About Things You Can't See

Berlin acquired a new festival – Foreign Affairs. It will be taking place in June, each time – with a new curator.  The first festival was already conducted in October without waiting for the summer to come. Thomas Oberender, the new director of the Berliner Festspiele, entrusted the task of drawing up the programme "of the theatre festival and performing arts" to the Belgium-born Frie Leysen and unequivocally announced the change of course: Berlin  has no intention of simply showing hits, Berlin will be creating them.



The programme that Frie Leysen made public at a press conference had the journalists and critics hold their collective breaths in reverence at first, then exhale a nearly unanimous "Finally!" and burst into applause. Berlin wasn't exactly overloaded with unexciting productions.  And yet the Spielzeit’europa, the new festival's predecessor, was criticized in recent years for its "nice appearance".   Frie Leysen made it clear that she was prepared to risk the box office and the audience's habits for the sake of new names ("A big name does not always mean a big artist"), a broadened geography (an "International" festival does not mean only "Western"), and new formats ("We are not a festival of nice little projects").  Twenty-two performances by nineteen artists, chosen by Leyson exclusively according to her own taste, needed to show how a topical production differs from "the best" one.   The curator voiced a trend she observed: "The emergence of people with a completely new outlook.  These are artists, who move away from cynicism and return to utopia.  They believe that the world can be changed." 


The Utopians

In promising to give the audience the authors, i.e. the thinkers and visionaries, who pull the ideas for their productions out of their own heads, to put it crudely, instead of interpretations (We are not a festival that shows the 25th  version of "A Cabal of Hypocrites"), Frie Leysen was telling the absolute truth.  Virtually all the artists announced in the programme, with the exception of "pure" professionals like the famous choreographers Boris Charmatz and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, turned out to be jacks of all trades, combining theatre directing  with other professions.  Like Argentina's Federico Leуn, for instance, who opened the festival.  A film author, a playwright, and a director, who made a name for himself through his collaboration with Bob Wilson and the most large-scale project in Argentine theatre history.  The German version of his Las Multitudes features 108 Berliners and 13 Argentineans.  Separated by age categories – old folks, teenagers, young people, small children – they move about on stage and perform collective actions.   Looking for someone, who got lost, for instance.  Or reconciling those, who had a falling out.  Or arranging a meeting between an old lady and one old man, who is in love with her but is afraid to say it.  The simple actions here cause a chain reaction.  People imitate each other like monkeys, thankfully, copying only the good.  

The "human landscape" (as Leуn himself defines the genre) that is formed as a result of this natural choreography, appears to be so peaceful that it truly sends the audience back to the classic utopias, the ones that can't be reached, it would seem, without first removing every single work written after Marx and Freud from the bookshelf.  Whether it is naпvetй or  nostalgia for collectivity (not for democracy, where everyone has their own truth, but collectivity with its simple rituals like the tug of war and its rules of life that are the same for all) – it makes no difference.  The result of the project is not so much artistic as it is humanitarian.  Barefoot people in simple clothes look like residents of a big village that civilization with all of its temptations has not yet managed to reach.  The  lanterns they use to light only the necessary portion of their path serve to complete the idyllic picture: happiness, as it turns out, is possible, when you can see no further than your very own nose.  The director himself expressed the goal of the project in very romantic terms: "I would like for the audience to remember every one of these 120 people." 


The Voyeurs 

Leуn's production does leave you with a slight feeling of awkwardness, not to say  amateurishness – the director does not handle the crowd very inventively, and it is impossible to remember every one of the actors.  The high-tech project titled "300 EL х 50 EL х 30 EL" evens the professional  score.  The authors, five young Belgian artists that make up the FC Bergman company, raise the same topical question of "How do we live together?" in a much stricter fashion and answer it much more realistically.   The definition of the genre makes one uneasy at first: "A theatre play about things you can't see," the programme says.  And there is really nothing you can see on stage – an empty clearing, village houses, standing in a semi-circle, and a man, sitting almost motionless by the pond: fishing, smoking, watching the audience. A wonderful insight into the mysteries of people's communal life is made possible thanks to a group of people with a film camera that moves on special rails along the backstage side of the houses, hidden from the view of the audience.    The things that the camera "oversees" are instantly broadcasted onto stage screens.  A boy is torturing a pigeon in the first house, a wife is terrorizing her husband in the second, a girl is tormenting the piano in the third, and in the fourth - a company of beer-pumped country bumpkins is playing "Wilhelm Tell", shooting at a frightened boy using whatever they could find. 

At first glance they are all sadists, terrorists, perverts.  Thankfully, however, the camera takes another look, and a third one, and a fourth.  With every visit of the film crew we find out something new about "things you can't see". The camera peels off layer after layer, as if trying to get to the original by deleting one "fake" after another.  But the plots become more and more surrealistic, absurd, much like the actions of the people: one woman, who ate a hearty dinner in the first episode, is "finishing off" furniture in the second; while the one, who was straining on the toilet for several scenes in a row, is shown holding several "newborn" seashells in her lap in the final scene.  The idea that we don't always have correct understanding of what we are seeing, that reality is multi-layered, and one thing is often pretending to be something else – is a simple one, but it is expressed with breathtaking freedom and wisdom.  Not a single overused image.  not a single clichй.  How do they manage it – to be cultured and original at the same time? As though before them, there was no history of art, whose resources they manipulate so masterfully.   

