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Reflections on the Performing 'Worksites of the Left'

Following the publication of our special issue of Studies in Theatre and Performance Journal 'Performing Worksites of the Left', we have asked scholars and artists affiliated with the project to respond to the featured essays in any form or manner they find inspiring. Here are their reflections.

Performance Artist Snežana Golubović Reflects on Igor Štiks's photo-essay 'Back on Tito Street: Bodies and Citizens"

(link to 'Back on Tito Street' - https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14682761.2019.1654310)

Today is May 4th, 2020

Forty years ago on that sunny Sunday afternoon, everywhere in Yugoslavia, nobody was on the streets anymore. We were all sitting in front of our TVs watching a black empty screen for quite a while. Waiting. In silence. Everyone knew what would come, but they still had a tiny hope: maybe there are just some technical problems... nothing on the screen... the black screen. All of us thought and knew silently that if this is the „news“, that after this „news“ – nothing will be the same again.

And then, sitting in a black suit with a black tie, legendary news speaker, Milorad Zdravković, touched his glasses briefly and moved them back on his nose, he took a deep breath and said: „Umro je drug Tito.“ („Comrade Tito passed away.“)

 

Nothing was ever the same again.

 

On May 1st 2020, almost 30 years after I left my birthplace of Belgrade, I received an

e-mail from a dear friend; in the attachment is Igor Štiks photo-essay Back on Tito Street: Bodies and Citizens.

 

I read it immediately. It took me on a journey... a very special one... in my corona-covid 19 lock down. Suddenly, I was a girl on a school excursion, for the first time in Sarajevo, standing in front of „Vječna vatra“ (Eternal flame) and walking along the street from Baš čaršija to the city center.

 

Junačka se pesma ori... all day long - in my ears... and I wonder a bit why - but I sing and smile.

 

And think: Sarajevo, ljubavi moja.

 

The streets remember much more then we can.

Ulica Maršala Tita in Sarajevo was there before us, and even if it had other names in the past or maybe will have its current name changed one day in the future, it will be there, remembering the good and bad times, and all those footsteps--our footsteps-- on its surface.

 

Back there, in my daydream on May 1st 2020, I am alone on Tito Street in Sarajevo.

Watching one photo of Milomir Kovačević Strašni I ask myself:

When did he take this photo?

The siege of Sarajevo?

3 years, 10 months, 3 weeks and 3 days.

It looks like it was yesterday.

Was it yesterday?

Today?

Past or present?

(Hopefully NOT) the future?

 

So many people who walked along Tito Street in Sarajevo will never walk there again:

not just because it was a long time ago, and not just because of snipers’ fire and the bombs during those 3 years, 10 months, 3 weeks and 3 days… not just because of the revolts later and not just because of the “rejections” of the city – during, and after the war.

Maybe because of other reasons... sentimental or not: politically, economically, globally or maybe it is because of what is happening NOW.

We will not be able to walk along Tito Street like we used to do it because of what we have all been going through for years already, and right NOW.

 

Will I ever be able to go back there and stay? And stand like many decades ago, as a young girl, in the front of Eternal Flame, dedicated to people who died for their ideals and new values for their new country? The ideals were buried decades ago but that flame is still there; hopefully, it is eternal.

 

The history is good or bad and (mostly) seriously painful, but (actually) it is always behind us. We should learn from the past and teach our children from the moment we are living - NOW.

 

In September last year I’ve jumped into the taxi close to my mother’s house in Belgrade and asked the taxi driver: „Could you please drop me out at the corner of Maršala Tita and General Ždanova Street? “

The taxi driver laughed: „Madam, where are you from? “

I did not understand his question. „I am from here! “

He laughed more and louder, and said: „Madame, you might be from here, but you are coming from some other time. I will drop you off, with pleasure, at the corner of Kralja Milana and Resavska Street. “

And then we both laughed.

 

Since World War II there was no big (or small) city in former Yugoslavia without a Maršal Tito street (mostly main street) or square named Tito. It is written in the old books and old city maps. Even some cities were named with his name. And that will (hopefully) stay - in the history books.

 

Maršal Tito Street was not only in former Yugoslavia, but worldwide. Not so long time ago, in 2014, I walked down the Avenida Marechal Tito in São Paulo, a huge „Avenida”; it is still there.

 

The fact that so many cities in former Yugoslavia from the early Nineties onward, wanted to get rid of Josip Broz Tito’s name as fast as possible on their street signs and changed the names of the streets... even in Belgrade Ulica Maršala Tita became overnight Ulica Srpskih vladara. Sorry, but what does that mean? Who are „Srpski vladari“ / „Serbian Rulers“??? And now, it is Kralja Milana Street. Ahhh - OK: way back, back (always back) the Republic of Serbia, which still likes to be called a „democratic Republic”, is not a monarch or monarchy. Am I right? But now, Belgrade has so many streets named after kings and queens and other royalties that nobody knows of, or have even heard of. Who are they actually? Do we really need the city full of streets named after some names of some unknown „royalties“? Why?

