Sigrid Merx & Liesbeth Groot Nibbelink. Feed Forward II. Munich__Cairo__Lisbon

Dear all,

Earlier we sent you a document with some thoughts and observations that came from the Opening Academy in Munich. We presented this as a ‘feed forward’ document. Because we hoped that this collection of thoughts and ideas could feed into the future meetings. Now most of us have been to Cairo and some new questions and topics came to the fore, while others disappeared more in the background. This document, also visually tries to connect the Cairo experience to the Munich experience and to add some new layers. Maybe it becomes a mess, and yes, it means this document is growing (that is, getting too long to read), but just focus on the red stuff and give it a try

Here we go.

Knowledge exchange: how do you work?

One issue that was very much on the foreground of many talks and discussions was the wish of all participating artists to learn from each other’s practices. This need for knowledge exchange concerned in particular the pragmatic level.

People wish to know more about the essentials of practice: tools, strategies, methods. Some have a particular interest in what they can ‘learn’ from activists and suggested to invite more activists into the programme. 

During the Cairo Lab the desire to learn from each other’s strategies became even more urgent and included the wish to know not only about the artistic practice of the other participants, but also more about the practice and strategies of the festival programmers/directors. This desire is not only social – let’s get to know each other better – but more particular related to issues such as power relations, transparency about procedures and positions of the different ‘actors’ in this project. Why am I here? How do I want to be here? How do artists and programmers relate to each other? In Lisbon time and space is created in the program to start this exchange.

Tip Liz - Beautiful Trouble: A toolbox for revolution (beautifultrouble.org)

The question of ‘how do you work?’ seems to be posed a lot nowadays, both in art (school) debates and in writing. The question increasingly gets entangled with artistic content.

Tip - See for instance recent writings by Bojana Kunst or Rudi Laermans’ Moving Together, Theorizing and Making Contemporary Dance (2015)

The question ‘how do you work’ is also closely connected to the situated context in which one works. This was in an interesting way reflected in the Adham Hafez’ Artists Anonymous talk. Hafez also mentioned that AA’s approach to art work is often based on the principle of ‘context as content’.

In Cairo it became clear how much the local context determines the work of artists. In a context in which the quality of the public sphere that briefly blossomed after the 2011 occupation of Tahrir Square now, according to Ahmed el Attar (festival director of D-Caf festival), has gone back to square minus 5;  making art and working in public space has become a matter of constant struggle and negotiation, arranging permissions of all kinds on both formal and informal levels. Most of the time goes into creating the conditions under which work can be made and performed in the first place. This also means that aspects such as earning trust and respect are highly relevant. All artists we spoke that work in public space emphasized the strategy of not being offensive or intrusive and to be inclusive.  (Emilie Petit said: “don’t’ be intrusive, you are in their territory)The process of carefully setting up all kinds of relationships also becomes the content of the work

Art & resistance / art & activism

Urban Heat is framed as a programme on art & resistance / art & activism. As performance scholars, we cannot help to be interested in questions of definition: when is something art, when is it activism, and what are difference between art & activism? Interestingly, quite a few participants seemed to be interested at all in addressing such questions. Some say that since they are an artist and do activist things, all is art and all is activism (to put it a bit bluntly) – the discussion with Malte Jelden (Munich Welcome theatre) could be seen as a representation of this approach.  

Others deliberately wish to make a distinction between their engagement as an artist and the way they seek to critically act as a citizen. In this latter context, Thomas Bellinck put it (more or less) like this: “the difference between art and activism is an uninteresting distinction. Sometimes I act as an artist, sometimes as a citizen. Do what you need to do. As an artist, you are not obliged to concern yourself directly with socially urgent issues.”

