Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Faki Epilogue: The End of Medika


Medika is a space without end. It spans multiple time zones and currencies - it is total. Walk in any one direction and before long you will be back where you were. Its halls are stained with the memories of life and death, love and suffering, art and banality. It vibrates in a state of perpetual lift-off. It lies cold and still, awaiting its chance.

Outside the train window, the plains of Croatia give way to the mountains of Slovenia and then Austria, and the memory of Faki begins its unravel and fade into the distance. Or does it? It feels like this year was the first time my yearly visits to the festival began to accumulate and fold back into one another. Links were made to previous years, the images of the shows resurrected and superimposed onto new offerings, creating a 4th dimension of the stage, stretching back to the past and away into the future.

Day 6 was another implausible day to end an impossible festival. I will admit to having my doubts about our collective capacity to deliver an effective forum around physical theatre in the scheduled 'Critics Forum', but these were quashed by generous contributions from festival director Natko Jurdana, Belgrade critic Radmila Djurica, and even myself (managing not to say something stupid in public for once). The linchpin, though, was the artists, who showed a capacity to reflect on each others work and their own - reflections which demonstrated a refusal to be satisfied with mere expression. My doubts about present critical thinking were challenged by the figure of the self-critical artist, capable of building meaningful discourse around themselves that go beyond the pleasures and freedoms of art, and connect with considerations of context - seeing itself for what it is, and what it is not.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Faki Kronik Day 5 - Lift and Carry

It's that point of the festival, where meetings, meals, parties, art, and discussions have accumulated to the point of a blissful overload. The barrage of interesting encounters snowballs over the course of Faki - from smelling flowers in the botanical garden to meeting a human resources manager who hates her life in the courtyard of Medika - collecting into a feeling that's at once overwhelming and blissful. It's like you reach the stratosphere of conception and then slingshot straight out into outer space (with accompanying feelings of freedom).

Day 5 is the last real day of the festival, with only a special 'Critic's Forum' to come today on Day 6. In this event, we will try to put the theme of Physical Theatre into a critical context, bringing together some threads that are lying around into a tightly-woven towel of critical conception. But as I try to get my head around the pronunciation of Croatian surnames and cases (in the program I am amusingly referred to as Richarda Pettifera, which apparently creates all kinds of headaches for the Google algorithm), I am thinking again about the role of criticism in such situations.

Criticism feels like a lost cause at the moment. Cultural norms have shifted in favour of the artist or author - the bearer of first-person voice - and away from the critic, traditionally a guardian of the 4th Estate. Defending this territory is actually more an act of perpetual revival, akin to bailing water after the floodgates have broken. Even understanding a little bit the problems of maintaining a sense of common public discourse (its whiteness, its patriarchy, its capacity for body-shaming, its erasure of certain histories, the list goes on) I openly and somewhat nostalgically advocate for critical discussion on (flawed) neutral platforms, without the personal and with a shared attempt to create empathy, cross boundaries, promote social advancement and so on. No platform is neutral, but some are more neutral than others.

The biggest attack on criticism comes from those who propose to support it. The protection of 'Free Speech' rarely refers to a public domain, and much more to instances where what is discussed is not convenient to their (visible or invisible) cause. That is never the point of criticism. If I write on work, I always do it with an explicit agenda of furthering public discourse and discussion, of introducing new ideas, conflicts, and challenges. It is much easier that we do not attempt to conceive artwork, because this may, heaven forbid, result in some shifts in cultural perceptions. The attack on critical thinking is motivated by a desire for are nothing to change.

My work today is to address the organised chaos of last night's Lift and Carry from NeverEndingCompany. The promised interview with Puzzle Pie(s)ces will have to wait for the train ride home tomorrow morning - among the accumulation, I have simply run out of time here.

Lift and Carry

Apocalypse is a dangerous idea. It's not that its false - the end of the world is undoubtedly a very real possibility in various ways. It's just that the concept holds massive fears for many, concerned with preserving the illusion of immortality in one way or another. This makes it open to manipulation and abuse by powerful interests and ideologies. Beginning with its conception in Christianity, apocalypse is evoked to ignore the more immediate and material suffering of others. Lately, this manifests as a difficult point of climate science - how to communicate the real and present dangers without sparking a slide into ecofascism or dystopian realities of white supremacy.

