[-empyre-] Antigone's Bones, then backwards

Johannes Birringer Johannes.Birringer at brunel.ac.uk
Fri Nov 7 03:14:52 EST 2014

dear all:

The following, in response to Pia's post and also Erik's allegorical texts on darkness and theatre, implicitly and directly engages what Alan had asked early on, namely whether there can be artistic responses to terror. What do the actors and activists feel. Do we sleep at night.  We are also still at an early stage of our round table where we have not really asked what we mean (using the term, or calling something terror, or someone a terrorist) by our languages describing or getting closer. 

Olga's account of her interviewing techniques were helpful (and she said she was briefed, there were clear models or protocols, and she wanted to be truthful (regarding her gender identity)). The legal and ethical ramifications, some heavy themes for sure, will also be addressed in future days to come here; we have invited anthropologists, activists, writers, and legal scholars. The gender implications we need to touch upon also for sure.  

And Alan (and Pia), aesthetics is involved, for sure. Why would you suggest that beheadings are formeless, and not a precise choreography and strategy? You say:
>.. the form of ISIS and many other groups is close to formless; on one hand, a caliphate, and on the other, a kind of  formless and violent vandalism.>>

It seemed to me that the modes of terrorizing an other, a people, a group, an occupied population, or it being an attack movement/avant-garde (of a radical Islamism or Jihad), sure it cannot be formless but follows widely known
patterns, no

But what do we call what? the "archaic and terrifying and unknown nourishment to your imagination", as Pia says.   And Erik just slips in that Elaine Scarry has written on pain, but also on beauty. 

Then what of our language in dark times, repeating well know histories in the theatre, digging for or trying to bury the bones, of the nameless? the to be named?  The theatre our dark house of illusion making, another projection booth – 
(and Jon, all last night I dreamed  that I fucked up, i was running a live cinema show, with one performer who had to step in and out of my projected images and sounds, and I messed up everything, the cables, the software, the files,
the sequence, until the whole auditorium full of people stood up and stared me, angrily).

It is situations where there is a final condition that disorder can actually change into order. In other words there can be a backward arrow of time. (Marcus Chown, "The Universe Next Door"]

So, I'd like to share a backward arrow with you, if you permit – responding to Olga’s and Pia’s posts, and also to Erik’s meditation on play action, and Alan’s questions about the actors.  The arrow was shot by Susanna Bennett, a young theatre director who submitted "Fragments: Voices from Israel Palestine as her final MA thesis production at my university (in 2014).  I tried to write my comments on what I experienced, and what I propose is to query Erik’s proposition:

>>A play in response to terror is barely there, is more question than answer, is an occasion for collaborative labor (the labor of not-knowing, not-having, not-expecting); it is without consolation. It is ceding language, losing its language as it spills it.>>

Is there play (theatre, art) in response to terror?

"Fragments: Voices from Israel Palestine" was a taxing, emotional and well crafted performance, long and complex in its amalgamation of verbatim theatre (with the crew of British. Jewish and Arabic actor Susanna directed), media projection of photographs, video and audio recordings (documents collected during her visits to Israel and the Occupied Territories), musical references to the cultural context (Israeli-Arab) and a particular scenography, with a  ‘clothes line’ of fabrics as screens for projected images– perhaps echoing one of the images collected from the occupied people who hang out symbols, not just clothes, of their resistance, a clothes line of ‘hand granades.’ 

The director had created a dense space, a dark yet intimate space (black curtain environment, spotllghts on the actors, black outs, a steady rhythm of section after section, relentless, location after location identified, sometimes with real audio voice-overs from persons interviewed, most often transcribed into enacted/performed voices and stories, “restored behavior” in the sense of Schechner’s definition of theatre. 

The narrative recomposition and the technical/sceneographic media realization were daring, effortful and exacting, and I think the performance had a strong, powerful emotional impact on the (silent) audience, which to a certain extent is to be expected given the visceral immediation of cruel political, historical events and scenes of a violent reality of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and the Israel-Palestine conflict. 

The political realities have immediate force, for all involved. Yes, at a remove, a distance. The re-presentation, in England, is one or several steps removed, by necessity. Yet there are also universal political imperatives and ethics involved (cf. Badiou), and the history of the Holocaust and the founding of the state of Israel have affected many, and live on (Susanna mentions her Zionist family history) affecting those who have personal or inherited memories of suffering, trauma, victimhood and guilt (on the side of the perpetrators as well as on the side of survivors, as Susanna points out too). 

