The Theater as Laboratory: Fictional Assemblies, Pre-Enactments and Trials

A conversation with Frédérique Aït-Touati and Florian Malzacher, moderated by Piersandra di Matteo

In: What Makes an Assembly. Stories, Experiments, and Inquiries. Eds. Anne Davidian, Laurent Jeanpierre. London/Paris: Sternberg Press & Evens Foundation, 2022. 99-124.

Piersandra Di Matteo: In recent years the performing arts field has distinguished itself as being uniquely positioned for instituting new ways of being together, for devising and articulating strategies of common struggle, and for generating critical investigations into the role of art institutions and the redistribution of power. With this framework in mind, I’d like to begin our conversation by returning to a particular historical event: the 1960 Greensboro Sit-in, North Carolina, in which four Black students staged a sit-in at the segregated local dime-store, F. W. Woolworth Company. From this initial group of four, (“The Greensboro Four”), the sit-in amassed over 1,000 further participants as each subsequent day came to pass, eventually spreading to nine other states throughout the South, across multiple shops and institutions. The event is considered to have been a catalyst for the subsequent sit-ins involving over 70,000 people, and preceded the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which mandated desegregation in public accommodations. It was also frequently described in media reportage at the time as a “spontaneous” event—whereas of course the demonstration was triggered by a specific contingency, a particular contextual moment. It was the culmination of the widespread discontent and discussion that preceded it—it was indeed a manifestation of the intelligence and strength of the multitude, coming together to make a common political gesture. I would like to begin by discussing the possibility of reconsidering this false opposition between spontaneity and organization, as a condition for gathering together and taking action in a common struggle.

Florian Malzacher: Events like the Greensboro Sit-in, the protests in 1968, or Occupy Wall Street in 2011 are usually linked to a specific momentum—to a certain collective mood. They are simultaneously both spontaneous and not spontaneous. There is a context, but the momentum cannot, or at least can very seldom, be forced. The Austrian theorist Oliver Marchart stresses that a political moment cannot be exactly planned—it emerges. One can prepare for it—for example by pre-enacting it—but one cannot predict when and how it will happen. Occupy Wall Street is a good example; it’s often subjected to a mythic narrative of spontaneous occupation, but many of those involved had of course been organizing for a long time. What was not, and could not be anticipated, was the momentum it gained, the political moment it formed. This tension and oscillation between spontaneity, momentum, preparation, and organization is very interesting, because it relates to the condition of performing arts, of theater—there can never be full control over what is going to happen.

Frédérique Aït-Touati: I agree. In fact, for me, the theatrical space is the means of resolving, or at least negotiating, this apparent contradiction between spontaneity and organization. Theater is one of the devices through which we can produce the conditions of possibility for an event. It is the location par excellence for spontaneous action, because it organizes, prepares, and enables an event whose outcome can never be wholly predicted. It is both the place and the means of an experiment, in the scientific sense of the term: the preparation and organization of the unforeseeable. It is from this perspective that I have been developing my stage experiments with Bruno Latour over the past ten years, be it with only one person on stage or with several hundred participants. Beyond this diversity of format, what these experiments have in common is that they explore the heuristic capacities of the stage, as a place for reconfiguring agencies and rearranging political forces. Creating the conditions of possibility for something spontaneous to emerge is a good way to describe the experiment we conducted with Bruno Latour in 2015, six months before the COP 21 and the Paris Agreement, under the name Theater of Negotiations. For six days, we brought together two hundred students and artists from all over the world at the Amandiers theater in Nanterre, to perform an international climate conference that was both real and fictional. Real in the sense that it was about real issues, real crises, real data, and performed not by actors but by students with an interest in becoming real negotiators shortly afterwards; and fictional, because we stipulated that they modify certain elements of the COP in order to open the negotiations to non-humans, thereby rethinking the traditional protocols. It was not a show or a play, in the classical sense of those words, as nothing was written in advance, and every spoken word was improvised on the spot (except for a few written speeches, as in the real COPs). But it was indeed a very contemporary use of performing arts, i.e. an attempt to explore the political and activist potentialities of theater, as Piersandra has also suggested: if we are to figure theater firstly as an environment for inventing new ways of being together and for testing new alliances, and secondly as a device for integrating fiction into processes of reconfiguration of political forces. While relying on the well-established codes and devices (perhaps we could even say rituals) of climate negotiations, the experiment profoundly modified their presuppositions and introduced, through fiction, a “parliament of things.”

It is the modeling capacity of the theater that is mobilized here, its capacity to create an assembly and a world. The effect of the theatrical space on this kind of event should not be underestimated—it recalls, through its architectural device, political and scholarly gathering places (the political assembly, the university), but simultaneously opens, through the fictional charge it carries, a breach in the reality it represents.

