[-empyre-] creative powerlessness/creative power

Aristita I Albacan A.Albacan at hull.ac.uk
Wed Nov 26 02:52:13 EST 2014

One more time…

Dear all,

Many thanks for the opportunity to assist to such an inquisitive and stimulating debate about performance in relation to notions of terror and violence. Many threads to follow, I choose to start with the one closest to my heart, and pick up again the creative powerlessness, but from a slightly different angle.

As a professional and human being, my contact with excessive forms of terror and violence has been mediated through various artefacts and/or mass media and whilst they had a strong impact on me, I was always aware and perhaps grateful for the mediation. Because it happened and, in a selfish way, because it was mediation and not direct contact.

Personally I have experienced a slow terror, staged in a less spectacularly manner than what ISIS does now, yet arguably as horrific in its rippled effects. A terror perhaps more insidious, with consequences that were/are long lasting (more so than anybody ever imagined), as I grew up in Romania during Ceausescu’s dictatorship. I was a teenager in the 80s, when people were cueing for 12 - 14 hours for 1/2 l of oil and 0,5 kg of sugar, when it took two hours to get your daily bread, when meat or cheese were a delicacy. And this happened not because the country was going through a war, but because the political system lead by Ceausescu and its secret police was at war with its own citizens, aiming to subdue them totally. Survival mode was key and perhaps the only mode allowed. Beyond the food crisis, there was a housing crisis, a local transport crisis, a gas crisis, and many other crises… Life was kept precarious on purpose, in all its aspects. People were terrorised, reluctant to speak about what they thought and how they felt even in family circles (you never knew who was cooperating with the secret police, when and why). Theatre plays or films or books were immediately forbidden if there was a slightest hint of critique of power that the many censorship committees would grasp. Even listening at home to the music hour broadcasted by Radio Free Europe each Sunday was considered a crime, it lead to investigations by the secret police and possibly to jail. Yet, interestingly enough, people were resorting to culture to survive, more and more throughout that horridly grey decade. And for many of us it became, in the late 80s, equally important to get food on the table as well as to have access to forbidden books, texts, music or visual art albums, which luckily was possible due to a particularly discrete form of cultural samizdat that had developed in the country. I learned through experience that the effects of terror could be very diverse. That one might survive physically the unending sense of life as a series of absurd roadblocks, maybe even experience a momentarily sense of happiness for that (there was a secret sense of pride and joy people had for being able to secure food, a good book, etc., and maintain a minimal sense of normalcy of the daily existence), but souls were traumatised and, after a while, numbed. And the ability to think critically in general was seriously endangered. Speaking out was excluded. I learned as a child and a teenager much too well that there is such a thing as negative imagination, that violence can come in many varied forms, all aiming to annihilate. That there is no dialogue possible with violence and terror. That confrontation, even if peaceful, is impossible. Yet, through isolated dissident examples that all of us knew well of through the grapevine, I learned that asserting one’s beliefs and feelings, in spite of being apparently “suicidal,” putting the body in danger and leading to social exclusion, was the only solution to keep the mind and the soul alive. And that such acts of dissidence and assertiveness had positive ripple effects for the rest of the silenced crowd. Other modes of asserting, used by more people, were indirect and based on humour. There was a lot of humorous talk in the late 80s in a grey country, with its citizens on their knees. I also learned sadly, after the exhilarating 1989 moment, that the effects of such terror exercised on a nation, for decades, were/are more long lasting and diverse than we imagined in the 80s. It took 25 years of foggy transition and a new generation to grow up, until a civic conscience, strong enough to act efficiently against the maze developed by the post-communist political system, could have its say in spite of all odds. Until the country decided, through voting on the 16th of November 2014 to elect the first president not connected to former structures of power, to hit the “reset” button and thus stand a chance to break with its traumatic past. Even now the country is divided between those (usually older and from social strata with less access to information) who are still completely subdued to the effects of post-communist propaganda and terrorised by the thought of change and those who are strongly motivated to embrace and determine change.

I guess what I am trying to say with this example is that terror and violence can be symbolically aliked to multi-headed monsters, and whilst their ultimate goal is to annihilate the citizen, who is perceived as “the other,” the ripple effects of their actions are long lasting, insidious and diverse. So finding a way to speak out against terror and violence is an act of both social and personal sanity.  And whilst art, in any form, cannot take the role of politics and most probably cannot enter in direct confrontation with the source of violence and terror, it can stimulate thinking, perception and foster a state of mind that leads to action, through the empowerment provoked. And that it is unique power. Culture and art are utterly dangerous for any state or political system that ossifies following a rigid set of beliefs and then attempts to annihilate its citizens, whether turning them into obedient consumers, faith followers or simply sheep.

So, to me, art and culture that deals with terror and violence are fundamentally life-affirming acts and contribute to social and personal sanity. This is an essential role that pertains uniquely to these fields.
And to move to performance, two key modes seem to me essential here, both strongly connected to an ethos of anti-annihilation:
1) Artefacts based on documentation of terror and violence, which give a voice to the abused and perpetrated, contribute to the development of a cultural memory closer to the reality of terror, and stimulate empathy and critical thinking.
2) Performative actions of activist nature that empower people and stimulate action and agency.

A lot of examples have been discussed here that fall into one or another category, and many others are around us, so I will not go into further enumerations or nuances, as they already exist in the discussion. Perhaps this categorisation can be further developed, I do not pretend this to be exhaustive. It is just an opinion based on embodied, personal knowledge.

One particular approach, though, has not come so far into discussion and I think it is worth mentioning in this context. It relates to the work done using the TO (theatre of the oppressed) system developed initially by Augusto Boal. Falling into the second category proposed above, the work developed using the TO system has proved highly effective in a diverse range of settings, from various work in disenfranchised communities, to work against trauma and depression, to work in zones of war, and the list goes on. In Theatre of the Oppressed (1979) Boal offers a pertinent critique of the mechanisms of power pertaining to the medium of theatre and its related techniques, and proposes a system that uses that power to generate social change. The dramaturgical scheme is actually very simple, the format of work interactive and dynamic. The aim is to empower the protagonist (the oppressed) to look for concrete ways to overcome the oppression provoked by the antagonist, in a landscape where witnesses are also key, as they also hold the possibility to move from passivity to action. Dialogue and debate, agency and action are key ingredients here. Spectators become spect-actors, solutions for change are being tried out and discussed. And even if ideal solutions are not found for a particular situation, a debate is stimulated at the level of the community and a sense of collective empowerment is generated. Arguably this would be the aim of any artistic approach that aims to engage with oppressive issues. Of course, the TO system might have minuses and limits, and, as it has been franchised across the world for more than three decades now, it took many shapes, some more effective than others. I am not saying it is ideal. Just that it is an effective artistic tool for action against violence, oppression, even particular forms of terror, as it is based on dialogue, agency and an acquired sense of empowerment for the communities they address.
And perhaps as I was indirectly suggesting before, assertiveness is key towards establishing a dialogue not with terror, but with those still left alive, who feel traumatised and disempowered, whether they are in close physical proximity or at a distance, but who could have a chance to act.

More from me after I read the posting in the last 24 hrs, I have been travelling back to the UK.

Warm regards,

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