The images of walls and weapons, but above all of people’s faces, children’s faces, portraits of the director’s family (Eastern European Jewish great-grandfather killed in the Holocaust), of families and generations, buildings, the wall, the fences, the evicted, the evictors, the views of a divided land suffused with experiences of trauma and repeating violence –  these images linger, oppressively, and surely intended, in a prolonged epilogue, that wants us leave with at least a glimmer of hope. This hope, too, following the narrative interweavings, can/must be examined.

(I am doing so at the moment, reading  Bharucha’s book, ‘Terror and Performance,’ especially the chapters on truth/trauma and reconciliation performances, which Bharucha also de/re-contextualizes in his readings of the discourse on terror after “9/11”, the "Phantom of the Muslim as Terrorist,"  the apartheid regime in SA, the genocides in Rwanda and in Gujarat).

I asked Susanna, what inspired the formal or conceptual preparations for such writing and staging, what are the sources for “verbatim theatre” (similar to Olga’s documentary on-camera interviews, it turns out) and the political-ethical reflections on the subject matter of trauma and recuperation, memory and reassimllation? [adaptability?]

[And now I think again of Taussig’s ‘Walter Benjamin’s Grave’, the opening chapter of a book where he speaks of travelling to Port Bou on the Spanish-French border, not finding Benjamin Walter’s tomb nor body nor trace only a beautiful monument erected by  Israeli artist Dan Karavan, the body or bones most likely disappeared into a 'fosa commún' – the common grave; the anthropologist tracks down a survivor who tried to help Benjamin flee but reports that he was “no débrouillard”, no adapter, unable to save himself, a suicider unable to use his theories of the mimetic faculty. Death comes to mean more than life, Taussig writes, inexplicably mentioning “death cult”, our relation to the overdetermined….]

Susanna’s directorial debut was striking. I had not seen her direct actors before, but noted that she increasingly dedicated energy to creating multimedia theatre  – e.g. her use of sound and (triptych) image projections was complex and accomplished, a meticulous staging, technically quite brilliant, the opening image sequences (about the great-grandparents, Zionism, the Holocaust) and the narrative were harrowing, and so was the writing/transcription of the interviews, the stories that the “characters” tell, distributed amongst six actors (in a verbatim theatre performance that was indeed not full blown verbatim theatre but more like a rehearsal, a stage reading, a test). Susanna announced:  “FRAGMENTS  is a rehearsed-reading installation based on the Israel Palestine conflict…..”

And thus I ponder on the writing, the choice for a “rehearsed reading installation” and the rhythm of the narration segments. Given the strength of the material, one wonders what might have been possible if she had worked more with the actors, encouraging them to become more fully embodied, leaving their chairs, altering the video clothes line or method of projection (though in some cases she hints at really effective methods of changing, say, a still image very subtly into a moving image and back). On the other hand, she opted for a “reading” and perhaps wanted the actors to be more restrained, not-acting, and yet they act, assume character rather than (Brechtian) pointing to the character, showing showing.  

Finally, I think now of Alan’s questions posed yesterday about the “gorgeous drama” (Erik):   How is the action  i n  us? [what moves us to action, what starts up our discontent through irresolution];What is the effect on the actors themselves, what do they take away? Is activism an issue? Can there even be activism 'around' terror? What would that be?

I wondered whether Susanna could have pushed commentary and self-reflection (on “trauma tourism” – her travelling to the site to collect) further – where might she have gone with her reflection on self-replicating terror?

What of hope? The director wants to end with a note of hope. How can one be made to feel hope?. What happens to anger, hatred, revenge, and is anger necessary for the “voicing” (testimony) or reconciliation, what is the difference between voice and silence? How does one re-site the testimony?  give voice?  and is verbatim/documentary theatre a viable medium, how does it affect audiences here, or there?

 (* cf. the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, directed by Juliano Mer-Khamis; cf. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n22/adam-shatz/the-life-and-death-of-juliano-mer-khamis)

PS  just published:
Cecilia Sosa, "Queering Acts of Mourning in the Aftermath of Argentina's Dictatorship: The Performances of Blood" (Tamesis Books, 2014). (synopse: <By looking at a disparate collection of contemporary cultural materials, it envisages the expanded feelings of kinship that have been configured in the wake of loss. The book ultimately shows how the experience of violence shed light on a new sense of 'being together' that goes beyond bloodline ties.
Drawing on queer theory and performance studies, the book develops an alternative framework for understanding the affective transmission of trauma beyond traditional family settings.>   Ana, Alicia, what do you think?

Johannes Birringer

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