Critic, dramaturg, and curator Florian Malzacher currently serves as curator and artistic director of the Impulse Theater Festival in Düsseldorf, Cologne, and Mülheim, Germany. His 2012 convening Truth Is Concrete, a 24/7 marathon “camp” under the auspices of the festival steirischer herbst in Graz, Austria,considered tactics and priorities for art and social engagement. (A corresponding 2014 anthology with the same title has been published by Sternberg Press.) I spoke with Malzacher in Mülheim in June 2015 duringImpulse’s month-long exploration of “theater as agonistic space, in which social and political differences can be openly negotiated”—a curatorial frame inspired in part by the political theory of Chantal Mouffe. We began by discussing the recent proliferation of the term curation in a performing arts context. (TS)
Florian Malzacher: I don’t see so many interesting curatorial projects. Maybe there are some, and maybe there are beginning to be more. But sometimes I have the feeling that it’s already considered enough to say: this is curatorial – and then not to do anything differently.
Is curator the best term to take over? What does it mean to take it from the visual arts and use it for the performingarts? Is it a good idea or not? I was always fine with using this term as a provocation. A provocation, on one side, towards a certain practice of programming. To say, you need to accelerate it, to enhance it, to push it somewhere. On the other hand, it’s also a self-provocation: if you call yourself a curator instead of a programmer, you must deliver. For me, the term is only interesting because it demands something from the persons calling themselves a curator. When the term curator is just used affirmatively, then I’m not interested. In that case, we already need the next term. If we just exchange one word for another and are satisfied with what we are doing, then it’s useless.
Tom Sellar: What’s exciting about curation is the idea of that expanded role, and the idea of the transformation for theater, specifically, that could come with it—that there could be linkages between individual performances andbetween artistic projects, which is so lacking within institutional structures right now. It carries the promise that somebody could begin to make connections, to create contexts, and also to generate a kind of research engine for the theater that doesn’t exist today. It could be linked to what Beatrice von Bismarck calls the “cultures of the curatorial,” as opposed to the “practice” of curating. It encompasses the larger idea of a knowledge base that each project builds on, adding historical linkages and also contemporary linkages, keeping track of what’s been attempted before or what’s being attempted now. It would ask, how does each project contribute to some kind of investigation that would further the curatorial discovery? This happens, in theory, in the art world as well. That seems to be the curatorial function that would be really essential for a contemporary theater. Do you agree?
That’s exactly the point: to create a field within the festival, or program, or performative conference, to create this field where the curatorial, as Beatrice von Bismarck calls it, could happen. But then the question would be, what is specific for theater in this? What could be the performative in curation? How is the situation that you curate performative in itself? That would be interesting for me. One can use theatrical expertise in curating something—and I don’t mean that you need a set design—but one can think of how bodies move and how time passes. I don’t mean “theatrical” in a cheesy way.
For me, I want to ask, what does it mean when we spend time together? With a festival like the Impulse Theater Festival, you work within a largely normal festival rhythm. People come for a weekend and then they leave. It’s different with something like Artist Organisations International, or Truth Is Concrete, which lasted 170 hours. When you invite people to stay for that amount of time, you have to think about what time means. What does it mean when people spend time together, when they become a collective? When they get annoyed with each other? What group dynamics kick in? That’s what I think is specific for the field of theater in the practice of curation. A performance is already a curated event, in a way. You invite people. You might have a narrative. You have sounds; you think of the space; you think of how the audience comes in. If you think of theater as a public space, where society can meet and also define itself and experiment with its procedures, how can you enlarge this space for a bigger program? Thinking from the specificities of theater itself—that’s the interesting part.
You’re one of the only curators in a theater context who talks about time. You build experiments with time into the structure and the fabric of your projects. Truth Is Concrete was a 24/7 marathon, where you could feel time changing, speeding up, and slowing down, and even the time between performances, riding the bus, was another journey, another dialogue, another opportunity for exchange. Time is obviously what sets theater apart from the visual arts.
My interest in time comes directly from what theater does. One major difference between theater and the visual arts—normally, but with exceptions, of course—is that, when you go to the show, you have to spend your time in there. You force people, in a very anachronistic way, to sit three hours at a show, or even only for ninety minutes. People from within the visual arts often think that’s strange.
I think that’s why Dorothea von Hantelmann says, for her, a museum feels much more contemporary than a theater, because you’re not forced into time frames. I would also say that that’s the neoliberal aspect of the museum. Theater forces you to stay. If you decide to leave, it might be unpleasant. People notice it. You have to make a commitment in terms of time. I think, with all our schedules now and how life runs, to make a commitment of time is actually one of the biggest commitments you can make. If I commit to a show for ninety minutes, or for three hours, or for five hours, or for twelve hours, it’s really a commitment. That’s something to think about: What happens when you make this commitment? What can you do with that? What can you experience, and how can you change atmospheres and intensities? I found time always interesting within shows for example in Forced Entertainment’s twelve-hour shows.
When you do something nonstop for a week, that means: people will sleep and people will go in and out, it also means that you create a group dynamic. In the middle of the week, there will be a crisis, and suddenly this becomes part of the program. It’s kind of predictable. Groups are not so surprising. Even if you say your performance is only an hour, you can work with time’s limits. I think curating, in a way, is about wanting to control something that you can’t control. You have a plan, and you really want to follow it, but you have to be aware that it will not happen. That’s the fun of it. Curating is a cure for control freaks, basically, but you have to be a control freak to want to do it. This is also what the theater that I’m interested in is about.
You’ve centered the 2015 Impulse Theater Festival on two questions. One concerns agonistic pluralism, and the other probes the limits of representation and what those limits mean politically. How long have you been thinking about these questions in these terms, and when did you decide that they were right for this season’s program?
