Does all art and theatre represent an wider social and democratic cause?!

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By Clarissa Macau

For this investigation by Cardamomo Magazine about the relations between theatre and democracy, we interviewed Jonas Tinius. He is a German anthropologist from a new generation of researchers and thinkers that study theatre and performance. This summer, he published a new book, co-edited with Alex Flynn, called Anthropology, Theatre and Development (Palgrave, 2015). The book explores the transformative potential of political performance. In their introduction, they introduce the subject by reflecting on surprising parallels between the Brazilian movement of MST (Movimento dos Sem Terra, or ‘Landless Workers’ Movement’) and a German public theatre, the Theater an der Ruhr.

For Tinius, art and democracy are complex ideas. In his opinion, they act like a kaleidoscope ‘that attracts and refracts divergent political aspirations’, which don’t necessarily preclude the emergence of undemocratic ideals. Tinius argues against an assumption that all art and theatre represent a wider social and democratic cause, but he believes that collective artistic activities, as diverse as the avant-garde movement Fluxus or the grass-roots political actions of the MST can incite and give rise to social and intellectual transformations on a collective and an individual level. “Despite their potentially distinct visions of what justice is or what constitutes appropriate reactions to injustice, grass roots movements and political theatre do however share a vision of the transformative potential of the social encounter”, he says.

In our interview, Tinius underlines that forms of explicitly political theatre are not dead. Performative and engaged forms of political mobilisation have rather “taken on different guises as they turn from mainstream political propaganda to an element in the repertoire of counter-hegemonic performance gestures”. In many contemporary contexts, performance-based and theatrical gestures also extend into party politics. Political theatre has also increasingly addressed more diverse audiences, including ethnic, sexual, economical and social minorities. Advocacy and activism through art also entails the potential pitfalls of patronising moral evaluation or the reification of minority concerns. “It is important to inquire what aims and with what methods theatre and art propagate to address the causes of minorities”, he comments. Jonas Tinius is a social anthropologist at King’s College, University of Cambridge and convenor of the Anthropologies of Art Network (with Alex Flynn) and the Cambridge Interdisciplinary Performance Network. It’s a pleasure to present him and his ideas to you!

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CARDAMOMO MAGAZINE  – A seminal question: what is democracy? Is democracy only an idea or is it actually possible to realise?

JONAS TINIUS – Democracy is an idea (often an ideal), but over the course of its two thousand year-old lifetime, it has also turned into ‘a single world-wide name for the legitimate basis of political authority’, as the political theorist John Dunn noted (Democracy, 2005). It has become the prime reference not just for ideas and ideals, but also for a concrete form of state organisation with particular arrangements of political institutions and economic paradigms. It is therefore important to note that ‘democracy’ is not a universal standard, but more like a kaleidoscope that attracts and refracts divergent political aspirations, possibly containing and bringing about the opposite of equality, inclusion, or what other associations it may carry in the eyes of its proponents. The political scientist Colin Crouch suggested the term ‘post-democracy’ to describe a predicament in which supposedly democratic institutions and governments have brought about undemocratic processes and scenarios. It may therefore be important ‘to distinguish the political force of the category in our struggles to shape and reshape our lives together from its very limited capacity to clarify our political choices’ (Dunn, Breaking Democracy’s Spell, 2014).

CARDAIn your recent book, Anthropology, Theatre, and Development (Palgrave, 2015), you compare the Brazilian movement of MST (Movimento dos Sem Terra, or ‘Landless Workers’ Movement’) with a German public theatre, the Theater an der Ruhr. How do you see those different groups in their relation to democracy and art?

JT – In our book, my co-editor Alex Flynn and I elaborate an anthropological approach to understanding social and personal transformations through performance. Based on a wide range of ethnographic examples, from the global north and south, on protest, dance, theatre, and ritual, we argue that subjective or collective transformation is not just a matter of direct action or political intervention. Transformation of the self and of wider social contexts is often facilitated instead through reflected social interaction. We seek to highlight that the capacity to reflect on change in collective contexts is often neglected, while emphasis is placed instead on the impact of art, on its performative effects. Based on the diverse accounts we analysed in the introduction to our collection (read a free pdf here), we felt the need to correct this imbalance by highlighting reflexivity and relationality as key dimensions of political performance.

We realised that this conceptual formation was a way to conceptualise instances of political reflection in art that are as distinct from one another as the Mística from Brazilian MST and a German public theatre. The former is a grass-roots organisation that confronts the unjust distribution of land access in Brazil, fighting against the concentration of wealth, land, and power in the hands of large multinational companies and mística and other performances are embedded into the cultural politics of the MST and are used to open meetings at which hundreds of people are in attendance. As we read in our book, “In these performances, however, the MST community is represented as embedded within wider schemes of the global political economy; the political symbols of the movement flag, the Brazilian national flag and anthem, and the props that signify the reach and power of multinational corporations all go to demonstrate how political subjectivities elaborated in relational and reflexive spaces are never disengaged from the spheres in which MST leaders understand their struggle to take place. One of the interesting facets about mística, however, is the extent to which the performance is subject to control.”

