Transnational Subjectivities of Arab Artists in Europe
In the last five years, hundreds of performing artists from Arab countries have been scattered throughout neighbouring countries and Europe. In exile, these artists have been increasingly forced into old and new complexities of nationalism, incorporating relational dynamics in emerging transnational spaces. The complexities have permeated artists’ life stories and led to a phenomenon of replicating their biographies on European stages. By showing aspects of artists’ transnational subjectivities around inclusion and exclusion, this paper examines how such subjectivities reveal that presenting migrant artists’ biographies on stage acts against their freedom and offers a variant understanding of transnational theatre.
Keywords: transnational subjectivity, inclusion, post-migrant aesthetics, Arab performing arts, transnational theatre
The recent wave of migration from Arab countries to Europe, including hundreds of thousands of Syrians, is well represented in the European performing arts scene (Cox and Wake 142). By taking part in the “Welcome Culture,” European theatres gained legitimacy by welcoming artists arriving in their cities (Wilmer 93; de Andrade and Balme 7). Host theatres established ensembles to provide migrant artists with a space for reworking their stories (Wilmer 96). Many performing artists from Syria joined these ensembles, which produced an assortment of personal stories in the form of documentary theatre. By offering space to accommodate audiences’ increasing ethical and political curiosity around refugee artists from the Global South (Litvin and Sellman 47; Cox 4), productions tackling migrants’ stories spread rapidly and grew into a European stage phenomenon.
The various representations of this phenomenon show how migrants’ documentary aesthetics convey both solidarity and diversity through culture. Multi-layered perceptions of these aesthetics focus on how they exclude racial referencing (Petersen 8) and avoid ethical discomfort when immersing spectators within the performing experience (Meerzon, “Precarious Bodies” 34; Musca and Corrêa 389), and how they involve artists’ subjectivities emergence during their travels, which promote theatre as a medium of cultural diplomacy (Tinius 271).
These migratory aesthetics deal with the distance that powers of the post-migrant space created between artists and their stories when preparing them for the stage; borrowing Schechner’s term, the “worked-on” life story (Barba and Savarese 235). They do not unravel the multiple cognitive, relational and biopolitical processes that these artists have experienced (Totah, “No Room” 6), which transform their subject when handling dynamics such as nationalism. By omitting considerable portions of subjective aspect of artists’ life experience, institutional aesthetics commodifies artists’ biographies (Bishop 64; Kunst 5), mythologises migration by creating the “defaced” migrant figure (Meerzon, “Precarious Bodies”25), and as a result dogmatises solidarity and movements calling for migrants’ rights.
Hani (name anonymized) is a 37 year old artist currently based in Germany. He comments on the performance poster of the ensemble he joined: “Maybe I used to have a specific feeling when I saw our poster at the theatre in Syria. Here it just did not give me the same thrill of fear, wondering how the spectators would perceive it” (Hani). Once life stories are narrated in a creative process, artists construct a reflection that combines creativity with a system of what Sartre defines as subjectivation, “a certain type of internal action, rather than the simple relationship of the subject to itself” (Sartre et al. 3). This reflection includes awareness of relationships between the self and the other within artists’ performative action (Totah, “No Room” 6), which gives importance to what Kierkegaard calls their “intensity of feelings” (qtd. in Sartre and Baskin 7).
Hani’s reflection on his experience expresses feelings that deal with what Dahinden defines as transnational subjectivity, which describes the positions artists adopt as they recognise their belonging in a transnational space, one that crosses borders (1). For Boenisch, these positions comprise a self-reflection that maintains a distance from the self and can never be identical to its being (16). This paper examines how migrant artists’ transnational subjectivities reveal that putting parts of their biographies on stage actually goes against their free will, echoing Sartre’s conclusion of “being condemned to be free” (Sartre and Baskin 63).
