The Political at the Intersection of the Live and  the Mediatized



Originally published in Maska Spring-Summer 2008, translated by Jernej Možic

 

 

SLOVENE NATIONAL THEATRE (JANEZ JANŠA)
  Premiere: October 28 2007, Old Power Station – Elektro Ljubljana, Ljubljana, photo Marcandrea

 

The theatre production Slovene National Theatre[1] is the fourth performance piece in a series entitled Program![2], by artist Janez Janša, which deals with questions of a system of contemporary performing arts and its position in the wider societal and historical context. The program of the production carries a sentence by the unsigned author/the author who is unknown, that will – as a (personal) definition of staging tactics and forms – present the point of departure for this article. The sentence is as follows, “Slovene National Theatre reconstructs actual historical events: political demonstrations of 2006 which took place in certain Slovene villages. The story of the encounter between two different communities, which had enormous media coverage, is staged through the theatrical forms of the ancient chorus and radio play, as well as a live television and radio transmission. The combination of classical theatrical form and contemporary media transmission creates a moving spectacle and opens up anew the question of tragedy in today’s world.”[3]

 

This sentence accurately points to the essential elements of the production:

  • the highlighting of the performative nature of the event
  • the highlighting of the unique status of a live form of art in the mediatized culture, through the principle of combining classical theatre forms and contemporary media transmission
  • the dramatic rendering of a cultural and political institution by means of reconstructing actual historical events
  • the submission of the referential nature of events to the performative, by means of various techniques such as exaggerated repetitions, sampling, intertextuality, hypertextuality, quoting, misquoting, appropriating different texts and discourses, and meta-theatrical references.

 

In Slovene National Theatre, the “theatre performance concerned with the sonic dimensions of political public rage”, and thus combines two different types of theatrical tactics which belong to two historical territories on the map of Eurocentric theatre:

A)    the classical theatrical form in which actors perform as a chorus commenting on the action as in ancient or classicist tragedy

B)    the contemporary form of media transmission in which actors perform the exact sound recordings of television reports on events in the village of Ambrus in 2006, while simultaneously listening to them on headphones

 

This allows for the emergence of a hybrid theatrical form that constantly addresses the audience and reconstructs actual historical events: political demonstrations of 2006 which took place in some villages in Slovenia. This hybrid form reconstructs the story of two communities: the larger group of rural Slovenes and the minority group of Roma people living on the outskirts of the rural community. This was a major media event and thus the reconstruction is staged in the manner of Auslander’s junction of live performance and the mediatized spectacle, performativity and reproduction. This junction (in connection with the plot and the subject, which are directly political as they are bound to the media of television and radio) produces discomfort in the audience. It demands that they formulate a viewpoint towards the action unfolding on stage and respond to it ,while being aware of their own powerlessness and deceptive participation, which is assured and at the same time imposed by the mediatized television event.

 

The politics of staging is established by means of combining the classical theatrical form and contemporary media transmission. Within this combination there emerges the unique process of auto-poietic feedback loops (Erika Fischer-Lichte), a temporary community formed by performers and the audience which launches a specific theatre of revolt against what Auslander defines with syntagms, “live presence has depreciated in our mediatized culture” and “a fusion that we see as taking place within a digital environment that incorporates the live elements as part of its raw material […in] the cultural dominant”. [4]

 

The performance contains a double encoding; it is aware of the fact that we live in the firmament created by the prevalence of the mediatized culture, yet it deliberately resorts to performative culture, to the restorative processes of ritualistic theatre where the actual performative event – the confrontation of the audience with the village of Ambrus, and the resulting consequences – takes place. The audience is thus forced to face the unavoidable self-reflection and images of themselves, their role in (not) taking responsibility for what happened in Slovenia about a year ago.

 

The production lends itself to comparison with Heldenplatz (1988), a play by controversial Austrian dramatist Thomas Bernhard who makes use of similar techniques in the reconstruction of a particular historical event and of the acknowledgement – or rather, distancing – of the audience. Mark Anderson sees the effect of Bernard’s method as follows:

 

The actual audience assembled for the performance, which no doubt included Austrians who had been part of the crowd welcoming Hitler, was thus forced to confront its own 'voice' when recorded chants of 'Sieg Heil' were piped onstage from the wings, as if this voice were coming from Heroes' Square outside. The aesthetic sphere constituted by the theatre gives way to history and politics; audience members become actors in a play that takes them fifty years back in the past to confront what might be called the "Urszene" of Austrian politics: the body politic’s embrace of Hitler.[5]

 

 

Janez Janša’s piece Slovene National Theatre does not deal with the juxtaposition of two different time periods, Nazism and the present, but through the reconstruction of an actual event of the recent past, it achieves a Bernhard-like withdrawal of the aesthetic aspect of the theatrical event in favour of the topical political issues. Within this, as critic Blaž Lukan points out, an equally acute crisis of ethics is exposed:

 

