The elephant in the room behind a plastic bag

It felt like a special treat: ‘Here! Come and indulge yourself. Do some cultural binge-watching and see seven shows per day for four days in a row. We will also serve you breakfast, lunch and dinner. And all venues are in a history-steeped coastal town near Athens. The weather will be mild.’

And so at Spring Forward 2022 in Elefsina, Greece, I watched and watched, with great interest and joy. However, what felt like the exact opposite of FOMO quickly became a reality check of what it means to be a human engaged in cultural practices, a human engaged with other humans – in short, a political human.

Two years into the Covid-19 pandemic with all its virtual togetherness, its social media echo chambers, its opinion-making and post-truth fancies has left us somewhat helpless when reality, in the form of physical tanks invading a physical country, come falling right into our European lap. With the fatigue from continued social distancing, mask-wearing, bureaucratic hurdle-jumping and home schooling still in our bones, it appears that we weren’t ready to face another onslaught on our self-care system. We have somehow lost sight of what common ground, public debate and shared space actually means in practice.

I excitedly consumed all the shows of Spring Forward 2022 like it’s 2019 all over again, but it’s not. The new normal is another normal altogether. Now the refugees don’t only arrive on inflatable boats and land somewhere on a minute island called Lampedusa. This time round, they also can come by car and they drive all the way to Berlin. And it’s not a country ‘far, far away’ that’s affected, but a country that’s part of a well-established European network for dance and performance.

The theme of loss, or something being amiss, ran like a hot red thread through the festival’s programme. Whether it was The Very Last Northern White Rhino by Gaston Core, a solo full of a nostalgic joy for dancing; or Treatment of Remembering by Sabina Bočková, Johana Pocková and Inga Zotová-Mikshiná/POCKETART collective, absorbing the environment with their eyes closed; or the rather overstated 1°C by Q Dance Company, dealing with the fears of climate change, the general awareness that the world as we know and love it might very well disappear for good was omnipresent.

So it is no surprise that there was yet another loss:

  • School / Event Hall – ‘Plastic Bag’ by Yulia Arsen (Russia)
    12.20-13.00 (withdrawn as a consequence of war in Ukraine)

We lost this piece. No one watched it. No one reviewed it at the festival. No one talked to the artist about it afterwards. And, no one will presumably book it through the festival. A production ‘withdrawn as a consequence of war’, the circumstances of which have not been made public to this day. In replacement of the show we were offered (to quote from the invitation card we’d been given out a day before the scheduled event) ‘a gathering in silent contemplation to harness the strength of community to approach a better understanding of loss and reclamation, peace and reconciliation.’

According to philosopher Hannah Arendt, ‘Freedom of opinion is a farce when information on the facts is not guaranteed’ (from the essay ‘Truth and Politics’, The New Yorker, 1967). What this means for me is that it’s hard to have an opinion on the circumstances and reasons for the performance’s withdrawal. I am left with speculation, assumption and imagination – and in silence.

The lack of information has now somewhat superseded the debate on the decision-making process regarding the performance’s withdrawal itself. I interpret this not as a particular occurrence in the European performing arts sector, but as a general theme in societies worldwide. It’s a phenomenon which I describe as ‘post-truth trauma’. We’ve become too weary to enter into debate, because we’re all too cognisant of the possible bearers of multiple truths and falsities out there. And we fear their supporters, since we know full well that they are capable of taking up arms – even into the White House – in order to defend their claims to truth. We’ve learnt that debate comes with antagonising one another, accusation and personal defamation, and so the lesson we draw is to resort to self-censorship instead. We’ve lost the art of mutual, respectful exchange of critical views, and end up not talking to each other at all, ostracising, or being afraid of being ostracised, and losing precious time that could be spent together finding solutions to difficult situations.

Saying what is difficult, sharing information that might be uncomfortable, requires public discussion. Choosing muteness over debate is doing a better job than any regime leader actively oppressing his country’s media might accomplish. This is what I realised when I flew back to Berlin after Spring Forward, stretched out in front of an emergency exit with a headache, and, as a self-test revealed the next day, sick with Covid-19.

Lea Pischke