How can one employ strategies from theatre as curatorial strategies?

Florian Malzacher in conversation with Peter Eckersall & Bertie Ferdman

In: Curating Dramaturgies: How Dramaturgy and Curating Are Intersecting in the Contemporary Arts. Eds. Peter Eckersall & Bertie Ferdman. London & New York: Routledge, 2021. 141-150.

We interviewed Florian Malzacher in November 2019 via Skype. In January of 2020 we met for coffee when Florian came to New York for the Under the Radar festival. We had been reading Florian’s publications: his edited collection Empty Stages, Crowded Flats. Performativity as Curatorial Strategy (2017) was especially relevant to developing our thinking in this book.  Florian’s work on political theatre, performing knowledge and activism has been influential and inspiring to many people.

Peter Eckersall: How do you describe what you do? Could you reflect on how your work as a dramaturg and curator has changed over time?

Florian Malzacher: A lot of my view on working in and with theatre has been formed during my studies at the Institute for Applied Theater Studies at the University of Giessen in the second half of the 1990s. It was the first place in Germany to try to merge theory and practice in the field of theatre and to put a strong focus on experimental, non-dramatic theatre forms. Today this time is considered the golden years of the Institute – my fellow students were for example the members of Showcase Beat Le Mot (SCBLM), Rimini Protokoll, Gob Squad, She She Pop… But paradoxically the dominant feeling then was quite the opposite: that we were there too late, that we had missed Giessen’s highpoint. Former students like René Pollesch, professors like Hans-Thies Lehmann were long gone and there seemed to be no clear destination anymore. So we worked, made performances, studied, critiqued each other heavily, but it felt a bit like we were stranded in an indistinct town in the middle of nowhere. But in fact, this feeling of a void might have been the best thing that could have happened to us. It gave room to a lot of our own ideas – and it also changed my own way of working. Because from the beginning, we were never trained to be one thing. You don’t graduate from Giessen as a theatre director, curator, dramaturg, or even a theatre scholar. You learn lots of bits and pieces that do not make sense if you just put them all together. I became a theatre critic and had the opportunity to work with newspapers and magazines, like Frankfurter Rundschau and Theater Heute, without ever having been trained in journalism or criticism. The same with curating.

After finishing studies in 2000, a group of us founded a curators’ collective called “Unfriendly Takeover” in Frankfurt.1 I think I had never read anything about curating. In retrospect I do not even know why we called ourselves “curators” at a time when no one in theatre did. But anyway: we considered ourselves curators and for five years we organized quite a few no- and low-budget projects that soon became a relevant part of Frankfurt’s subculture. The idea to consider ourselves a collective came out of Giessen, where most students at that time would rather work in groups than as solo directors. Also, from the very beginning our idea of curating was very performative.

  1. See:

Eventually I stopped being a critic because you cannot be involved with artistic creations while at the same time writing negative reviews of others artists, especially in Germany where theatre critics were still expected to be strictly objective and detached—you should not even talk to the artists that you write about. So, when I got an offer to join Veronica Kaup-Hasler for steirischer herbst festival in Graz/Austria as a co-programmer, I changed sides.2 From one day to the next, I was co-curating a festival. I had never looked much into festivals until then. I had visited Kunstenfestivaldesarts and others, but while Veronica was an experienced festival maker it was not a specific interest of mine. In a Giessen way of thinking that was also an advantage: I thought a festival needed to have a clear narration, a dramaturgy of different intensities, a strong overlap of artistic genres, a magazine with articles that were not only about the festival’s productions but on related topics. I just believed that’s how it was done – but actually only very few festivals were on a similar path.

So, one could say that for quite a while I and many others from Giessen were carried by the belief that, since we didn’t have too much practical knowledge of anything, we actually could do everything.

Bertie Ferdman: Was that arrogance or naivety?

FM: Both! The fact that we did not know about a lot of things often made us believe that we invented them. I explored the possibilities of the job by doing it. What does it mean to write about performances? How can you use the immediacy of daily newspapers for a different kind of discourse? What does it mean to be a dramaturg in a non-dramatic production? What is it to curate in theatre? And what are the specific relations of all these jobs to the artistic work itself, where does it overlap, where does it need distance?