Florian Malzacher: This raises an important question: what kind of assemblies can or should happen in the space of art, especially of theater? What does this context produce that is different from other sites? For me theater is first and foremost a space in which things are actual and symbolic, real and fictitious at once—and I believe it is this paradoxical situation that informs theater’s unique potential within the relation between art and politics.

These situations are productive precisely because they generate a tension between the “real” and the imaginary, the “factual” and the speculative, as well as between activism (or politics in general) and art. In 2015, with the artist Jonas Staal and the curator Joanna Warsza we initiated a congress called Artist Organisations International at the HAU 1 theaterin Berlin. Our guests came from very different places and practices— for instance artists from Rojava, the Artist Association of Azawad, the Concerned Artists of the Philippines, Tania Bruguera’s Immigrant Movement International, Forensic Architecture, The Silent University or The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination. At the core of this event was our observation that these artists increasingly seek to replace prevailing project-oriented concepts by a more sustainable model of organization. These “organizations” are not just a means to enable artistic work, they are the artistic work.

The venue of the former Hebbel-Theater (now HAU 1) has an old-fashioned proscenium stage (where we reversed the seating order, placing the audience on stage and the speakers on top of the auditorium) and a long artistic history, including directors such as Erwin Piscator. The congress was very crowded and intense, and there was quite an explosive energy from the very beginning—partly because there was a keen awareness amongst all participants of the need to ask: why is this assembly happening in a theater, and what does this mean regarding its political potential but also regarding authorship, decision making and so on? This tension is encapsulated in a phrase I hear quite often, and usually comes from dedicated activists: “Why are you making theater out of this?” Meaning: why do you push concrete political issues into the realm of fiction where they cannot have any impact? This conflict also came up in Milo Rau’s General Assembly at Schaubühne in Berlin a few years later. There was a conflict about the indeed not unproblematic role of Milo Rau as a director and author of an assembly that was supposed to be a radical democratic event. At one point a delegate said: “For you it’s theater, but for us it’s our lives”—which brings the whole dilemma into sharp focus. However, while I understand this concern, I would argue that this binary is too reductive; assemblies in the sphere of theater are both real and speculative at the same time—and this has a strong political potential. It might actually be the most important thing theater can contribute to political struggles.

Piersandra Di Matteo: That’s exactly the point. What we have experienced is the possibility for theater to create an environment in which a real assembly can take place—it presents an opportunity to address, consider and articulate potential reinventions of society. This means conceiving of theater as a public sphere, a common space for discussing “performativity” as a type of political action that can generate new forms of participation. What are the possibilities in our field for rethinking the notion of participation in relation to live gatherings and ideas of assembly?

Frédérique Aït-Touati: The Theater of Negotiations is a good example, indeed, of the speculative dimension of the assembly in theater. I really like Florian’s formulation that “assemblies in the sphere of theater are both real and speculative.” The idea was to pre-enact this international conference with a very clear theoretical question: how can we use theater as a space for reflection and political experimentation? This brings us to the interlinking questions of action, participation, organization and the multitude you asked. In terms of participation, the way it actually engaged the participants was fascinating. There were two categories of participants: in the first category, the two hundred students, artists, architects we worked with and who undertook the project together, were absolutely transformed. They were transformed because they had to think together, they had to study the long history of climate negotiations, and then imagine and invent new rules of the game, apply them and make them stick for a week of continuous performance. What happens to assemblies when they take place in a theater? One possible criticism, as Florian reminded us, would be to say that assemblies lose their political significance when they take place in a fictional space. But one could also say the opposite, that precisely because in a theater the theatricality of politics, the theatricality of our world and of our relationships suddenly becomes visible, and obvious, it is a way of unfolding and showing in a much more lucid way how politics works.

The second type of participant was the “usual” audience of the Amandiers theater (invited, free of charge, to follow the negotiations). It seems to me that it was in the relationship between this “assembly” of fictional negotiators and the public that we partly failed. In fact, most of the participants could not identify with the activity: they were strangers to these technical negotiations, which took place in English and were conducted by students from all over the world, who were trained and well versed in the language, codes and rhetoric of international negotiations. It is true that several parallel events allowed the audience to be a little further integrated: opening and closing ceremonies staged by the then director of the Amandiers theater Philippe Quesne; a series of conferences bringing together specialists in the issues under discussion; actors who served as mediators between the negotiators and the public. The fact is however that the negotiation itself remained very opaque for those who had not worked directly on these issues. Our experience was based on the conviction that the reality of technical negotiations could be shared, without needing to be fictionalized, let alone popularized, explained or transformed. A raw reality, as it were—that of a political assembly of negotiators, transformed by the venue in which it takes place, and confronted with the other assembly that constitutes an audience. We chose another path than the one Rimini Protokoll tried in the World Climate Change Conference, for instance, in which the public was invited to play the role of a delegate for a few hours. It has to be said that their approach was much more welcoming for the audience, even if the negotiation in this case does not “really” happen. These extremely different experiences allowed me to identify different ways of articulating fiction and political reality, and to understand the strengths and limitations of these different modes.