Impulse is less a curated event, and so I try to approach it from this view. It’s a festival with a tradition and a certain task. It’s not a twentyfour-hour event. Impulse invites shows and builds something around it with them. It’s much less focused on one clear curatorial concept. For us, it was very interesting to see what concepts did emerge. I think, a lot of artists at the moment are dealing with how they can relate to the political situations around us, which don’t seem to be getting better. So there’s a big need for a lot of theater makers and a lot of other artists to deal with the realities around them and maybe even to intervene. Their question is: what could be the role of theater within this? What could a political theater be? What could theater as a social place be? That is something that a lot of artists are dealing with and that we are also interested in. It’s a focus that came about very organically. There’s maybe more of an ongoing search for what political theater and theater as a public space could be, than very clear answers.
Thinking about all this in relation to the curatorial we came to Chantal Mouffe’s notion of agonistic pluralism. It’s likely we’re misusing this concept, which always happens when you draw a political or a philosophical concept into art. That’s fine. Mouffe uses a term that comes from theater—‘agon’ is the competition of arguments in Greek drama. What she argues against—I simplify—is the idea that we need to try to reach consensus, or that society, ultimately, in Marxist ideology for example, would lead to consensus. So that in a better world—or in hundreds of years—we will actually reach consensus. She argues that this will never be the case. There will always be different positions. Rather, we must find a way of making these differences visible and to create an agon between ideas. Otherwise, the impossible struggle for consensus will lead to antagonism, basically to something like civil war; one encounters opinions that cannot even have a dialogue with one another anymore. I think that’s quite a good description of what’s happening in the world, in many different places. Germany is very much on the path of consensus, but you can see that it’s not functioning politically in different corners. From a distance, it seems that the United States is very much going in the direction of antagonism, where you have divides between opinions that can no longer be bridged.
We found this idea of agonistic pluralism quite interesting, because showing conflict has always been the function of theater, from the Greeks on. Theater brought together different opinions and had the audience negotiate them. This is our idea—that the festival is, in a way, an agonistic field. It doesn’t pretend to present everything—there are opinions I also don’t want to be expressed in the program—but within the agonistic field of the festival there is a negotiation of topics, of society and politics, that can still communicate with each other across differences. Theater is a good place for agonism, because theater has a paradoxical construction: you are in the artwork as an audience member, and, at the same time, you can watch yourself from without, but not by distancing yourself from what’s happening, not by moving out. I think of the image in the movies, when you die or when you’re in a coma, and you suddenly watch yourself from above—an out-of-body experience. That’s the image I have of what theater does.
We had conversations that one could call a kind of therapy. Since it is theater and you’re aware of yourself within it, you can analyze the situation. You’re in and out at the same moment. That’s what theater can do very well—better than a complete identification with a character, which in film functions much more successfully. That doesn’t function well for me in theater. What functions in theater is this swimming, in and outgoing from being part of it to analyzing it from without. I use this function to look at what theater can be today, in society.
I was thinking as I participated in the Dutch theater maker Lotte van den Berg’s facilitated group conversation that it is a lot easier to create agonism among all white people between the ages of thirty and fifty, who share similar politics. Although I did feel particularly American during the conversation about migration: I suddenly became aware of the discrepancies between our discourses in America and Europe—a relatively small difference within the West. There were no Turkish or Syrian people in the workshop, for example. How do you make sure that these performances actually cause a disruption? And if they did cause a disruption, isn’t that at odds with the mission of the festival, which is about harmony and creating an enjoyable, municipal event? Isn’t agonism at odds with the institution of the Impulse Theater Festival?
A festival like Impulse is much more compromised in terms of curatorial ideas—which is sort of nice. I’m not against it. I think that compromise is something else that is very specific to theater, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a negative.
But for example with Artist Organisations International Jonas Staal, Joanna Warsza and I created a much more agonistic space, which was also much more diverse in its participation. There were for example two activists from the Artist Association of Azawad, Kurdish representatives but also white, middle-class artists from wherever. The agenda was never one of reconciliation. We carried on contentious discussions, for three days, each lasting until early morning, but nobody left, because there was still a field to bring people together. Everybody was interested in staying and not leaving. The impulse to stay was not simply to not yield the field to the others but rather to continue the discussion. That, perhaps, would be a much better example of agonism.
Impulse, of course, needs more local support. It alternates between three cities, but only two of them are big—Düsseldorf and Cologne—while Mülheim really is a small town. Impulse needs to create an audience in a context that is not used to this kind of theater.
In terms of representation, that’s one of the questions that we’re trying to ask in this edition: who is representing whom, and what right do they have to represent the other, who is not represented—these are core questions of democracies. And these are the core questions of theater, always. While this idea that theater has always been related to democracy is perhaps banal, it’s interesting to remind oneself of this when considering why theater is a good place to ask these questions. Especially in Germany, as in many European countries, we have a problem of representation. There is a very limited representation, not only onstage but also in our audiences, of people that are not white and middle class. But the problem of representation is also a problem of our society, and something that is heavily discussed both in society and in theater lately.
I would say that Germany has been late to some of these discussions because our colonial past was always eclipsed by the things to come afterward, which occupied us more. The colonial period was a comparably short period in German history. The time of straightforward colonialism ended after the First World War, and it started late. I don’t mean this cynically, but German colonialism was less brutal than the Belgian, so we didn’t feel the need to think much about it. When you look at German cities, at the presence of non-European foreigners or migrants, one understands that, until now, this diversity was never very present. You would not see many black people or Asian people in the streets. It changes now, and there’s an urge to understand problems of representation, especially regarding people with a Turkish, who were once the biggest group of workers migrating to Germany. We are very late to that discussion.
For this reason, many of these discourses might seem naive from the outside. But it’s a big topic, and I think we can begin by simply raising these questions. Even if you have a show with a nondiverse group of western European people in the audience or onstage, you can make this lack visible. I think the first step is to become aware of it. I cannot change the world with one festival, but we try to have works that function in this way.