More and more, I became interested in experimenting with what it could mean to curate programs that would be more precise than whole festivals. What if you do a conference where everybody has to walk while the lecturers are speaking? What would it do to the discourse? What does duration do with an audience? Or programming “too much”? How to play with narration and dramaturgy? We just tried out things. I was beginning to understand what it could mean to curate in the field of theatre, performance, and choreography, where the conditions are different from visual arts. How can one employ but also co-invent strategies, forms, and concepts from theatre, dance and performance as curatorial strategies?

  1. Veronica Kaup-Hasler is a dramaturg, festival curator and cultural producer.  She is currently the Executive City Councilor for Cultural Affairs and Science at the City of Vienna.  For information on the Steirischer Herbst Festival see: Malzacher is listed as chief dramaturg/curator (Leitender Dramaturg/Kurator) for the editions of 2006-2012 in the festival archive.

One of the most important shifts for me came with a project titled “Truth is Concrete.”3 We started thinking about this in 2011-2012, the time of the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, and Spain… Suddenly conversations with artists shifted. You could not meet with an artist in Cairo and seriously say: “Can we have the world premiere of your new project?” while people were demonstrating and risking their freedom or health. We decided to dedicate an edition of steirischer herbst to the question of the relationship between art and politics, but we also wanted to suspend the normal way of how we do a festival.

  1. For more information see: Also connected to the festival, Malzacher edited the book Truth is Concrete: A Handbook for Artistic Strategies in Real Politics, Berlin, Sternberg Press, 2014.

“Truth is Concrete” was a marathon and a camp focusing on artistic strategies in politics and political strategies in art. It lasted for one week, day and night, one hundred and sixty hours without any break. We invited around 200 artists, activists and theorists from all over the world, as well as 100 students and young professionals – and of course the general local but also international public. We tried to invent a format that would push the limits of the festival, make it more radical but also more vulnerable – and that would be useful to the many politically engaged artists all over the world. We also tried to see what would come out of negotiating art, curating, and activism in such proximity. It was quite an experiment and a defining moment for my practice and understanding of my work until today. Of course this was a topic that at the same time was taken on by a few others, for example the Berlin Biennale 2012 that was directed by Artur Żmijewski and co-curated by Joanna Warsza, who at that time became my partner – so there was obviously an exchange of ideas and a lot of shared research.4

BF: That seems to be an example of where dramaturgy and curating merged completely.

  1. See: Artur Żmijewski and Joanna Warsza (eds.), Forget Fear, Cologne, Walther König, 2012.

FM: I’m not totally happy with the term “curating” since it is so much linked to the visual arts. I started using it myself in order to challenge the idea of what programming could be. And I chose this term also because, from a German perspective, a dramaturg holds a very specific position in theatre, very much linked to drama. Both terms might create misunderstandings – but at least the term curator was the bigger provocation within the system of theater. Still, the concept of the dramaturg also has something in its favor, since it is about creating a dramaturgy for an event, to think dramaturgically about curation and programming, an idea that for example Beatrice von Bismarck has put forward.5

  1. See: Beatrice von Bismarck, “Relations in Motion”, In: Florian Malzacher, Tea Tupajić, Petra Zanki, Frakcija 55 (2010), p. 50-57.

PE: Can I ask about the mechanics of the “Truth is Concrete” event? You started out your festival program by providing contexts for conversation and information, so that when you entered a festival you no longer just saw performances, but attended talks, or read a magazine. There were multiple sources of artistic practice and discourse being mixed into what was on a stage or on display. I think this structure is very influential. I am thinking of the visual art critic Boris Groys, who says that art is now about communicating some kind of informative perspective to a viewer or group of spectators.6 I am also interested in some of the provocations or challenges that this structure poses to the previously established cultural economy around artistic productions and festivals. When you program a durational festival over one week, what kind of pressures does that put on the technical apparatus, the artistic infrastructure, the system of programming artists who rely on three- or four-nights-presentation in order to keep their companies running?