The end of the world is, of course, a reality. All things come to an end, like a good novel, or a festival. The way we conceive it is powerful, and various symbols have been created to attempt to illustrate and communicate  it - the subject of much religious art, for example. Lately, the media has picked it up as a recurring motif for human self-hate, that our capacity to destroy ourselves and our subsequent feelings of guilt make the best possible clickbait, a kind of obsessive existential doubt about human activity in general.

Lift and Carry's apocalypse event results in a short sweep and vacuum of the stage to the tune of one of Mahler's Chorus Mysticus. That's a comforting conception by any measure. There's a certain accountability to it - if you make mess, clean it up. And if you find that mundane, then please put on some music you like - something emotive. And at the end you can fire a glitter bomb as a special reward for your work.

What precedes this deliberately anti-climactic plot device is essentially 3 separate performances, staggered in their timing over the course of four hours, and with each adding 5 minutes to a single performance (so 5' at 18.00, 10' at 19.00, 15' at 20.00 and so on). New renditions or 'openings' repeat the previous material, adding new perspectives to the pre-existing performance. The 'final' piece is displayed in its full 20 minutes in the final rendition.

I say 'final' because, really, the piece functions as a complete whole over the course of 4 hours, and audience arriving for only the last opening will have a totally different experience to one who was there from the beginning (I believe the same was true in a previous, slightly different version developed in Stuttgart's Akadamie Schloss Solitude). This is, in a sense, a privileging of viewing positions, and creates some nice divisions between neighbours - some of whom may be seeing a moment for the first time, some for the fourth. It also broadens out the festival theme of 'physical theatre' into something like 'metaphysical theatre', relating to the arrangement or assemblage of objects in time and space.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Faki Kronik Day 4 - Diaries, Shoes, and Playful Light

I'm actually not into festivals, in the sense that I suspect these days they are mostly city-branding project which have taken the concept far away from the idea of anything festive. Faki is different. For one thing, this is its 22nd year - a long lifespan for a festival, and one which seems to exist as much as anything else due to its inevitability, i.e as a simple routine. 'Should we do another festival?' never seems to be a question, and hasn't been for 21 years. It's a bit like asking 'should I have a birthday this year?' - you will have one anyway, even if you're in denial about it.

As the festival carries on, a diversity of approaches to the festival theme of physical theatre is revealing itself in the curation of Nathko Jurdana. The kaleidoscope is mirrored in the responses to the performances themselves, many of which are open to multiple readings. Physical theatre thus becomes a rich site for discussion and interpretation, bringing alive the graffiti-soaked walls of the former pharmaceutical factory Medika with discussions on power, impulse, and desire.

Two shows to write on today - the playful performance experience Peep Diary and the earnest tragedy of Anne Frank as told in Hey Kitty. Both are exceptional approaches to the form, with different advantages. As we move into the last real day of the festival, with Sunday featuring only a panel discussion with myself and Belgrade-based critic Radmila Djurica and Jurdana, the accumulation of ideas, meetings, and expressions reaches breaking point, and in doing so forms a complete picture of the festival - a significant cultural event and a resounding success by any measure.

Peep Diary

It's a cynical audience at Faki. People here are beat-up and jaded, in the best possible way. It's a feeling that pervades the building, too, and it also infects audiences. I've seen the most naive, beautiful offers in the theatre fall flat on their face here, simply becuase they are met with the full force of Faki's powerful, demonstrative 'meh'.

There are definitely times when this quality is really great - it has its downside, however. So it was that a young child and I were (with a few exceptions) pretty much the only spectators to really take up the offer of Peep Diary, an immersive spectacle where the audience controls the light with their cellphone torch.

From this simple* but ingenious frame, a delightful spectacle blooms. The three performers (Alice Monti, Fabio Castello, and choreographer Elena Copelli) begin in crouched positions behind frames covered in bubble-wrap, chanting softly. After being offered instructions, the audience enters the space to find them. Soon, they emerge from their cocoons, and begin to play with the lights, the space, and each other.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Faki Kronik Day 3 - Wonderful World

There's nothing like having your brain blasted out by Croatian punk, that stuff goes into your ear and directly through the vital organs of your body. I think my pancreas is still vibrating from the night before - who knew a drummer and a strummer screaming incomprehensibly into the microphone could still be so liberating. I thought the days of rewiring your reality through simple excessive force were over - how wrong I was.