The event of the Slovene nation, directed by Janez Janša (an intriguing collision!), is therefore “the case of the village of Ambrus”, linked with, as we know, the exile, or rather, the deportation of the Roma family Strojan from that village and all the accompanying occurrences which made for one of the darkest stains of the post-independence Slovenia. /…/ Janez Janša stages the reconstruction of Ambrus in a kind of performative inversion by means of returning us to the actual event itself, or serving it to us as a temporal and spatial extraction from its original unfolding, and transcribes its media origin into a sonic performance piece, distributed amid four performers and a companion. But the formal side of the (thoroughly professionally-executed) event is of little importance. What carries more significance is that, by reconstructing and transcribing the documentary material, Janša revives a fact that our political (and media) reality has suppressed to a great extent. Taking Ambrus out of a (partly dictated, partly spontaneous) amnesic political and media reality is thus the essential quality of this event which, despite not hiding its own performing or conceptual origins, inhabits the traumatic core of the Slovene political mythology. [6]

 

Both Bernhard and Janša understand the theatre and the performance not purely as a work of art, but as an event which comes into being by means of interaction of performers and the audience. They both try to put the audience in a state of insecurity and discomfort. They presuppose and endeavour to achieve that a performance or a staging of a play-text would produce a specific disintegration of oppositions. On stage, the performers are supposed to exist in a parallel manner, simultaneously and intensively as an aesthetic, a societal and a political process during which they struggle with institutions of power. In this struggle the common oppositions of subject and object, of presence and representation, and of art and social reality, disappear, while dichotomies appear to have evaporated. At the same time, the audience – together with the performers on stage – transforms and finds itself in a state that is alienated from the everyday social norms. Following the logic of Erike Fischer-Lichte’s book Aesthetic of the Performative[7], the consequence of this is a destabilization of the perception of reality due to the liminality of a performance as an event, and it may cause a re-orientation of the individual  (which, let us not deceive ourselves, is only temporary).

 

Both Bernhard and Janša thus strive to create a liminal experience for the audience and performers alike. Amid individual participants of the event, this should prompt a change of their perception of reality, themselves and others. Both therefore count on the trigger for the change of the audience’s perception of reality and a simultaneous emergence and exposure of an abyss between the signifiers and the signified which establishes the credibility of the language of opposition. At the same time, both projects generate an Auslander-like politics of performance that is, “exposing processes of cultural control”.[8] Both projects also take on the strategy of performance art, radically appropriating various forms of staging and ways of addressing the audience, and thus building its own politics of staging. On the one hand, the audience is exposed to the violence of performance and repetition that is understood as the violence of the all-present society of spectacle, but on the other hand, the audience is invited to enter a game of auto-poetic feedback loops and exchange representation for corporal co-presence.

 

In the manner explored by Auslander, Janša’s project exposes the majority-centered nature of mediatized perception within which a live event only seems like a temporary extension of the mediatized. In this way, it realizes a performative practice which is aware of the fact that theatre no longer exists on the basis of a naïve faith that (as Peggy Phelan believed) a performance can be understood as part of a different representational economy which is not subordinate to reproduction. In other words: the performance renders as conscious the obvious fact (out of which it derives and draws its performative strength) that we inhabit what Auslander defines as awareness of “impossible oscillation between the two poles of what once seemed a clear opposition: whereas mediatized performance derives its authority from its reference to the live or the real, the live now derives its authority from its reference to the mediatized which derives its authority from its reference to the live, etc.”[9]

 

In this way the performance belongs among strategies of survival and subversion practised by such artists as Elfriede Jelinek, Sarah Kane, Frank Castorf, Societas Raffaelo Sanzio, Bojan Jablanovec, Jan Fabre, Christoph Marthaller, Forced Entertainment, Maja Delak, Snježana Premuš, so that they would appropriate and reinterpret the fundamental postulates of performative inversion and politicized art. Derived from the awareness that nowadays live performance is subject to intensive mediatization, what Auslander terms as an ever faster invasion of reproduction into the live event, these artists testify to; in the dominance of mediatized culture the possibility of unity between the audience and the performers lies within the auto-poietic feedback loops, a hybrid of a mediatized and live event.

 


[1] Slovene National Theatre, A theatre performance re-invoicing the sound dimensions of political public rage.Concept, directed by: Janez Janša. Cast: Aleksandra Balmazović, Dražen Dragojević, Janez Janša, Barbara Kukovec, Matjaž Pikalo. Opening night: 28th October, 2007, Stara mestna elektrarna – Elektro Ljubljana, Ljubljana.

[4] Philip Auslander, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture,2nd edition, Routledge: Taylor and Francis Group, London 2008, p. 38.

[5] Mark M. Anderson, »Fragments of Deluge, The Theater of Thomas Bernhard’s Prose«, in A Companion to the Works of Thomas Bernhard, Matthias Konzett, (ed.), Camden House, Rochester 2002, p. 132.  

[6] Blaž Lukan, »Janša v Ambrusu«, Delo, 2.11.2007.

[7] Erika Fischer-Lichte, Ästhetik des Performativen, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 2004

[8] Philip Auslander, From Acting to Performance: Essays in Modernism and Postmodernism, Routledge, London 1997, p. 61.

[9] Auslander, 2008, p. 39.