After Devitalized Theatre

Nenad Jelesijević*

This writing is a set of thoughts provoked by the challenge of living in semi-captivity while having a need to practice a live art. Such circumstances require us not to be aseptic, but to keep coping with dirtiness, which is an integral part of performing our creativity, and to keep our bodies in virulently live socializing mode in order to empower the collective body. The virus-related panic may force us to rethink the quality of socializing within the art field as a part of the culture industry, and beyond it. The current devitalization of theatre triggers plenty of questions that may be condensed into a more radical one: can we, at all, practice socialization within the art (as a) field?
Keywords: devitalized theatre, dirtiness, speciesism, biopolitics, self-organizing, performing the desire

It is impossible to stay at home and practice performance art, make a happening and take part in it—in a way tied to the liveness of a kind of art that is closely related to bodies in interaction (even in the case when the bodies are understood as what we call the “audience”). Live art can only be situated (that is, related to a public space and a tactile context) in the analog sense, as we are still more analog than virtual beings; it cannot be transmitted or virtualized without losing sensibleness as its crucial aspect.

It is impossible to be isolated and have a collective rehearsal. It is impossible to practice so-called social distancing between individuals and get uninhibitedly socialized. While keeping an antisocial distance, it is impossible to make art that concerns the public as its crucial part. It is impossible to make art without actually making it public.

Watching archived material online does not have much in common with going to theatre, cinema etc. However, the current epidemic-related circumstances may force us to rethink the reality and quality of socializing within the art field and the wider culture field.

We are, again, strongly challenged to think and do the impossible; and to rethink theatre’s ideological context, therefore its own responsibility within the world, its institutional burden.

While theatres share online what had until recently been reserved for watching live, they do not significantly articulate new forms of repression and rising inequality which are incorporated in the big closure.

All these thoughts are the starting point for the writing of this article that aims to show connotations of what I term devitalized theatre within the wider biopolitical and speciesist discourse (with speciesism referring to the domination of the human animal over the non-human ones), to stress the importance of socialization while the latter is significantly reduced and to question the quality of socialization within the art field.

Eugène Ionesco: Les Chaises. Studio of Champs-Elysees, Paris 1956.
Photo: Lipnitzki. The photos are chosen by Nenad Jelesijević.

The deficit of speaking on these ever alarming issues is, to an extent, a consequence of the shock that we have all experienced. However, the institutional aestheticized efforts to articulate them, for instance within so-called politically engaged plays, do not really challenge the question of institution. Such politicization is rather conserved than emancipatory.

Theatres seem to be waiting for the end of this state of exception. But the state of exception is the capitalism’s typical mode. Will it end by itself?

The last metamorphosis of the state of exception became obvious with the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001. The cultural apparatus’s response to the state of exception was mostly aestheticized within the growing project-as-a-product logic, often attached to the politically castrated subsidizing strategy of European Union, state, local and corporative funds that promoted competitiveness as the main mantra of growth ideology. That resulted in the increasing inequality within the hierarchical field of cultural production.[1]

The problem is not the occasionally criticized so-called “hyper-production,” or even the obvious disparity in funding between the rich West and the colonized South East. Rather, it is the intentionally nurtured contrast between the precariousness of artists and the increasing amount of cultural managers and administrators who are allowed to earn more and are more likely to have permanent income than artists as core producers. We are obviously faced with a class question.

What is called art production is in its core an art trade. The so-called “producers” are actually not producing, while artists as producers (and production itself) stay at the bottom of the culture industry’s pyramid. By bringing the question of survival to the fore, the current state-of-epidemic is only sharpening the question of hierarchies and (global) class-related insecurity. Even the future of the artists who are lucky to live in northwest Europe and receive some public aid that helps them survive the unemployment caused by the reducing of public events is far from secure in the long run.

When forced to stay at home, we may dream of visiting theatre or work on the stage again. This situation may provoke dealing with the rarely addressed issue: the alienation of theatre’s socializing aspect. This is, in fact, the main reason behind the weakening/impotency of its political/communitarian influence in society. This alienation is largely a consequence of literalization (supremacy of narrative in theatre plays) that nurtures boredom and ethnocentrism,[2] but also an effect of canonizing ways of addressing the public or, more crudely, “managing” the audience.

The institutional theatre’s online response to the prohibition of public events (that is, gatherings of people for the purpose of socializing within various kinds of performances) can be understood as an effort to keep theatre’s spirit alive until better times. Yet, such an affirmation of technical reproduction as production’s surrogate can also (unintentionally) affirm acceptance of the absence of performing. That pseudo-public virtual mode opens up plenty of associations: actors as avatars; individual viewers as online subscribers; an even more prevalent domination of film, gaming and entertainment industry; abolishment of tactility.