FM: “Truth is Concrete” is still quite unique in the international scene, also because the festival had the means – both financial but also in terms of the team – to take on such a mammoth project. We really wanted to take the risk. By then we had worked for seven years in Graz, so there was also a strong relationship with the audiences and the team. As you described it, the aim was to contextualize works differently and to rethink the relationship between artistic disciplines themselves but also between art and theory, art and activism. And: our take was very much coming from the perspective of theatre and its specific competence in bringing people together in a certain frame of time and space. It is maybe important to mention that steirischer herbst is one of the few truly multi-disciplinary festivals out there, and this since about 50 years. But we were the first people coming mainly from theatre to program it.

  1. Groys writes: “Traditional art produced art objects. Contemporary art produces information” (2016: 4).  See: Groys, B., In the Flow, London, Verso, 2016.

BF: You have a lot of books that you worked on with artists, and you have published around performativity and theatricality. Can you speak to the critical perspectives you bring to discourse, or the artists that influence how you think about curating situations? Peter mentioned Groys, for example, and I am thinking of Shannon Jackson.7 Who else informs your work?

  1. See: Shannon Jackson, Social Works: Performing Arts, Supporting Publics, New York, Routledge, 2011.

FM: Of course, I am influenced by them and many others – directly or indirectly. In recent years though, I have become increasingly interested in political theories. For instance, Chantal Mouffe‘s concept of agonism and agonistic spheres for me resonates very well with the potential of theater as a political space; a place where conflict can be enacted.8 Even the most conventional theatre is doing that: from Greek tragedy to Shakespeare to psychological drama where the conflict is contained within one person – this is what theatre is about. What does it mean to create agonistic spheres within the context of curating theatre?  In fact, this discourse was maybe more influential for me than most straightforward theatre or curating theories. Even though curators like Hans Ulrich Obrist had an influence on my thinking about curating, I was never too interested in reading theoretical stuff about curating itself.9 In the end it was often more about learning from artistic practices than from colleagues. For I example I collaborated a few times with the Dutch artist Jonas Staal10, who creates political assemblies and summits as part of his artistic work, but also many other

  1. See: Chantal Mouffe, Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically. London and New York, Verso, 2013.
  2. See: Hans Ulrich Obrist, Ways of Curating. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.
  3. “Training for the Future” (2018-ongoing), a utopian training camp. See:

BF: Since you are talking about assemblies—when we interviewed Gurur Ertem, she also talked about Chantal Mouffe as a big influence, and how they had to stop the iDANS Festival after 2013 because of what was going on in Turkey.11 In terms of assemblies and creating situations that bring conflict to bare, it seems like you are playing with the concept of the audience and the modes of spectatorship. Is that a concern when you are conceptualizing and shaping your events?

FM: For me the main competence of theatre lies in the creation of temporary communities within a specific frame. In this regard, I am less interested in spectators, but more in participants or at least witnesses. We are all “in” something with our different positions and perspectives. Not everything has to be participatory in a literal way. But the space of togetherness is the main feature of theatre. This offers the opportunity to create situations that are real and symbolic, that allow one to be inside and outside at the same time. I think theatre is an amazing paradoxical machine that can contribute to political action and theory precisely by being neither real politics nor not politics. It is not an assembly like Occupy Wall Street because it does not believe in the authenticity and the immersiveness of its situational assembly. It challenges us at the same time to be part of and to reflect on this participation.

BF: I think we are getting to the kernel of how dramaturgy is not taught in the United States. Dramaturgy is only related to separate, contained events. Conceptualizing the dramaturgy of the event as real or not real, in a Brechtian way, is not taught here and we almost never explore it.

PE: Dramaturgy is often taught in relation to the perception of a market driven demand for a text-based model of dramaturgy. I think curatorial practice is more advanced on this account. The United States is a different context also because of the influence of US-perspectives on race that have been coming into curatorial practices and dramaturgical practices right now.

  1. Mouffe gave a keynote address on “agonistic democracy” at the 2010 iDANS Festival entitled “CosmopoliDANS.” See Ertem’s interview in this volume.

