. Bringing discourses such as posthumanism, non-human agency, robotic theatre, and the Anthropocene outside elitist spheres of academia and the Art World may meet some discomfort at first, and yet these are themes that are currently under acceleration, with the mainstream catching up on them only after it's too late. Kiosk 15, then, offered a unique opportunity to democratise these strands into meaningful stories, and placing them into a concrete a social context. Created partly as a response to the misanthropy and self-hate that characterises Russia's most recent invasion of Ukraine, it stands as a meaningful, playful response to one of the darker lines of current times, fusing this with well-covered ground in the relationships between humans, technology, and environment.

 
Photo: Natália Zajačiková

Are performing arts the right mechanism to play with this theme? One one level, the inescapable humanism of the stage leaves no space for pure technological spectacle, necessarily re-inscribing the human into the sphere of existence that is, after all, largely becoming all its own making. On the other hand, theatre's own transience and immateriality make it an inappropriate metaphor for capturing the permanent effects of change - as though history is washed away with the curtain's close, as though tragedy ends with the exit of the audience. Where contemporary art is invested in the creation of objects and their proof, performance refers repetitively to our ephemeral and impermanent nature - "lights on" for the creation of life, "lights off" for its end.

Monday, August 1, 2022

Kiosk Day 3: Fragments, Humans + Machines

It turns out that as well as being a functioning train station, cafe, and stage, STANICA Cultural Centre also converts into a handy club. So after quite a lot of rain and some great spinning from DJ Laura Plis, it was hard to pick myself out of my flooded tent, complete with improvised fly and sticks as pegs, and switch on to the offerings of Day 3. No regrets. However, I confess that the shows of Day 3 are seen through something of a haze, not all of it from the fog-machines on stage.

C R ASH 

The first show of the day plunges us immediately back into darkness, offering glimpses and snapshots, elusive and half-lit traces. Smoke further obscures our view, and the top- and side- lit performers (Jazmína Piktorová and Tereza Kmotorková) propose a range of gestures and tableaus, perhaps hinting at fragments of a relationship (or several relationships) through time.  The scattered soundtrack (Jakub Mudrák) further splinters the stage into a ever-dividing room of pieces and half-pieces, performers perhaps struggling against a fading memory. Eventually, the movement (co-ordination by Daniel Raček) is drawn out into a type of crime scene, or a dependent relationship trying to struggle through snow, and the soundtrack dissolves into the pure noise of a blizzard.

C R ASH is an interesting experiment in the stagecraft atmospherics from Bratislava-based director Martin Hodoň, created together with the performers Kmotoroková and Piktorova. The movement is very much through emotional terrain, perhaps one or a series of relationships, as the description states, running the gamut of "love, pretense, defiance, illusion, violence, abandonment, forgiveness" and incorporating "family, partnership, and friendship" (so: most relationships then). There is a desperation about the work, as though it is urgently trying to show us something, which sits together with its visual focus, and creates a stage that - whilst seeming relatively defined - is also exceptionally busy with emotionality. It's a story mainly told through lighting, with a star of the show undoubtedly Lukáš Kubičina's lighting design, which jumps and slides through elusive illusions and shadows, pools and floods.

Photo: Banskej Bystrice, Marcela Záchenská

Such relational stage work relies heavily on the emotional quality of its connections and distances, and a sense of precision and control over the tools of the stage. For me, C R ASH doesn't quite nail it's collision of form and content. It doesn't quite control the emotional runaway train. But it comes close at times. To be fair, it's probably a show better suited to a late-night time, and the capacity of STANICA's S1 studio probably limits the intensity that can be achieved in realising the performance. But with such an abstract point of focus, the show really lives or dies on complete commitment and 100% execution - without this, it falls flat. There is an interesting conversation about whether this type of theatre should even exist - whether such a goal of precision and aesthetic aspiration is worthwhile, or whether it removes some of the wondrous and all-too-human ambiguities of stage. Nevertheless, C R ASH is far from an untidy 35 minutes in the theatre.

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Kiosk Day 2: Pranks, Objects, and the Failure of AI

Staring down at my almost-incomprehensible notes, muddied by the rain that inconveniently intervened the day before, you can see the chaos of festival-time. The blurs of the smudged grey lead blend with watermarks to create a beautiful diorama of activity. 

