Reflection on Open Academy in Munich
I am sitting in Dusseldorf airport, an unexpected stop-off between Munich and London after my original flight was cancelled due to fog. Here the afternoon sun washes through large airport window and planes descend from a cloudless winter sky. I am in a place between places. A non-place. An interruption. A pause in a journey, at the same time both moving and stationary.
An airport is perhaps the ideal place for this contemplation of Urban Heat to begin. The next year will (for me at least) be measured in airports. In bags checked in and bags collected (or lost somewhere between the two). Munich, Cairo, Lisbon, Dro, London, Maribor and finally Utrecht. Bottles of overpriced airport Coca-Cola and lungfuls of recycled aeroplane air.
Urban Heat is a project predicated on movement. A restless nomadic project that mirrors the itinerancy of the artists involved, so many of whom are themselves immigrants, new arrivals in a foreign language. I listened to their stories of relocation and Britain never felt more like the island that it is. A punctuation mark on the edge of Europe.
'I move therefore I am' Yasser Mroue said in his brother Rabih's show Riding on a Cloud. Left for dead after a sniper's bullet to the head in the Lebanese War, when Yasser awoke from his coma he at first didn't dream. It was only when he started to imagine the future that the dreams (and nightmares) returned. Movement was the thing that made him human. The thing that gave him a future and the thing that kept him alive. He wasn't the only one.
On Saturday afternoon there was a screening of Pinho and Lobo's 2009 film Bab Septa as part of the Art in Resistance programme, a documentary tracking the stories of Africans inching their way slowly towards Europe along across the Sahara desert and the continents Western shoulder. A Diaspora of displaced men and women, praying to Jesus for a route across the thin river of the Mediterranean to Europe and then onwards. My next child will be born in America, said one. Spain. London. America. Sitting on the dusty ground on the edge of Tangiers, looking out to sea and waiting agonisingly for the journey to continue.
Here again movement is associated with life, with the future, with hope. A desperate pilgrimage in search of a better existence for the generations that might come after them, seeking out a future in the continent that so fractured their past. On the edge of the desert a man sees a map of the world in the flaking paint on the outer wall of a building. There will always be a way across, he says, until they figure out a way to electrify the sea.
Everyone in this film is both moving and stationary. Both on a journey and waiting for a journey to restart. No structure typifies this paradoxical state of movement and stillness like a tent. A static structure that implies movement. An interruption perhaps, or a temporary arrest. In the wind-blown Moroccan woods the tents speak of defiant resilience in the face of impossible odds. In Motus' show Caliban Cannibal the tent is an altogether more romantic, hopeful vessel. Still a refuge but also perhaps a solution to the problems of borders, ownership and occupation in which so many people are currently tangled.
The tent becomes the site of endless movements between places. A fluidity of being that deconstructs notions of identity, sexuality, history and geography in a mystical nomadism predictated on uncertainty, ephemerality and flux. The piece's two (or perhaps four, or perhaps six) characters are constantly moving in and out of focus, appearing and disappearing, forming and reforming. Two blurred bodies moving on a white wall. A leg or an arm appearing from the mouth of a tent. A face forming and reforming as the surface on which it is projected is manipulated by one of the performers. Lost (or perhaps hidden) in this kaleidoscope of movement, the characters find freedom. Utopia.
We are on the Munich metro, moving under the city on our way to another show in another venue. Everyone is tired. The busy carriage seems to contain the ghosts of all the other subway carriages we have ridden in on the way to unfamiliar shows in unfamiliar venues. It is an exhausting privilege, this endless parade of placeless airports and placeless theatres. We talk about the speed of the soul, the idea that your soul can only move at the speed you can carry yourself, so every time you drive a car or take a train or a plane you are moving further away from some part of yourself. There is a pause and then someone says (quietly, almost forlornly) 'I go to see a lot of terrible shows.'
Tomislav Medak's talk is moving too fast. I am struggling to keep up. He speaks with the speed and certainty of words printed on paper. Other printed words flash up occasionally on the screen in bold reds and blacks. The talk is called 'urban disturbance, political emergence' and this part of it is a breakneck tour through the history of post-war capitalism. As Thomislav describes it, Capitalism is founded on spatial separation. Capitalism needs movement to survive - the movement between sites of production and sites of consumption. The history of capitalism is the unrelenting expansion of these distances, creating ever greater movements of goods and money. Global markets, world-spanning supply chains. And as the reach and complexity of these supply chains increases, the central 'work' of capitalism becomes the art of logistics.
The world is being rewritten. The messy and idiosyncratic networks of social relations that once made up our disparate communities have been superseded by the clean lines and singular logic of late capitalism. This process has its mirror in the beautiful description in Tony Chakar's talk of the transition from the surface play of early Lebanese Christian icons to the introduction of renaissance perspective in later, catholic imagery. Perspective implies distance and thus movement. It separates us from the image, taking it out of our world and placing it in its own imagined reality. Consequently spirituality becomes not a feature of our immediate environment, but something we are granted (or sold) from elsewhere.
Movement implies distance, implies separation. Uncoupled from the spiritual and social meanings that connect us to place, governed by the movement of distant forces, we are all left floating in space. Caught in the perpetual flux of modernity. Lost, and increasingly detached.
In the face of all this movement, stillness becomes an act of resistance. In Thomislav's talk we see pictures from Zagreb of people locked together, refusing to remove themselves from a city square; physically reconnecting themselves to a place at the moment of its threatened privatisation. We watch performances in which stillness becomes a strategy for survival. A woman in Simone Aughterlony's Uni*form sitting with her hands clasped firmly above her head, resisting all the bullying attempts to shift her from this pose, until eventually all the other performers give in and adopt it as well. There are people sitting together under a duvet in The Vacuum Cleaner's Mental, and people lying in the dirt together in Tania El Khoury's Garden's Speak. Stillness becomes action. Becomes resistance. Becomes peace.
We walk along the river in the soft afternoon sunshine, orange leaves spilling from the trees, and I remember suddenly another walk along a river in cold winter sunshine when I had what remains one of the most blissful and remarkable moments in my life thus far - a sublime out of body experience in which temporarily at least past and future were completely forgotten and I was just presence. Just stillness. Just here-ness.
To dream or not to dream? That is the question.
'Can we have a moment of silence, of no more words?' someone asks.