Reflection on Open Academy in Munich
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.
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’.
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.”
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.
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-artactivism/
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: here/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?
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 thatthis doesn’t make sense in current times of crisis and crosscultural 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. 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, meshsystems and paradoxes. In current media, a lot of phenomena are often oversimplified (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.
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.