A holistic approach to understanding artists’ biographical narrations incorporates actions, memory and estrangement connected to home and beyond as central to artists’ transnational subjectivity. It questions Hani and other artists’ inclusion experiences, in homeland and in exile, when attempting to establish a home and career. This approach extends from discussions of the relationship in the Arab region between performing arts and global issues such as national struggles (Totah, “Performing the Collective” 124; Nassar 16), postcolonialism (Rowe 7), resurgent anti-nationalist movements and anti-authoritarian regimes (Hussami 8), and exilic theatre (Meerzon, “Performing Exile” 295). Addressing artists’ subjectivities helps understand transnational theatre as a challenge to their biographic representations. Understanding artists’ subjectivities holistically offers explanations of their existence, migratory aesthetics and institutional involvements, moving beyond European-oriented “solidarity.”
By grounding knowledge from four years’ research, this paper makes use of participant observations, biographical interviews with sixteen artists, performances attendance and involvement in networks related to migrant artists in Europe. The research analysis combined several methods in examining artists’ journeys and the strategies of their lived experiences at home, and in borderlands. (Borderlands are temporary stops which have local and international ideologies that both integrate and differentiate artists as a group.) In addition, it examined artists’ life trajectories in Europe, where “home” was a central topic of the analysis. This paper uses various findings generated about the artists’ transnational experiences to provide a socio-political and existential reading of transnational theatre in Europe.
The Complexity of Arab Nationalism and Arab Performing Arts
Although the term “Arab performing arts” invites racial framing, it is analytically indicative of artists’ relationships with the complexities of nationalism, which affect their subjectivities development. Edward Said has provided a multi-layered understanding of Arab nationalism, inspired by various literary and artistic experiences. He defines nationalism broadly as an “assertion of belonging in and to a place, a people, a heritage. It affirms the home, created by a community of language, culture, and customs, and by so doing it fends off exile, fighting to prevent its ravages” (182). He views nationalism, connected to the concepts of exile and inclusion, as implied within individuals’ relational dynamics, such as behaviour and cognition. Previous research into the transnational cultural experiences of such artists postulated that the life experiences of artists from Syria incorporated various dynamics set around concepts of home, belonging and inclusion, including personal interaction with local and global politics and economies in the form of life trajectories and productions (Totah and Khoury 5; Totah, “Negotiating ‘Home’ Borders” 443; Totah, “Negotiating ‘Home’” 16).
Before the Syrian displacement, political topics of inclusion and exclusion in the second half of the twentieth century engaged Arab artists in various forms of activism. Said explains that the intersection between the pre- and post-1948 situations produced a turning point (for more, see Rodinson and Perl), which revealed a rift in Arab historical representation. Connected with the Palestine question, the post-1948 condition created a collective Arab national identity, a defiance of colonialism, which had not existed earlier (68). This collective ethos coincided with regional identities in every Arab country. As a persistent entity, Arabs have collectively experienced exclusion as a result of both imperialist projects and dictatorships (Ibrahim, “Crises, elites” 305) and populist agendas (Salloukh 53; Ibrahim, “The Trouble” 377). At the same time, they experienced inclusion through the continuous flow of nationalist resistance designed for liberation and decolonisation (Kassab 12).
Explaining the rift as a historical paradox affecting artistic production, Said discusses Arab productions’ “problematic site of contemporaneity” (68), linking Arab nationalism to the artistic repertoire. He proposes that after 1948, Arabs were restoring their historical continuity, healing ruptures and forging a historical possibility. The “scene” in Arab dramatic productions resembled a continuous site of “contemporaneity,” where the past half-century’s productions, including absurdist fiction, theatre and criticism, transformed into a constant reflection on the rift.
In Syria, performances addressing the 1967 war affirmed the contemporaneity issue by reflecting on totalitarianism. Sadallah Wannous, a Syrian playwright (1941–97), situates the evolution of the performing arts movement in Syria during the past half-century in a mix of inclusion against colonialism and authoritarian exclusion. His plays, such as Soiree for the Fifth of June (1968), examine a controversial self-imagining of a fragile Syrian national identity. Ziter reflects on Soiree and other Wannous manuscripts’ potential for transforming performances into a rehearsal space for Syrian civil society, revealing the paradox where defiance of colonialism and nation-making processes are promoted without freedom of speech and assembly (22). Until the revolt of 2011, performing artists struggled to expose the paradox, turning performances and criticism into a continuous questioning of the past, and reproducing their consciousness of inclusion.
