Saturday, November 8, 2014

Report: 3rd International Baku Theatre Conference

The International Baku Theatre Conference is a biannual conference held in Azerbaijan's capital, where speakers confer to share knowledge, information and networks.

The conference brings together some strange bedfellows - delegates from the USA and UK mix with regional friendlies Georgia and Iran, a surprisingly large Indian representation, and of course the omnipresent Russia - with more than a quarter of total delegates, and far more than the host nation. Conversation focused (or at many times strayed from) the central theme, which this year was 'Theatre art in a system of multiculturalism and universal values' - a theme somewhat diluted by the conspicuous absence of one neighbour to the near south.

The outcome was a strange cocktail of public relations, government interest, networking and a disappointingly small proportion of critical enquiry. The air inside the Music Theatre Baku stayed taut with officialdom and affirmation, with volunteers from the local tourism school acknowledging the two-pronged focus of the conference (Azerbaijan's culture and tourism department are one and the same).

At best, the formalities of government combine oddly with art, and coupled with this, the conference battled against a theme that many in the West would now find passé - multiculturalism was a horse flogged to death in the 90's, as waves of immigration combines spectacularly with capital interest in many places, and has given way to either resentful tolerence, a nationalist xenophobia or full-blown fascism - depending on your point of view.

Baku is an entirely different context - and when interpreted broadly, the theme provides a proud acknowledgement of the variety of cultures present here (though again, the regional absence limits the extent to which this can be read as progressive). Generally, the Russian language presentations seemed to focus on a beareaucratic interpretation of the theme, and their western counterparts talked candidly about the personal encounters with other cultures, almost ignoring governmental factors (perhaps aware of the West's occasional characterisation of Azerbaijan as an oil dictatorship).

It shouldn't surprise that the context threw up some strange exclamations. The range of reflections included a Russian/US costume designer championing the democratic potential in Disney's employment of site-specific theatre, a Ukrainian manager seeming to quote Chomsky in favour of neo-liberal capitalism, and a US professor ending with a gag that had Moses saying to Jesus "Well are we gonna fuck, or are we gonna play golf?" Shades of Johnny Carson there.

What was clear was the range of ways in which the theme was interpreted, leading me to think that either it was a bad choice, or that the diversity itself proved the relevance. Certainly, the mysteries of Russian theatre once again laid themselves bare to me, and I can only conclude from the conference that Russian theatre talks about its governence so regularly that it must come as a shock when theatre is actually produced. The most interesting moments by far were the politically jarring ones. Too many of those to write about here, and the fact that although the conference was nominally about theatre, I did feel like it was something we barely discussed.

I'll leave you with a hand-held recording of my own speech, entitled Battering Ram Theatre and Collective Scepticism, marking the first time I have presented in a conference, my first real foray back into academia, and the first time I have been invited to share my ideas about theatre (normally I have to do that uninvited...).

And now the trip back through the Georgian mountains, Turkey's Balck Sea coast and Eastern Europe, back to beloved Berlin. Farewell from the Turkish bus with surprisingly good wifi.

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