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Katja Praznik /// Theatre, Emancipation and Political Power: Two Cases From the Past

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The emancipatory function of theater in the territory of ex-Yugoslavia has some specific traits. Since the falling apart of Yugoslavia, or better, of self-managing socialism, things have taken a turn. However, let me first dwell in the past in order to make my argument.

While the official culture and the network of institutional theatres in Slovenia (one of the six republics of the ex-Yugoslavia) had the role of mirroring the political and social values of the Yugoslav self-managing socialism,[1] there were a number of professionals who organized themselves outside the context of the official culture.[2] Theatre institutions, along with the Academy for Theater, Film, Radio and Television, represented the dominant structure in control of the production, distribution and education of theatre in the Slovenia, in which theatre was predominantly understood as drama theatre and where the literary text played the starring role. This was not at all a coincidence, as language and literature were the bearers of national identity; therefore, the theatres were one of the main fortresses enforcing this identity. Despite the monopoly over theater culture, this system had a certain amount of tolerance, which allowed deviations in order to sustain the image of tolerance. Between the late 1950s and the 1990s, we therefore witnessed the emergence of a number of experimental groups and alternative theater and dance groups in Slovenia.[3]

I will focus here on few specific theater cases that emerged in the 1980s. They arose from the secular space of the streets and their bearers were the students. “The identity of these groups depended on the creation of a completely new, underground system of culture and currency of communication.”[4] These experimental or alternative culture groups also took a decisive and active role in the rising political and social upheavals that led to the breaking apart of Yugoslavia in 1991. “The organization of this new cultural space was a complex process that deeply inflected the meaning of the term ‘alternative culture’ and grew into one of the most potent cultural and political democratizating forces of the decade.”[5]

The specificity of the emancipatory function that these theatre groups (as well as others – music, visual arts, etc.) performed lies not only in the fact that the practices were trans-nationally oriented, but also that they produced a special social sphere that was critical to self-managing socialism as well as to the bourgeoisie and to capitalism. Its main stance was not anti-socialist but rather fighting for a different practice and definition of social relations and organization. They were, on the one hand, trying to create alternative spaces of difference outside dominant structures; or, as Nikolai Jeffs puts it: “The issue was not socialism or capitalism, but rather the possibility of developing a cultural production – and above all, a society – that would transcend both formations.”[6] On the other hand, they were producing visions that encouraged a reform of the rigid models of socialism, their improvement, modernization and democratization, and were rehabilitating the culture of the avant-garde and other suppressed aesthetic and discursive practices in order to establish parallel institutions; or, in the words of Miran Mohar: “It is important to stress that our position from the beginning has not been to operate against existing institutions, or outside these institutions, but to create a parallel institution.”[7]

Case One: The FV 112/15 Theater

FV 112/15, a group of artists, performers, musicians and club-organizers, was one of the main avant-garde movements in Slovenia whose influence reached all over ex-Yugoslavia. The group comprised the heart of Ljubljana’s counterculture and alternative youth culture in the 1980s. The group started as the FV 112/15 Theater; however, the scope of its activities soon included further activities, such as organizing club events, concerts, video screenings, conferences, visual art, video production and documentation and the music and performance art of the group Boghesia, as well as producing records and audio cassettes through the music label FV Zaloћba.[8] For the purposes of my argument, I will only focus here briefly on the theatre activities of the group, which was founded in the 1980 and chose the very particular, coded name of FV 112/15 Theater. The name refers to France Verbinc’s (FV) local, frequently used Dictionary of Foreign Terms, page 112, entry 15, where we find the following: C’est la guerre – This is war, that’s how it is in war. We can interpret the name in the light of the extremity of the social situation at that time.