Today the former pharmaceutical company Medika is reveling in its post-thunderstorm state, the fires of nature having swept through the bricks, glass, and wood. Unfortunately, it didn't sweep away all of the remains, with one visitor making his profound statement of resistance in the form of excrement on the floor of one of the bathrooms. Of course, the body is necessarily involved in any meaningful struggle, but... still... hygiene is one of the gifts from the field of medicine to which even the staunchest supporter of revolution should adhere. Compromises (of certain kinds) must be made.

Once again I am blessed with just a single review today - Collective B's work-in-progress Wonderful World. Tomorrow should be just a little busier, with multiple shows to write on and 2 reviews to try and concoct. Fast turnarounds are a bit of pressure, but I also acknowledge that they are what makes the writing I do here a bit different, even if there are some irritating mistakes that I only find out about much later. There's some act of direct channeling going on, or something.

Wonderful World

One of the things that's special about theatre is its changeability. As a mirror of society, it can adapt itself to circumstance. This includes formal considerations, where the different practices of artists can be arranged and rearranged in ways that offer particular energies, and resonate with particular circumstances. Consider, for example, the Dadaist approach to the theatre, where forms clashed and mixed, often producing a particular type of violence in their formal clash acting as portent to the violence to come and just passed. (As opposed to, say, former Volksbühne Intendant Chris Dercon's vaguely-defined hybridisation, where artists from different fields come together in event-based formats to sell a diverse mix of aesthetic approaches, creating a kind of grey mess of visual and auditory stimuli. But more to come on this at a different time).

These days, a reading of the world according to violence is at once legitimate and not. Legitimate, in the sense that - despite the hockey-stick graphs of living standards in the African continent often used to justify development - there is plenty of evidence that the world has never been more violent. Illegitimate in the sense that, with this heightened violence, our mechanisms for sterilisation have become more pronounced. So today we have evolved to an extent that it is possible to live a life completely cleansed of human suffering, even if that suffering is literally on your doorstep (Medika's proximity to the Westin might be a relatively tame metaphor - the coexistence of slums and luxury apartments in Brazil or India more apt).

Artists have been operating at the frontier of these collisions of wealth and poverty for a long time. Lately, there have been signs of returning to forms of more direct contact with violence from artists, of which the field loosely termed 'art activism' is perhaps a tame example, but artists such as Petr Pavlensky, Eugene Ionesco, or pre-Adidas Marina Abramović  attempt to cause a confrontation with this largely sterilised violent reality. The current United States presidency, in cahoots with other political turns, seems to have, if anything, further accelerated this sterilisation, neatly diverting the expression of reality into more simulation and staged protest, forever playing catch-up to a perpetual state of crisis. 

Formal play might seem a relatively tame response to current goings on. My experience in the theatre suggests otherwise, and that as an approach to violence, it remains a key tool in rocking the established aesthetic order, creating a sense of shock or destabilisation that is directly humanising. When it's done well, and combined with ambiguous or multi-faceted potential readings (a hallmark of physical theatre), it can reach to our very primal understandings of western hegemony, and the violence that sustains it.

Wonderful World, developed on residency at Cultural Centre Attack in 2017 and performed by two actors (Sonia Borkowicz and Elsa Mourlam ) and three musicians (Tomas Novak, Christopher Haritzer, and Voland Szekely), begins with a hesitation. The actors collapse onto the stage with a loud crash from behind the audience, with one character dressed as a bimbo and one as a kind of toy soldier. Their movement is immediately stiff and wooden, and accompanied by breathy contributions from the on-stage orchestra (comprised of bass clarinet, violin and percussion), who occasionally interject with eruptions of sound.

The characters proceed with an acrobatic set of movements that doesn't ever  resolve, and adopts a stop-start rhythm, full of bursts and silence, and accompanied by the almost-playing of the orchestra. The two figures seems to pass each other by, never quite connecting, and occasionally addressing the audience directly with questioning stares. They spend a good percentage of the play's 40 minute duration on the floor, although there is a suspension of time occurring within the world. The unholy green lighting throughout offers penetrates the piece with a feeling of fear. There's a sense of urgency within the piece, attacking a direct yet unseen target, that is as menacing as it is unspecified.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Faki Kronik Day 2 - La(s) Caída(s)

The shows are over, and I'm sitting in the courtyard of Medika listening to the electric guitar wailing from the huge speakers, and watching as the flashes of lightening from an equally electric storm rolls in.

