Interventions: Summer 2021

Azadeh Sharifi, with Broderick D.V. Chow, Vanessa Damilola Macaulay, Sharanya Murali, Ella Parry-Davies, Bella Poynton, Stefanie Sachsenmaier, Azadeh Sharifi, Liyang Xia

We are in transition. Some of us are. Those of us who are able to access the vaccination and well-functioning health care systems. And some of us are still in the middle of the pandemic. Recovering, griefing, hoping, being in despair. What will come out of this so-called unprecedented time is nothing new, nothing that hasn’t happened already and before in the colonial matrix of power. The call for not returning to the “old” normal has been echoing in activists movements, academic papers and social media but not on a governmental or structural level. What will come out of this planetary pandemic might not be more than a small crack in history, sixteen months of a slower and different mode of living, working and existing. But maybe this might be sufficient to allow us to envision another future? This moment seems to offer a precious opportunity to critically engage with history and historiography that is entrenched in a hegemonic narrative.

As a German scholar of Iranian descent who has taken the lead on this special issue, I have a very personal and professional interest in thinking through what an archive beyond white, Western and heteronormatively gendered convention could look like. My own research engages with the artistic work of immigrants and minorities since the 1960s. These artists are neither to be found in the German archives nor have they ever entered the national theatre historiography. They are not even recognized as artists and art practitioners. The main question that drives my research is what archives and theatre historiography, or even the German theatre landscape, might look like if these artistic practices and theatrical encounters were acknowledged for what they are. 

From a personal perspective, I am interested in the history of my community. I am interested in those artists and performance-makers who once were performance-makers in a flourishing scene in Iran that was highly political and experimental. But due to the political circumstances (when they were lucky to not be persecuted or murdered), they had to flee Iran. Those who came to Germany vanished from the surface of the art scene since their status as migrants and asylum seekers was highly restricted. And more generally, the way racialised and othered bodies are perceived in German society and especially on German stages confirms their long-time discrimination. 

One famous example was Fereydoun Farrokhzad who was one of the best known performers on Iranian stages and TV. Although he never came out and wasn’t allowed to be openly gay, he queered Iranian pop culture, especially in the 1970s. His performance and shows were playing with gender norms, always flirtatious, always sensual and therefore challenging the construction of a male Iranian body and identity which sometimes was falsely accused of being Western-inspired. After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, he fled to Germany – where he had previously studied and earned a PhD in political science – and continued to produce shows and perform for the Iranian diasporic community around the planet, but he and his work have never been acknowledged in Germany. When he was murdered by stabbing in 1992, like many Iranian dissidents in the Diaspora at that time, the German authorities were not able to resolve the murder although the unanimous opinion was that it was commissioned by the Iranian government. 

What does this single story say about a German history of LGBTQI*, when those who have played major roles to pave the way for the people in ‘their’ country or in and beyond the Diaspora, are not recognized? And more generally, what does it say about the ways that archives, and specifically in the area of the arts, are constructed in Germany and wider Europe? But beyond Europe and its Eurocentric (and colonial) gaze, what are the implications for the politics of archiving? How do these systems, classifications and files produce a structure that serves a colonial matrix of power? 

In this special issue, we are interested in challenging notions of the archive as predominantly white, Western and heteronormatively gendered, with a view to theorising archives as embodied sites through which histories can be interrogated and critiqued, rather than simply replayed. Our issue is linked to the CTR issue on “Outing Archives, Archives Outing” and similarly, we are interested in interrogating established notions of archives and engaging with decolonial practices and methodologies. We also consider ‘outing’ as a decolonial action and methodology that opens up alternate and embodied possibilities through which histories can be examined. We acknowledge that the term ‘outing’ has been traditionally associated with LGBTQI* studies and identities. While we recognise the histories of this term, we wish to position the making visible or construction of archives vis-a-vis decolonial and intersectional actions, activisms, and performances. As in Fereydoun Farrokhzad’s example, race, gender, sexuality and migration histories intersect so that it becomes difficult – and indeed misleading – to attempt to disentangle them.

Nadine Deller’s article ‘Fugitivity through Black digitality: podcasting in the Black Plays Archive’ considers the impact of institutional whiteness on her position as a Black “mixed-race” researcher and how the development of a podcast on Black British theatre history (That Black Theatre Podcast) enabled her to negotiate her feeling of being ‘the stranger’ into a newfound position of ‘Black fugitivity’ within the BPA.

Like Deller’s within the BPA, housed within the United Kingdom’s Royal National Theatre Archives, Vicki Couzens and Priya Srinivasan’s collaboration in the Melbourne Museum, Serpent Dreaming Women (2017), navigated institutional whiteness and questions of nation and coloniality. The project brought together stories from Indian and Indigenous cultures to ‘share ideas about environmental care and protection, as well as contemporary stories of the stolen generation and intertwining with racist anti-Asian memories of childhood in Naarm.’1 In their dialogic article, ‘On Being, Knowing, and Doing’, Couzens and Srinivasan reflect on this work and challenge Western colonial ideas of the archive and the museum (as well as academic scholarship) by interrogating bodies as archives and performance as a living archive of voices, peoples, and stories. 

Wojtek Ziemilski’s text ‘More Now. Notes on the past in online documentary theatre’ reflects on an online workshop by the Argentinian documentary theatre maker Lola Arias, co-produced by the Studio Theatre in Warsaw and the Onassis Stegi in Athens. Ziemilski explores how the entanglement of archive and performance shifts in the digital space, reminding us that, above all, “archives are proof of absence”. His playful text echoes the multilayering of archive and embodiment manifest in Arias’ workshop, becoming a hypertext that both acknowledges its materiality and challenges its own temporal coherence.

Reflecting on his own engagement with archival materials in the context of his research on folk performances in subaltern communities in India, Brahma Prakash, in his article “Archives are a SCAM!”, critically considers the politics concerning structural archival conventions. In an overall discussion of the limits of the archive in postcolonial society, he raises issues concerning the ways that archives are created as well as encountered, including scholarly training, whose memories get included and excluded, and the ways that archives create a contested ordering of knowledge.

A new article for Dispatches—conceived as a changing archive of the present—accompanies this special issue. Ramzi Maqdisi, a Palestinian film-maker and actor, reflects on his aural experience of Jerusalem amidst the renewed violence of recent weeks. Combining evocative storytelling and a soundscape comprised of field recording and musical composition by 9T Antiope, ‘There is a Party in my Head but I Wasn’t Invited’ conveys part of the overwhelming disorientation of noise and silence, ultimately reminding the reader-listener that “It is not the voice that commands the story, it is the ear.”

These contributions on outing archives interweave on different levels and enable a multilayer discussion that we intend to keep as an ongoing conversation.

 

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Notes:

  1. Melbourne is located on the traditional, unceded lands of the Kulin nation and Naarm is the original name of the area on which the city is located.

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