Sunday, May 29, 2016

Faki Day 5: Spider-man in Zagreb, Greek suffering, and state volence

It's morning on Day 6 of Faki, and everyone at the former Pharmaceutical factory Medika is running on empty. People meet you with exhausted smiles as they head lazily for the kitchen, their exhaustion removing the normal social barriers, creating either what is either love or a kind of co-dependency. Most artists have, in different ways, been working for a solid week now - it mightn't seem like 'work' to host a party with refugees, for example, but creating love and human connection at a time like this is so important, it becomes a type of labour. This is why we're here.

An easier day for your correspondent today after yesterday's writing got big on me. I can see the finish line now, but there's still some work to do. Yesterday's shows sat nicely against each other: Dror Lieberman's site-specific action-adventure The Lowest Spot in Zagreb was a crazy way to encounter locals, Elli Papakonstantinou and Odc Ensemble's Re-volt Athens is the first work of this kind of festival to go nuts and destroy everything, and Alexander Manuiloff's The State was a political experiment that provided a very hilarious - and I'm sure very Croatian - outcome.

Apologies today to Fika Danza, whose work Calamaleonte Primo (Chameleon First) again shows my shortcomings in dance criticism. Gotta go and get that dance criticism training.

The Lowest Spot in Zagreb

I am terrible at working in public space. I don't know why - I think it's the built-up fear that I have of police, poverty, maybe even social interaction. These fears build up over time - through not exercising your rights, you forget about them - through not taking risk , you never know the limitations imposed on yourself or others. And these limitations are undoubtedly important: our freedoms in public space are a symbolic representation of our freedoms more generally, often expressed in the right to freely protest (an interesting question now), the right to occupy (hmmm....), the right to human mobility (er....) and the right to employ space for something other than commercial use (...forget about it).

I'm sure there is no section in Croatian regulations on public space specifically defending the citizen's right to dress up as Spider-man and climb public flag poles, clock towers and bollards in Zagreb's main square whilst firing pretend webbing from your wrists at people and making a "pfffttteeeiiiiuuu!" sound. But that's what happened in Dror Lieberman's The Lowest Point in Zagreb, an adaptation from the Israeli dancer's The Lowest Point in Tel Aviv, itself an adaptation of a similar work in Berlin's Alexanderplatz in 2013. Lieberman leads a group of willing co-conspirators to a safe location nearby, and ceremonially puts on his Spider-man outfit whilst telling the story of the tragic context for the development of the performance - taking a chance on a dance collaboration led Lieberman from Tel Aviv to Berlin, and the rejection from the collaboration, as well as a subsequent rejection from his 'beautiful Polish girlfriend', provided the nihilist groundwork from which he could explore 'what can be done when you have no fear'.

There's a potent nature to this opening: as audience we are in on the joke, but also imagining exactly what death-defying stunts will be performed activates the city space, and looking around Zagreb at the possibilities is a creative experience in itself. The previous night's Neither Light nor Soft gave a good indication of both Lieberman's physical capability - honed in the Israeli military - and his (performative?) death drive. This drawn-out opening is a perfect theatrical suspense for the subsequent physical suspense to come.

And the payoff is certainly there, as Lieberman leads us through public spaces of Zagreb dressed as Spider-man, interacting with the clearly overjoyed locals who respond in different ways - some theatrically evading his web-shots, children approaching him for a high-five. At one point a bride on her wedding day starts to fire back in one of those beautiful improvised moments where the 'citizen' throws off their embarrassment and offers a moment of joyful participation.

Lieberman pauses occasionally to continue the narrative, and these parts themselves are interesting, as a small crowd has gathered by this time and are now hopelessly drawn into the story. The Zagrebians seemed entertained and not-at-all uncertain about Lieberman's dangerous choices, to the point where they stand underneath Lieberman taking photos as he scales a 15-metre clock tower. No police arrive, presumably for fear of being caught in the web, and people just mill about freely, clearly enjoying the escape from reality.

It's a beautiful conceit well executed, and here I feel Lieberman's masculine anxieties are better-employed in the trope of the superhero - ironically, the parallels between Lieberman's story are not dissimilar in their tragic nature to those of actual superhero narratives - the sense of loss of desire, the flushing out of all emotion, and the masculine self-punishment that follows are common to Spider-man, Batman, you name it I guess. The risks in public places are also wonderful to watch, and seeing Lieberman transgress the limitations is fascination and at the same time embarrassing. There's a negotiation of public space involved that's politically important too - and Lieberman's nihilism allows him to occupy the space of surrogate and surpass these limitations on our behalf, creating in a way a new kind of superhero - for the new oppressive politics determining the borders of mobility.

Re-volt Athens

To be honest I was a little paralysed by Re-volt Athens, a collaboration between director Elli Papakonstintinou and Odc Ensemble. There is no denying the situation in Greece is bad: if you want you can read the media about it, if you want to go deeper you can look at the statistics, the downward spiral, the insightful but depressing stories from Varoufakis, and if you want to go deeper still you can hear some of the personal stories from people. It is an absolute disaster, one made by humans in an inhuman way, and the consensus from economists is that it will get worse before it gets better. If it gets better at all. It is both a symbolic and a human tragedy, and it is directly taking lives.