The camera's swift movement "cracks" the reality like a source code to the sound of Vivaldi's solemn tunes.  And that reality, much like the woman with a seashell, gives birth to something unexpected.   The villagers, seemingly indifferent to each other (it is clear that the village refers, at the very least, to Belgium, and, at most, to the world as a whole) show sudden solidarity, when a couple of lovers – a girl and a soldier – try to escape. The plot that seemed  outdated – who would chase after someone these days, catch up to them, and lock them up? –turns out to be quite forward-looking.  Taking into account the nostalgia for community that makes some sing in chorus and others – to persecute the dissidents, lapsing into the most unremarkable, archaic sectarianism. In the production's finale, the characters rush out onto the clearing, dowse themselves with holy water from buckets and begin prancing about like men possessed.  At some point, real people, recruited for the project literally from the street, join this dance, filled with religious  frenzy.  The light comes on for a moment, and the Berliners on stage look at the Berliners in the audience.  The fourth wall comes down, the boundary between the real and the virtual is erased.   It turns out that the gap between the "we" in the audience and the "they" on stage is not as big as we thought.  And who is scrutinizing whom here is not so important.


The Accessories

South African director Brett Bailey also makes us peek.  The EXIBIT B project is something of a horror show: the audience is admitted in batches inside a round building of a former water tower, where it is cold, dark, and damp.  This exhibition is set up as a "human zoo".  The principal attraction of the 19th century, the slaves of the past and the migrants of the present are represented by real people – Africans living in Berlin.   Next to every "living exhibit" is a plaque with historical commentary and demographic data: height, weight, country of origin… It is impossible to read all of that, because the exhibit is watching you with live and seemingly accusing eyes.  And it's not like anyone is forcing anything on you: look if you want to, or keep walking if you don't.  Whatever happens, though, the visitor – and herein lies Bailey's provocation – ends up feeling guilty and responsible for all the history's horrors.  The visitor not only shapes his own entertainment, but also plays a role, without which the show simply does not work.  In this case, the role is that of a reluctant racist. 

An Argentinean project "Pueden dejar lo que quieran" by writer and director Fernando Rubio no longer has anything that could realistically be "seen". The people in the audience are not shown the production – they are deposited into it, placed inside.  The actors let the audience inside a room, where the floor, the walls and the curtain are all made from old clothes.  Some of the things have notes attached to them with biographical accounts about their former owners. The members of the audience are seated on long benches; the curtain is used to separate the room into small sections, so every actor gets a turn with a small group of spectators.  And again nothing happens.  Nothing visual.  The actors look the audience in the eyes and talk about the collection.  They do not tell you anything special.  They only want you to feel how terrible it is: the disappearance of a person and the subject matter.   So you would understand that these things used to contain human beings.  Beings that filled them, wore them.  The actors simply talk for an hour and then release the ill-at-ease, emotionally affected people from the rag-made room.   

Italian pianist Marino Formenti likewise offered the audience to change the status.  Choosing as his stage a little house, constructed in the courtyard of Haus der Berliner Festspiele by Japanese architect Sakaguchi expressly for that purpose, he was playing the piano... for almost an entire month, from 11 in the morning to 11 at night!  (Sakaguchi has his own conception of ecological and economical architecture of the future that was the subject of a separate exhibition).   No spectator can "sit through" a performance that long, that's why they are allowed to come in whenever they want, leave when they get bored, listen to what they like, and "lounge" as long as they want on the mattresses strewn all around the floor.  

Japanese director Daisuke Miura, who presented the project titled Love’s Whirlpool at the festival, would classify this type of audience "participation" as rather "lazy", formed by the habit of spending time in front of the television.    In researching the intrusion of TV-series, interactive shows and commercials into private life, Miura, who counts himself among the typical representatives of the "TV generation", demonstrates how visual templates model people's behavior. Young men and women, unacquainted with one another, come to a night club in order to have sex.  They begin talking to each other, and it becomes clear that for one young man this is his first time, and another is simply too terribly shy to meet a girl, so he took the money for school that his parents sent to him from the village and came here.  It's not about sex, as it turns out – "buying" personal interaction like any other service appears to be more natural than creating it.  Miura's caricatural and, at the same time, very touching research puts its own spin on the diagnosis that director Romeo Castellucci, who presented his project "The Four Seasons Restaurant", already famous for its Avignon performance, identified as "visual bulimia", while Argentina's Rodrigo Garcнa in his production of "Gуlgota Picnic" expressed by laying out hamburger buns on stage and filling the screen with cultural and religious shoddies. 

Nobody knows how to treat it.  But it's a source of comfort that the processes, which force the artists to certify the "death of entertainment", simultaneously drive them to search for ways to handle the "emptiness" of stage and life.  

Olga Gerdt

Photos are provided by the festival Foreign Affairs



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