Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Faki Festival 24 - Escape!

The first and only time I applied to Faki Festival Zagreb was in 2014, with a proposal to make a show about Climate Change spoken entirely in Indonesian with no subtitles. I still vividly remember the one-line reply from Artistic Director, Irena Čurik, "Richard you are accepted but we will need to discuss some things soon".

It's still a mantra that holds true in Faki Festival today - 'you are accepted, and we will need to discuss some things soon'. The openness of the festival is one of its key features, and especially at the moment, with so many losing the vital link to culture and togetherness. Through the festival theme of ESCAPE!, Faki has an important role to play in creating the togetherness and cooperation that will show a way out of the pandemic.

As Artistic Director of Faki 24, I will be hanging up my critical writing keyboard temporarily, and migrating activities over to the Artistic Director's Log, lovingly crafted with Vedran Gligio. That can be found here:


The Open Call, a result of many months of consultation with international arts professionals, is Open until March 5th, and can be found here:


See you on the other side!

Your Correspondent

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Faki Festival 2020 Wrap

It's a few days into 2021, and as your corespondent was occupied with other things - like trying to get out of Australia somehow - now is the first opportunity I've had to reflect on the amazing experience that was 2020's Faki Festival in the digitized space of Zagreb, Croatia.

I've written a few times now about the devastating impacts of the pandemic on culture. Culture is the best protection against authoritarianism, and so the removal of culture and its associated rituals of assembly, togetherness, and live spectatorship are extremely threatening, in a context where there are already neo-fascist and white supremacist roots growing in the United States and across Europe (for example). The COVID-19 pandemic comes at a moment of extreme geopolitical vulnerability, accelerating and widening inequalities, power systems, and hegemonies. New racisms, class antagonisms and gender aggressions have materialised over the course of the pandemic, and these will inevitably grow as it continues.

As a self-organised and autonomous festival, Faki normally has an important role to play in initiating inclusiveness, togetherness, and connection. That seemed like an impossible task this year, and yet, paradoxically, this made it also more necessary. Over the course of one week, 15 unique works from 10 countries were presented over the festival's unique online platform - the Zone of Control - as well as 3 open workshops. These performances - actually video performance works - were streamed to a global live audience, who were able to interact using live commentary. Following nearly every performance, a Q&A with the artist was presented by me and my critic colleague Jana Perković, taking live questions from the audience about the works they had just seen, and feeding them to the artists themselves. 


Screenshot of the 'Zone of Control' open-format online platform. Pictured: Artists Carlota Berzal (ES) and Pablo Cernadas (ARG), Jana Perković in Berlin, and Richard -1 in Ballarat, Australia. Photo: Vedran Gligo

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Criticism and Crisis

Considering Taylor Swift has produced 2 albums this year, your correspondent hasn't been nearly as outwardly productive as I would have maybe liked. 

Like many, the beginning of the pandemic brought together a lot of threads of my work, as a crisis that created a long-awaited universal narrative, and forced actual collective, public responses. For once, we couldn't ignore other people on the street. For once, what happened to people in Indonesia, in Taiwan, in Russia, in Djibouti - whatever 'other' country - affected 'us', not only on an abstract level of ethics, but directly. Protective bubbles were suddenly burst, and the outside entered in.

It didn't last long. Soon, the usual war for resources began, the game of blaming, the restoration of conceivable hierarchies based on gender, class, and race. But narratives remained and remain confused, with the state of shock likely to stretch well past the pandemic event itself.

Although I have been outwardly pretty dormant this year, inwardly I have been asking myself deeply the same question, almost like a mantra: What is the role of 'culture' in this state of shock? As I mentioned in earlier writing, culture has been thrown under the bus in many contexts, in a way that has never happened before. Whilst military actions, stock markets, sports, and ski holidays have continued over the pandemic, culture - with its associated rituals of assembly, togetherness, inclusion, and community - has been largely abandoned, in an unprecedented way. Even during World Wars, culture was adapted: theatre artists took to underground cabaret stages, radio dramas, reading stories to each other. Now the constant glow of the Netflix stream seems our only guiding light.

Criticism, and especially theatre criticism, which this writing platform is about, might seem like a strange place to go for answers to these questions. But the discourse around aesthetic objects - plays, art, music - ideally prepares us well for crises such as the pandemic. For one, it ensures that we keep our calm and our focus, that we are not distracted by fear, or panic, that we continue to notice important things even under immense pressure. Complex discourses that acknowledge nuanced international contexts provide vital immunisation against jingoist nationalism and hysterical doublethink that pervade the pandemic and seek to capitalise on anxiety and the need to find comforting, familiar lines. Criticism allows us to see the contradictions in their complexity, that there is at once both one pandemic, and many pandemics: for some, it is a total collapse of the protective forces they trust to keep them safe (borders, military, wealth). For others, whose existence is anyway precarious, it is business as usual: to die by the virus, or from starvation? Does it matter?

