Alessandra Cianetti: Marilena, you are one of the founders of Inside/Outside Europe, a collaborative research network that since 2013 has been addressing the ‘study of performances of crises and crisis as performance in Europe’ after the 2008 global recession. In these first three years of research, how do you think the European performance scenes have been responding to the challenges and consequences set in motion by what Inside/Outside Europe defines as ‘the systemic crisis of capitalism’?
Marilena Zaroulia: The Inside/Outside Europe Research Network was originally set up as a way of channeling our anger for what we, theatre and performance scholars of different European and non-European origins, saw as the march of neoliberalism across the Continent. The network was created and our conversations unfolded in the aftermath of the ‘revolutionary’ year that was 2011 – after the Arab Spring, the indignados and Occupy movements – as we gradually realized that a new status quo of austerity, precarity and erosion of fundamental, democratic rights was being established across Europe. Voices of dissent were being silenced while the European Union, now awarded with a Nobel Prize for Peace, stalled by its labyrinthine structures, did not seem to us to promote the interests of Europe’s people. The discourse of ‘crisis’ was employed widely, offering an absurd rationale for further cuts as a way of ‘curing’ the symptoms of the crisis; this discourse of crisis and pathology as Jacques Rancière, among others, has pointed out, perpetuates the logic of the system(1) – hence, we talk about ‘the systemic crisis of capitalism’ that is not unique to our current historical moment.
Against that backdrop, we aimed to consider how performance, both as artistic practice but also in broader terms, can help us understand the times that we live in and the challenges that we face. We were asking: what can we learn from performance about alternative understandings of belonging or identity? About Europe’s shifting borders? Or about the potential of alternative ways of making work or living together? As part of our research, we held workshops at the University of Winchester that funded the Inside/Outside Europe project and that’s how we developed a shared citational field. In other words, although each member of the network embarked on a particular research trajectory, exploring a specific example of theatre, performance, visual arts, activism or everyday life in the three European cities we chose for our project (London, Athens and Berlin), we shared methodologies and texts that influenced our interpretations. One of those texts was Etienne Balibar’s ‘Vanishing Mediator’; in that text, the French philosopher considers the role of the intellectual as a vanishing mediator, a ‘transitory institution […] that creates the conditions for a new society, […] by rearranging the elements inherited from the very institution that has to be overcome'(2).
We wondered whether and how performance makers and performance scholars can operate as such ‘vanishing mediators’, mobilizing what is already at our disposal in order to overcome it; can we – artists and thinkers – operate as ‘borderlines’, as mediators of resistance? There are many ways in which we can conceive this function of the artist and the thinker as vanishing mediators but as an example from the contemporary European scene, I will refer to the occupations and activations of abandoned theatres and cultural spaces by collectives of artists. In Greece, for instance, the Mavilli collective reactivated Embros theatre in the centre of Athens in the autumn of 2011 as a way of responding to the absence of cultural policies or government support for new makers.
Graffiti of a trapped man on the wall of Embros theatre in Athens. December 2015. (copyright: Marilena Zaroulia)
What was created was a space of sharing work and a platform for collaboration (3). More recently, in the summer of 2015, another space – Green Park – was activated. Philip Hager and I have recently written about the significance of these initiatives for the changing performance ecology in the context of austerity Athens (4). What we feel is worthy of note in such examples is the formation of a collective subject that is made up of many individuals, whose friendship and labour produces this shared space and subjectivity. Such ways of working do not seem to aim to a perpetual existence or do not wish to become a new kind of institution, replacing the old ones; in fact, they often fall apart or are replaced. But what remains is a process that is yet to be completed, a willful resistant desire to the neoliberal orthodoxy of productivity.
AC: Last year, in collaboration with Philip Hager, you co-edited the publication ‘Performances of Capitalism, Crises and Resistance’. In what way do you see performance (and live art if it entered your research) as a means of resistance? What performance artists were mentioned in this regard?
