It is impossible to “stay at home” and practice performance art, make a happening or take part in it. Live art can only be situated in an analog public context, it cannot be transmitted or virtualized without loosing its crucial sensible aspect. It is impossible to “stay at home” isolated and have a collective performing rehearsal. It is impossible to practice “social distancing” between individuals and be truly socialized. It is impossible to make art that concerns the public as its live part while keeping the antisocial distance. It is impossible to live without living.
We are strongly challenged to think and do the impossible.
Watching archived material online does not have much in common with going to theatre. However, the current pandemic-related circumstances may force us to rethink the reality and quality of socializing within the art field and the wider culture field.
While theatres share online what has recently been reserved for watching live, they do not speak (much) about the collateral damage of the big closure. They do not articulate the obviously rising repression and inequality. (The deficit of speaking on these alarming issues is, to an extent, a consequence of the shock that we are all feeling on our skin.) They seem to be waiting for an end of the state of exception.
But the state of exception lasts (is obvious) since the fall of WTC twins in 2001. The cultural apparatus’s response to the state of exception was highly aestheticized within the project-as-a-product logic, often attached to politically narrow subsidizing strategy of the EU, state, local and corporative funds that promoted competitiveness. That has resulted in the rising inequality of the agents within the hierarchic culture field. The trouble is not the occasionally criticized “hyper-production”, but the contrast between the progressing precariousness of artists and the increasing amount of cultural managers and administrators who are allowed to earn more and are more likely to have fixed income than artists as the core producers.
What is called art production is in its core, in the existent constellation, an art trade—supported by a specific aesthetic twist: those called producers are actually not producing, while artists as producers (and production itself) stay at the bottom of the culture industry’s pyramid. Pushing the bare survival issue to the front, the current pandemic is only sharpening the question of hierarchies and the perspective of (global) class-related insecurity: even the future of the artists who are lucky to live in Northern West Europe, and receive some state aid that helps them bridge the actual unemployment gap caused by the stopping of public events, is far from secure in a longterm perspective.
Forced to stay at home we, perhaps, dream of visiting theatre or work on stage again. At the same time we cannot overlook the rarely addressed alienation of theatre’s socializing aspect. It is the main reason of reduction of its political influence in society. The alienation is a consequence of literalization that nurtures boredom and ethnocentrism, and of the way of institutionalization that goes hand in hand with canonization of addressing the public or, using the cruel word, managing the audience.
The institutional theatre’s online response to prohibition of public events (i.e. gathering of people) can be understood as a try to keep theatre spirit alive “till better times”, though such affirming of technical reproduction as production’s surrogate can also (unintentionally) affirm acceptance of the live performing absence. That schizophrenic pseudo public virtual mode opens up various associations: actors as avatars; individual viewers as online subscribers instead of in situ audience; even vaster domination of film, game and entertainment industry; abolishment of tactility?
So far, our political response is frozen (political in sense of a collective act of thinking the current and any circumstances, and responding to them collectively while addressing the public—not as audience, but as everybody/whoever involved or interested in the big closure topic). Politicalness is a matter of postponing. At what cost?
As usual in times of crisis/mess, institutions may dilute, mutate or suddenly change their roles. Currently, some of them, including the institutional theatre, are merely repeating the “stay at home” mantra. Others are focusing on citizens management in the state of exception, not by addressing the socializing perspective of the disease spread in the public context, but by exercising the technocratic one. Instead of urgent looking for the ways to keep socializing practices alive—which must include bodily-tactile aspect—, they put stress on PR-ing “inevitably unpredictable future” of reduced, face masked, disinfected and technologically mediated human-to-human contact. Suddenly it looks like the highly developed “first world” can only survive in an avatar mode.
Self-organizing has just become vitally important. It is a frame for thinking and doing what has been pushed to the borderline of impossible: to leave home and walk a street anytime, be with friends, step in an auditorium and on a stage, to empower a community while addressing the proliferating repressive surveillance, to celebrate togetherness while performing the desire, to make life happen.