My best example would be Gob Squad’s Western Society. Gob Squad does what they always do: they play themselves. This was a politically aware step to take in the nineties, when artists began to realize that they cannot talk about others, as all the city theaters and all the repertory theaters have been doing. We had to talk about ourselves, because that was the only thing we really knew something about. Over the years, that gesture became self-referential and lost its initial impetus of social and political awareness. To address this, Gob Squad doesn’t stop playing themselves, but suddenly their show is called Western Society. What happened was, suddenly, they realized that they had both to show themselves and to acknowledge that they are not everything, that they are just this little part of humanity. The whole show is very nostalgic about a society that actually doesn’t seem to exist anymore or shouldn’t exist anymore.
Western Society exudes contemporaneity because it shows the ways we project ourselves or insert ourselves into images that we take from the Other. In the show, we see a mysterious YouTube video and we know nothing about the people in it. All we can do is imagine them and to put ourselves inside this frame where there is no Other, only pure subjectivity.
Yes, definitely. For me, within the work of Gob Squad that represents themselves all the time, or presents representations of themselves all the time, this was an interesting step. It functioned almost like a telescope. If you turn a telescope in a different way and look through the wrong end, suddenly you feel as if the very close is very far away at the same moment. This is one thing we can show in the theater, that the we that we represent is just this little part of the world. The most opposite gesture from that, within a German or a western European context, would be the work of Gintersdorfer/Klaßen. For more than ten years they have been working together with performers from outside of the West—first from the Ivory Coast and later also with performers from Rwanda, the Congo, and other African countries. More and more, Monika Gintersdorfer withdrew as director, and more and more the stage was taken over by the performers. The piece that we show at Impulse is called Chefferie. It stages the idea of a system where everyone is a chief, and equal chiefs negotiate what is to be done. What they represent is actually the system of how they create work. They have a lot of equal chiefs involved in each project. That’s a different approach to self-referential representation than Gob Squad uses.
We are also showing a work by director Milo Rau, who is in a way maybe the most conventional theater director within the context of Impulse, because he usually works with actors, who play roles. Rau deals with humanitarian crimes in his work. Hate Radio, for example, was about atrocities in Rwanda. In Civil Wars, the work we present, Rau planned together with the actors to do research in Brussels about young kids that joined the jihad or pledged to Isis. Suddenly, they realized that this was not possible. They could not represent this idea. They couldn’t get close to that. The work shifted, and now the actors talk about their own lives and their own moments of possible political radicalization. They talk about their relationships with their fathers. They talk about Western society, once again. They look for what is happening within their own expertise. In a way, in this work Rau makes the same shift that Gob Squad did years before. It’s a rotation of the idea of how representation can function.
The Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué, who presents his work Riding on a Cloud, always talks about representation in a personal and poetic way. He brings his brother Yasser onstage, who literally cannot understand representation. He was shot, as a kid, in the civil war in Beirut, and has a syndrome that makes it impossible for him to recognize reality in words and pictures. He would understand a cup of coffee, but when looking at a photo of a cup of coffee he could not recognize it. He really truly doesn’t understand the function of representation or what representation is.
So what we try to show is how representation functions or doesn’t function. That’s a huge question, of course, in theater but also in society. There are people who say they want to get to a post-representational society, that representation is not a good way to build a society. Chantal Mouffe would always defend representation, but also questions how representation functions. In theater, we ask: Is it okay to represent other characters? When is it not okay? Germany is finally having a big debate about blackface in theater, which is quite interesting.
This is following a controversy over a poster advertising a production that used blackface.
Yes, directed by Johan Simons, but there are also many others. It’s a big topic because, of course, it leads to a sequence of questions. You begin by confirming that, as a white actor, I’m not supposed to play a black actor. The next question you ask is, as a white actor, how am I supposed to play any other person that’s not me? Suddenly, you find yourself at the borders of acting. The questions of theater and the questions of society immediately overlap.
That was evident in the Chefferie performance last night. There is a kind of chaos that is always threatening to erupt when somebody begins to speak for someone else or when it’s not clear which language is supposed to be spoken.
It was an interesting moment, because the show was announced as the English version of the show, but some people in the show didn’t understand that, so they only spoke German. There was also a show where everything was translated from French into English but not into German. The only actor that was German and who speaks German, began to deliver a speech about inclusion and critical whiteness in German, and at the exact same moment excluded all the non-German speaking audience. And then, he realized this.
He even excluded his fellow performers, who didn’t understand what was happening onstage. It was amazing.
Exactly. I liked this moment because it really made the problems clear.
There was a genuine sensation of vertigo. You didn’t know which way it was going to go, which was kind of exciting. Then there’s the other side of representation, political representation: Who is here? Who is invited? Is there a need to curate a public, as well as a program?
That would be the question of audience development, which is also a political question. We all would like to have a big and very diverse audience and wonder how we reach it—that for me is a less interesting question. I think, one should think of how we can build a different audience in terms of what would make sense to make work for this audience. We will not solve in one theater festival, or even in theater in general, all of the problems of society. We are part of this problem of society and represent it. If we recognize this and would like to have different conversations, how can we work to do that?
You hope, that over the years audience diversity will improve. However, a more interesting idea demands that you open the festival to a different audience by changing the rules of the festival itself. Impulse is hosting a project called the Silent University, which was initiated by Ahmet Öğüt, a Kurdish visual artist, first at the Tate Modern and then at Tensta Konsthall, as well as one in Hamburg and now one here in Mülheim. The Silent University is a self-organized, open university, where the teachers are academics that came to Germany as refugees or asylum seekers. They don’t have working permits here, or their degrees are not convertible or not accepted here, or they can’t find, for other reasons, opportunities to teach. The Silent University is not addressing itself at all to the audience of the festival. This is a long-term project, which we guarantee for at least three years. But it should last, of course, forever. A completely different audience comes to the Silent University, and it will be interesting to see whether it stays a completely different audience. For a project like that, the curators move out of our field completely and hand it over to others and to the artist. Then, after the project has completed, we see if there is an interest for that side to return to their connection with us.
