[-empyre-] on performance as social action

Mine Kaylan M.Kaylan at brighton.ac.uk
Fri Nov 28 09:44:54 EST 2014

Dear Empyre Colleagues,
Apologies for my delayed contribution . I have continued to reading the empyre exchanges with great interest and I want to catch up on some responses. Forgive the long and fragmented nature of my message and if I appear to leap frog over some of the very interesting debates of late!

I have just been listening on the Turkish evening news to the relatively new  (self appointed) president of Turkey (former prime minister), declaring , ‘how the west is not interested in the Islamic people but for their oil rich geography and not unless they are dead, and they (the west) do not want us to ask questions about anything that challenges their version of history.’ He is calling for all islamic nations ‘to unite together’..Oh dear, oh dear.. 

Following through Christina Speisel’s  interesting message (from last week!) about the arts coming to the rescue and her commentary on the how our institutions (esp. education and health) display the shift toward “instrumental and concrete thinking”, away from ‘feeling’, I was encouraged to write about my work within and about education. I was much affected by Rustom's post and understand that it feels so against the grain to use the term ‘performance’ (as in the art of it), in proximity to the artlessness of acts of terror. 

A while ago, I introduced the idea of ‘empathy’ by way of talking about my work. I have been considering the idea of ‘revenge’ also; revenge fueling the cycles of terror, between the force of will of state power and actions of self appointed splinter groups, allied together on religious or cultural grounds. We are not unfamiliar with the declarations of revenge in the scenarios of terror and in the appalling configuration of spectacles of abject violence.  We may be more familiar with the images of horror and  unspeakably violent ‘enactments’ in the name of revenge, perpetrated by the various 'mafia' organisations.  In British drama, there is the wonderful dramatic tradition of the ‘revenge tragedy’ entirely dedicated to the machinations how such a force, often tragi-comic proportions in its absurdity- drives the power games of a ‘closed political system’. Empathy and revenge. They may be not useful as a binary, but they seem to have some dynamic relation to each other, especially when regarding the other.. I recognize, identify with both modes of relation.

Healing through art practice. Johannes has been kindly encouraging me to talk more about my own projects, yet I have been struggling to abbreviate into relevant offerings here.  No argument that profound healing seems to occur when there is a dynamic of exchange with mutual 'presence'. Here I do mean actual experiential (embodied) ‘presence’, than perhaps a more theoretical use. Since we have been talking of erotics, perhaps, one can call this 'presence' also as an ‘erotics’ of exchange, (recognizable in ‘magic’ in the Theatre).

Art and education, or even the education of art. I do still believe that social transformation through pedagogic interaction has a chance. Gayatri Spivak talks of how the job of teaching at its best is about “re-arranging desires”.  So true. Unless we can reconfigure feeling/thinking at the level of desire then it is tough to affect change. 

I was much affected by Aristita’s recent post and thank you for the reminder of Boal’s work:  “Dialogue and debate, agency and action”. Performance practitioners have facilities and skills for devising methods for ‘establisihing a dialogue’,  “not with terror, but with those still left alive, who feel traumatised and disempowered, … who could have a chance to act.” Is this not the valuable work, that can be still cycles of violence? 

The practice of  ‘socially engaged/relational art’, led by fine artists in the 1990s had/has profoundly transformative potential: interactive, process based and context based. This mode of practice, introduced me (reminded me) of the wonderful element of the ‘open text’ in practice: literally letting the response to context and the encounter with ‘other’ guide and generate the collaborative action. Also, something about fine artist’s sense of open ended time scale, seems to have a key ingredient in listening to ‘the other’

I have been experimenting with how to create spaces of what I call ‘poetic presence’ as healing antidotes for scenarios of fear and violence, as spaces for critical dialogue w the cultural other. Mutual presence may be more complicated to divine in terms of a shared space with strangers than it is to theorise about it. Theatre artists learn these skills, not all manage to apply it effectively as we know. We recognize it when we feel it and when we say someone has ‘presence’ (to be distinguished from when we are simply pornographically seduced). In my last post I quoted the ‘contact improvisation’ work of Steve Paxton, as  an example of a relevant mode of practice.