Such contemporaneity was renewed following the Arab uprisings inside and outside Syria. Elias Khoury, in his foreword to the book Doomed by Hope: Essays on Arab Theatre, connects Wannous and fellow artists of his era with the 2011 generation of Syrians attempting to bring hope by readdressing defeats and dictatorships. He suggests that theatre-makers’ involvement in the uprising was aimed at actualising humanity through performance (xiii). As the revolt deteriorated into war, this vision produced further projects in various directions, through artists’ life trajectories inside and outside Syria, including survival trajectories connected with some artists’ new state of exile. Almost half a century after Wannous and nine years after the Syrian revolution, Hani reflects:
In art, there is a need to play it smart, to avoid a clash with the government apparatus and with conservative communities. Here [in exile], I need to play childishly nostalgic, thinking about how people become separated by any means but are united in making weapons of war that keep the economy running.
Artists’ survival trajectories provide a transnational aspect to the problematic question of the contemporaneity of Arab nationalism. By emphasising the present tense in projecting his vision of the artist’s role, Hani has brought together visions of the self, memory and home in space and time, including past paradoxes of nationalism and new mechanisms of survival in exile. Unlike the dramatic “scene,” which is static and explainable, artists’ relational dynamics reveal an ongoing transnational biographic paradox between past and present, dealing with complexities of inclusion inside and outside their homeland. This paradox’s spatial and temporal aspects conceived artists’ unstable consciousness about self and belonging.
Generally, this consciousness reflects processes of realising the self, its negations and alterities, which constitute beings’ subject. Subjectivity, for Agamben, results from the ongoing fight between living beings and superior powers, possibly resisted radically (“What Is” 14). For Sartre, subjectivity is a continuous struggle for the subject’s freedom, distorting our fixed understanding about the self (Sartre and Cumming 13), where the subject comprises the consciousness of the self and the objects around it through reflections on the experience of the subject. By relentlessly recreating the self’s consciousness through various relational dynamics in transnational spaces, artists have attempted to resume their struggle for freedom from nationalist and other framings. Through recreating their consciousness in exile, artists experience what Said calls “the exile’s predicament” (189), which causes resistance to acculturation by cultivating a non-indulgent “scrupulous subjectivity.” The following section describes how, by engaging in local and transnational social fields, artists generated biographical paradoxes to set up investigative transnational subjectivities.
Transnational Theatre and Arab Artists
Following their migration, the global governance of migratory aesthetics added another layer to the complexity of artists’ inclusion. Criticism has shown that performances about migration contribute to maintaining states’ neoliberal sovereignty over migration’s cultural forms and artists’ subjectivities (Pécoud 1630; Hemelryk Donald 9). Kunst addresses capitalism’s reliance on creativity, imagination and dynamism in promoting the performing arts (4), while Zaroulia suggests that migrants’ representations in performance neglect the escalation of conflicts and capitalism (182). By describing the instrumentalization of art, these studies place the inclusion practices of institutions and members of the host societies under a global economic system that contributes to an overarching transnational power structure that affects artists’ subjects and stories.
In the case of migrant Syrian artists, the power structure is intersectional and comprises authoritarian theatre systems, migrant authorities’ economies, cultural and commercial institutions that provided networks for artists’ career and mobility, and post-migrant theatre visions (Totah, “Negotiating ‘Home’ Borders” 435; Totah, “Negotiating ‘Home’” 20). The boundaries of this structure governed artists’ performativity, directing mental and physical processes of their memories, and artistic choices and imagination—the biopolitics of their lives (Totah, “No Room” 3).
Artists’ experiences within this structure at home and in exile generated an awareness of its power and an awareness of inclusion. Hani’s use of “play it smart” and “childishly nostalgic” reflect compliance and confrontation, which, as in other artists’ stories, provide a reflexive perception of his subjective state of becoming himself. However, in creating this awareness of the self against the power structure, artists do not achieve what Sartre calls self-knowledge or complete knowledge of life experiences (Sartre and Cumming 15); their accounts recreate their consciousness by their constant attempts to know more about the self and the means of its inclusion. Spatially, the artists’ stories were constructed in three multi-scalar transnational spaces: in the homeland, in a country bordering Syria and in a European country (Totah, “Negotiating ‘Home’ Borders” 437; Totah, “Negotiating ‘Home’” 21). These spaces nurtured the development of the artists’ consciousness, turning their subjectivities into a continuous transnational biographical paradox built around their perceptions of local and global inclusion throughout their life history, not only in Europe. This biographical paradox offers a new perspective on transnational theatre.