The FV 112/15 Theatre did not have any direct connections to the mainstream theatre circles; therefore, they were deliberately operating on the margin, or outside the institutions. However, “[t]he members of FV 112/15 sought to create a theater that would perform in urbane clubs and thus transcend the limits of standard theater in terms of its topography, concerts, aesthetics, and target audience.”[9] Despite the fact that the FV 112/15 Theatre was not interested in entering the mainstream theatre circles, they left a mark on theatre; yet even more importantly, they influenced the emancipation of social life that took place through art by propelling such ideas as autonomous creativity, demilitarization, sexual emancipation and gay & lesbian rights. “As the creators or producers of various spaces and events, the members of FV encouraged changes in private everyday lives that bridged the gulf and alienation between private life and public life. /…/ The appropriation of public space (through clubs, posters, and so on) and artistic engagement (in theatre, video, and the music group Borghesia, among other things) affirmed the right to difference. All this made an important contribution to the democratization of forms of sociability, art and politics.”[10]

Through their theatre work, the group was practicing “expanded consciousness” sessions. There, the group members were studying and discussing different sources that were inspiring their work, from the avant-garde to the American beatniks to Partisan films. These sources would then be integrated in their performance compositions based on collective authorship and collage. “These performances were assembled by combining autonomous scenes, each of which was staged in a different style following the rehearsals of the ‘expanded consciousness’ sessions.”[11] Their first performance was in March 1981, under the title FV-112/15, and was soon followed by the next three: The Big May Show (in May), Nothing Should Surprise Us (in June) and Life Acts (in November). In 1982, they made two performances, Monopolies (in April) and It Smelled Like Spring (in June), while the performance Who Turned Out the Light (in June 1983) was not performed live but by FV Video and Borghesia. Their shows were characterized by a collage of autonomous scenes staged in different styles, while the scenes consisted of quotes ranging from Partisan films to the historic avant-garde, as well as to dialogues from Chekhov imitating the naturalistic theatre style. “The very precisely composed soundtracks of music and speech and the highly designed lighting gave the actors an opportunity to move between distinct and formally separate audiovisual layers.”[12] In 1982, the FV 112/15 Theater took over the organization of Tuesday evenings/nights in the student discotheque, where they continued to practice theatre through other means.[13] “In the autumn, the group requested and received a weekly night on which it could present its theater shows at the disco; these shows were based on a demand for totality between the space, the action, and the public. The public had to enter the action itself, to come onto the stage, so to speak, and the stage was the entire club.”[14]

What was specific for the FV 112/15 was the tactical combination and subsequent transcendence of the specialized and separated domains of economy and aesthetics, in which they combined activism and art. “FV members fought for sexual, cultural, and political emancipation. The group neither isolated themselves socially, as sometimes happens with countercultural phenomena, nor were they instrumentalized or assimilated by the ruling structures and ideologies. In the dilemma of whether to do only activism or only art, FV combined both: they were a form of ‘utopian activism’. The group never in any way stressed national identity as a productive intersection or necessary intermediate stage between local and global identity. FV represented an alternative both to party structures and to bourgeois politics.”[15]