 

Huge topic but not for these observations today.

 

I am still singing… another song now… Sarajevo is on my mind.

 

And I have huge respect and LOVE for Sarajevo, the city, which after all, still has Maršal Tito Street. Main Street. It is a glorious challenge and a task to remember and to forget, and most of all – to forgive. And to live in peace & LOVE - on Maršal Tito Street with the Eternal Flame.

 

And we, we, who are far away, we do not even have to go back... we have never left.

We are all still there; in all those small cracks, and on all of those Maršal Tito walkways… our hearts are still beating there.

 

Sarajevo, ljubavi moja…

 

Snežana Golubović

Frankfurt / Main

May 4th 2020

Professor Yana Meerzon on Ameet Parameswaran's Essay 'Excavating the Remains of the Left: Radical Geography and Political Affirmation'

 (Link to 'Excavating Remains of the Left' - https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14682761.2019.1654311?scroll=top&needAccess=true)

In his article, “Excavating the Remains of the Left: Radical Geography and Political Affirmation”[i], Ameet Parameswaran examines two examples of political performance – a film/docu-fiction Amma Ariyan (Report to Mother; 1985) directed by John Abraham, and a theatre production Atlas of Communism (2016) directed by Lola Arias for Maxim Gorki Teatr. He calls them the “worksites of democracy”: the term, which derives from Étienne Balibar’s We, the People of Europe? : Reflections on Transnational Citizenship (2004)[ii] and later developed by Janelle Reinelt in the book The Grammar of Politics and Performance (2015)[iii]. In Parameswaran’s compelling analysis of how a theater performance can turn into this worksite for excavation, examining and affirmation of the past, specifically “for a redefinition and re-imagination of the Left in the contemporary context” (Parameswaran 269), he focuses on the performative strategies of ‘counterpoint’, as “opposition, contradiction, fighting” (Toch 1977, 135)[iv] of past experiences, events and sites; and affect, this performance can create in its audiences. Parameswaran argues that political performance is not only a unique place to investigate the faults and the gains of the Leftist discourses and practices, it is also a location to rehearse new political futures of the Left. He writes: “by approaching experiences of the past through contrapuntal expression of rhythms and scales, [performance] works move away from nostalgic yearning for the past or melancholia. In this way, the organisation of experiences—including testimonial accounts, (failed) dreams and imaginaries—allows the Left to appear redefined and reimagined in the contemporary context. These cultural works become worksites of the Left precisely because the historical excavation also offers an affirmation of a Left in an aleatory way as a process in making: as determinate matter in a given situation” (270).

The conversation and the arguments Parameswaran offers are especially timely as we have recently entered – as it seems - a very dark period of our own history, with nationalistic rhetoric and the politics of the alt-right rapidly spreading across the globe. The danger of this rhetoric and these political practices is not only in the fact that they undermine democratic discourses and practices of the Left, they also undercut the hopes and the dreams of those individuals who support their politics and rhetoric. Nationalism – propagated by Trump or Putin, just to name these two obvious examples – manipulates peoples’ emotions and feelings; it appears to speak to their immediate economic needs but rarely fulfils its own promises. In his article, Parameswaran demonstrates that political performance can reveal these dangerous paradoxes of political manipulation and serve as a warning sign. As a worksite for new politics, political performance can stage history of the nation in the irrevocable connection with the personal history of its citizens; it can also reveal a binding link between the geography of the nation, marked by important historical events that made it, and personal life journeys of ordinary people. The film, Amma Ariyan, he explains, is one such example.

In its narrative dramaturgy Amma Ariyan uses excerpts of the Leftist literature, actual footage of the events and the sites where the strikes in the South-Indian state of Kerala took place, and foregrounds the mother-son conflict, the mother’s decision to take her son’s place and continue the revolutionary work he began, as narrated by the celebrated novel of Maxim Gorki to which it also refers. In the film’s complex intertextuality of a documentary expression and a contrapuntal rhythm of visual repetitions, quotations and echoing, Amma Ariyan excavates the country’s past and invites the viewer to think about it critically. It also stimulates our affectual reaction and hence offers an affirmation of its own politics. The artistic device of using “counterpoint as the organisational strategy” of the material (Parameswaran 276) helps the filmmaker John Abraham demonstrate how the past ideologies and the workings of the Left can re-emerge as a set of new political ideas and practices applicable to and stemming from the everyday experiences of peoples of today. The aesthetic project of a filmic counterpoint, Parameswaran offers, can make the viewers re-evaluate their knowledge of the politics of the past and their expectations and affirmations of the politics of the present.