This is an accurate representation of Day 2, which presented a chaotic array of colours and shapes, occasionally punctuated by discernable segments of text. The following is only a representation of a few of them - even of those I saw, it would be too many to write about. 

LIVING ROOM

"Sometimes I think culture is just moving things around".

This comment is attributed to a worker from STANICA Cultural Centre - a festival hub for Kiosk - while moving a table around as he set up for a performance one day. It seems an apt metaphor in some ways. The object, the structure, play a central role in defining the theatricality of a situation, including its sources of power.

STANICA is also the location of Living Room, a work of object theatre from artist Lukáš Karásek that, as the title suggests, is primarily occupied with animating furniture. Indeed, there is a lot of 'tinkering' involved in this work, that follows the journey of a closet and set of drawers through time, space, and the limitless universe of animation in performance. Our cupboard-hero, sitting on the head of the solo performer and with handles forming a comically-blank expression, encounters various frustrations and travails as they attempt to undertake various tasks inside the logic of the staged world - a sort of magical, playful, literally living, room.

Technically, it is fantastic to witness, and Lukáš Karásek's relentless control is among the best I've seen for this type of theatre. There is always something magical in witnessing this type of art - as Karásek creates and dispels various illusions, the audience can fill itself with a childlike wonder. Beginning in the closet, Karásek spends a good deal of stage time simply trying to escape, finally pushing himself against the set of drawers, which then becomes a type of anthropomorphic face. This transformation from the invisible closet to humanoid draws begins the playful journey, comic for a type of reverse-frustrationism, where objects become animated precisely through their frustration with the behaviour of other objects. The different stages of the journey (dramaturgy: Viktor Černický) are marked by the pulling of a light-switch, which the performer sometimes amusingly cannot reach, depending on the constellation in which he finds himself in at the time.

Photo: David Konečný

The journey culminates in a fascinating epilogue, in which marbles are accidentally scattered on the stage in an act of infinite chaos. The final phase elevates Living Room out of a simple play, and into a discussion about human imagination and its limits. It's a traditional theme, but lovingly told, and a useful reminder of the stage conventions that feed so much of human self-conception through the stage.

PRO(S)THETIC DIALOGUES

If I generally don't like artworks that address AI, it's because it works with an annoying version of 'the unknown'. I've seen otherwise normal artists, when faced with the theme of AI, suddenly become drunk on power and weaponise it as a limitless source of ideological force. Yet AI has limits, sometimes extreme ones - something that Big Tech often refuses to acknowledge, and which are not popular to discuss. Such is the human investment on technological solutions today, that warnings, critiques, and even obvious points are simply refused, in favour of a view of AI that is "inspirational" "boundless", and therefore "hopeful" in a bleak context. We need the technology to work - to imagine otherwise is fast becoming unthinkable.

Friday, July 29, 2022

Kiosk Day 1: Lifelines and the Body, Barriers

 

The more you work with stage, the more you understand that far from an empty space, it's full of barriers -  not only Brecht's famous "4th wall", the dividing line between performer and audience. There is also the invisible barriers that exist without us knowing: financial, demographic, of time, of location, of systems. You could even say (and Artaud, for example, might) that every act of theatre is an act of violence: an attempt to organise systems, resources, and processes to flow towards a single, finely-directed point.

Because of this, often life gets in the way of theatre. For example, when you have no resources, no access to the stage, when you can't reach a show for some reason.

So it was that I arrived at Kiosk Festival later than expected, beset by train delays and some mild confusion of ticketing, both magnified by my own insistence on being social and wandering around the city. To make matters worse, I have forgotten both my tent pegs and my waterproof fly, meaning Saturday's rain is looming ominously, and giving me an opportunity to experiment with using sticks for tent pegs. I'm sure that will hold up.

Day 1 of Kiosk saw me catch only one show - the dance work SARX, performed in Žilina's New Synagogue,  an actual reconstructed synagogue that is converted into a festival hub for the duration of the festival.

