Dissensual Politics of Performance

Andrej Mirčev

Production photo from Our Violence and Your Violence, by Alexi Pelekanos, courtesy of Wiener Festwochen.

 

Focusing on the controversy the performance of Our Violence and Your Violence (directed by Oliver Frljić in 2016) caused in Split, Croatia, this text examines the possibilities of contemporary theatre to disturb national and religious formations of society. Twenty-five years after the war in which Yugoslavia was torn apart, there are no signs that any kind of reconciliation will happen soon, but rather that the future seems to be paralyzed and contaminated. With the seizing of power of rightwing political parties all over the nation states of ex-Yugoslavia in the last five years, the political and economic crisis entered a new phase of retrograde development, showing that the social environment and public discourse is still being fueled with hate speech, homophobia, xenophobia, and religious fanaticism. This all goes together with the victory of the neoliberal denigration of the welfare state. Taking into account that the geo-political context in which this work originated is marked by traumatic events of the war and that the ethnic and ideological tensions between the neighboring nations (but also within the Croatian society itself) are still far from being resolved, my analytic intention is to articulate the entanglement of rightwing, nationalist politics with retrograde traditions grounded in militant Catholicism. What I am arguing for is the potentiality of theatre to re/act as a critical tool for disturbing dominant models of identification. Already with his early performance works, conceived in the late nineties and the beginning of the new millennium, Oliver Frljić consistently developed a provocative artistic strategy grounded in the tradition of the (neo)avant-garde.1 In the performance Cvrčak (Cricket, 2002) that was staged in front of the Orthodox church in Zagreb, the artist openly questioned the responsibility of the Croatian army forces for the atrocities committed against Serbs and Muslims in the wars between 1991-1995. This caused a furious reaction from the public. At the same time, this performance signified the beginning of a series of projects and theatre productions that have targeted neuralgic spots in contemporary Croatian clero-fascist politics and the revival of conservative ideologies.2

Production photo from Our Violence and Your Violence, by Alexi Pelekanos, courtesy of Wiener Festwochen.

After its premiere in Vienna, Ljubljana, and various cities in Germany, the project Our Violence and Your Violence (2016) was scheduled to happen within the frame of the MESS festival in Sarajevo. Even before its opening, the performance generated a violent response from Catholic and Muslim religious communities in Bosnia. The performance is loosely based on the book Aesthetics of Resistance by Peter Weiss. It is made of a series of tableaux vivants, which address the problem of racism, neo-colonialism and the refugee crisis. It features explicit (gendered) corporeality, such as the scene in which a female actor pulls a Croatian flag out of her vagina. As such, it is loaded with religous and state symbols that are displayed in relation to explict corporeal images. Both communities considered the performance offensive to the religious feelings of their believers, since it shows Christ descending from the cross and raping a Muslim woman. Their disapproval went so far that they demanded the performance be banned and censored, thereby openly demonstrating the power of religious authorities to intervene in culture and subvert the basic premises of the secular state. In the end, the director of the Festival Nihad Kreševljaković decided to disobey the request and to show the performance. However, it was only to be seen by an invited VIP audience, rather than the general public. Similar protests against blasphemy3 occurred when the performance was scheduled to happen in the Polish town of Bydgoszcz in September 2016. Anna Sobecka, a Polish MP and member of the conservative Law and Justice Party, wrote a letter of complaint, demanding that the director and the theatre should be prosecuted. A figure similarly aligned with the rightwing, conservative ideology – which is hostile to foreigners, refugees and the LGBTQ community in Croatia – is Željka Markić, the leader of the so-called Right to Family initiative. Although the context and differences between Croatia and Poland must not be overlooked, in both cases a conservative revolution is taking place at the moment, one which intertwines patriotism and nationalism with Catholic values and seeks to diminish the power of independent media and art.

However, the biggest tension that Our Violence and Your Violence brought forth was during the Festival Marulićevi dani in Split, where the production had been invited in April 2017. Similar to events in Sarajevo and Bydgoszcz, a group of rightwing extremists, war veterans, and Catholic organizations came together in an attempt to hold a demonstration in front of the church opposite the theatre with the intention to stop the performance. The Split protesters (among them children, priests, and nuns) carried posters with the slogan ‘This performance insults me’, Croatian flags, and images of Jesus Christ. After a series of talks,4 delivered by a priest, a female high-school teacher, a war veteran, and a woman reading aloud the public announcement of the Split archdiocese, the demonstration ended with a group of the protesters entering the theatre. This happened despite the presence of police forces, which were stationed before the theatre with the task to protect the performers and audience members.

After the performance had begun, the group of rightwing extremists who succeeded in entering the theatre started singing a patriotic song, Zovi samo zovi (Call, just call).5 Their intention was to disturb and thus prevent the performance from continuing. Nonetheless, after a few minutes, the audience collectively started to sing a counter song entitled Kad bi svi ljudi na svijetu (If all the people in the world)6 composed for children by the famous Croatian singer Arsen Dedić. While the first song (Call, just call) aims at mobilizing and uniting the “endangered nation” in the fight against the enemy (the Serbs, Jews, Communists, gays, etc.), the audience’s counter-song (composed in 1967 by Dedić) can be regarded as an expression of pacifist values.