Am I an artist, an activist, an engaged citizen? Can those be distinguished? Indirectly this question popped up once more in Cairo when the people from the group quite literally were confronted with a demonstration in down-town Cairo, directed against El-Sisi. The organizers asked and warned us to not get involved and to stay away from the demonstration. At the same time for some of us the demonstration had a tremendous appeal. Precisely because of what happened on Tahrir Square in 2011should we not at least have a look at what was going on? Be close to it, have a taste of it? Or even participate? Or is it unethical to want to be part of a fight that is not yours? Romantic maybe even? But is it not even worse to ignore the demonstration as if nothing is happening? 

Being in Cairo, a foreign, non-European country that has become iconic because of its part in the Arab Spring, for many the question about art & activism only seemed to intensify and become even more personal. People became highly self-reflexive of both their own and our collective presence as a group. Were we behaving like tourists? Was that problematic? Why were we staying in a chic hotel in a rich neighborhood? Should we have given something ‘back’ ? Do we have a responsibility as European artists to more structurally support the arts in for example Cairo 

Despite this impression of ‘let’s not spend too much time on this discussion’, in the open space session on ‘post-artivism’ some possible distinctions between art and activism were made, which are potentially interesting:

·      Activism requires clear communication in order to mobilize people. Communication requires simple messages. Activism has a strong ethical ground (a moral high-ground), but does not question ethics themselves.

·      Art often addresses complexity, ambiguity, is radical in the sense that it is not afraid of being unclear. Art can question ethics and even question ethics as a construction.

Ahmed el-Attar said it is no time for political art, but for art.  Precisely because our times are complex and uncertain. Art can help us to feel the complexity of the world we live in. It can address all the important issues and feelings: love, despair, courage. He suggested not to politicize art, but to better understand the politics of the context. Because the context in which art (in Egypt) is created and presented will make the work political anyway. Being an artist in a third world country, El-Attar said, my responsibility is not to become an activist, but to create and facilitate good quality art that challenges the minds of people. Many of whom, as Heba El Cheida (Mahatat) pointed out in her lecture, are not familiar with the experience of art and live performance.

Tips

o   Art and activism in the age of globalization (2011 ) – collection of essays edited by Lieven de Cauter, Ruben de Roo and Karel Vanhaesebrouck

o   Art and agenda: political art and activism (2011) – collection of essays edited by Rober Klanten, Matthias Hubner, Alain Bieber, Pedro Alonzo and Gregor Jansen

o   Seeing power: art and activism in the 21st century (2015) by Nato Thompson

o   “On Art Activism” by Boris Groys http://www.e-flux.com/journal/on-art-activism/ 

Inside or out?

Alongside and related to the art & activism debate a huge question popped up in Munich that has been addressed all through the 20th century up to this day. This question is: how do you position art in relation to society? And also: where/how do you position your work? During the week and amongst the group we discerned two different positions and approaches to this question: does art function because it is somehow something else than society or should we radically seize to make such distinctions?

Just like play, art is often described in terms of a separate zone, a zone with distinct rules, conventions and possibilities. The theatre as a laboratory, the place where one can search for alternatives in a relative quietness, concentration, possibility space etc. outside the burden of day-to-day productivity… Should art claim such a position of being deliberately other in order to maintain a function as a place for critical interrogation, deconstruction, a place where alternative scenarios can be tested etc. 

Ahmed El-Attar made a claim for art as a separate place, as something else than society. He called it a ‘reserve’. A place where you can go to if you want to change or if society wants to change. A place where you can go to find the courage to grab your freedom in reality. Lamia (from Lebanon) described theatre in a similar vein as the only place where, in the context of a failed civic state, one can practice one’s citizenship. But as El-Attar stressed, this is different from using theatre as a tool for politics or social change. If you do that, he said, you will kill the magic of art. “Theatre doesn’t need to be a tool. Art itself, because of what it is, is the cure.

