Monday, May 21, 2018

Gog/Magog 4: Europe

Gog/Magog 4: Europe is the fourth installment of a performance series by German label ‘internil’ in collaboration with Israeli artist Moran Sanderovich. I wasn’t blessed with the opportunity to view the other instalments of the series, but if the fourth and last, titled ‘Europe’, is anything to go by, the previous three are worth chasing up at some time when your correspondent is blessed with just slightly more capacity than is currently available to him.

Basically a rumination on ‘crisis’ from the perspective of Europe, Gog/Magog 4 is a truly terrifying gesture, the likes of which are increasingly common in contemporary theatre arts. Not content with mere fear or immunisation in synthetic drama, artists are going deeper to mine the darker parts of humanity’s current expression, with the artist becoming the human - often soothing - front to a truly desperate global discourse. It’s a cynical frame that employs actors as human agents in the way that neoliberalism does – smiling, human fronts to a deeply anti-human project – in order to mirror the conditions (or some specific conditions for specific people, but its increasingly global) of our present existence.

The Europe instalment follows on from other previous examinations of conflict zones of Ukraine, Syria, and Israel, also performed at Berlin-Mitte’s Theaterdiscounter. This time, the conflict is closer to home, and it probably shows in the level of discomfort for both actors (nearly all European I suppose) and audience. The Eurocentric content is deliberately deployed to unsettle ‘our’ resource-filled, satisfaction-saturated existence, and to press the buttons which hurt most – from economic and cultural superiority, to white supremacy, to capitalist exploitation.

For all this, Gog/Magog 4 manifests in quite a charitable, Christian form. The leader of this cycle (in English at least), Arne Vogelgesang, welcomes us with a Jesus-like serenity, and insists that we should put protective covers on our shoes (which actually were totally unnecessary). We are led to the amphitheatrical installation, a half-circle surrounded by scrim projections animated by Sanderovich’s surreal designs, and invited to sit on flesh-covered cushions. Then, the first of 6 ‘learning streams’ begins.

Essentially, these streams navigate through different facets of European-ness, from identity (in which we are ‘treated’ to a rap from a fictional far-right identitarian group), to survival training for the coming apocalypse led by Christopher Hotti Böhm, to various biblical references. ‘Stream’ is a good word for these vignettes, as after a while they blend into each other, merging and fading like pedagogical dreams. At one point, the audience is asked to hold paper towel, and throw it when they have heard enough, only to be hit with a barrage of discourse about environmental catastrophe (I threw the towel almost immediately, as from experience such barrages of profoundly negative information have a paradoxically anti-environmental effect).

The unholiest of these streams, and one which pushes the posthumanist argument of Gog/Magog 4 to its end, is Marina Miller Dessau’s eerie inhabiting of a newly-designed Japanese robot being presented to the public for the first time. I’ve always found something inherently theatrical about seeing a human impersonate a robot. Something about animating the inanimate. I find it even more disturbing than the constant stream of media narratives threatening the opposite (robots successfully impersonating humans). Here, Dessau achieves a breath-taking level of empathy with the ‘character’, truly dead behind the eyes, and achieving a truly spellbinding effect as the robot sings her first song, characteristically Bjork’s famous A.I anthem All is Full of Love.

Perhaps the show’s biggest successes are Brandon Miller’s musical interludes, seamlessly interwoven in the text of the play and housed by its framing as a religious ritual. Miller’s music is quintessential American storytelling with an extra dose of nostalgia, and here the lyrics seem to jump off the page as remembrances of a peaceful time of hope, love, and potential happiness. These function dramaturgically as a counterpoint to the dark content of the streams, and in doing so lend the music an additional resonance borne of dystopian context.

Despite the power of its bleak dystopia, I naturally wondered if alternatives were possible. Throughout this writing platform, I have constantly argued for more optimistic and less cynical responses to present conditions. If we’re going to be Eurocentric, and I think there are certain arguments where this can be productive, then let’s do it with purpose and reason – not to sell a vision of the future which can only confirm our deepest and darkest fears. Besides, as Vogelgesang even states at one point whilst explaining the giant island of plastic garbage floating in the Pacific Ocean, ‘you already know this’. And yet, that itself is a particularly Eurocentric despair – that what has been explored has already been explored, ‘there are no new ideas’. All of which amounts to saying – stop exploring, it’s already over.

That’s not true for everyone, even in Europe, let alone for the rest of the planet, and repeating it only reinforces the hegemony of the European narrative with all its current bleakness. Possibly these antagonisms were reinforced by the quasi-provocative nature of the performance, and its faux-participatory nature, constantly inviting intervention without offering real opportunity to do so. Rather than cause a negative reaction of a play (which after all, all but proclaimed its Eurocentrism in its title), it only makes me wonder about the other installments – two of which were not set in Europe (Ukraine in geographical if not political Europe). Were attempts made to surpass this apocalyptic vision, to see things from a different point of view, to reach through crisis to a new beginning – after all, so desperately needed?

Judging from the thematic content I can glean from the previous manifestations of the series, the focus on Ukraine seems to have been truth and mythologies, in Syria the power of personal testimony, and in Israel a study of the material effects of borders. This would appear to answer my questions somewhat – that the cynical conclusion, far from being a proclamation (even accidental) of European sovereignty, is rather an affirmation that Europe does not have the answers to these crises. Which raises the natural next question, (almost never asked): Does Europe then have the right to ask the questions?

Gog/Magog 4: Europe

Theaterdiscounter Berlin, until May 20th 
(performances in English and German)


Christopher Hotti Böhm (Multimedia/Sound)

Brandon Miller (Songs)

Marina Miller Dessau (Performance)

Juri Rendler (Light)

Moran Sanderovich (Artistic Design)

Arne Vogelgesang (Performance/3D)

Robert Wolf (Technical Lead/Light).

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