I set up the Leleg Institute project as an investigation of an alternative educational structure which can facilitate such work (which seems to have a place less and less in the present UK university).  
I developed and tested the Leleg model over 5-6 years in contexts of small fishing towns in TUrkey , (just as Johannes mentioned), with a host of international artists, scholars, students as visitors and participating local folk. It was also a useful  investigation on whether such dynamic spaces of ‘poetic presence’ worked to generates creative exchange and catalyze identification w the other (empathy), across divided and polarized cultural positions. Of course these spaces need mediation, not only to ‘charge’ the space, but also to negotiate the critical thinking towards an active position i.e. towards action- just as in the best of Theatre.

Just to follow from Johannes’ mention of inter-generational exchange (a while ago!),  I wanted to flag up an interest. I welcome comments. What with the high population of older folk in the western/northern nations, and as many of us who care for our elderly parents may witness, there seems to be a social crises around care for the elderly. It is likely that such questions might be at the forefront of our minds for many more than in the past, not least that there seems to be a terrible waste of energy and expertise and social contribution only equalled by the waste of young men's lives, east and west- especially those throwing their lives up in smoke (literally sometimes).
I did joke recently that ‘I had a hunch that the next revolution will be hatched by grandmothers and great-grandmothers’. I am aware that there is an international grandmothers network and council., so the idea is not new at all. There seems to be much healing power to be tapped in the grandmothers who are rendered impotent, inactive and invisible in most all cultures. Rather simplistically, it also seemed that grandmothers may have a surprising social antidotes to the ‘grand sons’ testosterone fueled cycles of violence, terror and acts of revenge.  
Having reached an age, myself, I have been pondering on ways of mobilising such energy: making them/us more effective as a recognizable force for social change through performance and art. It is just a question in mind as yet, though I am considering how to act on it.

I read with interest Monica Weiss’s project- the importance of ‘bearing witness’. There is a transformative power in making/taking record, the testimonial , the documentation, as Aristita, writes :
“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.”

Those of us working in Performance, with its complex forms in terms of making effective record of live action/exchange etc. may have a head start. How might ‘documenting live works’ be applied to making visible unacknowledged experience and work. Surrounded with a present western institutional obsession with documenting/evidencing (audit culture) everywhere, experimenting with language of documentation is a rich vein. How might one catch a poetic register of experience (as well as the analytical, critical, contextual etc.)? Having observed how, so called objective empirical evidence can be corrupted in my democratic ever so transparent and well evidenced higher education institution, I experimented with forms that might be more complex and challenging to manipulate and distort. Forms as old as the hills, especially those around here on the Aegean! I returned to poetry: the document of detail in the moment, as in a haiku;  record of a story over historical time, as in the Turkish destan (epic poem). I have been tussling with ways to combining both within the idea of the 'film poem' as documentation.

I am reminded of how the highly refined language of performance action can act as a profound antidote to deranged acts of terror on an objectified 'other' - even though both 'actors' might be equally fuelled with rage.
During the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, in May 2013, one of the most effective actions that caught the hearts and minds of the Turkish public all over, was ‘the standing man’- an action by Erdem Gunduz, a performance artist. The Turkish/French sociologist, Nilifer Gole wrote (in her blog) a wonderful cultural reading of this action and its social context and political affect, entitled ‘The indisputable aesthetic of the passive stand’.. I translated it at the time, just for friends, because I thought it an invaluable text, about the 'slow power' (as contrasted to Aristita's 'slow violence' ) in terms of language of performance. I do not believe an English translation has been published,yet, so I am loathe to attach it here, (though happy to send it informally to anyone who would like to read it). However, I would like to report a couple of Gole's comments fro that blog, in my own words, here:

‘This generation does not do protest with ideas borrowed from ideological vocabulary of the mainstream stage, nor through an intensive conceptual vocabulary, nor through organised political activism. Instead, this was visualised through individual performance, comedy/(humour) and through a variety of languages of play [performance] arts, and made global via the social media. A language that some found apolitical, it shows a different perception of the world, and one that manifests their values and preoccupations. A generation that takes it slowly (easy), and who stand firm on their feet- like the fragile girl in the red dress who became the iconic image for the Gezi protest, standing fast against the force of the water cannon,. They transformed their passivity into their strength.  Just as the Standingman had done.
‘Public democracy (the democracy of public spaces) comprises a new aesthetics. Fellow citizens, like artists take the stage; they demonstrate their difference; they display their skills and capabilities and develop new choreographies, write new scripts together. In distinction to the formal ceremonies and official celebrations by communist states and authoritarian regimes, public action allows citizens to enact their citizenship spontaneously and through improvisation.’

Warm wishes,
Mine Kaylan

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