SARX

The title of SARX, a new work from Czech artist and choreographer Martin Talaga, has both ancient Greek and biblical connotations. The christian bible sees it as a site of punishment, referring to the fallible human form of the body (as opposed to the immaculate essence of 'god') and a source of some significant discussions in theology. But it is the ancient Greek definition that Talaga draws on in this work - first offered by Stoic philosopher Posidonius, and which sees 'sarx' as, in Talaga's terms, "the tangible, graspable, and disassemblable body". 

The work itself opens with an absence of the body: a low rumble  of a soundtrack, and the soft glow of a green light, illuminating a architectural, jungle jim-like structure centre-stage (set design Dušan Prekop, Matej Kos) - sort of looking like a bunch of painter's easels stacked together, with mirrors instead of canvases. As the dancers enter, the lights switches to red - a colour of both the body and of imminent threat - and the soundtrack (Filip Mišek) evolves into a more choral-inspired, reverent backdrop. The dancers, naked from the waist up and with blood-red, distressed short jeans (costumes: Vojtěch Bašta), base themselves in stillness and organise into an array, briefly breaking out into movement. The formations progress through various phases, becoming at times frogs twitching in an organised series, at time more bird-like. The structure itself is barely interacted with in this first phase: only later are the mirrors removed and played with by the dancers, bouncing the light around the room, as the soundtrack becomes a circling, scattering pattern of scrapes, a little like an amplified scamper of a spider or mouse. The ending culminates into a rapturous ascension - pointing (perhaps sarcastically) to the ascension of humanity out of the supposed torment of material existence.

Photo: Magdalena 'Majfi' Fiala

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Kiosk Festival Slovakia Preview: the "After" and the "New"

 

It's hard to make new stuff.

First - audiences just fundamentally don't like it. If you are a strategic artist (or increasingly, "content-creator" or similar) then you can take something old and dress it as new, bypassing the discomfort of the unfamiliar. But making something truly new involves opening dramaturgical pathways of the human brain which did not previously exist. Like a journey to an unfamiliar place, it begins with a feeling of trepidation and a sort of premature exhaustion. It is fundamentally an uncomfortable psychological experience for both author and audience. It requires patience, bravery, and skill from both - and even then, sometimes it just doesn't happen, the combination is not quite right - there was either not enough control, or too much, for example.

Writing criticism, and wanting also to produce something new through this (a 'new discourse', or a new reality through discourse), inevitably leads you to new circumstances of writing. You observe after a while that most structures of cultural production discourage (even actively suppress) 'new' stage work. This seems the case especially with programs that are openly labelled as supporting new work - where the possibility of radicalism ironcally motivates an enthusiastic conservatism in new writing. Such structures invite the reproduction of the status quo, because, as cultural theorists from Adorno to Benjamin to Frantz Fanon to Brecht exclaim, this is where the power lies. Change is fundamentally difficult: the audience prefers the smoothness of the stream to the interruption of the hesitation. This remains true of audiences especially today, a period with myriad lures towards conventional viewing, and where each new Netflix release is rigorously evaluated for its narrative streamlining and emotional manipulation.

Yesterday's Potatoes made new: a photo from the train of a revived baked potato from last night's dinner party (with special thanks to Tetiana Krekhno)

Žilina ("Je-li-na"), Slovakia's 3rd-largest city, is not completely new to me: I visited in May, on the invitation of a friend. As I walked around, I immediately recognised telltale signs of depression that were a constant of my upbringing in a small town in Australia, and can be found in most places in Europe outside the bigger cities. Unemployment, xenophobia, and general lack of investment combine into a sometimes deadly cocktail of stuff, bringing a weird "hushed" cultural consensus, which can only be broken through intricate knowledge of local codes and norms (or the creation of a carnivalesque situation in which they can be completely turned on their head).

Of course, these are the naive observations of an outsider. And if I am looking forward to anything in this year's Kiosk Festival in Žilina in the next days, it's to interrupt my own perspective - not only of performance art, but of its host city. Kiosk is now in it's 15th Festival, having begun in 2008, is independent in structure, and claims to be a meeting-place for artists as well as actively involved in the presentation of works. A mix of dance and theatre, with some installation as well, it promises to be an interesting week of camping, hanging out, and seeing performance.