Curiously, a theatre performance can do this too: it can reveal the errors of the past in order to fix them in the present, as well as possibly show the ways of taking these discourses into the future. Although Parameswaran’s case studies are very different – a film from India and a theatre production from Germany – put next to each other, in the space of a single article, these works demonstrate that the artistic devices used across today’s visual media are fluid. These devices easily move from one form to another, thus enriching the language of their artistic and political statements. Parameswaran also shows that the Leftist ideology and apparatus we inherited from the past is a phenomenon rooted in its own history, but it is not politically passé. To make this ideology and apparatus urgent again and to reach wider audiences and supporters, today’s Leftists – both politicians and politically minded artists - need to change the medium of expression not the message. In this suggestion, Parameswaran joins another theoretician of the political Left, Chantal Moufe, who in the book For a Left Populism (2018)[v] argues that the time has come for the Left to reclaim its political weight using strategies of populist rhetoric and to use affect to mobilize a new political subject (Moufe 72-73). To do the politically engaged artists need to speak from the place of concrete problems that “people encounter in their daily life”; so they can offer “a vision of the future that gives them hope” (76).

To Parameswaran, Lola Arias’ Atlas of Communism exemplifies this strategy and it reclaims the ideology and the rhetoric of the Left by putting responsibility on the authenticity of the discourse and the presence of the participants, non-professional actors, on stage.

This technique is well known as the ethics of reality theatre (Boenisch 2008, 108)[vi] as pioneered by a German company Rimini Protokoll, who bring nonprofessional performers on stage. Reality theatre foregrounds authenticity of the everyday experience. It stages the semiotic presence of its performers/participants as a zero sign, and thus approximates their bodies to ethnographic artefacts placed in the setting of a museum space in order to testify to the bygone truth of their own history. Rimini Protokoll’s quest for social justice is positioned at the intersection of performance, documentary, and participatory theatre. It problematizes the notion of the representational and investigates the nature of the real on stage. This approach foregrounds an idea of a theatrical truth as something ambiguous, located between the dramaturgy of Rimini Protokoll’s production as scripted reality and the participants’ on-stage presence. Such approach can work both toward creating audience’s empathy about the presented subject matter and their ability to critically approach it. The ways Lola Arias approaches constructing and performing Atlas of Communism, it seems to me and as described by Parameswaran, are similar to Rimini Protokoll’s reality theatre. Atlas of Communism is based on the participants’ recollection of their past, the performance is underscored by “photographs projected onto a screen. In Atlas, through their personal memories eight actors narrate their experiences in East Germany after the collapse of the GDR. The narration highlights the distinct experiences and perspectives of eight people differentiated both on the basis of age as well as their ideological viewpoints on their relation to the state regime. […] Through the participants’ personal stories, the performance foregrounds the experiences, expectations, and desires of communism and its failure in the GDR due to its authoritarian and surveillance regime, as well as its place in the context of contemporary capitalism, rising neo-Nazism, and the refugee crisis” (Parameswaran 277).

By bringing these authentic histories and experiences on stage, Lola Arias creates a performative plateau of informational, rhythmical and emotional counterpoints. This rhythmical montage of lived through experiences invites spectators to perform an act of encounter with the stage and its action in the register of affect. To a certain degree, I believe, this performative tactics reminds us of the mechanisms of a populist performance, and so can be further adapted and developed for the purposes of reclaiming of the Left. These tactics democratize theater language and thus can serve as a recipe for reaching new audiences and for re-affirming the ideas and the pragmatics of the Left. Theatre as a worksite of history can excavate the failures of the past, as Parameswaran suggests, but it can also provide methods to fix those errors. Most importantly it can turn back to the audiences and ask them to do the same work of excavation and accounting of their own personal decisions and histories. In this scenario of affirmation, both the film and the performance, which Parameswaran analyzes, allow the theatrical tectonic plates to shift; so the worksite of excavation of the past and its re-affirmation moves from stage into the audience, asking each of these spectators to face and interrogate their personal political stands. This Brechtian gesture of audiences’ self-critique and self-study, caused by emotional impact a theatre work might create, is the first step toward reclaiming of the Leftist politics, which our world torn apart by very different political realities seems to desperately need.

[i] Parameswaran, Ameet. “Excavating the Remains of the Left: Radical Geography and Political Affirmation.” Studies in Theatre and Performance: Performing the Worksites of the Left, vol. 39, no. 3, Routledge, Sept. 2019, pp. 268–84, doi:10.1080/14682761.2019.1654311.

[ii] Balibar, Etienne, and James Swenson. We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship . English edition., Project Muse, 2014.

[iii] Rai, Shirin, and Janelle G. Reinelt. The Grammar of Politics and Performance . Routledge, 2015.

[iv] Toch, Ernst. 1977. The Shaping Forces in Music: An Inquiry Into the Nature of Harmony, Melody, Counterpoint, Form. New York: Dover Publications Inc.

 

[v] Mouffe, Chantal. For a Left Populism. London: Verso, 2018.

[vi] Boenisch, Peter M. 2008. “Other People Live: Rimini Protokoll and Their Theatre of Experts.” Contemporary Theatre Review 18, no. 1 (February): 107–13.