I like the idea of curating audiences, because it’s a challenge and it’s also a self-provocation. If you do curate an audience, there’s a hierarchy. I think it’s something interesting to play with that can help us analyze the situation we are in.
It seems clear that we can no longer leave audience development to the education department of a performing arts organization that traditionally would call a few school groups and invite them to the performance. That seems insufficient, given the crises that these organizations and institutions are in now, and the pressure they are under to demonstrate their wider reach. Audience development has to become more central to their programming focus.
My Yale colleague Michael Warner has written a book, Publics and Counterpublics, about the notion of the public now. Whereas once we could presume that theater spoke to a monolithic public, he argues—speaking not of theater but of political discourse in general—that the public is today composed of micropublics. Micropublics form around specific discourses and specific events that attract interested people in the way that a thread does on social media. Discourse becomes a little cluster of voices formed around that particular conversation. Perhaps our projects need to think of themselves as doing the same thing.
The idea that there is not one society, that this concept does not work anymore, is a big discussion among all the municipal theaters here. On the one hand, I totally agree, and on the other hand, I’ve been thinking lately that maybe it’s not true. Looking at a lot of recent shows, I wonder if the concept of classes is more persistent than we thought. They may change, and perhaps there is no longer a working class in many countries in the way there used to be—but at the same time a different kind of working class emerges. I think we are witnessing a rise of the bourgeoisie again not only in economic terms but also in terms of the idea of education and the German idea of Bildung, of self-cultivation through education. Maybe there are still quite persistent publics that exist.
Another problem that arises around micropublics is how to avoid the trap of the project. I have a feeling that there’s a big wish within the arts to get away from the extremely dominant model of the project, which has enabled a lot of creativity, because it’s very flexible. However, it’s not sustainable. There’s a debate in Germany about how much project-based working models and the independent theater in generally might actually the drivers of the rise of neoliberalism in theater. They adhere to the best neoliberal model: artists make work for and from very little money, they make something out of everything, and, once they’re done, you can get rid of them immediately.
How, then, can one develop a project that is sustainable? The fact that more and more artistic groups and also individual projects take the name and often the structure of institutions and organizations is an interesting symptom. You can very clearly see that there seems to be an interest in more sustainable models, and perhaps in re-institutionalizing, albeit in a different way and towards what could be a different kind of an institution. The notion of an institution or an organization is not seen negatively anymore, as I think it was for a long time. In this festival alone, we have Milo Rau with the Institute for Political Murder, an institute. We have a project that is part of a series of works called The Institution, by Herbordt/Mohren. There are already two examples—and we didn’t choose them for that reason, but still I could continue with this list.
Ahmet Ögüt always said of the Silent University that it should never be referred to as a project. This is not a project. It is a university. It’s an institution. It’s an organization, and this is an important distinction.
So, on the one hand, we have to very clearly target very different groups, and, on the other hand, we still find common interests that unite a lot of people. There are still certain class differences that exist and are maybe growing at the moment. But there is also more and more consensus growing—although I shouldn’t say that word. For years, we were in the situation where everyone would say that ideologies no longer function, but now there’s an interest in finding common ground, getting out of the trap of complete contingency and relativism.
I wonder how we will do that.
I wonder too.
It sounds utopian.
If theater is a good tool for searching and looking for answers, then I sense that there has been a shift in what is being looked for. I don’t know what it will lead to. In ten years we will know: Was this in vain? Did something come out of it?
That’s why theater still matters, perhaps. It has the capacity to create temporary social experiments where we can see what works and what doesn’t. Most of them don’t work, but we gain something from the few that do.
Since the beginning, I think, theater has been the best art form for trying out the procedures of society, for inventing new procedures, and for testing or for failing with them. It’s the field where that still can function, if you use it for that.
You’re still someone who believes in the radical potential of new artistic practices. The book that you published, Truth Is Concrete, is an example of that. It’s a book of possible strategies. More cynical people look at the cultural industry and see its infinite neoliberal ability to absorb radical practices and turn them into products, but you don’t look at art that way.
Of course, that is always possible, and that is part of society. But where else, beyond theater, would you have these possibilities? I’m not idealizing it, but I think that if there is still a place where you can have some radical imagination, it’s in this field. Fortunately, theater is much less driven by a high-speed market than the visual arts. It’s an old-fashioned tool. It’s slow. It’s much less sexy than visual art in many ways. The paradox of visual art is that it’s the place where a lot of radical critical thinking is being developed at the same time as it is the most neo-liberal market. That’s an interesting paradox. The theater has these problems as well but not in the same way. Theater is still difficult to place in the market, even though of course it is also a part of it. I’m not arguing for an idealized view of art or saying that theater is an exception. It’s not. But if there are still places where you can create a public sphere, I think that art should be used for that. If anything, anywhere has this possibility, we have the obligation to make use of it. Sorry, that’s a lot of pathos for an early morning conversation.
I wanted to ask you about an article you recently wrote in which you said that, at the moment, the field is still dominated by transition models. You were talking specifically about the generation of professionals that started the Kunstencentra in the 1980s and 1990s. The founders were subsequently replaced by their apprentice-successors, but today that means that those institutions are still searching for new evolutionary strategies. Can you talk more about what those organizations might be transitioning to? Is the festival structure going to endure? Could we be moving to some other structure that can accommodate the kind of independent groups that you describe, who are turning themselves into little, self-sufficient units, who then negotiate with producers and presenters? Is there something other than a presenting model that could work?
