Friday, December 19, 2014

2014: theatre + art in europe

As your correspondent remains plonked - or to make the German joke on which the title of the blog is based, 'stück' - for the moment at his dependable desk in Berlin, trying to make sense of the year while hastily scrawling out some last-minute tidying up, he got to thinking. 'I should probably try to put some things on records about this mess of a year, and to bring everything together into some kind of literary and contextual point'.

Periods of reflection are not my thing, being closely linked with the narcissism of the age we live in. I prefer to make my response through the work - actively, and now, not before or after. This way, I might remain close with my objectives in theatre, which I attempt to articulate in writing and practice. These build together like a complex, multi-layered picture of that which might be called my perspective. It may not seem significant, but it's cherished because in some ways - as an artist comes to understand - it's all I ever really owned.

I traveled much more than I expected this year, engaging with culture and to various degrees reporting on festivals or other events in Baku, Terni, Edinburgh, London, Venice, Cardiff, and Exeter. That list could have been longer, but for some rejections based occasionally on pretty questionable grounds, mostly to do with my inability to effectively 'brand' myself, 'compete effectively' in the 'marketplace for art' or to employ a recognisable strategy that people could relate to. Whatever. I had the distinct pleasure of experiencing a lot of theatre in the UK this year, so much of the below is skewed by an unusually large UK influence, although counterbalanced by the continental melting pot of Berlin. I just want to quickly note that all of the places I have been - including Azerbaijan - were reached without flying. I have now not flown since early 2013, and only then because there was no other way to get from Pakistan to Iran vaguely safely at the time I needed to travel. Somewhat unexpectedly, this choice has been met with an unusual amount of fear and anxiety, at least from first-world counterparts. Make what you want of that.

When 'reviewing the reviews', my impression, broadly speaking, is that European Theatre is symbolically representing, in a very anxious way, the entrance of an age of dangerous new fascism being masked by a illusion of capital wealth built from the 90's onwards. Climate Change hangs over all of this, with much of the challenge for art and theatre located in its potential to engage the nihilism that story after story about melting icecaps, new scientific research indicating things moving much faster than previously thought, and failed talks throwing down the gauntlet to Western Culture. Much of my recent argument has been concerned with the effects of this on a humanitarian level, and looking over the year's writing, both my writing and practice isolate this as a key theme.

It can be seen in two prongs of an artistic tuning fork, humming separately, but in many ways in sync. One prong attempts to present the horrific face behind the mask, disconnected from everyday experience but omnipresent beneath it. From Mark Ravenhill's exercise in narrative fabrication, to Castelluci's examination of the symbolism in terrorism, to Forced Entertainment's recreation of a kind of WW2 ethics of detachment and simultaneous live streaming experiments with multi-faceted forum theatre, to Chris Thorpe's studies of the limits of liberalism - all attempt to give insight to this truly dark underbelly, asking us earnestly to peer through various layers of fabrication and cynicism to the reality beneath.

The other prong is a kind of irreverence, an 'I-can-not-care-ness', both a tragedy and perhaps defining quality of our age, was also thoroughly represented in works like Bolero Effect, Andy Field's catastrophe nihilism, Japanese group chelfitsch's other worldly supermarket, Agrupación Señor Serrano's adoption of superficial aesthetics in critique of football and I suppose a glut of other unseen works. The best of these displayed a consciousness of their transgression and did so with purpose, the worst, many of which will remain unseen by me, were blissfully unaware of their own triviality - in either their selection of subject matter, or in their revised treatment of a subject or text that once had some higher purpose. Of course, the theatre machines chug on, spurting out derivative reworkings of classics, some even claiming a new radical (gasp!) aesthetic, and few, it seemed, dealing in an honest way with theatre's potential in the world now. Including (to be fair as much as I can grasp) the theatres in Berlin.

The art world seemed to drift further to the latter, cynical, prong than the former - at least in Berlin. Hypocritical debates over Public Space and 'protest' abounded, culminating in the thoroughly compromised Manifesta in St Peterburg, and seeming to occupy an unusually large place due to protests of this year and the preceding. This was coupled with a further movement towards art's fetishism and spectacularity, obsession with 'data processing' in place of process, and non-critical participation with capital structures, recently promoted by Maria Abramovich and Adidas, as usual, fuelled by the engine-room of advertising and Hollywood, and a general championing an abandonment of open critique and thought (which I wasn't happy about). (Side note: The exception to this is the recent work #IAMSORRY in which Shia Lebouf and art critic Aimee Cliff engage in a complex conversation which seems to bring all of this together, complete with an almost embarrassment of the position of critic - and which may later be recognised for what it really is).

Dominant also this year among young artists was an aspiration to urban planning, architecture, design and curation, melded into a omniscient conglomerate of 'art strategy' (or cynically, I might say 'art activism'), one that reveals a desperation to make art functional again. In theatre this was realised in a further proliferation of festival culture and a swing towards entertainment and designed experience and away from the promising emergence of documentary theatre, although occasionally masquerading as such. It's a perspective that also reveals anxiety at the lack of autonomy of the participant today. It's as though Time Magazine's Activist as person of the year in 2013 - far from encouraging participation in political dialogue - has turned people away from making active contributions altogether, preferring the safety of the control tower to the perceived risk of the cockpit.

Indeed, if there is something not to be today, it is probably a critic, so much a lightening rod for this violence of language (when it is bothering to be criticism at all). It seems to me that critique, or any independent, autonomous commentary, is more important than ever in this current context. (As a side note, this is especially the case in Australia, where some international writing actually applied scrutiny to, for example, Australia's inhuman refugee policy). So much about the institution supporting an illusion of continuity remains hopelessly unexamined, a given, and it's within this - admittedly extremely old and unfashionable - playground that I think the most progress has been be made in 2014, and probably further so in 2015.  Within a culture of streamlining and profit from the loss of others, biting the hand that feeds seems ever more necessary as the individual (or to borrow the IT company's terms, the 'user', as we are fast becoming) sees his/her rights slowly eroded in the name of own own protection. Unless, that is, you're one of the lucky ones already on the high ground.

For this reason - that it does at times feel like the real coalface - I will continue theaterstück next year, sitting in that awkward, dark gap between institution and individual, infrastructure and user, supplementing my precarious existence with scraping a little off the top of the pie, and making the occasional foray into the act of creation to keep my own cogs oiled.

May we consider 2015 a year in which, in a post-Lenin twisting of the great words, 'something is to be done'. There are clearly actions to be taken and leadership to be prised from out of positions of powerlessness. Art and theatre will play a role.

No comments:

Post a Comment