The Theater an der Ruhr is a public theatre institution in Germany, which has been opening its theatre as a space for political reflection and encounters between marginalised communities from all over the world. What connects them both is their aspiration to create moments of encounter between people through art and culture, to initiate reflection on issues such as social injustice, political economy, and utopian societal ideals. I do not think that their common denominator is faith in democracy (or that all art is democratic, which it certainly is not) or even a set of shared practices for bringing about change. Despite their potentially distinct visions of what justice is or what constitutes appropriate reactions to injustice, grass roots movements and political theatre do however share a vision of the transformative potential of the social encounter.

CARDA – In the early 20th century, so-called ‘agitprops’ were important forms of local politics. Have they become ‘out of fashion’ today?

JT – Agitprop – short for agitation and propaganda – emerged as a political strategy under Soviet Marxism to mobilise public opinion (see Lenin’s 1902 What is to be done?). It describes the junction of speech and print media, emotional evocation and reasoned argument tone, to educate and mobilise publics. Agitprop is therefore sometimes used as a disapproving term to describe such performance strategies that aim to indoctrinate or articulate an overt political agenda. However, I don’t think that agitprops have become ‘out of fashion’; rather, they have taken on different guises as they turn from mainstream political propaganda to an element in the repertoire of counter-hegemonic performance gestures. There is a long tradition of political agitprop theatre (see for example the living newspaper theatre), but we see a rather different enunciation of politically agitating performative forms today. Contemporary political protests of this kind function rather as techniques of intervention. They relate to what has been called ‘disobedient objects’; as such, they constitute contemporary theatrical technologies of political protest that have been appropriated for critique rather than indoctrination, I recomend the book The Political Aesthetics of Global Protest or The Grammar of Politics of Performance).

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CARDA – Are the oral performance of politicians on TV and on stage a kind of extention of theatre? In your opinion, how much theatre exists in the performance and the spectacle of politics?

JT – The very notion of theatre, denoting in ancient Greece the seating area of the audience, is rooted in a fundamentally political event: the assembly, or at least the gathering. The vocabulary of theatre and performance, however, has influenced analyses of everyday life and also political self-presentation and rhetoric. The sociologist Jeffrey Alexander analysed American and Egyptian politics through the lens of performance, suggesting that we can position politics at the intersection of ritual and strategy (Performance and Power, 2011). Another useful metaphor is that of the rehearsal. Performance scholar Tracy C. Davies has conducted innovative studies on the ways in which not only everyday activities are often repeated, probed, or rehearsed, but how even large-scale political actions, such as emergency programmes can be analysed through the lens of theatrical vocabulary  – we read in the book sinopse’s: “In an era defined by the threat of nuclear annihilation, Western nations attempted to prepare civilian populations for atomic attack through staged drills, evacuations, and field exercises. In Stages of Emergency-  Tracy C. Davis investigates the fundamentally theatrical nature of these Cold War civil defense exercises. Asking what it meant for civilians to be rehearsing nuclear war” – . Sophie Nield extended Davies’ use of ‘theatricality’ to describe how situations may be framed as if they were theatre, e.g. with actors performing roles and spectators watching (‘Speeches that draw tears’, 2014). The emergence of ‘theatrical spaces’, for example in protest, court, or a refugee camp, may therefore create both possibilities for resistance and play, as well as coerce participants into particular roles. So, politics is not per se an extension of theatre (although it may appear tragic and comical at times). Theatre and performance rather provide useful metaphors to describe a whole range of situations characterised by this doublement of real and ‘as-if’. The spectacle of politics is just one instance of theatrical enactment outside the confined walls of a theatre institution.

CARDA – We see nowadays a lot of artistic work that address the causes of minorities – sexual, ethnic, but also cultural and economic minorities. How do you see the relationship between theatre and minorities?

JT – My previous response already hinted at one (Western) narrative that tells the story of theatre as collective representation and ‘democratic’ assembly. However, at least since the late eighteenth century, (European) theatre has become an institutionalised, often state-funded professional and canonical practice reserved for and catering to certain strata of societies. This is drastically changing now with cultural access high on the agenda of, for example, German or French cultural politics. What is interesting to note is that a plethora of activities on the ‘fringes’ of the establishment always accompanied institutional art. Street theatre, théâtre de la rue, the commedia dell’arte have long been a feature of public life, often addressing audiences different to those reached by established cultural institutions. More recently, freelance theatre in Germany, for example, has begun not just explicitly addressing more diverse audiences, but also deliberately ‘staging’ or including minorities in their performances (‘Experts of the Everyday’).

Other forms of theatre have been associated with the ‘representation’ of minorities and work for social justice. This purpose presents a particular aesthetic and political choice, one among many inflections of political theatre that has been very popular among practitioners of so-called applied theatre or theatre for development, both in the global south and north. Jean Vilar, for example, revitalised the idea of popular theatre as a form of public education and inclusion with the famous festival of Avignon in France. In Latin America, Boal championed this form of theatre with his own aesthetic of the theatre of the oppressed, which remains influential to this day (see Cohen-Cruz, Engaging Performance, 2010). This kind of commitment is mirrored in the rise of engaged or ‘participatory art’ practices in related fields.