To claim a separate place for the arts however often is criticized for being elitist or isolationistic, closed off from society, etc. The Munich Welcome Theatre talk is perhaps exemplary of this stance: using the theatre to eat, make music, come together, and to declare all those acts as art…

Tony Chakar, on a theoretical and spiritual level, maybe suggested an interesting third position, a position that simultaneously embraces the inside and outside. His iconographic analysis was a recurring plea for an attitude of the undivided in which distinctions such as inside and outside, subject and object collapse. Tony offered the undivided as a counterstrategy of the logic of separation of capitalism.

The format is tired and now what?

This sentence came up during the last day of presentations and discussions in Munich, in response to Malte Jelden’s talk about the Munich Welcome theatre. It was suggested that most theatre is boring; the theatre is being reproduced all the time in order to satisfy the small audiences that are already interested in theatre. It was discussed that this doesn’t make sense in current times of crisis and cross-cultural developments. Hence: the format is tired. The discussion was very much related to the question where we position our work and ourselves.

So, if the format is tired, what then?

It was suggested that theatre needs to open the doors, but institutions don’t have a clue how to do that. It was added that theatre is not the rescuer, but that theatre is part of society, as schools are, and churches.

The group was very impressed by how D-Caf festival manages to address and attract other audiences, that are not that familiar with art and performance. Using public space as a stage is one of the deliberate choices to allow everybody to encounter art.  Another strategy is to use non-text based forms, such as music and dance.

And therefore theatre (we) have to engage with the reality we are in, as all the others have to do. We cannot deny that we are part of this. We should all feel equally responsible. Someone mentioned Boal’s idea about theatre as a rehearsal for revolution and as a way to rehearse micro-possibilities in a safe, low-risk environment, without the pretentiousness of offering a solution but instead as a way to create proposals.

A slightly different but related suggestion was to exploit the theatre, to use it for other means: for example as a place of intimacy, or a place for encounters, or a place for concentration. Theatre in this respect can function as a label: instead of wondering if something is theatre, you just declare it to be theatre.

On the other hand, we also noticed a couple of suggestions that seem to be engaged with rethinking the theatre on its own terms.

A recurring theme in talks and presentations was that one of the tasks art could set itself was to pay attention to matters of complexity, ambiguity, mesh-systems and paradoxes. In current media, a lot of phenomena are often over-simplified (because news programs need to be ‘on top of it’, strong headlines sell etc.). Theatre (and art in general) has this rich tradition of arguing for the complexity of situations and also to treat these issues through embodied engagement (which is in the act of both performing and attending a performance).

Some suggested that instead of focusing on the real and the authentic in theatre and performance it might be time to focus on the imagination once more.  

Time-based art. 

We are aware that there were also quite a lot of practices and concerns that have to do with time, in one way or another. The potential of time-based art, the role of memory, documentary forms, narrative walks, creating space for encounters. It just happened that we did not make a lot of notes about these issues or happened to be part of these talks.

For many of the artists that discussed their work in Cairo time was a very important ingredient of their work, in terms of taking the time to gain respect and trust from the communities and stakeholders they work with. Being patient. Working slowly. Or as Emilie Petit said: “don’t rush, even if you have to rush”

Time was also a recurring theme in a very different way during the Cairo Lab.

All the artists we met talked about art and their work before and after 2011. They all addressed this particular moment in their local history, the Arab Spring that kick-started on Tahrir Square as a crucial transition point that has determined and still determines their work. The events on Tahrir Square not only brought about and revealed a new political self-awareness, but that also created new possibilities for and an openness from the public to art. Architect Omar Nagati talked about ‘a city in flux’.

Only after 2011 people first started to recognize public space as something that is ‘theirs’, as something that you might occupy but also should take (collectively0 care of, as something that is ‘open for a multiple of propositions’ (El-Attar), Public space became the place for art and politics. For 2,5 years there was this feeling of potential and possibilities and new ideas and forms. But now, all artists say, things are even worse than before. After times of openness and experimentation now there is an increase of control and restoration. This left people behind disillusioned.

Many of the people we spoke said that they were exhausted