What I learnt from this experiment is that to “make assembly” in a theater, you have to be part of the process, not just the result. You have to be an agent of the action, not just a spectator. If you don’t participate in the creation of the organization, in the reflection on the forms of the debate, in the pooling of arguments, it doesn’t work. Either you include the audience in this active assembly, or it is better not to have one—which does not invalidate the strength of the device for the participants.

Florian Malzacher: I really appreciate how you’ve spoken through the things that didn’t work. When we deal with assemblies in art, that’s part of the game. It’s bound to fail. It is an experimental situation and is in a way like democracy as such: the assembly in theater is always still “to come.” This again for me has to do with the paradoxical machine of the theater—it works a bit like Bertolt Brecht’s alienation effect. It puts you in a situation where you are outside and inside at once; an observer but also a witness. You are co-responsible. This enables an involved and at the same time analytic view of the situation: who speaks and why, who speaks for whom, who does not speak, etc. What is my role in this? The question of representation in theater is very much linked to the question of representation in society.

The biggest project dealing with the concept of assembly I have been involved in was Truth Is Concrete at the steirischer herbst festival in Graz. We began working on it when the square occupations in Tunisia, Egypt and Spain emerged. Of course we were also inspired by Occupy Wall Street. Preparations lasted for more than one and a half years—and when Truth Is Concrete took place in September 2012 a lot had changed already: there was a hard backlash in Egypt, Zuccotti Square in New York was evacuated—but there were new movements, in Istanbul or Moscow. Knowing that events in the context of art (but also in the context of activism) often have quite high thresholds we were fascinated by how Occupy Wall Street allowed very different intensities of engagements: you could be there for an hour and then come back, or you could engage in a committee and come for a few hours a day. Or you could bring your tent and move in. We wanted to enable these different kinds of engagement also at Truth Is Concrete.

Truth Is Concrete brought together more than three hundred artists, activists, theorists and students for a 24 hours a day, 7 days a week marathon camp, structured by 170 hours of lectures, performances, productions, and discussions intended to pool together useful strategies and tactics in art and politics. The core activities of the marathon were situated within a camp-like living and working environment—a social space with its own needs and timings. The vertical marathon itself was thus embedded in a horizontal structure of openness. Foregrounding these curatorial decisions was important for us in order to make clear that, in the end—with all its political ambition—Truth Is Concrete wasn’t an activist event, but a curatorial one.

In an artistic context there are specific hierarchies at play. While we of course tried to minimize them, we also wanted to be very honest about where they remained. I believe assemblies within an artististic context have to be very honest about the curatorial framework, power relations and institutional structures within which they’re situated. For me this is not only an ethical question, it is also much more productive in pragmatic terms to make the existing rules visible, instead of pretending they don’t exist.  In Truth Is Concrete this was done among other ways through a very rigid timetable, while the marathon program was running seven days and nights. And in contrast to the open marathon and the surrounding camp which was much less regulated.

Piersandra Di Matteo: Yes, there is always this dialectic between the need to organize and the limits that this organization induces in participation. I would like to add another element: the assembly in the field of the performing arts can also become a space for giving a voice to people and questions that are not heard.

Frédérique Aït-Touati: You are right to remind us of the idea of unheard voices: it was at the heart of the Theater of Negotiations and, earlier, of Bruno Latour’s notion of “parliament of things.” The whole project could be summarized as an attempt to broaden representation, in all its meanings—political, scientific, artistic. The COP 21 was therefore an opportunity for us to test this philosophical concept: what does it mean to give a voice to the unheard? To go from a concept to an experiment, you really have to create a device, as you mentioned. That’s what theater can do; we had the framework, which was the COP, but to make other voices heard we had to break the rules, to negotiate the negotiation. The whole discussion was about the fact that we were moving away from reality, from the UN framework. Hence the following questions: whom do we invite around the table of negotiation? What does it mean to bring the living and non-living realms together? How do we include animal species and endangered territories? How do we move away from the nation-state assembly to include entities such as youth, the internet, or the oil that must stay in the ground?

Piersandra Di Matteo: How did you do that? How did you include these other entities?