I think still the utopian ideal behind the Belgian kunstencentra, for example, is still valid. If you are looking for a house that can at one moment be very flexible and accommodate projects that turn over quickly, and at the same time enables sustainability and continuation, one that not only presents work but brings it into a dialogue for an audience, I think that’s still something that is needed. That exists almost nowhere, for different reasons. The places in the United States that come closest to satisfying this need don’t have any money, and rely on sponsors and donors. There are two or three handfuls of houses in the whole of Europe like that, and most of them don’t have the opportunities to really do work well. In these cases, the project becomes a pragmatic tool, because that’s the only kind of work you can realize. Money plays a role in what models you use to present. We need to create the possibility of an institution that stays in transition, that continually tries to follow up and develop itself. That’s the struggle. Can it be possible? As soon as you institutionalize yourself, you have to shift again, and after you become an institution, you face pragmatic limits that make things get stuck immediately. Is it possible to find an institution in permanent transition? That’s a Leninist idea— permanent revolution.
And we know what happened there.
I think at the moment there’s a shift in perception. It’s more and more clear that it’s not good to get rid of all institutions and to be against institutions per se. We can be happy that we still have some, but we have to understand how we can transform them while in order not to lose them. In these economical and ideological crises in Europe there are countries like Germany, where a specific kind of art institution has been built up for a long time, so even if the state gets partly dismantled, there will be still some of these institutions left. So we have to see how to preserve—and change —them! The challenge is to create institutions that permanently transforms themselves and are stable at the same time. It’s a paradox.
That’s what you meant, I suppose, when you wrote in the same article that saving the institution is now often seen as the ultima ratio. An institution’s goal is most often just preservation and survival, given the austerity times we live in.
It’s true. Two years ago, Impulse was a festival that was always on the verge of being closed down. Now, it seems, we are in a better situation, and there seems to be a good future ahead. I still have to consider, however, whether the radical ideas that I might wish to fulfill or that others wish to fulfill are the best for the festival. Does it make sense to risk a festival closing down because of this or that idea? It’s not about proving one’s own radicalism but resisting the excuse that everybody else would do worse, and so we should hang on forever, without changing anything. It’s the same dilemma. I think there are no general answers for it. You can look at some institutions and see that they could get at least more radical and to rethink themselves, to resist the urge to be lazy and to make excuses. There are others, however, where it’s clear that the institution is struggling simply to survive. But there’s also a point at which you must ask, what are you surviving for? If you cannot answer that question, then maybe it’s right to let it go. Whether an institution exists or not is not the question. Merely hoping that in ten years the situation might be different doesn’t function. You can also see that in moments of extreme crisis, as in Greece or the struggling Teatro Valle in Rome, very interesting things can begin to happen. But these moments last only a short time. Teatro Valle seems to be lost. There are theaters in Greece where very exciting things are happening, but we will see what happens to them in two years. Either they close and lose the fight, or they stay, perhaps as a new kind of establishment that one day just gets as boring.
Those institutional questions are never the most interesting, and yet they obsess us because they concern what we do every day.
I think those questions get interesting when we look at concrete institutions. I’m not a theorist of institutional critique, but I see in these concrete examples a lot of potential that’s not used by all of us.
Traditionally, in visual arts, the curator’s function involves a certain amount of institutional critique. Could theater makers take that on in a way that would be healthy and vital for the theater?
I’m still puzzled as to why institutional critique has never played a role in theater. When I try to think of examples of what one could consider as works of institutional critique in the performing arts, there are not very many. There are some works of conceptual dance that we could read as a critique of the institution of ballet—but not as critiques of concrete institutions. Perhaps Jerome Bel’s Véronique Doisneau could be seen as a challenge to the new Paris Opera. There are very few performances, however, that deal with the conditions the performing arts are embedded within.
Is this because in the performing arts there is a different economic relationship between artist and host institution—more precarious?
Institutional critique in visual arts has almost always occurred within the institution, from artists invited in by the curators. In most of the famous examples, the critique was not happening outside of the institution. There are many reasons that institutional critique doesn’t happen within the theater, but still, I am not completely satisfied with any of them. Perhaps the rise of works or group structures that call themselves institutions is a moment of institutional critique. In a way, Die Aufführung by Herbordt/Mohren is, if not an institutional critique, at least an institutional analysis, implicitly.
I’m curious about your own evolution from dramaturgy and criticism into programming and curation. You started by training as a dramaturg, in the traditional sense?
Perhaps it begun even earlier, since I come from a theater family. My father was a director, and my mother is an actress. One of my uncles was an actor. That I would do something that has to do with theater was probably visible rather early on. Then, going to the University of Giessen [Institute for Applied Theater Studies, Justus Liebig University Giessen] in the mid-1990s was a major step toward programming and curation. Before I went, I thought I would be a theater director. Coming to Giessen quite quickly changed a lot of my views on theater. It made clear to me that I would not be able to do the kind of work that I was really interested in and that most of the people around me also would not be able to do it, which didn’t stop them from trying. For me, however, this was immediately clear. I saw the first works of Forced Entertainment and thought, this is amazing. I would rather try to deal with this than trying anything else. It was a very fast, half-conscious decision—a recognition, maybe, rather than a decision—that I would not be a theater director myself. In Giessen at that time, of course, you didn’t learn properly how to do anything. What Giessen offered was more a change of perspective of what theater can be.
It was a strange situation, because Giessen is in a small town where nothing happens. All you can do is hang around at the institute, since there’s nothing else there. We were doing stuff but at the same time thinking, oh no, it’s the wrong time, nothing is happening. We felt there were no interesting people left at Giessen anymore. Hans-Thies Lehmann was not there anymore; Andrzej Wirth was not there anymore; René Pollesch was not there anymore. We felt as if we were the lost generation of Giessen.
Of course, from today’s perspective, it was an incredible time. I worked and studied with the artists who formed Rimini Protokoll and She She Pop and others. From today’s point of view, we were there actually at the perfect moment, but I remember sitting there thinking, what are we doing here? But in fact a lot was happening. I not only saw Forced Entertainment for the first time, but student work happening at Giessen by She She Pop. It was amazing for me to see that work then as a simple student production, which was happening with no money and for an audience of fifty. For me it became clear that my work would always be related to artistic production, but I would not consider myself as an artist.