One can adapt oneself to fit in the omnipresent hierarchic production mode; that has been the dominant survival practice for a long time. One can also decide to contribute to a non-hierarchic network; that decision often includes stepping out of comfort zone (which is increasingly becoming freedom-free); that decision is neither directing nor dramatizing anything, it rather situates oneself in a time-space beyond the emerging perspective of strictly individual and disinfected living as a particle of the managerial panopticon.
The globalized managerial discourse proclaims that the virus that justifies the 2020 big closure is an enemy that has to be fought. It puts focus on symptoms rather than on systemic causes. This rhetoric leads to militarization of response to an epidemic. But what is actually defended in an atmosphere of bursting fears of all kinds?
Even the World Health Organization has announced that the meat eating, besides negative effects on human health, causes infections, as ¾ of virus diseases are zoonotic (transmitted from a non-human animal to a human one). Speciesism is demonstrated as extremely massive non-human animal abuse, exploiting and killing—in industrial farms or biggest concentration camps ever, smaller farms, marine farms, aqua parks and zoos or non-human animal prisons, pharmaceutical, medical and cosmetic laboratories, and slaughterhouses. These normalized practices of radical excluding are linked to high risk of infections via food chain.
Refusing the speciesist discourse (and anthropocentrism) opens up an understanding of viruses not as an invisible evil, but as a specific synergetic factors that inhabit organisms. They function parasitically, but they also provoke body’s immune response that enables disease resistance. Understood as a complex phenomenon, they can be easier accepted and, when needed, treated in various ways when an illness is initiated. They actually reveal the biopolitical efforts of the powers that be: viruses are, possibly, performing as re-appropriation catalyzers, suggesting us that no human animal is, de facto, not “more equal” /George Orwell’s phrase fragment/ than another or a non-human one.
Virulence is a manifestation of virus’s need to live. The virulence of managerial logic is rooted in the fear-related habit to be subordinated within an administrated system that tends to anaesthetize and commercialize all that lives, including viruses, and associate it to the threat of dying (necrocapitalism). The resistance virulence is a manifestation of one’s need to be free.
The measure of isolating from possibility of infecting must not become the reason for further or even a permanent tearing of social ties or, with other words, transforming anyone who surround us into a dangerous Other. In psychotic atmosphere of the newest capitalism’s metamorphose effort, we are not forgetting that the prevention from being infected also prevents getting a level of immunity that prevents illnesses.
Being immune means being capable of being dirty, being able to risk, accepting the dirtiness like children do when playing in sand or putting in their mouth things that certainly cannot be aseptic. The dirtiness of theatre stage (once inscribed in pop culture by an ex-Yugoslav rock band that named itself Prljavo kazalište, which means dirty theatre) reflects its dimension that contrasts the purity of the procedures that alienates the theatre production machine. Right that dirtiness is the actual tie with the sensible that emerges on and beyond the stage. The stage dirt and scratches are the signs of everlasting continuation of artistic life that includes hugging, kissing, spitting, coughing, bleeding and many other physical gestures. Alike, the street, square and boulevard impurity is not only a visible sign of pollution, but also a trace and mirror of public life.
Bombastically promoted disinfecting of everything and everyone will, perhaps, prevent a virus from spreading, but is not welcome as a routine that tries to mask efforts to turn the society into a sterile network of bots who progressively reduce the body touch. So far, the danger, the fear, and the ambivalence embodied in naively 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 matter of our decision.
The big lockdown makes us live our own reality shows in our homes that have become an anticipation of reality TV studios. Gil Scott-Heron’s words “the revolution will not be televised” now sound more powerful than ever before.
While reduced to vegetating, life is craving for physicalness of live meetings and interactions. This challenging captivity requires us not to be aseptic, but to cope with dirtiness that is an important part of performing our lives and our creativity, to put our bodies into virulently live socializing mode and empower the collective body. To insist on sensible and its reconfiguration towards freedom.