Zagreb has changed in the four years since I've been making my yearly visits to the festival. For one thing, it's gotten much more expensive. It's not a cheap place to visit anymore, whether you are in the tourist economy or outside of it. For another thing, if you're resident here, the wages don't seem to have increased much at all. So now you can pay just as much for something as you would in Germany, on half the wages - in a familiar story repeating itself across eastern European countries, were wealth is increasingly concentrated at the top, and cost of living increases as wages stagnate.

There are different proposals for why this is, but I view it as a basic result of globalisation coupled with a social licence to fully embrace capitalism, present in many eastern European countries where I've hung out. The old working-class critiques  have disappeared with the labour movement and socialism, and the result is a kind of hard-edged competition and social pretending, present in Zagreb everywhere from the students to the elderly. In Zagreb, people are still managing to stay social - but you can see the cracks appearing, and soon a familiar migratory pattern will emerge - the city will be unaffordable for the elderly, poverty-stricken, and otherwise vulnerable, with alternatives few other than moving out to poorer areas of the country, where, due to a centralisation of resources in Zagreb, opportunities are few and problems are rife (including newly energised white supremacy and Croatian nationalism).

In this context, Cultural Centre Attack! offers something of a relief from the conditions surrounding it. Things have changed here as well in the four years, but some concrete things stay the same - the festival still operates as a kind of default community centre. It still invites artists every year and ensures that they have no costs, they are fed and housed (as well as possible) every day. You don't have to pay money here - your basic needs are, in principle, provided for. It still relies on a sense of community some would see as nostalgic - connections are not made over networking and mutual mother tongues, schools attended, facebook likes, even common acquaintances, but over some collision of 'trash' and art - as well as Croatian black humour, a kind of insincerity, and a relaxed attitude to life (and death).

Today, I also have just one show to review - La(s) Caída(s) from Chilean/German collaboration Hija de Rosa. The other, Walls from Serbian group Puzzle Pie(s)ces, I will discuss in an interview with the artists, published later in the week.

La(s) Caída(s)

In the four years I have been writing for Faki, there have been some really crazy shit happen in the Film Studio space at Medika. I don't know if it's something about the space (it's depth? It's tunnel-like shape?) but this space seems to bring out some severe performances.

Some of those people have been women (!), and indeed, there is a sub-genre of Faki performances regarding shows specifically from women, about violence against women. Evie Demetriou's The More You Dance the More You Get, performed in the Film Studio 2 years ago, was an exquisite union of form and content that performed a kind of revelation of human trafficking for the sex trade (whose victims are predominantly women). Here, Demetriou used her body and a mask to create a kind of strategic self-objectification, revealed to be a device at the show's conclusion. Last year, although it is only intersectionally in the same category, Nasheeka Nedsreal's Obscure Noir explicated racist and mysoginist taunts, turning these back (quite shockingly) at the politics of the audience's own gaze.

Taking as its starting point the gruesome 2016 assault of Chilean woman Nabila Rifo, who had her eyes removed and body defiled by her husband for "cooking badly" and who appeared in court in a mask, La(s) Caída(s) (which might be translated as 'Fall(s)') continues this tradition of powerful solo shows from women at Faki. The subject of femicide and physically inspires an investigation of a 'falling' movement, which frames the investigation in the performance and offers the show its title. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Faki Kronik Day 1 - Hayali

I'm sitting on the roof of the former medical factory Medika, watching the everyday life pass by on ground level of the Westin hotel next door, and listening to the sound of friendly Croatian chatter bubble away in the kitchen behind me. A stream of artists, visitors, and residents passes in and out of the room like birds in a tree, drawing from its communal resources before flitting away to their various labours. There's a nice feeling of everyone knowing their role, that comes from the greatest manifestations of social anarchy and is also common to art production - a kind of extreme organisation, serving as a counterpoint to the outbursts of human passion, angst, and joy that punctuate more liberated forms of human existence.