The collaborators have decided to approach the crisis, ostensibly because there is little else left in Greece which has any meaning, doing so through the lens of gentrification. The performance begins in a project space, with cameras anxiously circling a table with models and the collaborators measuring, co-ordinating, working. Performer Rosa Prodromou announces herself as our host with a glamorous welcome, initiating a kind of weird stand-up routine of Greek cliches, a la travel TV. We are told that Greece has the best beaches, the best islands, the best bodies ready to pleasure you. By the time we get to our 'tour of Athens' an underbelly is introduced, forming a factual counter-narrative of violence, suffering, and 200% taxes. The traditional Zorba is intermingled with more painful melodies, as the audience plunges slowly into crisis.

At some point, things take an even darker turn. A musician, playing a rare dialogue interjection, proposes to sell a few of the islands - 'just the shitty ones, with the rocks. No-one lives on them'. Rosa is horrified. The musician's response is characteristic of our age: "Why not? I don't believe in anything anymore. I just want a little better quality of life (shrugs)". Rosa opens the question to the audience: "What should we believe in, then? Who has an idea what we should believe in?" It's a request met with silence.

To be fair, the offer is not totally honest. I'm sure I'm not the only audience member with at least some non-cynical answers to such questions, hopeless though the situation may be. So the silence is not totally an honest void, either - the right to speak is not really there, the possibilities already thoroughly diffused by the premise. Community? Family? Love? Such answers seemed like they would just be met with further scorn. So they were left unsaid.

The finale is a cataclysmic spectacle -  a half-naked Rosa is ceremonially sprayed gold as a goddess - perhaps Athena or Nike,  and a series of distorted electric guitar is accompanied by images of crisis and suffering. There's something dutiful about the execution, as though the artist are merely filling a brief here, completing the argument, as it were.

Aside of some questionable statements about refugee body parts inconveniencing the locals by floating in the water - not quite as inconvenienced as the refugee in that instance, and drawing some rightfully angry responses afterward - it's a solid enough attempt to communicate a political reality. If it doesn't feel so emotionally connected, that's probably because of the level of jaded exhaustion in Greece at the moment, artists included - on the same loop, no end in sight. It's unlikely that a performance like this one will break that loop, but it does communicate a particular anger which can't be refused - that, I guess, is just the feeling at the moment. Is it realistic to expect anything else from Greek artists, until a change is actually made which addresses the causes of the crisis?

The State

There's an eerie suspense to The State - Bulgarian writer Alexander Manuiloff's social/theatre experiment. It's kind of all about tension: the drama of knowing/unknowing, the politics of intervention, the kind of paralysis or indecision which plagues us in our quest for freedom. Can we be masters of our own destiny? Or are we tools, manipulated by some unseen master? Are we even authentic in this quest for freedom? Or are we actors in some staged play? After all, The State makes us literal actors in the negotiation of the play, creating an autonomy and sense of unpredictability to both the outcome and their own identities. As Forced Entertainment's Tim Etchells says in his comments on the work, the 'actors in this case are: "Scripted characters that worry at the drama, object to its decisions and circumstances, reflect on its lack of honesty and so on are at a kind of premium here, speaking to the situation of the performance, whilst doubling, layering and extending it."

Such dilemmas clearly never met the audience members of Faki, who, once it dawned on them that they had the freedom to dictate terms, basically just tore up the script and went straight for the pot of gold at the end. In scenes which would surely make any Croatian baka proud, the audience made full use of their autonomy to 'cut through the bullshit' and resolve the situation. Where Etchell's mentions that "Layers of real and structural violence draw the readers in, making them complicit in a kind of powerful but second-hand drama", the audience of Faki shrugged, said something like 'I ain't complicit in nothing', and tried to find out how to end it as quickly as possible so that they could get a beer.

Observing/participating in this hilarity of the carefully layered dramaturgical project being broken up was like looking in an angry bull in a china shop, or perhaps a kid reading a novel who wants to know how it ends and just skips to the last page. But politically, I felt it was a little more meaningful than that. Whereas many anglophone cultures need their politics with a heavy dose of narrative, taking pleasure in the suspense, the characters, and so on, Croatia doesn't seem to be one of them - the art of storytelling left to the elderly, the punk rockers and certain other social situations, normally with a healthy dose of melancholia and nostalgia. Politics is for the politicians. They should sort it out as efficiently as possible, and the less it makes the news, the better.

It was a negotiation not without its own politics - one historically accustomed to disappointment, not to entertaining the fantastic ideas of freedom, reaching instead straight for the bucket and setting fire to it. There's a particular freedom in that, and to be honest, in an age of endless Trump articles, it was kind of refreshing. Maybe the answer is less narrative, not more.

Etchells ends his analysis with that claim that the play is "reflecting on the conditions of performance that nonetheless harnesses the power of narrative to look at real political issues". It's nice to know there are alternatives to that.

The Lowest Spot in Zagreb  
Devised by Dror Lieberman with assistance from Idit Herman
Performed by Dror Lieberman

Re-volt Athens

Elli Papakonstantinou and Odc Ensemble 
Directed by Elli Papakonstantinou
Performed by Rosa Prodromou, Pantelis Makkas and Tilemachos Moussas
Visuals by Pantelis Makkas
Music by Tilemachos Moussas

The State
by Alexander Manuiloff

Photo Credits:  Josip Viskovic and Florian Eibel 

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