More Now. Notes on the past in online documentary theatre

Wojtek Ziemilski

-1.

If you’re reading this, it’s too late.

I should have been there standing right in front of you, looking you in the eyes and saying these words. Instead, all you have left is this. A document.

Yes, there are ways to give you a hint of the presence. Take this:

 

Here I am, writing these words. This gives you a certain idea. Here is a person.

Still, bringing that person, from that moment, back to the present, seems impossible. (Bear with me). 

What if he spoke to you? Would that help?

 

Well, yes and no, one might say. We still need to rebuild that world from scratch – to somehow bring back its presence. And although documentation has sometimes been seen as ‘a performance… for which we are the present audience’,1 my sense of loss and distance prevails. As someone who uses archives in performances, it’s something I often deal with: beyond any performative power they may have, archives are proof of absence.

0.

In 2010 I created “Mała narracja” (“Small Narration”), an autobiographical performance, at the Studio Theatre in Warsaw. In it, I presented many documents from my family archives, as well as from state archives. My main directorial strategy was to let the material speak for itself: I all but erased myself from the stage.

I am that yellowish patch somewhere in the middle.

The weight of the documents, but also their very presence on stage, was a challenge. They were too distant—coming from far away in space and time, which made them fragile, difficult to grasp, and in need of all the attention they could get. I couldn’t compete against them. Instead, I needed to be the facilitator. 

Thus, the main task I set for myself was to share archives—eliminating or dramatizing the distance to the documents was a big part of the show’s success.

Building the documents’ representation meant acknowledging they were somewhere else, or represented a reality which was not on the stage with me.

1.

In 2012, The Argentinian theatre director Lola Arias, known for her documentary theatre often revolving around issues of memory and history, started a series called Mis Documentos – My Documents. Here is how she describes it:

 

My Documents had several editions before moving online in 2020, for the same reasons we all did.

And that’s when things started changing.

2.

The new, online format of My Documents seemed to work as well, if not better, than the original. Watching the presentations I couldn’t quite point to the reasons, until in late 2020, Lola Arias gave an online workshop, coproduced by the Studio Theatre in Warsaw and the Onassis Stegi in Athens. It was an introduction to the possibilities of this form. Here is the open call to potential participants: 

But what is ‘presenting the archive’ online? The 12 active participants2 brought in a plethora of archive-sharing forms: screen-sharing of scanned documents, screen-sharing of digital images or films, showing documents through the camera, reading, playing recordings via microphone, playing recordings directly from the computer… Each of these ways of sharing archives is a world of its own. And in the presentations they changed quickly like in a kaleidoscope, often mixing or superimposing, multiplying the folds.

Add live performance, snapchat filters, text chats, Google docs, and we are in an epistemological circus the likes of which were not dreamt of by our philosophers.

Why epistemological?

My experience of any show I have seen online (and as most of us, I have seen too many this past year) begins with the acceptance of the fact that what I see is not just an image, not a representation of an event (more precisely, that it’s not just pretending to be an event, e.g. that it’s not prerecorded, not virtual), but an actual event.3 Some shows seem to assume this happens automatically, when, of course, it doesn’t. It’s a process, a decision and a convention to be established. After all, I am watching just a screen. There is no other space. It is all other, or, all the same, depending on whether the glass is half full. So epistemologically, there is no way to know what is a representation. And this time, it is not a philosophical idea—it’s an aesthetic experience.

This theatrical mess may seem like a purgatory. In some ways, it is: it’s often extremely confusing. We’re regularly unsure who is talking, what is the status of what they’re showing, and what relation we are to establish with this ambiguous reality. But here is the full side of the glass: in this confusion, archives regain a present tense. The ambiguous status of the performer’s performance allows for an often shockingly direct experience of the archives themselves.

3.

Here is an example of how it works: during his showing, one of the workshop participants, Luis Torres, talks about his late mother. He starts off by showing us the reading cards he inherited from her.
We see the cards in his hand.
We see the picture of the cards shared from his computer screen.
We see a poem. He reads yet a different poem out loud.

And as he adds layer upon layer, this screen, now, combines it all into a personal experience of “now”. It’s not just that if Philip Auslander could write, 20 years ago, that “our current concepts of proximity and intimacy derive from television”4 today we derive those same concepts from how we function with computer and mobile screens. What makes this world actually work is the feeling of event, of a live performance happening only now. Once I accept that this screen is an actual stage where liveness happens, all the times come to the surface of presence. Thanks to a private and somewhat unstable performance of the “now”, the relativity of the mediated present which we are used to from “live” TV and other “live” mediated events (which Auslander wrote about) now extends to any material whose mediatization resembles or is embraced by the “live” mediatized performance. And so, the archives gain the aura of that liveness. The difficulty to distinguish what is happening now from what is brought from another time (and space) allows the past to feel present. During the workshop I get this feeling again and again. I’m not the only one: after one of the presentations, Arias asks if the dialogue we heard the participant having with a friend was actually happening live or was prerecorded. It was a recording – and were it not for the framework of live performance, we would have assumed so. But now? The digital realm gives us no hint. And our minds are open to accept everything as “live”, or, as present.