So far, our political response is minor—political in the sense of a communitarian process of reflecting on the current circumstances and responding to them collectively while addressing the public, not as audience, but as individuals involved or interested in what is going on, its causes and consequences. Political practice has often been a matter of postponing, but at what cost?

As usual in the state of exception, institutions may become diluted, mutate or suddenly change their roles. Many of them, including institutional theatre, were merely reiterating the “stay at home” mantra. They were focusing on managing the citizens not by addressing the socializing perspective of diseases that (always) spread in the public context, but by exercising the technocratic one. Instead of urgently looking for ways to keep socializing practices alive—which must include the bodily-tactile aspect—, they widely put stress on public relations. They often promoted an allegedly unpredictable future of reduced, face masked, surveilled, disinfected and technologically mediated human-to-human contact. Suddenly, it looks like that the supposedly highly developed part of the world that calls itself First World can only survive in an avatar mode, which is, let it be written down, nonsense.

Self-organization of production now seems even more vitally important. It is a frame for thinking and doing what has been pushed to the borderline of the impossible: to leave home (if you have one) and walk a street anytime, be with friends, step in an auditorium and on a stage, to empower a community while addressing the proliferation of surveillance mechanisms, to celebrate togetherness while performing the desire.[3]

One can adapt oneself to the production’s hierarchy and that has been the dominant survival mode for a long time. One can also decide to contribute to a non-hierarchical network; that decision often includes stepping out of one’s comfort zone (which is increasingly becoming freedom-free); that decision situates oneself in a time-space beyond the strictly individual living mode and potentially allows bypassing the managerial panopticon.

The globalized managerial discourse proclaims that the virus is an enemy that has to be fought. As expected, it puts focus on symptoms rather than on systemic causes. Such rhetoric leads to the militarization of responses to any danger of diseases. But what is actually defended and attacked in an atmosphere of bursting fears of all kinds?

Even the World Health Organization has announced that meat eating, besides its negative effects to human health, causes infections, as ¾ of virus diseases are zoonotic (transmitted from a non-human animal to a human one). Speciesism is manifested as the massive abuse of non-human animals—their exploitation and killing in industrial farms (biggest concentration camps ever), smaller farms, marine farms, aqua parks and zoos;  in other words, in prisons for non-human animals, and in pharmaceutical, medical and cosmetic laboratories and slaughterhouses. These normalized practices of radical exclusion of the lives of Others are intricately linked to the high risk of infections via food chain.

Understanding the speciesist discourse (and anthropocentrism) allows for a perception of viruses as specific synergetic factors which inhabit organisms. They function parasitically, but they also provoke the body’s immune response that enables disease resistance. Perceived as a complex phenomenon rather than an evil, they are accepted and, when needed, treated in various ways when an illness is initiated. As catalyzers of potential re-appropriation—suggesting that no human animal is, de facto, not “more equal” (as George Orwell phrases it) than another or a non-human one—viruses actually reveal the biopolitical efforts of the powers that be.

Virulence is a manifestation of a virus’s need to live. The virulence of resistance is a collective manifestation of one’s need to be free.

The widespread measure of (self-)isolation to fend off the possibility of infection must not become the reason for further systemic tearing of social ties or, in other words, for the generic transformation of anyone around us into a dangerous Other. In the disoderly atmosphere of the newest capitalism’s transformation, we should not forget that prevention from being infected also prevents obtaining a level of immunity that prevents illnesses.

Being immune means being capable of getting dirty, being able to risk, to accept the dirtiness, like children do when playing in the sand or putting in their mouth objects that are certainly not aseptic. The dirtiness of the stage (once inscribed in pop culture by the ex-Yugoslav rock band name Prljavo kazalište or, in English, The Dirty Theatre) is its significant dimension. The dirtiness, in fact, relativizes the purity of standard procedures that make the production machinery alienated.

That very dirtiness is the actual tie with the sensible that emerges on and beyond the stage. The stage dirt, scratches, wounds and lesions are the signs of the everlasting continuation of artistic life that includes hugging, kissing, spitting, coughing, bleeding and many other physical gestures. Similarly, the street, square and boulevard impurity is not only a visible manifestation of pollution, but also a trace and mirror of certain public life.

Disinfecting everything and everyone may perhaps prevent spreading of infection, however, it cannot be accepted as a routine that tries to mask efforts to turn society into a sterile network of bots who progressively reduce body contact. So far, the danger, the fear, and the ambivalence, embodied in innocently looking smartphones and computers, in hidden operative systems, automation algorithms and technological interfaces, and in user-friendly apps that dig deeply into one’s privacy, are as big as we allow them to grow; refusing certain consumer “choices,” using communication technology in specific ways and switching to horizontal social networks, platforms and products, are still a matter of our decision.

The big closure makes us live our own reality shows in our homes, which has become an anticipation of reality TV studios. Gil Scott-Heron’s words “revolution will not be televised” now sound more powerful than ever before.