Studies on transnational theatre in Europe place it within a global perspective of diversity that promotes individuality and cross-border ties. Bullock suggests that it operates outside of national criteria, relying rather on participants from diverse backgrounds, not linked to a category of theatre, working within a culture that promotes cosmopolitanism as a theatrical vision that advances human rights (364). Balme discusses examples of transnational European theatre development programs in emerging countries, which invite cultural modernisation and the adaptation of Western practices (128). Such programs, Grace contends, enhance artists’ transnational subjectivities but also extend systems of inequality and neocolonialism (9). Closely related, but central to artists’ travel experiences, Meerzon introduces “cosmopolitan theatre,” which uses hypermodernity to turn the performance into a form of critical cosmopolitanism (“Staging Subjectivity” 16). It focuses on encounters around border crossings and views on the divided self.
However, the development of artists’ subjectivities through transnational social fields introduces a somewhat variant view of transnational theatre, which grounds its understanding in artists’ life stories before and during their journey of migration, without seeking to achieve Western diversity. It demonstrates the extent to which their life trajectories reproduce biographical paradoxes and influence artists’ free will. It negotiates the European-oriented understanding of transnational theatre, by introducing relational dynamics of artists as a subaltern group where its members’ biographical paradoxes continuously and transnationally re-structure their consciousness of the self and belonging, relying on the past. The following section demonstrates how artists’ immersion within the transnational social spaces influences their consciousness of their inclusion and free will.
Artists’ Transnational Subjectivity
Home-making and Subjectivity
Previous research reveals that artists’ relational dynamics in transnational social fields include survival trajectories and strategies to re-establish a “home” that can surmount the new national boundary, where they can find settlement and belonging (Totah, “Negotiating ‘Home’ Borders” 445; Totah, “Negotiating ‘Home’” 23). Their trajectories at the borderlands include identifying with Arab migration systems, where they repeated patterns of compromise, manoeuvre and patience to cope with estrangement. Their trajectories also include disentanglement from emotional connections to the Arab collective entity and confrontation with cultural affiliations. Being contradictory but experienced in parallel, artists’ trajectories show that they have struggled to identify past Arab connections that may forge possibilities of finding a new “home.” Their inclusion refers to overall Arab historical connections, whereas their exclusion refers to their struggle to materialise those connections.
Artists’ consciousness of this paradoxical combination of identification and disentanglement makes for a new biographical paradox and a new problematic “site of contemporaneity,” not only for them, but for other Arabs after the Arab uprisings. Through being transformative, artists’ life trajectories remodelled their spatial relationship with the Arab region, going from being a representing entity to an unreachable one, where connections with it comprise layers of physical and internal borders that have kept up confrontations with past examples of it. If, as Said believes, the past for a migrant is a complex combination of nationalism and belonging and their opposites, and exile is a process of continually connecting with the past to maintain a critical historical connection (26), then artists’ state in Arab borderlands has reignited their skepticism of past Arab nationalism, recreating an awareness of their Arab belonging by developing subjectivities reliant on the past and its inclusion complexities.
Coming to Europe, artists have engaged in creative processes that have introduced new survival trajectories and reformulated their biographical paradox. Previous research suggests that, after leaving their national connections at the border, artists have opted to re-engage with them, connecting cultural references and behaviour in the homeland with those in their new country (Totah, “Negotiating ‘Home’ Borders” 449; Totah, “Negotiating ‘Home’” 29; Totah, “No Room” 7). To cope with the new power structure, their trajectories in Europe developed around creative processes that enabled them to move between reality and imagination. In this imaginative world, artists redefined “home” as something distant which could be changed or exist in an imaginative space that is symbolic and reflexive. Through these techniques, artists have created an imagined version of their consciousness, which has deepened their biographical paradox.