Frédérique Aït-Touati: First, we totally revised and expanded the list of delegations which, in the COP 21 rules, was only made of nation states. We kept the general framework of delegations, discussions, and negotiations, but we changed their composition, their architecture and even their timetable. Within each delegation, we included scientific, economic, or political entities, in the hope that this heterogeneity would allow the delegations to break down from within and create new alliances between the agents of the different delegations. In the case of Antarctica, for example, we had companies, threatened territories, non-humans, and political representatives. Bruno Latour’s aim was to “map the territories in struggle,” as he called them, and to do this we wanted to follow the decomposition and recomposition of collectives in real time. This was the most speculative and conceptual part of the project: beyond the negotiations, beyond the large-scale simulation game, it was about testing a hypothesis: the multiplication of political fronts of struggle around climate issues. ​

We worked with the Berlin architects raumlabor and the task we gave them was to “create a negotiation space for human and non-human entities that would allow the creation of new types of alliances.” raumlabor had a wonderful idea that encouraged moving around rather than sitting: no chairs, but high, irregular, hexagonal tables on which one could write, erase, start again, but also fold them up and use them as protest signs, reassemble them to make a reassemblage within the assemblage. They were invitations to ally differently, to remain vigilant, to act, to move, and not only to speak and negotiate through words. They were objects of negotiation, performative objects.

Piersandra Di Matteo: I’d like to go a bit deeper into the conditions of materiality you’ve touched on here, which can inform and create different possibilities for encounters. I am thinking about Jonas Staal’s New World Summit. Space that acts as a tool for investigating the physicality of being together: a tactic to promote acts of embodiment that also shapes our ways of thinking, processing and practicing common experiences.

Florian Malzacher: Yes, a certain knowhow about the role of physical presence is another aspect theater can contribute. “It matters that as bodies we arrive together in public” as Judith Butler said in her famous speech at Occupy Wall Street. Obviously, that very much resonates with the performing arts. Jonas is a visual artist, but it is not by chance that the New World Summit often takes place in theater venues. Simply put these are assemblies of people and organizations that are excluded from “democratic” discourse, often through their inclusion on state sanctioned terrorist lists. Jonas creates set-ups based on different architectural models of parliaments—and again: they are very real and very artificial at the same time.

There are also limits to what assemblies can achieve—especially when the discourse has become antagonistic. This is why in recent years Jonas and I became interested in the concept of “training” and developed the ongoing program Training for the Future. Training for the Future was structured on the basis of a concept you were already referring to, Frédérique: that of pre-enactment. These are provisional training sequences, for something that is yet to come. The notion of the training—with its military overtone—is of course not unproblematic: it suggests a particular hierarchy. Joining those trainings—which were held by artists and activists from all over the world—meant accepting this temporary division of roles and power, and following instructions, even if one does not entirely agree with the particular practice proposed. It is to take the form of embodied practice first, and verbal reflection second, knowing that this temporariness also means that adopted roles within this framework are, if perhaps not arbitrary, then certainly interchangeable. Trainers could become the trainees within any other given training.

Piersandra Di Matteo: In this respect, performativity and its “reality-making” capacity—whether generated through performances, participatory practices, actions in the gaps of urban life, or long-running workshops—has become a key space through which tensions and urgencies can emerge. It has become a site where it’s possible to embrace the kinds of conflict, uncertainty, and friction such actions entail. But do assemblies really produce change, or is this sense of change reliant on the way such events are later narrativized?

Florian Malzacher: Well, when an assembly “works,” it can be understood as performative. It not only offers the possibility of imagining and testing a different future, it becomes a space where things are actually done differently. It creates a temporary reality. The question is: how can this transformation become structural and sustainable? This was the crucial point for the Artist Organisations International, that the artistic/activist work takes the form of an organization, in order to create new schools, institutions and collectives that can function differently whilst also working on a bigger change in society.

Frédérique Aït-Touati: Fiction has been very important in my research on the history of science, even before I began to think about its performative significance in theater. My study of fiction is linked to the cosmological change of the seventeenth century in which it was used specifically to reconfigure the cosmological structure of the world through the creation of new images. This connection between my work as a historian and as a theater practitioner soon became clear: I conceive and practice theater as a force for reconfiguring reality, combining fiction and performativity. I use it as a heuristic, modeling and fictional space—not in the sense of lying or unreality, but as a means of creating new images that can then be transferred back into the real world (or not). Theater is a place for testing thought experiments—a laboratory, in the very precise sense articulated by Bruno Latour in his 1983 article, “Give Me a Laboratory and I Will Move the World.” The laboratory, he explains, is at once a place of visualization, of testing, and of reversing forces. To conduct an experiment (on a virus, on a physical phenomenon) is to imitate it, to reproduce it, or to transfer it into the lab in order to be able to control it, understand it, measure it, etc. The difference is that in the theater, while we can experiment, we never control the outcome and the impact it will have. Its quality as a heterotopia (to use Foucault’s conceptual term) gives it a great deal of freedom to rearrange agencies. It’s a model: a place where we can test new ways to assemble, test new political powers at a small scale. This tension between performativity and fiction is at the heart of our discussion, as it reveals both the limits and the political impact that the performing arts have to reconfigure our vision and understanding of reality, hence to open up the potentialities of the future.