Monday, November 23, 2020

Festival Preview: Faki 23

This year's Faki Festival was hit with not one but two of what the insurance companies calls significant 'Acts of God' - the COVID-19 pandemic, which made gathering in public impossible, and the 5.3 magnitude earthquake in Zagreb, which put parts of the former pharmaceutical factory Medika out of action.

It's surprising that there is a festival at all in 2020. And yet, as I've written previously, there is no more important time for culture than now. Not just any culture either: free non-institutional culture, dedicated to principles of free expression, free exchange, and development of alternatives to the unidirectional mainstream. 14 out of the 16 shows will be livestreamed through the ZONE OF CONTROL, Faki's independently-developed web performance platform, which allows for HD performance streams, live chat, and Zoom-style discussions, which will be led by yours truly together with the globally-feared critical mastermind Jana Perković. 

Snapshot of the 'countdown' system, used in the front-of-house protocols for Faki 23.

This year the festival accommodates an unusually wide variety of shows in response to the theme of 'Control'. On day one, the ecoanarchist and animal-rights activist Robert Franciszty (HR) opens the festival with Anticorona happening or "If I can't dance, I don't want to be a part of your revolution", one of just two performances happening on-site at Medika (and not live-streamed). While a lot of opposition against COVID-19 restrictions has been massively privileged and without any solid argument beyond 'personal sovereignty', Franciszty's participatory work is described as a "Joint dance therapeutic relaxation in the dystopian state of the world", hinting at an act of collective resistance departing from a simple complaint about government intervention. Hugo Baranger (FR) follows this with his work Les mots de recours, a short sensorial experience designed around a type of digital noise-theatre, and the first work delivered over the festival's ZONE OF CONTROL livestream platform. Finally, Day 1 will see the first performance of Brazillian performer-composer Manuel Pessoa de Lima's Red Light Piano, a performance adapted for the online format, where the artist will create a sort of 'lounge piano', playing off the theme of a commodification of love, and drawing on his usual themes of failure and the colour red. In the daytime, there's also Yasen Vasilev's (BG) workshop, titled Nutricula, which runs over three days, which will see participants will have the chance to re-imagine parts of their bodies as objects, and the tension between local and global politics of the body.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Against Dying Cultures, Dying Criticism

First, a bit of comedy: This entry will be the 6th time your correspondent has tried to write over the last months. The desktop of my old Windows 7 Acer Aspire One is a hilarious boneyard of critical thinking - labelled in a haphazard way: 'failed post #1', 'failed post June' and so on. I don't know yet why I am keeping these attempts - I guess they are kind of a marker of a wasted year, spent stück in Australia, where I was by chance when the pandemic began in earnest, and where I am strangely forbidden by government from leaving the country. So I'm a correspondent in 'in-ile' rather than exile, under a weird type of arrest - one that is not compatible at all with the high value I put on human mobility (as distinct from luxury travel) and the right to building one's life the way one chooses as fundamental, even if contingent.

I don't want to spend much time on writer's problems here. After all, difficulties are pretty much everywhere today at various extremes, and talking about 'writer's block' is normally boring for everyone except the writer (and their poor drinking buddies). But central to my specific difficulties on this platform lately will be problems shared by many other projects, from restaurants to cinemas to workplaces to educational institutions to informal assemblies. As I've accrued this garden of written kept-trash, I've been thinking about specifically what is making it so 'impossible' to write. After all, there is not a shortage of things to write about, as the pandemic collides theory, economics, and culture into a kind of cocktail of shock.

The specific problem I have can be said simply and dramatically: culture is gone. What I mean by this is, let me flag it, a type of generalised culture - one of physical coming-together, one that indicates a specific, intimate, some might say old-school, form of community. It's a site where change might happen, where we might meet people, in a kind of human way, without the excessive language and classification (admittedly a type of freedom for some) of distanced communication. While the problems of artists - especially financial - have been documented by media, they do little to encapsulate the meteoric problem of the destruction of culture and of its transformative properties, and just what the effect of this will be. There are various book-burning metaphors for this, from the Nazis to Pol Pot, but none that really captures the large-scale pyrotechnics I observe happening today, and the daunting prospective workload of moving forward that it indicates.

This destruction of culture is marked by a unique feeling of sadness, particularly from artists, at cancelled events - which has happened so much that it's now become a numb admission of defeat, like Lemmings off a cliff. It would be easy to dismiss these feelings as secondary to the physical deaths of 2 million people in the health crisis worldwide - to me, this only heightens its significance. Unlike the health crisis, the massive destruction of culture has gone largely undocumented. Why? 