Case Two: The Scipion Nasice Sisters Theatre

The Scipion Nasice Sisters Theatre (SNST) was founded in 1983 by three students – Eda Иufer (dramaturg), Dragan Ћivadinov (director) and Miran Mohar (set designer) – but their names were not publicly known until the self-abolishment of the theatre in 1987. The work of the group was strongly connected to critique of the national(istic) drama/text-based theatre and the rigid system of institutions that represented the official theatre culture. Therefore, their name is not a coincidence; it was inspired by a reference in Antonin Artaud’s essay “Theatre and the Plague” to Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica Corculum, a Roman magistrate who issued an order calling for the destruction of all Roman theatres. The theatre announced at the beginning that its existence would be limited in duration – until the theatre fulfilled its mission. This mission was presented in the Scipion Nasice Sisters’ founding manifesto, where it was proclaimed that the SNST “has no Stage” and that its aim therefore was to renew the art of theatre. The existence of SNST would be limited to four years and the last action of the SNST would be self-abolishment. The SNST program would be organized on two levels, the external, which would consist of manifestos, and the internal, which would be creative. The first consisted in its appearance, resurrection and self-abolishment; Underground, Exorcism and Retro-classics comprised the second level. Besides the founding manifesto, the SNST also published a series of manifestos (called Sisters Letters) as well as one-minute dramas that supported their theatre actions and events. One of the more telling documents was “The First Sisters Letter” (1983), which was publish before the first performance – “Retro-garde Event Hinkeman” (1984) – and in which the SNST made an equation between the theater and the State, defining this relation as the key aesthetic issue. “Theater does not exist between the Spectator and the Actor”, rather the “Theater is a State.[16] If, in the modern State, the subsystems become segmented and perform their different functions, where the sphere of art is usually subordinate, here we have a radically different position, where a theatre movement re-appropriates the State.[17] Similar to the ideas of the FV 112/15 Theater, in SNST, we are again confronted with the idea of theatre transcending its confined space/domain, not only on the level of spectator and actor but on the level of theater and general social organization as well. Although, the crucial difference here is that the SNST – which, in 1984, co-established the larger art collective Neue Slovenische Kunst (NSK) – was engaged in building a parallel social structure (the State) through artistic practices. They did not oppose the idea of a State, but were engaged in the utopian idea of a different kind of State.

“Retro-garde Event Hinkeman” took place in the private apartment of Igor Љmid in Ljubljana, and the 37 invited participants were taken to the site of the event by a nun, a priest and a Yugoslav Army (JLA) officer. The second performance – “Retro-garde Event Marija Nablocka” (1985) – took place in an abandoned studio in a bourgeois house in Ljubljana, again with a small number of participants. Before the performance, the “Second Sisters Letter” was published, where the theatre took on the role of a State as the SNST stated that “it was expelling religion and ideology into ‘the mirror image of the arts, thereby abolishing them’”[18] and thus embraced a totalitarian position. The third and last performance, “Retro-garde Event Baptism Under Triglav” (1986), took place in the newly built institution, the Cultural and Congress Center Cankarjev dom, on its biggest stage, in front of an audience of 2,000 spectators. In the “Third Sisters Letter”, yet another turn took place as the SNST developed the idea of “re-baptizing”, which, in their view, was inherent to all history, where re-baptizing takes place not only in the domain of religions, but can be perceived in all epochs of history, where one system of values is ever transformed into another.

The sources of inspiration for the SNST were closely related to the utopian potential of the historical avant-gardes; they were reading Brecht, Artaud, Appia, Craig and Meyerhold. Regardless of the fact that SNST was defined by the mode of its existence, which was expressed as an aesthetic vision, the group sought to create a social platform where the current political and social organization would be critically assessed by the means of creative stage practice. This stage practice was trying to perform the living experience of the conflict between tradition and the avant-garde. “The Scipion Nasice Sisters Theater regards the utopian instinct as an innate, but not acquired, value that exists in man in the form of a desire for a unity with the Cosmic, Aesthetic and Moral elements. That is why the creation of the style of the Scipion Nasice Sisters Theater cannot originate in the Actor, Space, or Staging, but only in Culture and Civilization, renewed and recurrently traumatized in the retro-production of the Scipion Nasice Sisters Theater.”[19] The last performance of the SNST, with which the group completed its mission of establishing a new kind of theatre that would “migrate from its marginal position to the central stage of the city,”[20] produced a rupture and an extensive public discussion because it was treating the sacred national symbols in a subversive way where the national heroes became empty ideological monuments/signs that were used in a “completely nonliterary, nondramatic, and purely linear event.”[21] Here again, the common social codes and patterns were attacked through the field of art, the aim of which was nothing less than to cause the reformation of the social status quo as well as the static and rigid perception of art itself.