MZ: It is challenging to consider whether and how, really, can performance produce a space of resistance. I am always thinking of conversations I have with my students about the limits and potential of performance and the ways in which artists can open up alternative spaces, when they are also caught up in systems and structures of arts funding, networks of festivals, institutions and their mission statements and so on. This is not to suggest that performance can never be a means of resistance – but it is to acknowledge that the arts are also implicated in neoliberal processes. However, like I said already, it seems that new ways of being, making and collaborating are emerging; new structures of support are invented, contesting the role of the institution or claiming space for the artists beyond the institutions. It is worth noting the example that opens our book: Giulia Palladini analyses a performance intervention in Berlin initiated by the US collective Red Channels, who in 2009 invited audiences to a collective viewing of the 1930s film Kuhle Wampe (5). Palladini situates this intervention in a post-2008 context, as the ghost of the Weimar Republic was often evoked as warning, further rationalizing austerity policies across Europe. Palladini challenges this orthodoxy, drawing attention to initiatives like the Red Channels Meets the Red Megaphone performance as ‘rehearsals for revolution’; in the space produced momentarily by this intervention, what emerged was a different kind of temporality – not one of collapse and fascism but one of a world that is yet to come.
Beyond such practices, we can think of other ways in which performance may challenge the discourse and logic of crisis. Performances of Capitalism, Crises and Resistance features examples from different aesthetic registers – from mainstream theatre to live art. In her chapter ‘Staging the Others’(6), Ally Walsh discusses La Pocha Nostra’s 2013 residency in Athens, questioning particularly the performance of the racialized Other in the urban space of a country, stalled by austerity and nationalism. By means of an autoethnographic reflection, Walsh questions how radical performance might misfire in times of crisis.
Or, we can think of cases when contemporary performance invites participation of non-actors and the possibilities that open up in such contexts. Cristina Delgado-García’s chapter on ‘prefigurative politics’(7) explores such issues, focusing on the relation between politics and aesthetics in the work of Salford-based company Quarantine. Delgado argues that the very dramaturgy of a performance like Entitled (2011), invites the audience to consider agency and responsibility, ‘within the present’, thus challenging dominant temporal structures of capitalism. A similar perspective is put forward in another chapter in the book (‘Performing Politics of Care’); there, Florian Thamer and Tina Turnheim read the theatre as a laboratory where a politics of solidarity is rehearsed (8). So, I guess that when we think about the relation between performance and resistance, dramaturgies and ways of working emerge as the two key components for approaching this relation.
AC:In your brilliant contribution to the performingborders conversation at Central Saint Martins, London, on 30th March, you explored the notion of ‘crisis’ in relation to the contemporary situation of ‘excess’. In April this connection has been further investigated during the ‘Crisis’ in Excess? Performing Europe Today Symposium at the Winchester University where the very term ‘crisis’ has been analysed through various academic research and performers’ practices. What are in your opinion the findings of this path of research so far?
MZ: I have developed a strong interest in this notion of ‘excess’ as a form of understanding contemporary artistic practices, particularly those that attempt to respond to migration – one of the most urgent realities of our times. Just because we live in times of austerity, it is interesting to consider excess as a form that comments on these times, exposing how empty the term ‘crisis’ is.
We can think of excess as waste and question who or what constitutes the waste of contemporary world; there are plenty of evocative images of migrants crossing land and sea borders, where bodies en masse exceed what Europe, purportedly, can accommodate. It is equally interesting to look at objects that we associate with the migrants’ crossings as performances of excess. For instance, the boats that migrants used, which in visual arts are reframed as stands-in for their plight, or the piles of life vests that are abandoned in the shores of Greek islands that are used as primary material for installations like Ai Weiwei’s Safe Passage during the 2016 Berlin Film Festival.
Boats of undocumented migrants crossing the Aegean in Lemos, At Crossroads, Brandeburg Gate, Berlin 2009. (copyright: Theodore Scrivano/Kalliopi Lemos)
For that intervention, Ai Weiwei covered Berlin’s Konzerthaus with the thousands of life vests that he had collected in Lesbos while he asked celebrities attending the gala inside the building to wear emergency blankets, which we have all seen covering migrant bodies when found at sea. The result was both visually arresting and absurd; a pure performance of excess. Or, you can think about the work of German collective, Centre for Political Beauty, particularly a piece called The Dead are Comingwhich purportedly involved the transport of dead migrant bodies from South Europe to Berlin, the symbolic centre of Fortress Europe. Such examples of artistic practice raise complex ethical questions about the role of the artist as an agent of excess, when they are faced with urgent questions that often exceed the limits of our comprehension or sensibility and demand empathy.