Yet, an important question remains, namely that of representation and responsibility. In whose name does who claim to speak and with what aim? Many cultural politicians, activists, scholars, and artists often advocate artistic practices (especially theatre) as somehow fundamentally positive, liberating, and therapeutic. It is important not to overlook however that theatre, for example, is not per se emancipatory or democratic; it is a first and foremost form of artistic interaction, which, like any art form, can be used to advance any political cause. It is therefore important to inquire what aims and with what methods theatre and art propagate to address the causes of minorities, whether the proclaimed results of such practices are shared by the supposed peer-group, and who is involved in propagating and ‘advancing’ them. Above all, not only is ‘representation’ a complex and problematic concept; it is furthermore incorrect to assume that all art and theatre represents or intends to further a wider social cause.

CARDA – Do you think that art is complementary to social and political theories ? Is there a risk of over-inttelectualising art and theatre and thus transforming it into an exclusive experience?

JT – During the summer semester of 1969, at the height of the student protests in Germany and France, Theodor Adorno cancelled one of his Frankfurt lecture courses on ‘Dialectical Thinking’. The cancellation followed carnivalesque confrontations between Adorno and his students following his decision to involve the police in clearing protesters from a prior lecture course. Many students and colleagues regarded Adorno’s call for the authorities as a contradictory betrayal of his critical public engagement with power. Shortly after a particularly notorious student intervention, Adorno responded to the unrests in an interview with a popular German magazine. He asked there in: “is it not a form of resistance to think? Is theory not also a genuine form of practice?” For Adorno, thus, the political impact of thought is not to be measured by the extent to which it enables unmediated social praxis, but rather by the extent to which it effects a reflexive subject position. This is one way in which theory, art, and social practice are complementary. It is not in itself an exclusive stance, but it can have the effect of excluding those not privileged with the professional role of being a salaried philosopher or artist.

Another, more recent, example of the complementarity of theory and art is relational aesthetics. Termed by the French curator Nicolas Bourriaud, relational aesthetics describes art practices that “take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.” (Relational Aesthetics, 2002 [1998]). These art practices, fundamentally aimed at creating democratic social spaces, are theoretically underpinned and stand in a deliberate relation to contemporary social theory. I think this boundary has already been rather porous in modern art, but this boundary certainly became the principal subject itself with the rise of conceptual and post-conceptual art. This does not per se make such practices any less inclusive or democratic. As the anthropologist Roger Sansi details in his most recent book, such artistic practices often share and emerged on a long tradition of artistic exchange, gift giving, and reciprocal sociality. However, even art that is entirely based around situations of encounter and exchange may bear the mark of their undemocratic contexts; art galleries, art schools, and other spaces that are exclusive by virtue of their social and educational barriers may contain supposed ‘micro-utopias’ but their democratic nature is questionable if they are frequented only by a select few. As art historian Claire Bishop pointed out with reference to artists such as Santiago Sierra, “the tasks facing us today are to analyze how contemporary art addresses the viewer and to assess the quality of the audience relations it produces: the subject position that any work presupposes and the democratic notions it upholds, and how these are manifested in our experience of the work” ( ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’, October, 2004).

CARDA – Do you believe that theatre has the power to interfere in democracy nowadays? Why and how?

JT – ‘Theatre’ as such does not exist. What does exist is an extremely varied range of practices, institutions, and theoretical concepts. According to one of the crudest and most minimal definitions, the basic theatrical situation is when ‘A impersonates B while C looks on’ (Eric Bentley). This could be applied to many situations that have nothing to do with democracy, and indeed theatre is certainly not an art form confined to democratic contexts. However, as an art practice that entails the creation of roles and characters (the doublement of the actor) it yields powerful strategies for the evocation of fantasy and imagination, alternative visions and dissent – aspects I associate with a vivid and democratic political context. Theatre has been deployed to stage alternative public spheres or spectacular protest or it became itself a practice of democractic ideals, but it has also served the creation of authority and power. As a practice that is based on social encounters and interaction, on abstraction and detachment, as a form of ‘twice-behaved behaviour’ (Richard Schechner), or ‘meta-performances’ as I would call it, theatre is also a practice that allows self-cultivation and self-reflection in a collective context. It is not necessarily a harmonic art form, allowing instead for the integration of conflict – even building on internal critique and discussion – which are vital aspects of any extant democratic situation. Above all, however, ‘theatre’ is a versatile practice and concept, which, much like ‘democracy’, can facilitate the shaping and reshaping of our lives and futures. To return to the metaphor of the kaleidoscope, both theatre and democracy are complex and contested.

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Clarissa Macau

Idealizadora, jornalista, editora e produtora da Revista Cardamomo. Formada em comunicação pela Universidade Católica de Pernambuco.