Protestchöre – Zu einer neuen Ästhetik des Widerstands
Stuttgart 21, Arabischer Frühling und Occupy in theaterwissenschaftlicher Perspektive
(Stuttgart 21, the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement from a Theatre Studies Perspective)

By Stefan Donath
478 pp., Bielefeld, Germany: Transcript Publishing House

Reviewed by Natascha Siouzouli*

This book is a publication of a recent German Ph.D. dissertation, meaning that it is still bound to have some issues (for example, its extravagant length, which brings with it redundancies and a somewhat opaque structure), but it also has many original qualities, which are far more important and which make this volume of unusual note.

Written by Stefan Donath, a research assistant at the International Research Centre of the Freie Universität Berlin under the supervision of the well-known critic and scholar Erika Fischer-Lichte, Protestchöre gives a full background on the historical formations of the choir within and outside theatrical practice, as well as on various practices of protest and resistance, including theoretical approaches from politics, sociology and a wider aesthetics. But, ultimately, this volume takes a performative approach which brings a special kind of focus to the idea of radical agency.

What Donath specifically does here is to look into protest practices as performative process without focusing extensively on questions of success or failure. By taking this approach, he emphasizes a different kind of reception— “what happened?” rather than “why?” and “to what purpose.”

Donath argues that contemporary group protest negates a single homogenous entity, replacing it with polyphonic figurations of opinions, attitudes and voices. The study concludes that the interaction of group agents intentionally makes their focus difficult to grasp. This, he argues, means that they might actually have more potential to undermine or subvert their objects.

His first example is the “Bürgerchöre” (Citizen’s Choirs) and the so-called “Schwabenstreich” (Swabian prank), created and deployed by the famous German theatre director Volker Lösch, as part of demonstrations and actions against the building of a new rail station in Stuttgart. Donath approaches this specific form of choral protest as a “Klangraum” (soundspace), consisting of voices, language and noise. By undermining the goal to make sense, the collective challenges the (self-)conception of group protest as we know it, allowing a strategy of more abstract political agency to emerge.

The author’s second example is the so-called “Silent Stands,” which took place in various cities in Egypt and which, to a certain extent, paved the way for the massive demonstrations in Cairo, in January 2011. These choreographed gatherings of people in public spaces—part of the Arab Spring—focused on collective silence and stillness, a new theatrical agent of resistance, intentionally refusing action and expression, and thus, again, challenging traditional and intellectually clear forms of protest.

The Occupy Wall Street Movement is Donath’s third example. He focuses here on the staging of the space—the “general assembly” or the “human microphone”—exploring the perceptions and transformations of that space through group action. Not being a homogenous space, it too becomes a point of constant change and negotiation.

As well, the study problematizes the (re)production of all these theatricalized events by the media, arguing that the media itself becomes an important factor not only in the transmission of the events, but also in the shaping and intellectual transformation of them.

The main argument of the book is that these contemporary forms of group protests challenge traditional concepts of protest, an idea kept in the foreground throughout this well-argued study.

*Natascha Siouzouli is a theatre and performance theorist. She is currently working on a book about what she calls “ethical militancy.”

Copyright © 2018 Natascha Siouzouli
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Protest Choirs: A New Aesthetics of Resistance