That feeling of distance you have when reading this text? It’s gone. It’s not too late any more. The archive doesn’t need to be accompanied by absence. And it’s not just closer. It is here.

4.

This presence has one condition: we can’t be there. 

It’s all possible as long as The Artist Is Not Present. As long as the stage is virtual and our togetherness – digital, partial, framed. The absurd yet persistent dream of all the Sims and Second Lives now seems realized: everything feels real.

Another way I start to think about it is that during the pandemic we’re all stuck in the theatre and the archive is a way of going outside.

Yes, this screen is the theatre. The tiny space of a frame in a flat. Frame-flat-frame-flat.

But unexpectedly, the breath of fresh air comes from within. Through the performance of another reality, the screen becomes what it should have been all along: the window to another world. Not to trivia, not to the things that distract our attention. But to that which is different. Certified by the real, current presence of a performer.

5.

There’s more.

Near the end of his short performance (the participants had a 10-minute limit), Luis suddenly transforms his face. No, he doesn’t: an app does it. The change is instantaneous. He is now a woman. Or a cross-dresser. He is someone else. Maybe I should say: he reveals himself to us as someone else. And the archive he has been sharing becomes the body, which connects back to the archive, making it all feel absurdly present—and somehow too close for comfort. The guilty pleasure of believing all this is real makes it feel like a coming out. No matter the actual circumstances. The level of intimacy, the unambiguous precision of the image (Snapchat masks don’t lie!), the certainty I have that this is an actual, real-life story, all conspire to make me feel invited to a special, important and unique event. One that is public, while remaining private.

Then there’s the nervousness. Most of the participants are quite nervous when they perform. We all know this, that’s what happens at presentations – yet here it gains another dimension. Actually, even the more obvious mistakes, the blunders and wrong choices, combined with the over-presence of the documents, all seem to add to the feeling of…outing?5 Saying too little and too much, showing too little and too much, sharing and sharing (and hiding and hiding) – but getting it out there. Into the open.

There is a story of a miscarriage, a story of a difficult childhood, several stories of being gay in a homophobic country, of messed up identities and deceased relatives who shouldn’t be forgotten. 

Maybe it’s the ease with which what is private can become public. One click – and we know. In the world of Instagram it’s a well- described phenomenon. However, connecting it to the realm of live art gives it a symbolic weight and presence which is close to alchemy.

6.

In one presentation, the participant shares a film in which an old man shows black-and-white pictures of his childhood.

I had the sense of eternity, the old man says.

That may be it.

 

Wojtek Ziemilski is a theatre director and visual artist. He works across art forms, rooting himself in the diversity of performance arts. His works have been shown around the world, at events ranging from the Ruhrtriennale to the Prague Quadriennial.  Ziemilski extends the idea of documentary performance. His work is often an inquiry into spectatorship and the possibility for action. He is a lecturer at the National Academy of Dramatic Art in Warsaw and at the Warsaw University. He is studying for a PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London. More at ziemilski.com.

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Notes:

  1. Philip Auslander, ‘The Performativity of Performance Documentation’, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, vol. 28, no. 3 (2006), 9.
  2. The Zoom-based workshop was part of a series, whose initiator, Studio’s Anna Lewanowicz, proposed an original formula: besides 12 “active participants”, there could be another, larger group of what she called “passive participants” – observers with turned off cameras and microphones, who were, however, encouraged to comment and ask questions via text chat. I was one of the active participants in a previous workshop. I found it impressive how thanks to this device I would instantly forget about the presence of another 50 people. They became just a number, an almost hypothetical audience who didn’t disrupt our group dynamics at all. Imagine a similar situation offline: 50 spectators peeping in during an intimate documentary workshop. The image is so unreal, it’s hilarious. That in itself is an incredible find in a pandemic world where nearly every online project seems a poor version of the “real stage”. We may have gotten used to the abstraction of people present barely through their names – but the particular ease with which we acknowledge them and yet forget them at the same time feels like something new. Liveness is assumed, and yet, discrete—quasi-absent.
  3. ‘From its seeming to me—or to everyone—to be so, it doesn’t follow that it is so.
    What we can ask is whether it can make sense to doubt it’. – says Ludwig Wittgenstein. On Certainty. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1975), 12.
  4. ,Philip Auslander, Liveness. Performance in a mediatized culture. (Milton Park: Routledge, 1999), 159.
  5. Possibly because in Poland the LGBTQ+ community has become paradigmatic of an ostracized, usually concealed identity whose revealment is difficult and socially controversial, the Poles often apply the term “outing” (wyoutować) to any similar circumstance, eg. being Jewish. (I owe this hypothesis to prof. Agnieszka Graff). This, in Poland, is not a controversial meaning of “outing”. Just today (9.05.21), an article in a major Polish newspaper stated that Andrzej Piaseczny—a well-known singer—and Elon Musk, both “came out of the closet” (sic). The former as being gay, and the latter, as having Asperger’s. I do believe this to be an interpretation worth employing beyond the Polish context, but for the sake of narrative clarity, you can just assume that I misinterpreted the range of the term assuming this to be a generally accepted norm.

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