The confrontation with the protesters signifies a turning point. Our Violence and Your Violence was defended by the audience and the performance continued. It must also be noted that after the acoustic duel between audience and protesters, police forces intervened and the protesters were evicted from the theatre. The remainder of the production was performed without further interruption.

In an attempt to unpack these opposing performances of singing, the action of the protesters and the reaction of the audience, one of the epistemic strategies could be to ponder the relation between performance and territoriality. In other words, a potential line of reasoning might be activated by taking in account how Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari reflected on the notion of territory, relating it to rhythm, sounding, and singing. In the chapter on the refrain (rittornell) from A Thousand Plateaus (Milles Plateaux), they suggest conceptualising the act of singing (the refrain) as an event and force that establishes territory. Directed against forces of chaos, singing thus entails a territorial mark: ‘The role of the refrain has often been emphasized: it is territorial, a territorial assemblage.’7 If we apply this idea to the protesters’ sonorous performance, can it be asserted that singing not only thematically (due to the content of the song), but also performatively expresses an act of (re)territorialisation? What happens once the counter performance of the audience singing undoes the protesters song? Does its rhythm and sonority perhaps constitute a new, different territoriality and counter publicity?

If grasped from the perspective proposed by Deleuze and Guattari, the singing act embodies a territorial song performed with the intention to react against the ‘offending’, blasphemous performance. On the other hand, the collectively sung children’s song may suggest an attempt to counteract censorship and reclaim territory for free artistic expression. In that way the acoustic and sonic clash revolves around the tension between a demand for censorship and the protection of the autonomous space of art.

Paying special attention to the relation between the notion of the homeland, territory, and religion, Deleuze and Guattari further observe: ‘Inside or out, the territory is linked to this intensive centre, which is like the unknown homeland, terrestrial source of all forces friendly and hostile, where everything is decided. So we must once again acknowledge that religion, which is common to human beings and animals, occupies territory only because it depends on the raw aesthetic and territorializing factor as its necessary condition.’8

For Jacques Rancière the notion of dissensus (understood here as the power of disagreement and disruption of the social order) enables the discursive movement that interrelates politics to art and aesthetics. So far, dissensus can be seen as “an activity that cuts across forms of cultural belonging and hierarchies between discourses and genres working to introduce new subjects and heterogenous objects into the field of perception.“9 Understanding this constellation of re/action and performative territorialization as an example of dissensual politics, I am arguing that the performance rendered visible the antagonistic formation of the public sphere. More precisely, Our Violence and Your Violence shed light on the unresolved tension within Croatian society, which remains politically and economically torn apart between a retrograde/patriotic ideology and the values of an open, democratic society. On the other hand, it brought to attention the interrelatedness of religious and political structures, as far as they seem to share the same conservative narratives, identity schemes, and patriotic values. Targeting dominant religious and national representation and symbols, it might be plausible to assert that Frljić transforms performance into a medium of political action and, thus, it demonstrates the potentiality to unsettle social norms, disrupting and fracturing the status quo. Herein also lies performance’s genuine power: to reproduce and mirror the dissensual aspects of society, mapping out, at the same time, the growing problem of rightwing politics that is currently on the move, not only in the Balkans, but, unfortunately, all over Europe and the globe.

 

Andrej Mirčev is a scholar of performance studies, visual artist and dramaturg. He experiments with constellations between different media (photography, video, performance, installation) and has participated in several group and solo exhibitions. With a special interest in dance dramaturgy, Mirčev has collaborated with different choreographers. In 2017–18, he is a researcher at the Center Interweaving Performance Cultures in Berlin.

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Notes:

  1. For example, in the scandal-driven theatre evenings (Serata) staged by Italian futurist Fillipo Marinneti, provocations did not only intend to disturb and reorganize the divisions between the audience and the art work/ performance, but aimed at foregrounding the political function of theatre. For a thorough analysis of futurist performances see Günter Berghaus, Avant-garde Performances (London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). Another example of performance provocations is the action Art and Revolution (Vienna 07.06.1968), performed by Günter Brus, Otto Muehl, Peter Weibel, Robert Wiener, which included drinking urine, masturbation, defection and the desecration of the Austrian flag.
  2. Among other things, the Catholic Church in Croatia is (in)famous for its close ties with the collaborationist regime of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), which had been established during the Second World War and had been under the direct influence of the Nazi regime.
  3. On several occasions, different religious authorities declared that Frljić’s performances and projects must be seen as blasphemous, as an offence against “holy symbols” of the Christian and Muslim religions.
  4. One of the speakers’s claims was that Our Violence and Your Violence violates national and religious symbols, desecrates the flag, disgraces victims of the homeland war and is directed against beauty and the sacred. The rhetoric underpinning this discourse has its roots in the patriotic, neo-conservative ideology aligned with the Croatian Catholic Church.
  5. The song is an explicit expression of patriotic sentiments and it was popular during the war in Croatia in the nineties. The paradox, however, is that the same song, with the same tune and some alteration in the lyrics, is also sung in Serbia and serves the purpose of mobilizing nationalistic sentiment. (Witnessed at performances 05.02.2018 and 11.04.2018).
  6. Witnessed at performance on 05.02.2018.
  7. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London and New York: 2004), p. 344.
  8. Deleuze and Guattari, p. 355.
  9. Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics (London and New York: Continuum, 2009), p. 2.

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