Sartre describes imaginative consciousness as a situation where one cannot act on something but resorts to play-acting to transcend real-world action and produce a consciousness of what it becomes (Sartre and Cumming 21). The attempt at reaching this consciousness becomes an “imaginative experience,” but producing a consciousness about it transforms the new experience into an existing reality. Through reflection, the story or the perception of the imagined home becomes the material that the imagination provides to surpass home’s meaning, producing an embodying aspect of a home. However, bound by its imaginative consciousness that is constantly resistive, the imagined story remains resistive and weakens the meaning attributed to home.
To that end, the imagination, and the perception of “home” act against each other, so that whatever consciousness has created about the home, or even about the self, is equivocal, unstable and transitory. It is a consciousness of something about home and self, but not the consciousness of the home and the self. Driven by this imaginative consciousness, artists’ choices about the self and home contribute to resisting fixed understandings of the self and belonging to the new place and means of their inclusion. Overall, the creative processes become experienced moments of repeatedly generated perceptions and meanings of the self, home and belonging that resist a final consciousness of them, and thus resist a final appearance of their subject on stage. Such a resistive composition of the subject and its appearance—its representation—contributes to artists’ biographical paradox of their past and present and adds a new layer concerned with reality and imagination.
However, beyond the artists’ consciousness, representations of their subject on stage provide a new level of resistance. The final performance, which does not necessarily include all possible representations of their subject made in the creative process, is based on the director’s perception. The director’s perception resists multiple representations of artists’ subjects by confining them in a single representation of the director’s choice. Since it is produced within the solidarity space, the director’s strategy of selection aims at achieving diversity. One director elaborated: “I do things intuitively, build trust, and then guide artists to a certain direction that does not repeat stereotypes about them. I make it show the collective work done.” Although this strategy complies with the post-migrant vision that avoids exclusionary visions of artists as outsiders (Petersen 8), artists’ imaginative consciousness in the creative process was not able to resist the way (designed by the director) their final representation appeared on stage. It thus did not transcend the reality of their representations. As such, varying strategies between artists and director still do not accommodate aspects of artists’ conscious transformations resulting from the creative processes, leaving the selected representations of the documentary experience lacking aspects of artists’ own (subjective) development.
In summary, the transnational social fields comprise layers of biographical paradoxes. They recreate artists’ consciousness of the self that maintains confrontations with the past. Spatial, temporal and imaginative processes within artists’ present experiences constitute an internal movement of the self that resists a fixed definition of home and belonging and transcends the artists’ self beyond their subjects. As such, the power structure that hampers artists’ holistic subjectivity representation on stage limits any investigation beyond their subject towards its freedom.
Solidarity Theatre and Subjectivity
While taking part in the transnational power structure, the host institutions’ desire for solidarity influenced their artists’ subjective development by orienting their relational dynamics. Among them, the Münchner Kammerspiele offered a transcultural approach to solidarity, establishing the Open Border Ensemble (OBE) that enabled interaction between artists coming from Syria and their peers from Germany. The first production of the OBE, Miunikh–Damaskus: Stories of One City (2018) was directed by Munich-based German director Jessica Glause. In this storytelling theatre, the Münchner Kammerspiele attempted to explore the possibilities of building a common space between its actors. This theatre project was prepared for a mobile stage to tour in the open air in the suburbs of Munich, engaging new audiences, most of them unfamiliar with theatre. Along with the OBE members, this production included a Syrian–Palestinian guest female performer and a German actress from the Münchner Kammerspiele itself.
Hani commented on taking part in such performances: “I felt I should share stories about my village, about caring for trees before the war started, but then I decided to be more realistic and show how we tell such stories to the audience, while war materials are still being manufactured” (Hani).