Faki festival offers a nice sense of continuity at a time of great turbulence, and part of that is definitely about labour. In a life in which labour is increasingly precariourised - we don't really know what we are called on to do at the next moment, let alone tomorrow - there's a particular comfort, I admit, in following patterns and behaviours which remain unquestioned, even if these are loaded with problematic politics.

There are many different forms of labour here, from more traditionally defined types such as cooking or cleaning*, to more abstract ones, such as socialising, sharing ideas, or viewing art. My role is to write the festival - or at the people at Cultural Center Attack! call it, 'to narrate'. I call it criticism. Regardless, it's undoubtedly a form of labour - and one that is almost always undervalued, if it is valued at all. As a critic, you are the one with a beef - the one not quite good enough to make it as an artist,  the one whose frustrations spill out onto the page.

That's not the case for me, any more than someone living at Cultural Center Attack! is living there only because they can't afford the Westin Hotel. As tourists cruising the Rhine River will find, comfort - at least the form drawn from an individual and compartmentalised life - is fundamentally not artistic, anti-pedagogical, and not alive.

Having said that, the next few days are likely to be my most comfortable ever at Faki. Following a year of high drama, and the previous year in which I tried to write on 22 shows over 5 days, this year there are just seven different offerings - that's almost one a day, and nearly a level manageable for me. No doubt I will find a  way to make it harder. Still, in theory I could even take a walk in the hills above Zagreb.

Day 1 saw Istanbul's Compagnie du Paon open the festival with their work Hayali - currently on a small tour with the next stop in Porto, followed by new Serbian group Puzzle Pie(s)ces with their premiere Walls. The luxurious timeframe of this year's Faki means I can afford to leave the latter for tomorrow following a second viewing, leaving me with just a lazy one review to write today.


Hayali is described as 'a moving story of a man and a woman' - a description that does it absolute justice, and at the same time does not begin to encapsulate it. There's certainly movement, of the emotional and physical variety, and there's certainly a representation of two genders. This in a way describes the nuts and bolts of the piece. But it does not begin to describe its emotional and representational or psychological depth.

Hayali opens with a highly gendered depiction of labour, with the man (played by co-choreographer Emre Yildizlar) sanding down a wooden box, whilst  a woman (Gülnara Golovina) seems to deliver an emotional, silent, and frustrated cry addressed to the audience. This initial image opens a conversation about gender roles that's repeated throughout the play, as well as one about anguish or loss. The opening proceeds silently through several streams of dependency and tenderness, with both figures connecting and disconnecting with each other like doves at play. This play transforms across play, hatred, struggle, and sex, each becoming interchangeable with the other, with the  phase broken by a non-sequitur in which the performers transition into chickens. (It somehow fits, and re-emerges later with a kiss taking the form of what's known as a 'peck').

Monday, May 21, 2018

Faki returns

I'm in Faki festival in Zagreb this week reporting on everything that's going on in the former medical factory Medika.

This is my fourth year covering the festival, which was irrevocably changed for me last year, when the Festival theme of  'Blackness' brought out many of the tensions, injustices, and oppressions - the thematic and the much more immediate - that present themselves when such a subject is raised in a context that is unequivocally white. Despite the chorus of powerful artworks authored by Black artists which presented themselves that year, as far as I'm concerned, there remain questions about that festival, and my own participation within it. One thing is for sure, though: I will never see Faki in the same way again.

This year, the festival, curated by Natko Jurdana, has the rather-less-provocative  theme 'Physical Theatre'. Artists from Austria, Chile, Germany, Serbia, Turkey, Italy, Armenia, and Brazil will explore the festival theme across 7 shows. Let's see what that brings out - it's certainly a tighter schedule than previous years (I think the record is 22 shows). Under the former curation of Irena Čurik, it felt like anything could happen.

It's a hard act to follow. Still, I have no doubt the walls of Medika will once again come to life, bringing with them the essential, fiercely anti-capitalist, desperately solid, and socially engaged principles that are at the heart of western theatre tradition, and which come out when it is given the right amount of nurturing.

(In a physical way).

Check back here for daily updates, as I once again try to tackle the festival, in all its crazy.
Check out the festival schedule at http://attack.hr/faki21/en.html