I was the dramaturg for Rimini Protokoll on the very first work that the three did together. At the same time, I began writing theater critiques for daily papers and magazines. I was a critic, and, at the same time, I was founding with friends a curators’ collective called Unfriendly Takeover in Frankfurt. We called ourselves a curators’ collective, but we didn’t reflect very much on the concept. It was not as interesting for us to ask what it would mean to be a curator. We just wanted to realize projects. From today’s perspective, I would say, yes, some were quite interesting.
For me it didn’t make a difference to wear many different hats at the same time. Being a critic was becoming problematic only because, in the German tradition, you cannot be a theater critic and at the same time be involved in making theater. That said, [Gotthold Ephraim] Lessing even liked to write about his own plays. So the German tradition is a bit complicated. Still, the reviews I would write were mainly about famous works, big shows in big city theaters. Gradually, I wrote more and more about the independent scene, but I critiqued these works maybe a little bit differently. If you’re the only one coming to see a show, it’s not as important to declare, “This is bullshit.” Rather, I tried to explain what was happening and what was failing.
After a couple of years, I got the feeling that it’s not easy to survive as a critic. I was lucky that I could write for interesting papers and make a living out of it, but it was limiting my involvement in the work itself. It became clear that I would have to decide whether I would be more involved in one or the other, because the groups that I was working with were becoming better known. It would not have been possible to stay a critic after that, I think. After I was asked to work for the festival steirischer herbst, I stopped writing criticism. That was the line. If you cross over and you’re employed by a festival, then you cannot be a critic anymore. So since then I am a curator, and sometimes I also work as a dramaturg for example with Nature Theater of Oklahoma, when we made Life and Times at Burgtheater. In a way that was also a curatorial work, because I brought Nature Theater of Oklahoma into a very conservative theater context. So all in all I still do work that is closely related to artistic production, but I do not do the artistic work itself.
Why would that be curation and not dramaturgy?
For a while, at steirischer herbst, I liked to call myself a dramaturg, which was a contested term then. The curatorial can also mean the performative, the choreographic, and the dramaturgic. Large parts of what’s described as curatorial can be called by other names. If you come from dance, you call it the choreographic; if you come from theater, you call it the dramaturgic, or you call it the curatorial—a simplification, of course. I like to talk about festival dramaturgy, rather than programming. It’s the same kind of work—talking about time, about relationships. I would not be opposed to saying I’m doing dramaturgical work at Impulse. If I were working only in a German-speaking context, perhaps I would call it that. But, since this discussion about what dramaturgical work consists of is largely a German discussion, it can be limiting. In a German discussion, you could say that there has been a provocation issued from Lessing unto now, to define what the work of a dramaturg is. But I’m not sure this discussion could happen outside of Germany. But maybe I should call it dramaturgy again.
To reclaim dramaturgy?
Beatrice von Bismarck is now on the advisory board of Impulse, which could be seen as the dramaturgical board. She always liked the idea of the dramaturg. When we first met she asked me, “How can we use dramaturgy as a model for museums?” Harald Szeemann was considered, sometimes, as a theater director.
He began as a theater director and a scenographer.
How you think about your work is formatted for you in a certain way at a certain time in your career, to a significant degree. I have a close connection to choreography. I was fortunate to be very close to people in the conceptual dance movement. I always felt, however, that I looked at dance from the perspective of theater. Even when I was working more in the field or connected to choreography, my thinking would be dramaturgical. Now, when I look at work, the dramaturgical is still there. Curating sometimes is about curating a narration. When I talk about the festival in terms of how representation is shifting between the different works, I make a narration out of the curation. It helps communicate with audiences and journalists when you can create narratives and comparisons. What happens in Milo Rau’s work in comparison to Gob Squad’s work? That’s a dramaturgical question. That’s what a dramaturg would do. I’m fine with being called a dramaturg.
The distinctions are academic, but everyone is invested in them for material reasons. Because of the antitheatrical prejudice, theater practitioners are looking to other discourses for terminology, as if we’re ashamed— we think we’re the most backward of the arts and we need to borrow words from dance or from visual arts.
In terms of hipness, theater has been in a defensive position over the years. Now, you are beginning to see an interest in performance again. Visual art has always been the big devourer of everything—first choreography and now theater.
Visual arts institutions don’t like the word theater. They prefer performance. They don’t want anything to do with drama or theater.
Of course, the discourse was first related performance. This also has to do with the market. I think the discourse around theater was much richer in the 1920s. There was at least an equal level of theatrical discourse to the one in the visual arts during the time of Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin. In the nineteenth century, there was perhaps an even more interesting discourse around theater than the visual arts. And now, that might change again. It also has to do with money. As work in visual arts became less material, the market needed something else to create value around. I think that’s why the term curator arose.
For me to use the term curator in theatre is not about prestige. It’s rather problematic if curators use the term because it’s sexier. Perhaps if there were a different term, it wouldn’t create this perception. Maybe the discussion around curation is a challenge for us to use the word differently — or maybe to come up with something new.
To come up with another word — perhaps, to reclaim dramaturgy?
But then the word drama is in there, and that’s also problematic.
When you think of a better word, you can originate it.
I’ll start a competition—$500,000 for the person who comes up with the next word. The prize must be huge — so much money that basically everyone in the world, whether they have ever been to theater or not, wants to take part in the competition.
Every branding consultant, everyone! It seems like your interests as a curator became more political over the course of your career. There were always political dimensions to some of your research interests and your work with Rimini Protokoll and the Nature Theater of Oklahoma. Their work has strong documentary impulses and, within that, a political point of view. Truth Is Concrete, however, was a major political effort. You conceived it before the Occupy Wall Street movement began, but it reflected that moment in every way, as it reflected Taksim Square and Tahrir Square and many other revolutionary movements. Was there a shift in your research interests as a result of the events of 2008?