Back to the Present, or, What We Talk About When We Talk About Emancipation

When we talk about these historical cases of theatre and their emancipation power, we have to acknowledge that they were relating in a true sense to the utopian avant-gardistic ideas of art and the theatre as a community of living bodies that establishes its own principles or rules of social organization. In the case of FV 112/15, the theatre became a living experience in a disco that was not there in order to entertain the masses but was, in fact, a liberated zone of sexual (gay & lesbian rights, the creation of one’s one life and not of the life of others), political (they were not interested in fighting for the ruling position in a dominant structure) and cultural (creating areas in which the dominant laws do not apply, and where the abolition or substitution of these laws is not the issue) emancipation.[22]

In the case of SNST, art was trying to appropriate the status of the State; they defined theatre as a State, pointing to the relation between the State’s tendency toward stability and power and its basic disorganization on the level of content as being the key aesthetic issue.[23]The SNST not only violated the central paradigm of text-based theater, re-baptizing the theater with a new visual discourse, but also violated the national identity by profaning the sacred national cultural symbols, thereby (again) re-baptizing those symbols, hitting a nerve in the Slovene national self-image, all by its authority as the (self-proclaimed) State. This “re-baptizing” had its real effect, causing “a real drama in the auditorium and on the broader public stage”,[24] thereby, for a brief moment in time, actualizing SNST’s radical proposition.

All these things were happening in a very specific historical context of social turbulence when the political system of self-managing socialism was about to fall apart and where it was not yet clear that the neo-liberal capitalistic social organization would prevail, a context that offered the space in which the ideas and visions of a new social order were being proposed. The visions that came out of this new space, and the attempts to enact these visions, were not primarily focusing on the issues of spectatorship (trying to emancipate the audience); this is because the visions of a new society were coming out of the common struggle of both the artists as well as the participants (or, spectators, if you like). The question was what kind of society or social organization did we want after socialism; and the alternative culture in Slovenia managed to connect its aesthetic production with social engagement.

Things have taken a turn since those times and that is because the context has changed – it has been re-baptized by (neo-liberal) capitalism. The issue now is not so much that there are no longer any radical gestures similar to the ones by FV 112/15 or SNST, but rather that, in the new social order, the radical gestures are being neutralized or fetishized. Whereas Ranciиre[25] believes spectatorship is at issue, I believe that the issue is the position of art in the social organization.

The issue of spectatorship cannot be put at a strategic cross point in the discussion of the relationship between art and politics, especially in the geopolitical context, where neo-liberal capitalism is the dominant principle of social organization. In the age of neo-liberal capitalism, which is also the age of mass media, the theatre is secondary in terms of mass impact and, therefore, of politics. Theatre, as well as art in general, in most cases, has become a commodity. This is because art in neo-liberal capitalism is being faced with a quickly disappearing public sphere[26] as well as a radically alienated state of affairs on both the collective and personal levels.[27]What we need to discuss, therefore, is not so much the relations within arts or the theatre, but rather the new forms of social organization and the possible positions of art within those forms. Even if this would require “a cultural revolution, to begin with.”[28]

 


[1] Eda Иufer, “Behind the Curtains”, Impossible Histories, Dubravka Djuriж and Miљko Љuvakoviж (eds.), MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2003, p. 378.

[2] In this text, I will focus on the territory of Slovenia.

[3] For the context of dance, see Katja Praznik, “Between the Avant-garde, Modernism and Amateurism: A Fragmentary History of Contemporary Dance in Ljubljana in the 1960s and 1970s”, Maska, pp. 68–85.

[4] Eda Иufer, “Behind the Curtains”, Impossible Histories, Dubravka Djuriж and Miљko Љuvakoviж (eds.), MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2003, p. 385.

[5] Ibid., p. 385.

[6] Nikolai Jeffs, “FV and the ‘Third Scene’, 1980–1990”, FV Alternativa osemdestih/Alternative Scene of the Eighties, Lilijana Stepanиiи, Breda Љkrjanec (eds.), Mednarodni grafiиni likovni center, Ljubljana 2008, p. 394.