Eugène Ionesco: Les Chaises. Grand Théâtre, Paris 1988. Photo: Laurencine Lot.

The questions of perception of virulence, dirtiness and prohibitions are a frame for further thinking of the specific synthesis of captivity and creativity that could be felt or, at least, witnessed; let us move to theatre without audience, to theatre’s internalized exclusiveness, its class-related decadence, and its field-related trouble.

Whenever reduced to vegetating, life craves for physicalness of live meetings and interactions. This challenging semi-captivity requires us not to be aseptic, but to cope with dirtiness, which is an important part of performing our lives and our creativity; to put our bodies into resilient socializing mode and empower the collective body; to insist on a reconfiguration of the sensible (as Jacques Rancière would put it) towards freedom.

Michel Foucault’s definition of the clinic as a key part of the apparatus has probably never been more actualized. The clinic paradigm is currently widely inflated with the presumption that we are all patients; at the same time, the once partially won unconditional right to receive medical treatment is being increasingly withdrawn. Be healthy, heal yourself if and as you can, as now we are all Healthy People for Fun (the meaningful title of Karpo Godina’s film).

When the sick are excluded, an artistic act (on stage) is radically shrunk in terms of available (public!) space and in terms of receptive capacity.

It is, again, a matter of control over socialization, which is extremely important in the culture field. Socialization can be both produced and suppressed by art(ist); socialization is bounded by its agents from the inside, from the very theatre field (which is a part of the art field within the culture field). The answer to questions “Why is that field so narrow? Why is communitarian quality suppressed? Why is audience only audience, director only director, and actor only actor?” can be found in the very theatre field. For if the audience were anything more than an audience, they would have their own voice in deciding on the limitation of access to public (!) places and spaces.

Biopolitics did not bypass the theatre—the theatre itself is where a new dimension of Foucault’s question of the gaze is now unfolding. Theatre of the absurd has often explored the alienation phenomenon; the devitalized theatre of today is affirming it. Theatre is responsible for that alienation. And the theatre is all of us who happen to find ourselves in it one way or another.

However, the phenomenon of devitalized theatre can remind us that the stage is always only a certain close-up, while everything that surrounds it (from auditorium to the whole world), and including the stage itself, is a long shot; when, for instance, every second seat row misses, and every third and fourth seat are forbidden, we obviously face a significant deficit of bodies in the auditorium, and that absence of bodies, that fascinating gap, actually provokes thinking about a long shot, a total, a wide perspective.

When we face the current theatre space regime and procedure of entering it, we may realize that we can see much further, beyond the stage, and maybe understand the crucial importance of backstage and all-around-stage spaces. The rigidity of the introduced restrictions, not only in terms of space organization, control and social “choreographies,” but more in terms of the very personal decision of positioning or not positioning our bodies into it, is, in fact, an embodiment of the emancipatory politics that we always co-create.

Eugène Ionesco: Les Chaises. Théâtre de la Manufacture, Paris 2019. Photo: Théâtre de la Manufacture

Theatre, from an institutional perspective, may turn to an altered production mode, perhaps to increasingly elitist institutionalism. However, from beyond institutional perspective, the current theatre’s devitalization can provoke less expected modes of functioning and socializing among all involved in an artistic context; this may cause a structural rupture in the theatre field itself, or, better said, abolishing of the field as such.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. The Culture Industry. Routledge, 2006.

Bourdieu, Pierre. The Field of Cultural Production. Polity Press, 1993.

Dupont, Florence. Aristote ou le vampire du théâtre occidental. Éditions Flammarion, 2007.

Foucault, Michel. Naissance de la clinique. PUF, 1963.

Godina, Karpo. Zdravi ljudi za razonodu. Neoplanta film, 1971.

Jelesijević, Nenad. “Beyond (Theatre) Institution. Towards Self-organization of Production.” Theatre Between Politics and Policies: New Challenges. Faculty of Dramatic Arts, Belgrade, 23–24 March 2018.

Orwell, George. Animal Farm. Secker and Warburg, 1945.

Scott-Herron, Gil. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. Flying Dutchman, 1970.

[1] The in-depth analysis of the field of cultural production and the concept of fields are important contributions of Pierre Bourdieu.

[2] Florence Dupont lucidly explores that phenomenon in Aristote ou le vampire du théâtre occidental.

[3] For the notion of performing the desire as a liberation gesture in the very space-time of performance see my text “Beyond (Theatre) Institution: Towards Self-organization of Production.” 

*Nenad Jelesijević is an artist and researcher of performance art, performing arts and film. Working as theorist, writer, lecturer and performer, he is often focusing on the aestheticisation of resistance, the potential of disidentification, trash and transdisciplinary practices. He introduces and develops the concept of performance-critique in his book Performance-critique: A Turn into Abolishment of Art. He holds a PhD (philosophy and theory of visual culture), an MA (video) and a BA (interior architecture).

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