Well, from this viewpoint in Australia at least, that's easy to answer. It is to the advantage of certain interests who would rather see culture either disappear entirely, or shift to formats where it can be carefully surveilled, policed, and monetised, or be drip-fed as bread and circuses to an 'entertained' audience. This process is not new, but has been massively accelerated in the pandemic. Further to this has been a censoring of critique, and individuals policing each other has been the saddest phenomenon to witness over the panopticon of the pandemic: as though asking questions suddenly became equal to conspiracy theory, and it logically follows that standing apart from the latest consensus is an invitation for social punishment. As a direct result of that context, opposition and resistance - previously the realm of collectives, communities, and cultures  -  becomes, temporarily I hope, the domain of conspiracy theorists of the far right, for whom these circumstances are a perfect opportunity.

So my 'writer's block', or whatever, is caused by a much more ominous apprehension: there may soon be nothing to write about. This realisation is not without happiness on a personal level - of how much critical work depends on a real and dynamic dialogue with this culture of intimacy, so much that it literally cannot survive without it. It's not without fear, but not driven by it either - more the outlining of an imperative to think deeply, critically, at this moment, about what has been lost. In what way is this situation training us? In what invisible ways are we becoming blunted? To what loss do those feelings of frustration, of anger, bottled up and with no outlet, really point?

The decline of this specific strand of culture is not new. In Australia - supposedly a paradise - the ripping-up of public funding for the arts, rapid centralisation of media organisations following policy overhaul, and removal of rights to demonstration have been severe, in line with an ideology that has seen 20 out of 26 years of right-wing government bent on a particular version of wealth-creation. Referred to as the 'culture wars', this is really a type of propagandic violence arising from a place of apathy and self-satisfaction in the public and the result of a 'booming' economy. In this context, it can be difficult to think deeply about both culture and criticism: what it means to us, how we can support it. Culture is one aspect of human wealth that does not just exist de facto - it is created by people working together in solidarity: from workplaces, to education, to art, to the streets, from which a particular type of being together can emerge. 

Don't I have more to say about this? Yes. But as I have pointed out, the context is too censored, and too filled with noise - so at the moment I can only mark the time with its identification, and the expression of a particular special, specific, and even romantic sadness, that so much beauty in the world is dying.

Does that sound like a negative and over-dramatic throwback? Sure. Are there comforting answers available to these questions? Yes, there are a lot, and over the last months I have become much better at guitar, as I play imaginary duets with (temporarily) my drummer-neighbour. But the tragedy should be, I claim, acknowledged and articulated with energy all the same: to look around ourselves at opportunities to adapt and rebuild in small but imperative ways, even as it may feel the world is falling down around us. 

At the time where planning and strategy are no longer possible - that is exactly the time to really think.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

An Ambitious Man

The Director shook my hand, in a 'welcome to the club' sort of way, and we sat down together.

Already it felt wrong. He didn't ooze authority, he seemed friendly. Where was his ambition? I showed him through my work, and he commented languidly, as though waiting for the payoff. He is a director at the state theatre company. Where was his plaguing sense of doubt? Where was his arrogance? Was he even really a director?

I paused on one image that I liked particularly - of myself, wild hair, exhausted-looking face, in the middle of giving an instruction. That's my director shot, I said. He laughed, and his eyes twinkled with mischievous glee. It was a sort of gentle, mocking laugh - I felt the butt of some joke, but for some reason, I didn't mind.

Had I seen this show? Yes - I got tickets from the company. Didn't use the secret usher's handshake? His eyes lit up again. This time, I chuckled as well.

Of the three assistant directors, I was the only one to show up. I was there every day, from 10.00 sharp - ready to listen, ready to soak in the events of the rehearsal room. I was still somehow a kid from the bush, directing another show and working two jobs at the same time, so I projected a kind of pressurised, burning concentration. The Director seemed sometimes alarmed at how relaxed I wasn't. In exchange, I watched on in horror as he appeared to amble through our first reading, mumbling out some suggestions to the actors.

And yet it was interesting - I noticed the actors seemed very 'together'. They made suggestions - not demands. They spoke only when they really had something to say. Sometimes they made jokes. And they really listened, not desperately but carefully - to each other, to the Director. Over the first two hours, these silent agreements formed - they built up in the air of the room, hovering over us, a library ready to be drawn from later. Over the rehearsal period, these became the play.

Generously, the Director tried to find a place for my vaulting ambition. Once, I had a conversation with him about Hitchcock. The next day, it came up in discussion in the rehearsal room. Here's your Hitchcock man, said the Director. I looked at him, not understanding.