Art and politics were always my interests. There was a moment in life where I considered becoming a political journalist. I was never an activist, but I was always politically engaged. In the 1980s in Germany, you could not, as a thinking person, be somehow disengaged from political movements. In Giessen then I followed very much the notion of the political and the aesthetical as it was articulated by people like Jacques Rancière and Hans-Thies Lehmann. But then came a moment when I, as did many artists in those years, felt more and more that our work was not political enough, that our concept of the political was not enough. The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, and Occupy Wall Street, and so on, channeled a lot of this energy and shifted our interests. In the initial discussions that led to Truth Is Concrete, we believed that it would be much more interesting for the artists and us to talk about these political movements and the role art could or should have in them – rather than what production they could do next year when they got a little bit of money. I did not suddenly become interested in politics, but rather I became interested in another kind of politics—in Realpolitik, to use the German term, not merely a philosophical notion of the political. That’s something I believe I share with a lot of artists, a lot of thinkers, and a lot of activists, obviously.
It happened very organically. We realized the liberating potential of shifting our discourses. Being an arrogant ex-Giessen student, I learned to have a quite limited and very precise view of what constitutes good art, of what art can be, and of the kind of discourse that has to be followed within an artistic work. So I followed this line, saw great art works that fit in this line, followed their paths and works with them, and so on. But eventually one has to ask oneself: do you ever re-negotiate your aesthetic believes? Do you question your own criteria? The political discourse of those years also challenged our own artistic believes. For Truth Is Concrete, we invited a lot of work that two years before I would have found perhaps interesting but had dismissed as not good theater or not good art. Suddenly the criteria shifted and I mainly wanted to see what different attempts were there to grasp reality or to influence reality or even try to change reality. When your frame of judgment shifts, you come to work with completely different people, and some of the people you’ve always worked with are suddenly not a part of this anymore. I learned to understand that this renegotiating of criteria and discourses is liberating.
I talked yesterday with a political theorist visiting the festival with his students from the academy. He and his students said that by being in the festival and seeing all these works you understand that the experience is less about seeing one piece and deciding whether it’s good or bad. Instead, you see the next show and the next show, and you try to understand, what is each of them doing? That’s not to take importance from the art-work—someone might argue that response is relativizing—but I think it rightly shifts the emphasis from whether a work is to your taste to how this work relates to other works. What is the take of Gintersdorfer/Klaßen in comparison to Gob Squad? How do these artists work, what do they want? You create a different dialogue. If you curate in this mode, you can also include different work, because curation becomes less about judging quality. Truth Is Concrete was, of course, extreme in this regard. We had hundreds of events. You may see something first and decide, I don’t care about this. Then, you’ll see the next event, and whether or not you care about an individual piece becomes less important. Maybe you’ll see something you find incredibly compelling, something you would never have looked at because you had decided beforehand that the theatrical means it uses are not interesting anymore.
For me this relates to the question of how a curator can bring different people into audiences and onstage. In Germany theater that has nonwhite, non-middle-class people onstage is often dismissed with argument of quality. But what does that mean? That only white, middle-class people can make good theater? That obviously absurd. If that’s the case, what kind of theater do we mean? If it means we need to question what we mean by theater, then you have to take on that challenge. We needed to program Silent University, even if it’s not clear why this work would be in a theater festival, because we needed to challenge these discourses. That’s what Gorki Theater in Berlin is doing for example. You could say that their work is not all very good, but that simply means that they program from artistic criteria that you might not have.
Do you mean “good” as defined by white critics?
Actually critics are very happy with the work of the Gorki Theater, because they get to meet different people there. In that example, the theater becomes the work, in a way—as a curatorial field.
What was the experience of the one-week marathon that was Truth Is Concrete on a personal level? How do you measure the success of an experiment like that? You’ve published a book, but do you also count the number of continuing collaborations that formed there as measure of your success? Or do you look at the political effectiveness of some of these projects in their home countries or these artists’ influence?
I’m not very good at measuring success. Always, after everything I do, I think of what I could have done better. I’m more interested in what didn’t work and in what should’ve been done than what succeeded. The event itself was the culmination of two years of work, but still you permanently need to make sure that everything is running. I was not the best audience for Truth Is Concrete, because I still had to be in charge. As curators, we thought about the viewer’s organizational, dramaturgical, and curatorial experience. We had to ask, how do people arrive, if people are coming from all over the world? What are the rules of the game? What food do you need? How do you create an open situation within the content of the program and our aesthetic choices, while also keeping the festival open to a local audience, so that they don’t feel excluded? How do you deal with days and nights? What do you need to facilitate that? What happens? How transparent is the curation? Do you invite a bunch of artists and admit to them, I used to find everything you do wrong? How do you deal with sponsors? How transparent are you about sponsors? How much do you pay to whom? What exceptions do you make? Do you make exceptions? We thought so much about these details. That’s what I mean when I say that performance curation is an attempt to be in control of everything, in the context of an event that is clearly something you cannot control.
The structure of the program for Truth Is Concrete was very rigid. If we said something starts at twelve o’clock, then at twelve o’clock it had to start. We created a very vertical curatorial structure for the program that operated like a machine. At the same time, we tried to think of what horizontal structures were needed. We needed a lot of space where unplanned things could happen. We thought a lot about frustration. I think frustration can be interesting, but it’s hard to handle. Frustration is inevitable because you will always miss things. A discussion finally gets interesting, and you have to cut it short, so that the next thing can start. How do you make this frustration productive? You create spaces for it. We were both rigid and open. We would say, if this discussion interests you, we have another room where you can continue it even for ten hours if you want—but here, now, it’s over.
We also initiated an open marathon, where things could pop up and be announced spontaneously. I remember, very vividly, that after a couple of hours into Truth Is Concrete it was clear that it would work. Even though there still had 165 hours to go, I was not worried anymore. It was clear that either this will work, or the people who came will make it work, because they want it to work. Of course, there was a crisis in the middle of the week. I’ve always said, in the middle of the week, there will be a crisis, so let’s facilitate it. Let’s deal with it, and let’s be very transparent about it.