A study (Totah and Khoury 7) demonstrated that such solidarity approach enables artists to create coping strategies that validate ongoing confrontations with others and readjust their political and artistic decisions, as well as the stories they share with peers, contributing to creating a shared “third space.” This space becomes a “seized opportunity” against the strategy of the power structure (de Certeau 219), where artists recreate their consciousness of the self, including its alterity, and generate a resilience. However, if continuous adjustment of their decisions in these spaces ends by hampering representations of artists’ own subjectivity, the “third spaces” encourage congealing these practices, especially that they are arising from repeatedly seizing this opportunity under the authority of the solidarity space. As such, the intercultural dialogue within the solidarity spaces, which aims for diversity enhancement, pushes artists to comply with the power of the solidarity space.
Within this solidarity space, the artists’ resistive nature reformulated their biographical paradoxes around alterity and negation. Hani’s reaction to the poster reveals that memory is a counter-performative resilience attribute that connects geography and past events with present stories, against a specific performance which he is obliged to naturalise. The study of migrant Syrian artists’ performativity demonstrated resilient mechanisms against the power structure (Totah, “No Room” 4). Their resilience reflects a desire that includes conscious actions and unconscious interactions related to alterities or lost opportunities throughout artists’ life stories, which turn those stories into a movement between the self and its alterities, and their resulting biographies into objects resembling their other. Their desires expanded the boundaries of the self through inviting alterities and negations, widening the scope of their identity-making. These mechanisms involved what Sartre describes as a “tactile experience” (Sartre and Cumming 18), which explains the influence of perception through handling something rather than seeing it. The impact of these mechanisms drives artists’ choices and decisions against the power structures governing their actions towards their free will.
If pursuing free will choices is a primal urge of existence, the future of artists’ conscious development involves dreams about freedom from authoritarianism and dreams about actualising humanity through performance. In this case, their resilience attributes comprise their projects of extending or transcending the self to pursue their freedoms. However, as the study (Totah, “No Room” 9) also concluded, their desire and resilience attributes do not avoid larger-scale restrictions on their performativity, leaving no space for what Agamben describes as the “Bare life” (“We Refugees” 116) state of migrant artists, which revolves around breaking with being migrant citizens by maintaining the tension between subjectivity development and post-migrant calls for diversity. As such, resilience mechanisms fail to achieve the artists’ freedom.
Moreover, in stressing a durable, tactile experience to achieve solidarity through theatre, institutional approaches to solidarity inevitably come to the fore. Solidarity practice resulting from artists’ engagement with theatrical institutions becomes more valid when artists’ moments of “enduring-in-the-self” are practised within longer periods of creative processes (Totah and Khoury 11). However, recent updates in theatre solidarity spaces have shifted against this prospect of validity. As of 2019, the OBE ensemble members were incorporated within the general ensemble, due to funding issues; the same has occurred in other institutions. Hence, if theatres’ inclusion processes are steered by funding and cultural diversity politics, then despite advocating for artists’ free will, artists’ relational dynamics in the transnational space are amalgamated with the inclusion visions of the organisers of the creative space, and their resilience mechanisms cannot break from their confederated state with solidarity and inclusion policies which direct, moderate and lead their participation in exile. Artists’ choices are not directed towards their freedom but, rather, towards assimilation within these inclusion spaces.
The transnational relational site of contemporaneity situates artists’ transnational subjectivities within the active phase of their freedom. Transnational subjectivity includes all interactions through trajectories and strategies around social, political and economic local and globalised conceptions of art, marking artists’ life projects of extending the self towards what they imagined about their lives. However, through hampering artists’ holistic representation of their subjective development on stage, the power structure limits their investigation beyond their subject towards free will. Moreover, in uniting with solidarity visions of the post migrant spaces, artists’ choices do not accomplish dreamed of freedoms.
 This includes Syrians and Palestinian refugees in Syria. See Maher Charif.
 Empirical knowledge and transnational biographical narrative analysis.
 See: www.muenchner-kammerspiele.de
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*Ruba Totah is a PhD candidate at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Germany. Her research is on “Cultural Transnationalism and The Arab Uprisings: Migrating Artists from Syria to Europe.” Holder of a Masters degree in Gender and Development from Birzeit University BZU- Palestine, 2013, focusing on Performing Art and Social Change; view on Religiosity, Class, and Sexuality. She has extensive experience as a cultural manager of civil society organizations working in the field of Culture.
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