El Conde de Torrefiel in La Plaza. Photo © Els De Nil


Towards the ‘ironic spectator’

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El Conde de Torrefiel in La Plaza. Photo © Els De Nil
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Apathy as activism: what has become of political art and a politicised audience?

How many times can you see the same picture without getting bored? But what if the picture in question captures a glimpse of our stumbling world, a moment of someone else’s suffering? We may as well say that boredom is an inescapable fact, a condition that goes beyond all troubled stories and images as we enter an irreversible mode of complacency in a world gone bad.

How many of these images do you consume on a daily basis, while ordering your fair-trade latte, or while waiting on the platform for the next train to arrive? Yes, of course, we live in a hyper-mediated and technologically saturated world, which produces tons of images, videos and data that swiftly circulate via the internet, creating just another type of apathy – or just a minuscule, self-contained lament about the current situation. It’s okay, swipe your screen and move on to the next chapter; after all, our culture is primarily a consumerist culture.

Though irony has always been part of an ethical understanding of our world (Greeks used it in ancient theatre plays and Socrates used it to reveal the ignorance of his co-speakers), in our mediatised, private-screen world, irony tends to suggest that we appropriate too easily and trivialise too often issues which demand a long-term and more dedicated understanding.

This shift is also palpable within the arts world. How else would you explain the abundance of critical concerns now offered in performances, combined with the total absence of political action? When was the last time a performance you saw sparked a great political debate and made people around you look for a solution? All these rhetorical questions are not about moralising our reaction towards the arts, but more about re-evaluating our benefit of doubt, our blind trust that art could also be about world justice and political awareness.

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How else would you explain the abundance of critical concerns now offered in performances, combined with the total absence of political action?

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To raise this issue more specifically, I will focus on two recent performances I have had the opportunity to see during the Athens & Epidaurus Festival. Both of them – TALOS by Arkadi Zaides and La Plaza by El Conde de Torrefiel – evolve around the problematic reality of Europe today, urging us to tackle the current, frail political state more consciously, even daring to present it as a matter of collective responsibility.

Arkadi Zaides and TALOS, performance
Arkadi Zaides and TALOS (Transportable Autonomous Patrol for Land Border Surveillance). Photo © Dajana Lothert

TALOS is a performance-lecture on the biopolitics and necropolitics applied in austere border controls. It examines how human lives are managed and which of these lives are worth saving, taking an EU-funded initiative as its starting point: the robot system TALOS, designed to detect and prevent illegal border crossings.

Zaides is centre stage and in his placid manner attempts a choreographic analysis of crowd handling. His body language and his tone of voice are contained, avoiding an emotional interpretation of the array of facts he is giving us; he adopts such a polished, neutral stage presence, reminding us of a CEO presenting the new generation of tech devices. However, for the Greek audience, these are more than mere facts. As Greece is among the countries that have suffered an ‘invasion’ of refugees, facts are not only envisioned in a remote, dystopian future as the performance suggests, but are also deeply felt, reminding us of the collective trauma caused by the loss of hundreds of people trying to cross the borders. This form of witnessing the political failure of EU to overcome the prejudice towards the Other is creating a huge contrast with Zaides’ analysis. The irony doesn’t lie in the interpretation attempted by the artist himself, but in the way we participate in the sharing of these facts.

Instead of investigating the political choices behind the problem, the performance is oriented around the manipulation of our personal reactions or even emotions. Video fragments showing robots trained as guards, refugee camps seen from above so individuals become indistinguishable, propagate the emotional value of the images but fail to invite us to think of the facts which have brought us here. If the performance is giving an account of the suffering Other, this Other always remains distant, disguised in statistical data, applied policies and artistic practices. Lacking a face, thus lacking an identity that might provoke us into action, the Other becomes the ideal format for our momentary criticism of injustice. Zaides carefully draws hypotheses on what will happen if these border controls are applied, but he never refers to whom these controls will be applied, assuming that we all know, that we should all know or that – when the moment arrives – we will all know.

Will we? By disguising recent crises under the label of ‘frail human condition’, we are called to witness the suffering of the Other, as long as the Other isn’t one among us. This kind of exclusion positions us in an ethical dilemma: if we, as an audience, are more and more conscious and aware of the situation leading to the suffering of the Other, what can we do to prevent this dystopian future becoming a reality? Is there any room left for action? Is art calling us into action?

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Is there any room left for action? Is art calling us into action?

