Royal Holloway, University of London
This issue of Interventions focuses on creating, curating, and spectating European performance in troubled times. When I began planning it in the summer of 2019, its aim was to address the pressures of Brexit, populist governments, and austerity policies that had affected performance arts in the last few years. When I started writing the editorial for this issue in the winter of 2020, Europe was paralysed by the COVID-19 (novel Coronavirus) pandemic, with the theme of troubled times suddenly gaining a new focus and urgency.
Originally, curators and scholars from different countries were invited to reflect on challenges resulting from political uncertainties, ideological demands, and economic reforms. They were asked to discuss what has been changing, what has been challenging, and what can be seen as an opportunity. We were gathering ideas about the European arts sector to think about ways forward. The call resulted in four insightful and provocative pieces. Katia Arfara’s contribution focuses on Brett Bailey’s Sanctuary, the research-based installation that she curated at the Onassis Cultural Centre in Athens in 2017. She examines the issues of home and belonging, as well as displacement and statelessness to address the refugee crisis in Europe and the return to identity politics. Diana Damian’s essay, in turn, explores Manuel Pelmus and Alexandra Pirici’s Public Collection, which was shown at Tate Modern in 2016. Damian discusses bodily representations of multiple territorialities, artistic labour, and European mobility to map the relationship between performance and archive. Meanwhile, Azadeh Sharifi offers insights into Anta Helena Recke’s Die Kränkungen der Menschheit staged at Münchner Kammerspiele in 2019. Through analysis of this production, Sharifi exposes the exclusion of ethnic minorities and migrants from the predominantly white discourse on German identity to challenge the idea of a liberal and inclusive Germany. Finally, Agnieszka Jakimiak tackles the topic of sexual abuse and mobbing in European theatre institutions, which has been recently laid bare in a series of high-profile cases. She surveys a few selected examples and introduces her own theatre show, nosexnosolo from 2019 that deals with a prominent case against Jan Fabre that was put forward by his former collaborators.
Each of these pieces has acquired a new context in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. So far the novel coronavirus has led to thousands of deaths and strict lockdown measures for millions of citizens, while many countries inside and outside Europe have closed their borders. What was supposedly happening faraway in the Chinese Hubei province only a few weeks ago has become daily reality for millions of people on the Continent. The massive scale and speed of globalization has hit us hard. Many state leaders saw the pandemic as an opportunity to advance their populist agendas, while countries have entered into fierce competition with each other to purchase testing kits and protective equipment. Such nationalist approaches have ignored the global nature of the pandemic. Most importantly, they have failed to recognize an urgent need for worldwide coordination of scientific, political, and economic efforts to tackle an unprecedented health challenge and its wider implications.
In times of self-isolation and social distancing, theatre, dance, and performing arts have found themselves under extreme pressure to survive. As performances are cancelled or postponed, and venues close their doors to visitors, the precarity of the arts sector is particularly palpable. Several arts institutions have set up donations pages to persevere in the period of hardship; some asked audiences to opt for vouchers instead of refunds to manage cash flows. However, many artists, academics, and other stakeholders see this time as a crucial opportunity to rethink the role of arts in public life. Within days, venues and artists around the globe have made available to the public a rich repertoire of free shows, interviews, and classes. This initiative has ensured the continuity of cultural life during the lockdown, but it will also have significant impact on the future of performing arts.
The lockdown has accelerated the process of testing and tailoring online platforms for enabling social spaces and cultural events. This means that virtual environments can be now more easily and effectively used for meetings, workshops, rehearsals, and showcases. The online trend will require different types of workflows, skillsets, and timeframes for performance making and sharing that will further complicate our experience of presence, liveness, and sociability. The rise of remote arts will have a potential to expand artistic collaboration and audience accessibility in unprecedented ways, but it will also produce new forms of exclusion, based around the availability of high-speed Internet, up-to-date devices, and specific skills to navigate virtual worlds. We will have to learn a lot, and we will have to accept failures along the way. Most importantly, we will have to acknowledge that things will not be the same for those of us who will be lucky to survive the pandemic.
The crisis is giving us a chance to re-think our present practices. We cannot waste it, particularly since the pandemic will inevitably aggravate existing divisions and pressures, with Brexit upheaval and global recession ominously looming over us. This is the time for resilience and generosity, but it is also time for resourcefulness and collaboration. We need to be watchful that the pandemic does not become exploited to enhance austerity measures, populist policies, and nationalist agendas. We are living in troubled times, and times like these teach us many invaluable lessons. Shutting the borders and self-isolation have made it evident that we are closely connected and deeply dependent on each other. Meanwhile the widespread nature of the disease has shown clearly that we need robust mechanisms and institutions that work for public rather than private interests. This is a turning point – and we ought to be very careful which turn we are about to take.