[7] “NSK 2000?”, Irwin and Eda Иufer interviewed by Joanne Richardson, https://subsol.c3.hu/subsol_2/contributors/nsktext.html (accessed May 13, 2011)

[8] For more extensive and elaborate information on the work of FV and the socio-historical context, see the anthology FV: alternativa osemdesetih/Alternative Scene of the Eighties, Lilijana Stepanиiи, Breda Љkrjanec (eds.), Mednarodni grafiиni likovni center, Ljubljana 2008.

[9] Nikolai Jeffs, “FV and the ‘Third Scene’, 1980 – 1990”, FV Alternativa osemdestih/Alternative Scene of the Eighties, Lilijana Stepanиiи, Breda Љkrjanec (eds.), Mednarodni grafiиni likovni center, Ljubljana 2008, pp. 352–353.

[10] Ibid., p. 394.

[11] Eda Иufer, “Behind the Curtains”, Impossible Histories, Dubravka Djuriж and Miљko Љuvakoviж (eds.), MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2003, p. 389.

[12]Ibid., p. 390.

[13] As the founding members Zemir Alajbegoviж and Neven Korda describe it. Cited after Eda Иufer, “Behind the Curtains”, Impossible Histories, Dubravka Djuriж and Miљko Љuvakoviж (eds.), MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2003, p. 390.

[14] Neven Korda, “Alternative Dawns”, FV Alternativa osemdestih/Alternative Scene of the Eighties, Lilijana Stepanиiи, Breda Љkrjanec (eds.), Mednarodni grafiиni likovni center, Ljubljana 2008, p. 324.

[15] Nikolai Jeffs, “FV and the ‘Third Scene’, 1980–1990”, FV Alternativa osemdestih/Alternative Scene of the Eighties, Lilijana Stepanиiи, Breda Љkrjanec (eds.), Mednarodni grafiиni likovni center, Ljubljana 2008, p. 394.

[16] Scipion Nasice Sisters Theater, “The First Sisters Letter”, in: Impossible Histories, p. 575.

[17] Jela Kreиiи, “Dan mladosti 1987”, https://www.krstpodtriglavom.org/iframe05.html?keepThis=true&TB_iframe=true&height=500&width=800#l16 (accessed May 13, 2011)

[18] Ibid.

[19] Scipion Nasice Sisters Theater, “The First Sisters Letter”,in: Impossible Histories, Dubravka Djuriж and Miљko Љuvakoviж (eds.), MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2003, p. 575.

[20] Eda Иufer, “Behind the Curtains”, Impossible Histories, Dubravka Djuriж and Miљko Љuvakoviж (eds.), MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2003, p. 392.

[21] Ibid., p. 394.

[22] Neven Korda, “Alternative Dawns”, “FV and the ‘Third Scene’, 1980 – 1990”, FV Alternativa osemdestih/Alternative Scene of the Eighties, Lilijana Stepanиiи, Breda Љkrjanec (eds.), Mednarodni grafiиni likovni center, Ljubljana 2008,p. 312.

[23] Scipion Nasice Sisters Theater, “The First Sisters Letter”, in: Impossible Histories, Dubravka Djuriж and Miљko Љuvakoviж (eds.), MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2003, p. 575.

[24] Ibid., p. 394.

[25] Jacques Ranciиre, The Emancipated Spectator, Verso, 2009.

[26] For these issues see also Boris Buden, “Art After the End of Society”, Maska, no. 121–122 (Re-projecting Radical Futures), vol. XXIV, spring 2009, pp. 90–96.

[27] Katja Praznik, “The Cucial Question Seems to Me How is Democracy Institutionalized … – A Conversation with Darko Suvin”, https://www.bifc-hub.eu/interview/201cthe-crucial-question-seems-to-me-how-is-democracy-institutionalized…201d-2013-a-conversation-with-darko-suvin (13.5. 2011)

[28] Ibid.

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