AC: What are in your opinion at the moment the most interesting performers, or live artists, whose work is tackling notion of crisis, resistance, migration, Europe and contemporary capitalism?
MZ: This is such a difficult question to answer, because of the plurality and diversity of the European arts scenes as well as the porosity of European borders. Who counts as European or even, does this question matter anymore? In my work, I really try to move past the Eurocentric arguments about the unique artistic traditions of Europe and recognize how Europe’s colonial past has contributed to our contemporary understanding of European identities and cultures.
Just because I live in London and I am currently working a lot on performance and migration, I will use as a brief example On the Move, the day-long festival that LIFT organized at the Royal Court theatre in June. That day featured various performances, installations, audio walks and theatre, which all together produced a kaleidoscopic and rather affective insight into how borders are crossed and how we, artists and audiences, may or may not be able to understand such experiences through performance. Chris Thorpe performed The Milk of Human Kindness, a six-hour marathon that involved him reading readers’ comments on articles about migration published mainly in two British newspapers, The Daily Mail and The Sun. The durational form of the performance and the endurance of the performer reading out that ludicrous material produced a rather unsettling yet poignant commentary on how public opinion is produced and how visions of Otherness are produced in contemporary Britain. Immediately after Thorpe’s piece, I experienced As Far As My Fingertips Take Me, a ten-minute, one-to-one performance installation by Tania el Khoury in collaboration with Basel Zaraa. The performance involved me listening to a song, while the man who I could not see because he was sitting on the other side of the wall was drawing on my arm that I had put through a hole. The piece triggered a number of thoughts about responsibility, affect and how performance can sincerely confront all that exceeds us. That confrontation may constitute a moment of resistance but the question remains: what do we do when the performance is over?
After ‘As Far As My Fingertips Take Me’. London, June 2016. (copyright: Marilena Zaroulia)
AC: I am writing these questions after the results of the UK European Union membership referendum in which a majority of the voters supported Leave. On 18th June Inside/Outside Europe Research Network was one of the partners of Being European: Before the Referendum, a one-day programme of talks and performances about Europeanness, belonging, and democracy. As part of the promotional material of this event there was an announcement of a second event in September/October 2016 about being European after the referendum. In light of the UK planned exit from the EU, would you mind to tell us a bit more about the first event’s outcomes and what you are planning to do for the second one? Have the destabilising results of the referendum already impacted on performers’ practices and the network of research of Inside/Outside Europe?
MZ: Indeed; how interesting and terrifying times to think about the future of Europe and the performing arts in the Continent. This is not only because of Brexit and the immense, economic, socio-political and cultural consequences that the British vote has already had and will continue to have in Britain and across Europe. More broadly, we can see that Europe is at a crossroads; the numerous terrorist attacks, the rise of demagogic and fascist politics, the demonization of migrants and refugees, the EU’s inability to respond meaningfully to all these challenges as well as the persistence of austerity policies make up a picture of distress, if not decay. Of course, if we don’t wish to perceive the world from a Eurocentric point of view, we can all agree that European international politics and multiple military interventions outside the borders of Europe have contributed to a new age of fear.
The Before the Referendum event was developed in partnership with Camden People’s Theatre, the European Theatre Research Network at the University of Kent and the Centre of Contemporary Theatre at Birkbeck College, University of London. The aim of the event was to produce a space of reflection and interrogation, to fight the toxic and divisive argument that had dominated the debate; to use the theatre as a space of togetherness. Apart from the five performances that offered different perspectives on the question of Europe, panels of artists and academics came together to offer different perspectives on what Europe means, on how performance can momentarily open up a space for understanding identity and difference in the continent. It was also very useful to hear from experts on European law and politics, who offered sound arguments about the role of the EU, who challenged the over-simplified argument about Britain’s loss of sovereignty because of its EU membership. I will never forget Nadine El Enany’s inspiring intervention, as she argued that what was really exposed during the referendum campaign was British post-imperial melancholy and the persistence of racist and colonial attitudes; what was at stake was not Britain’s membership in the EU but Britain’s, or rather England’s self-identification.