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The second example I am examining is El Conde de Torrefiel’s performance, La Plaza, a piece that mixes text, rhythm and choreographed frames of action into one. The performance tackles what could be called the micropolitics of conflicts: controversies and discussions, which remain hidden under the surface of daily discourse. La Plaza is a sophisticated choreography made of fragments of images contained in our daily lives: faceless dancers entering and exiting the stage, grouping into fleeting tableaux vivants, resting in pose for seconds, just enough time for the eye to behold the ‘truth’ of the image. Meanwhile, a written text is projected on a video wall, as a heterochronous comment of what we have just witnessed. The introverted dialogue follows the gaps and uncoordinated jumps of our conscience, creating tension between the scenic action and the suggested commentary offered by that inner voice. There’s no violence on stage, yet this voice is a proof that language is a form of representation, which allows us to ‘see’ violence when/where it’s not always visible ― such is the case in daily life. For example, an action insinuating a sexual assault – if one could really draw a separating line in these cases – acquires a different reading when language becomes a form of testimony. However, we are still in our comfort zone as Westerners, reluctant to act, to protest against what we witness. This rhetorical text overlaying the staged action appeals to our typical self-conscious guilt: we see but we fail to act.

El Conde de Torrefiel in La Plaza

So in terms of functionality, how is this performance rated? If it is meant to address everyone in the audience and no one in the audience reacts, what purpose could we say that the performance fulfilled? Would you admit then that even the hardest of cases is trivialised when the sole responsibility of the individual is reduced to an hour-long performance?

Maybe we are all guilty as charged: until someone has stepped out of the auditorium and into an engaged reality, generalisations of this kind are also part of a new dramaturgy of conscience. Your feelings are not an adequate way to respond to the world’s problems, just as your fair-trade latte milk won’t save the environment. As long as our commitment is confused with a self-reward stance towards the problems of the world, then our emotional reaction will always be an insufficient strategy to change or protest against things. We are all trapped in a regime of ‘ironic spectatorship.’ We are not passive any more, but we grant ourselves the illusion of participating in changing the world, which might also be as frightening as remaining passive.

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Is even the hardest of cases is trivialised when the sole responsibility of the individual is reduced to an hour-long performance?

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I am not blaming theatre per se, not even in its worst, commercialised version; after all, market gurus say that wherever there’s demand, there’s offer. Or is it the other way round? Pure ideology makes us think that we are demanded to offer; we are expected to be sensitive about global warming, be pro-feminist and hashtag #metoo, be anti-Trump, be vegetarian-friendly, maybe LGBTQI-friendly as well, proud of our rights but not so proud to fight the crimes threatening those rights.

But who’s to decide which themes artists should draw upon to avoid this crude trivialising of the political issues around us? We wouldn’t like to reach a dead end by adopting the nihilistic opinion that performing arts are purely a form of spectacle – and thus condemned to deal not with ‘reality’ itself, but with its constant (false) representations. Nor would we like to subdue politics to transferring the ‘right message’ to the audience, which would only mean that we are exchanging politics with an evangelical speech that announces the actions necessary in every circumstance.

If we are constantly adhering arts to an emergency, to a hot topic that deserves our attention, then we might not be allowing any conscious elaboration to surpass the present time limit. Actions to envision a long-term future reformation are exchanged for our ‘15 seconds of sympathy.’ We feel bad, okay, but unfortunately there’s nothing more to be done, other than maybe give ourselves the chance to make a status update and let everyone know what we know already: we are in a mess.

Think of the following in relation to Zaide’s performance-lecture TALOS: it’s not about raising the question ‘What could we do with the threatening and inhumane measures of national border security?’, but instead answering ‘Why do we build borders?’ in the first place. People should always be reminded: ‘Why are you here?’ If it is because we are able to show mercy, this already grants that we are in a position of privilege. Should this privilege make you uncomfortable? If mercy is a form of politics, then it is based on the spectacle of the vulnerability of the Other. However, if the Other appears only as vulnerable, with no alternatives other than the humanitarian aid of the Westerners, then he is totally dependent on our actions, our sympathy and mercy.

Have we reached the exhaustion of political meaning within the arts? What is the political significance when one is faced with the troubled realisation during a performance that ‘I have seen that already’? Is ‘already’ related to the consumption of aesthetic ideas? Have we entered in a state of ‘ironic spectatorship’? If the latter is prevailing, thus making gradually more evident the appearance of the ‘ironic spectator’, then we should constantly be reminded why art is still important today, why it still might matter. It is not about finding an answer, alas, but posing the right question to you, the spectator. 

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Upcoming dates for Arkadi Zaides:
22—23/01/2019: ARCHIVE at Teatros del Canal, Madrid, Spain
25.02.2019: THE SCHOOL OF SPECULATIVE DOCUMENTARY, Symposium at Kaaitheater, Brussels, Belgium
More at: arkadizaides.com/news-events

Upcoming dates for El Conde de Torrefiel:
29-30.11.2019: Unir Todo, MIR Festival, Athens, Greece
26-27.01.2019: Possibilites that disappear before a landscape, Festival Scènes d’Europe, Reims, France
07-08.02.2019: GUERRILLA, Vooruit, Ghent, Belgium
More at: www.elcondedetorrefiel.com

Theme: Attendance
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