Florian, your work has been inspiring particularly in the way you have engaged with political theories. Could you reflect on how you have created those conversations with people like Mouffe? I have been reading the work of Jodi Dean, and I am always struck by her resistance to artistic practice as a meaningful contribution to political activity.12 On the one hand we have somebody like Mouffe who has much embraced the relationship of politics to artistic practice, on the other hand important contemporary political theorists sit ambiguously in relation to artistic practice. How do you address these conflicts within the political sphere and bring them into your artistic practice?

  1. Jodi Dean has argued that art displaces political struggles from the streets to the galleries, See: The Communist Horizon. London, Verso, 2012.

FM: Indeed, one could say that part of my work is trying to argue against the idea of autonomy of art and against the strange concept that art is only political when it is not political, as it is very popular within the art world. My conversations on these topics are rather with people that believe in a political potential of art. In this regard Chantal Mouffe has always been very open to my – if you wish – misuse of her political theory as a curatorial concept. Other political theorists I had the privilege of having rather regular conversations with would be Oliver Marchart and Boris Buden (both of whom were part of a kind of advisory board we created for the Impulse Theater Festival, which I directed from 2013 – 2017). Oliver’s concept of pre-enactment was quite inspiring for us when working on Impulse.13 For him, artistic practice enables political thinking and artistic works can be pre-enactments of future political events.

I guess I am very Brechtian in many ways. For me artistic work is part of the world I live in – and the world is part of the artistic work. And, yes, I do instrumentalize art once in a while – as most people do: When one is in love or sad, reading poetry is meant to be helpful for oneself. You use this love poetry for your own purpose, what else would you do with it? In this line of thought, I simply don’t understand why art and politics have to be separated – especially in the world we are living in right now. Yes, art and politics are not the same. But, as I said, I believe that theatre has the strange ability to be politics and not politics at the same time. It doesn’t need to decide, it can be both. That is an unresolvable paradox – and there is a lot to be gained from it.

  1. See: Oliver Marchart, Conflictual Aesthetics: Artistic Activism and the Public Sphere Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2019.

BF: I just finished reading Hito Steyerl’s Duty Free Art,14 where she talks about the circularity of how art cannot get out of itself. She tries to amplify what is real so that people can see this awful subjectivity we are living in, where it is complete surveillance and hyper-realism, where we no longer know what is being controlled. In a way it is like what you are saying about the inside/outside situation of theatre. However, she is very pessimistic, saying that art can never get away from its own institutionality, its own vicious cycle, although she is talking about visual art. Perhaps in theatre there is more hope for community building or inclusive audiences, since the economies of the visual art market are totally different.

FM: Maybe this again leads us to the specificity of theatre: Hito Steyerl is very much talking about what she can show to people, how she in her work can represent the world – from all I know of her, it seems that she is not very interested in negotiating the relationship with the audience, in trying out different forms of participation. Additionally, the system of the visual art world with its hegemonic attitude and extreme proximity to the market is still very different from the kind of theatre I am interested in. So maybe we are still in a privileged situation. Not outside of the capitalist system, but slightly closer to the fringes.

BF: Yes, she is trying to use her art to unveil what’s really going on, in the same way that you were talking about theatre’s real-and-not-real structure, even though she is interested in the critical aspect of this.

FM: The limits of criticality is something that Hito Steyerl is of course very much aware of. In this regard, political theatre for me is not only about criticality but also about offering hope that there can be alternatives. It is about making proposals, about the possibility of art creating pre-enactments, to reference Oliver Marchart again, who took the term from the Israeli choreographers of Public Movement. A recent project Jonas Staal and I were developing was called “Training for the Future” – and one of the guiding ideas was that it should offer propositions rather than mere critique – being affirmative while at the same time not forgetting critical thinking. Again, one of the paradoxical possibilities of theatre.

  1. Hito Steyerl, Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War. New York, Verso, 2019.

PE: I always look for how the work of dramaturgy can be taken into social, political, visual, and performative practices, which I call “expanded dramaturgy,” and I am captivated by the term “performative curating” that you used in one of your publications.15 You talk about it as putting the social and relational aspect of art at the center of curating strategy. I wonder how it diverges from the relational aesthetics argument. From what I read I see this process as being more interactive in the political sense.