On Saturday September 17th, we return to CPT, organizing the second part of Being European: After the Referendum. We have commissioned four new performances that will tackle the question ‘What does Europe mean for you today?’ in different forms. We are also putting together a panel of speakers who will consider the future of culture after Brexit. We are considering a few ways that the audience can interact further with the event during the breaks between shows. The point of the event, at least for me, is to gather as artists, audiences, citizens, British, Europeans, non-Europeans and move past the (understandable) trauma and paralysis that the referendum caused to lot of people. Again, we are looking to the theatre as a space where possibilities might open up.
AC: Tell us a bit more about your own future projects and the future of Inside/Outside Europe Research Network.
MZ: During the next two years, I will be finally writing a book that I have been thinking about for a few years. Its title is Encountering Europe on British Stages: Performances, Policies and Affects since 1990 and its aim is to consider the ways in which British theatre and performance have engaged with ideas of Europe and European identities from the end of the Cold War until the present. My starting point is that performance is a space of encounter and the book will chart and theorize how in performance, Britain and Europe have interacted through different modes of encounter. The book will also discuss the ways in which European cultural policies have affected and shaped the British theatre landscape over the past quarter-century, contesting British isolation and island mentality. Obviously, I will be writing the book as the negotiations on the terms of Brexit will be unfolding but my hope is that this book will not be only a product of its time but that it will offer a much broader perspective on the Britain/Europe conundrum.
As for the network, we are a group of friends as well as collaborators – our conversations are ongoing and the issues that we care about are still pressing; although we don’t have specific plans for the future after the After the Referendum Festival, I am sure that the network as a space of dialogue and collaboration will carry on.
(1) – ‘A precarious dialogue’ Radical Philosophy (autumn 2013): 20.
(2) – Etienne Balibar (2004) ‘Europe: Vanishing Mediator?’ in We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship. Translated by James Swenson. Princeton: Princeton UP. pp. 203-35. 233.
(3) – See also Gigi Argyropoulou (2012) ‘Embros: Twelve thoughts on the rise and fall of performance practice on the periphery of Europe’ Performance Research 17.6 (On Labour & Performance), 56-62.
(4) – Philip Hager and Marilena Zaroulia (2017) Libres et déterminées: Performances a Athènes pendant la crise (2010-2015) Théâtre Public (forthcoming in French)
(5) – Giulia Palladini (2015) ‘The Weimar Republic and its Return: Unemployment, Revolution, or Europe in a State of Schuld’ in Performances of Capitalism, Crises and Resistance, ed. by Marilena Zaroulia and Philip Hager. London: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 17-36.
(6) – Aylwyn Walsh (2015) ‘Staging the Others: Appearance, Visibility and Radical Border Crossing in Athens’ in Performances of Capitalism, Crises and Resistance, ed. by Marilena Zaroulia and Philip Hager. London: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 134-49.
(7) – Cristina Delgado-García (2015) ‘Making Time: The Prefigurative Politics of Quarantine’s Entitled’ in Performances of Capitalism, Crises and Resistance, ed. by Marilena Zaroulia and Philip Hager. London: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 94-112.
(8) – Florian Thamer and Tina Turnheim (2015) ‘Performing politics of care: Theatrical practices of radical learning as a Weapon against the Spectre of Fatalism’ in Performances of Capitalism, Crises and Resistance, ed. by Marilena Zaroulia and Philip Hager. London: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 77-93.
Marilena Zaroulia is a Senior Lecturer in Drama and Theatre at the Department of Performing Arts, University of Winchester. Her research focuses on theatre, performance and the cultural politics of post-1989 Europe. She has published on contemporary British theatre, performance, affect and national identity, utopian performatives and the Eurovision Song Contest, and performance and migration. She co-convenes the Inside/Outside Europe Research Network and is the co-editor of Performances of Capitalism, Crises and Resistance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). She currently serves as the Secretary of Theatre and Performance Research Association (TaPRA). Encountering Europe on British Stages: Performances, Policies and Affects since 1990 will be published by Methuen Drama Engage.
Feature image credits: After ‘as far as my fingertips take me’. London, June 2016. (copyright: Marilena Zaroulia)