Even for a rehearsal room, there were many lessons. Do you guys ever read something other than plays? asked the actor one day. I realised how full of knowledge she was - I thought of the small offerings she had made throughout the rehearsal process, drawn from stories, drawn from life. No, we both replied. For me, it was a lie - even more so today.

My father died yesterday, the Director said. It sounded strange because he said it in his usual, suggestive way, offering the information rather than announcing it. I'm sorry to hear, I replied. Let me know what I can do to help. I caught the Director as we broke from the tech rehearsal, on his way to lunch.  

Where were you thinking of going? 

I was just going to get some Hungry Jacks or something. 

Come with me. 

I led the Director into the food court of Southbank and we got some Indian food from a bain marie, probably only slightly more nutritious than Hungry Jacks. We ate and said little.

Simon will probably take rehearsals, he said. OK, I replied, dejected. Why not me? The words came burning at me, and I didn't say them. I thought about them, though. Why bring in someone from the outside? Why not your assistant, who has been diligently sitting through rehearsals for 6 weeks? Doesn't he trust me? What was this lesson, exactly?

Later we laughed over a beer, and the Director told me about ambition. He asked me if I knew a famous actor, I said I did. And then he said She was drinking here after a show of August: Osage County, where she gave an imperial performance, dwarfed only by the extravagant set.  A man in a suit, who had been a member of the audience, came up to her and said 'Great performance! Don't quit your day job though!' She glared at the man, and then went directly up to him, pressing her face close to his, pointing at his nose, and said in this kind of spitting, threatening tone: 'Don't say that. Don't you EVER say that'. And the man apologised and whimpered away. The Director chuckled. 

After opening night, I never was in contact with the him again. Somehow, I thought he would never understand me.
And so he never knew, actually, the lessons I took from him.


Vale Aidan Fennessy

a director who taught me about real ambition.

I was Assistant Director to Aidan on Boston Marriage with Melbourne Theatre Company in 2010.


Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Anti-hiatus: Art as prevention

As the depleted health systems of developed economies attempt to deal with the unfolding crisis surrounding COVID-19, media ramp up the rhetoric, and the state necessarily intervenes where the private sector can no longer make a profit, it may seem like things shut down. But where economic activity may disappear, it's important to recognise the different types of activity that may continue, or even flourish.

Indeed, for better or worse, right now is a peak time for internet traffic and journalism. As is commonly acknowledged within the media industry, individuals have become primary broadcasters of information. I know I'm not alone in being more than usually frustrated with the corresponding amount of misinformation and amplification happening on the internet, often broadcast or amplified by well-meaning people with no media training and who do not understand the importance of the process discerning truth, as complex (and necessarily contested) as that concept is. There is, in general, a pervasive lack of accountability, which runs directly against the principles of broadcasting and journalism. The amplification of dystopian, shocking and inaccurate headlines are having a noticable effect on people, repeating the fears generated by the - also often questionable - dystopian and apocalyptic narratives common to contemporary fiction. Normally, this is irritating - right now it can be dangerous. To this end, I have proposed a little checklist (see under) for those interested in broadcasting during this period.

Although the role of theatre and art criticism may seem to take a back seat during times of crisis, in my view, nothing could be further from the truth. The former UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill is often falsely quoted here when, in response to a suggestion to stop arts funding in a time of crisis, he supposedly replies "Then what are we fighting for?". Such an understanding, veracity of the attribution aside, undermines the arts significantly whilst appearing to defend it. As a creator of culture and discourse, art has not only an active symbolic function of cultural heritage and continuity - as a fuel for a cultural protectionist narrative - but an active role in shaping community, and therefore resisting the pitfalls of crisis. Significant military conflict is inevitably preceded by an equally significant propaganda foundation, defeating critical thought - our best cultural defense against atrocity and state violence. Similarly, crisis management in non-military scenarios benefits considerably from a community engaging with culture and the discourses that surround it.

Admittedly, much of that work is done preceding the actual crisis event, and by people who generated conversation, community, and connection through happenings, shows, discussions and so forth. As much as there is media focus on the dystopian elements of crisis - empty supermarket shelves, particularly - the good things that are happening in neighbourhoods across the world occur through the nurturing of cultural connection and our artistic selves.

After Microsoft (Goldin+Senneby, 2007)

The creation of artistic discourse, as an offshoot of art but not its lesser, is one of the foundations of effective community, and when that community is put under significant stress, it re-emphasises, and not de-emphasises, the need for critical thinking. Furthermore, amid a large perceived threat, quick decisions are made which are often wrong. Bubbles appear and disappear as the crowd moves on to the next headline, creating a cumulative effect of a society losing control and going out of its mind in fear, which can be a more destructive force than any virus.

Now is the time, therefore, to really stop and think.