FM: Well, while relational aesthetics were stressing the social aspect of art, this was mostly very much limited to a certain group of people, to a certain section of society, to a certain set of human relations, and it stayed very much within the field of the arts. It was more concerned with aesthetics than with ethics.

  1. See: Florian Malzacher and Jonna Warsza (eds.), Empty Stages Crowded Flats: Performativity as Curatorial Strategy, Berlin, Alexander Verlag, 2017.

The concept of performative curating stresses the two strands of the meaning of the term performative. As Shannon Jackson explained, the word on the one-hand underlines Austin’s, Butler’s and others’ notion of the reality-changing capacities of cultural utterances. On the other hand, it has also a more colloquial meaning, which refers to works and situations that are theatre-like but not theatre.16 While Jackson dismisses the latter as too literal, for me the appeal of the concept of performativity lies exactly in this double meaning. The reality-changing capacity as well as the use of techniques, methods, strategies and tactics of the performing arts. When we talk about theatre as assembly – a form that I am especially interested in – and then think of Judith Butler’s book on assembly and Occupy it becomes clear.17 While Butler is less interested in the theatricality of the movement, she still talks about the importance of bodies coming together enacting the phrase “We the People.” I would add that there are other very theatrical aspects of OWS, the human mic for example. At the same time, it was performative in the sense of reality-changing: it created a different way of being just by doing it. Occupy was less about the demands being put out, and more about the fact that as soon as you lived it, you were changing your own reality as well as the reality outside.

It might sound pretentious to talk about translating this to theatre or to curating. But still: When in the case of “Truth is Concrete” there is an audience together for 160 hours, their collectiveness changes – by spending time with each other, by being bodies next to bodies, by being bored or angry, by negotiating space and experiences etc. All these are means of curating and making theatre and performance, but we often do not put enough focus on this.

PE: What are the implications of performative curating for artistic practice? How will the presentation of performance practice or various types of festivals have to change ultimately? How should they change?

FM: There seems to be a fear that the role of the curator becomes too important, that she or he has too much influence on the artistic work. But first of all, production in theatre, dance, performance is comparably slow and already always a process of negotiation – the concept of commissioning for example is quite different from that within visual arts. For me curating means that vice versa the artist is getting into a conversation that shapes the context. It is about being able to think together. What I propose might imply giving up the power inherent to the notion of an autonomous artwork, but at the same time it is about gaining power by co-creating, curating together the context and the relations to other artists and artistic works. Ideally it is an exchange for developing something together. Sometimes this means inviting someone to work in a specific frame, asking if they would be interested. Sometimes, it means creating the context around a work. There are different levels of exchange and collaboration and being open to influence is key. In theatre we are used to that anyway. Theatre is full of compromises and it is always collaborative.

BF: Can you tell us about where your work is headed? What is your next project that you are excited about?

FM: At the moment I work as a freelance independent curator, which offers the opportunity to work on several projects at once. With Jonas Staal we did the first edition of a project called “Training for the Future” in September [2019], a three-day program of creating a training ground with many different practices from artistic and activist fields. Hopefully we will have another edition and continue working on that project. Another of my projects is going to happen in a small city close to Cologne where the father of Friedrich Engels had one of his factories. This town does not have much of a typical art audience, so it is an interesting challenge to foster together with the artists a conversation about the changing role of work. And I was just working with Lola Arias as a dramaturg and now in a project by Tania Bruguera – you can imagine they have very different approaches and demand very different ways of collaborating! I also just finished writing a book on political theater…

There is an advantage to not being involved in running a larger organization. The work can often be more precise and have a bigger variety. On the other hand, I am still interested in being part of a festival or venue – the work within institutions is often frustrating but also very important. For me it is still interesting to witness how a venue, or a festival can be influenced by the concept of performative curating. We need to challenge the performative potential of institutions while at the same time protect them in a time where more and ore of them are under political and economic threat.

  1. See: Shannon Jackson, “Performative Curating Performs”, in ibid, n.p.
  2. See: Judith Butler, Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly.  Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2015.