It was also interesting for me to see people that are very critical of any hierarchical situations within a very strict curatorial structure. That’s what makes the structure and the crises within it transparent. I don’t like to pretend to anyone, especially within the field of politics, that we can create a completely open situation that will facilitate all your needs. And yet, at the same time, we did try to create the most open situation I could, where everything could happen. Yet, at the same time, there was no doubt that my cocurators and I made all the decisions, and that we were the ones who said when something ended at twelve o’clock. It was a very clear hierarchy; one you could also attack and criticize. I like to play with the two opposites—a clear curatorial statement alongside as open a space as possible. The feeling of success, for me, came when I realized that people outside, when they took a break, would not discuss the weather but would continue whatever conversation they had inside. It was a relief to see that.
Of course, the experience rewarded me with many collaborations, friendships, working connections, and ideas, which are still vivid in what I’m doing now. I enlarged my scope of knowledge. I feel successful when I meet people who tell me that they are collaborating with someone they met at Truth Is Concrete. I do think it made people connect and develop other projects. It was a moment in time when that was possible. We were lucky. I don’t know if two years later the same thing could be done, given the political situations in all our countries. Occupy was over by then; the park had been cleared. It was a moment in time where we really felt the perspectives of the artist, the activist, and the theorist were needed.
Was it useful for you also as a blueprint for things you might like to do in the future?
It is a blueprint. Over the whole project, I learned an unbelievable amount about politics, but also about how to create an event like that, if one has the opportunity. Of course, it’s not a good idea to decide to create a radical curatorial project and then afterward to find a topic for it. The idea of an exhausting marathon came out of the political experience of the time. We felt that the marathon was the right form for our ideas. I would not be interested, necessarily, in ever doing a long marathon again. It would be more interesting to do something that lasts a minute.
What are you working on, and what would you like to do that you haven’t had a chance to do? Are you dreaming of something in particular?
In 2015, in addition to programming the Impulse Theater Festival, which is already a full-time job, I curated two big curatorial projects, one of them was Artist Organisations International, a performative conference initiated together with Jonas Staal and Joanna Warsza. And there was the festival, and I published a book. I now need a moment to think and to reconsider what I would like to do next. Impulse will return next year. I am talking with Jonas and Joanna about how the Artist Organisations International could continue, and how we could expand the idea of working with organizations of artists that each have a clear political agenda. We are talking about what that would look like— it would likely take a different form, and we would build from what we learned out of this experiment.
I also curated a performative conference in an ethnological museum in Berlin [Appropriations: A Performative Conference, Ethnological Museum Berlin, November 16, 2014], which examined the idea of performing in a museum in general and in an ethnological museum in particular. An ethnological museum is, of course, a politically charged space, and rightfully so. I was interested in the idea of a conference that purely consists of performances or performative situations, of art and not lectures. I was used to the concept of lecture-performances, but what would it mean to say that a series of performances was a conference? Was it a conference?
During the event, we had groups of people moving on different paths through the museum and dealing with the space. It created some great works by Ant Hampton and Britt Hatzius, Alexandra Pirici, Kapwani Kiwanga, Ulf Aminde, and Yael Bartana, among others. The conference had great results, but I believe the idea still has potential. I can’t compare it easily to other projects or other artists’ work, so I believe it’s something that still needs to be developed. After it was over, we wondered what would happen if this conference were to become repertoire? Usually I’m not interested in repertoire, but I’m interested in the idea of repeating a conference a couple of times, without changing anything. In repertory, performances change each time, but these changes are not toward finding the next or another performance. You simply do it the same way again, in the same space, with the same artists. What would it be like to do this with a normal conference? What would it be like if you were to repeat the conference, the same way, a week later? Or a month later?
In steirischer herbst we began to ask the question of how theory-performances and real performances can fit together. It’s something I’ve been working on now for ten years, which I believe has culminated in this conference idea. Could this idea work within a festival? Why do a conference in a festival? Why present theory in a festival, if it’s just something that a university could do better than you? Why do it? What is a conference, in terms of content but also in terms of the form? Is it something that we can contribute to, as people working in the theater?
The idea for a conference comes out of the idea of the performance-lecture. I remember very well the interest around Xavier Le Roy’s Product of Circumstances, which was not the first lecture performance in the field of art, but within the field of dance and theater it was perceived as something completely new. Ten years ago, with the curatorial collective Unfriendly Takeover, we presented a series of lecture performances. The lecture is at the base of the idea for this conference, which hopes to push it to another level.
This work converges with a current tendency in some visual arts organizations— the public programs department also acts as a research unit, a place where performance, in particular, has found a home. Public programming becomes an institutional mechanism for working with performance.
A lot comes into my thinking from other fields, of course. This idea is not a new invention but puts things together from disparate departments. You could say that curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist had an interest in conferences. He might already have mentioned that conferences are a time-based event and with certain dynamics inherent to them. Obrist was focusing on certain aspects of the conference, like the coffee break.
Over the day in the ethnological museum, we asked that audiences commit their time, again. People wanted to know what time they could see Alexandra Pirici’s piece and where. I wouldn’t tell them. You have to come and commit eight hours, as people at conferences do, if they take it seriously. Perhaps not in the arts, but at an academic conference you come in the morning and stay till the night and listen to lectures. What does this do to you? You struggle against exhaustion all day. When you ask an audience to listen to ten lectures in an academic conference, or even only five, no one can tell me that not half of everyone falls asleep once in a while or thinks of something else. Why ignore this? Why not say, instead, what do we need to confront this exhaustion? Is it interesting when people get tired? When do you need food? What do you do, then, in a museum where food is not allowed? Visual artists have done work like this before in other years, but bringing it together and looking at what theater’s part is in this work is still a field where more can happen.