What do we do if the world doesn't end? Andy Field, co-director of Forest Fringe, considers history and community in Maribor. This is the last in a series of dispatches from Urban Heat – a project exploring the future of theatre’s engagement with urban space and communities. First published online at exeuntmagazine.com on 3 January 2017.
The school auditorium is clean and modern and surprisingly well-equipped for a school auditorium; a black cube of pristine cultural nowhereness buried inside a much larger, much less empty building in Maribor, the second largest city in Slovenia. The only indicator from the inside that we are in a school at all is that the majority of the audience is made up of teenagers.
We are watching a two men on stage, one at a microphone and one sat at a piano. They are telling us the story of a journey across Europe – an attempt to play the same concert of songs from 1950s in a retirement home in each of the countries of the former Yugoslavia; they sing songs, they retell details of the journey, video of the retirement homes plays on the screen behind them. It is a format that is comforting familiar to me, perhaps only emphasising how much of the details and the feelings are not. The elderly people in the videos, the slightly younger people on stage, and the even younger people in the auditorium are together and apart, belonging to the same country and different countries, their geography interrupted by time, their home fractured by history. At one point one of the men onstage wrestles with a giant oversized map of the region, its countries marked out in familiar geography-book pastels. He tries to point out to us cities on the map, but it is far too large for him to handle. ‘Help me hold Yugoslavia’ he says to the people in the front row, and they do, temporarily at least.
Urban Heat was intended as a study of urban space and our relationship to it, but I think I have spent as much time immersed in history as I have on the streets of any of the cities we have visited. This last year has been a journey through wars and revolutions, across shifting borders and falling empires; myriad tellings of the conflict between those with power and those without it as it has played out across this fractured and fracturing continent over and over again. Like Benjamin’s Angel of History, we bore witness to the accumulation of tragedies that make up so much of our past, whilst the crises of the present loomed ever larger with each passing month.
Perhaps in such circumstances it is no wonder that we often dreamed of escape to somewhere safer. Such dreams were the subject of a lecture by the historian and anthropologist Svetlana Slapšak on our first morning in Maribor. Svetlana tells us this urge to escape is an ancient instinct, a muscle memory as old as the Roman Republic, from where we derive our impression of a perpetually broken society that can only be reimagined from without, rather than mended from within. In her company we are moving again through history, through revolutions and utopias, cities built, abandoned, reconquered and rebuilt, countries created, destroyed and created again.
This happened and then that happened and then this happened, as Deborah Pearson describes it in History History History. We are back again in the school auditorium, and Deborah is telling us the story of a film, a football comedy released on the same day as the Hungarian revolution. Whilst she speaks the film plays on the screen behind her. The man in the film stares out at us, a familiar kind of ghost captured by the machinery of cinema, haunting us with the unknowability of the past, or perhaps it is we that are haunting him with the unknowability of the future. Deborah’s story is travelling at the vertigo-inducing speed of history, and yet we are caught, peering through the ice at the face frozen on the screen, a moment of impossible stillness in the midst of such much movement and violence. His intimate proximity a kind of sanctuary from history itself.
There is a kind of comfort in imagining history frozen, and another kind of comfort in imagining it destroyed entirely. The seductive pleasure of imagining ourselves to be living at the world’s end, an escape from the past and all it has left us with. ‘It is easier’ Frederic Jameson has said ‘to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism’, which might help explain the number of times I have watched the world fall apart in front of me; the lights flickering, haze descending, model buildings tumbling, figures huddled together out of the imagined cold. But was there ever a time when we didn’t half imagine the world was about to end? ‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone’ wrote John Donne in 1611, imagining the sun was fading and the colour disappearing from the world for good.
For me the real story of our trip to Maribor, as it has been in every place we’ve visited, was asking the more difficult question of what we do if the world doesn’t end. What does it mean to stay, to carry on? We saw simple, unspectacular acts of community and mutuality, the value of careful municipal administration, the life you can create around a renovated building, the things you can do if you build a decent theatre inside your school. History experienced not as a narrative but as a way of doing things, developed carefully and anonymously over time.
I left Maribor, as I have left each of these city labs, hopeful despite the undoubted bad things that are happening in the world, sure that there are simple and unglamorous ways to resist them. That many people are fundamentally good, and are doing fundamentally good things. That there is more than one kind of history, that it is inscribed in bodies and places as well as books. That it is inscribed in cities, which are much older than the failing nation states that currently contain them, and that written in those cities are strategies for mutuality and communality that can sustain us, through whatever crises may lie ahead.