Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Faki Kronik Day 1 - Hayali

I'm sitting on the roof of the former medical factory Medika, watching the everyday life pass by on ground level of the Westin hotel next door, and listening to the sound of friendly Croatian chatter bubble away in the kitchen behind me. A stream of artists, visitors, and residents passes in and out of the room like birds in a tree, drawing from its communal resources before flitting away to their various labours. There's a nice feeling of everyone knowing their role, that comes from the greatest manifestations of social anarchy and is also common to art production - a kind of extreme organisation, serving as a counterpoint to the outbursts of human passion, angst, and joy that punctuate more liberated forms of human existence.

Faki festival offers a nice sense of continuity at a time of great turbulence, and part of that is definitely about labour. In a life in which labour is increasingly precariourised - we don't really know what we are called on to do at the next moment, let alone tomorrow - there's a particular comfort, I admit, in following patterns and behaviours which remain unquestioned, even if these are loaded with problematic politics.

There are many different forms of labour here, from more traditionally defined types such as cooking or cleaning*, to more abstract ones, such as socialising, sharing ideas, or viewing art. My role is to write the festival - or at the people at Cultural Center Attack! call it, 'to narrate'. I call it criticism. Regardless, it's undoubtedly a form of labour - and one that is almost always undervalued, if it is valued at all. As a critic, you are the one with a beef - the one not quite good enough to make it as an artist,  the one whose frustrations spill out onto the page.

That's not the case for me, any more than someone living at Cultural Center Attack! is living there only because they can't afford the Westin Hotel. As tourists cruising the Rhine River will find, comfort - at least the form drawn from an individual and compartmentalised life - is fundamentally not artistic, anti-pedagogical, and not alive.

Having said that, the next few days are likely to be my most comfortable ever at Faki. Following a year of high drama, and the previous year in which I tried to write on 22 shows over 5 days, this year there are just seven different offerings - that's almost one a day, and nearly a level manageable for me. No doubt I will find a  way to make it harder. Still, in theory I could even take a walk in the hills above Zagreb.

Day 1 saw Istanbul's Compagnie du Paon open the festival with their work Hayali - currently on a small tour with the next stop in Porto, followed by new Serbian group Puzzle Pie(s)ces with their premiere Walls. The luxurious timeframe of this year's Faki means I can afford to leave the latter for tomorrow following a second viewing, leaving me with just a lazy one review to write today.


Hayali is described as 'a moving story of a man and a woman' - a description that does it absolute justice, and at the same time does not begin to encapsulate it. There's certainly movement, of the emotional and physical variety, and there's certainly a representation of two genders. This in a way describes the nuts and bolts of the piece. But it does not begin to describe its emotional and representational or psychological depth.

Hayali opens with a highly gendered depiction of labour, with the man (played by co-choreographer Emre Yildizlar) sanding down a wooden box, whilst  a woman (Gülnara Golovina) seems to deliver an emotional, silent, and frustrated cry addressed to the audience. This initial image opens a conversation about gender roles that's repeated throughout the play, as well as one about anguish or loss. The opening proceeds silently through several streams of dependency and tenderness, with both figures connecting and disconnecting with each other like doves at play. This play transforms across play, hatred, struggle, and sex, each becoming interchangeable with the other, with the  phase broken by a non-sequitur in which the performers transition into chickens. (It somehow fits, and re-emerges later with a kiss taking the form of what's known as a 'peck').

Monday, May 21, 2018

Faki returns

I'm in Faki festival in Zagreb this week reporting on everything that's going on in the former medical factory Medika.

This is my fourth year covering the festival, which was irrevocably changed for me last year, when the Festival theme of  'Blackness' brought out many of the tensions, injustices, and oppressions - the thematic and the much more immediate - that present themselves when such a subject is raised in a context that is unequivocally white. Despite the chorus of powerful artworks authored by Black artists which presented themselves that year, as far as I'm concerned, there remain questions about that festival, and my own participation within it. One thing is for sure, though: I will never see Faki in the same way again.

This year, the festival, curated by Natko Jurdana, has the rather-less-provocative  theme 'Physical Theatre'. Artists from Austria, Chile, Germany, Serbia, Turkey, Italy, Armenia, and Brazil will explore the festival theme across 7 shows. Let's see what that brings out - it's certainly a tighter schedule than previous years (I think the record is 22 shows). Under the former curation of Irena Čurik, it felt like anything could happen.

It's a hard act to follow. Still, I have no doubt the walls of Medika will once again come to life, bringing with them the essential, fiercely anti-capitalist, desperately solid, and socially engaged principles that are at the heart of western theatre tradition, and which come out when it is given the right amount of nurturing.

(In a physical way).

Check back here for daily updates, as I once again try to tackle the festival, in all its crazy.
Check out the festival schedule at

Gog/Magog 4: Europe

Gog/Magog 4: Europe is the fourth installment of a performance series by German label ‘internil’ in collaboration with Israeli artist Moran Sanderovich. I wasn’t blessed with the opportunity to view the other instalments of the series, but if the fourth and last, titled ‘Europe’, is anything to go by, the previous three are worth chasing up at some time when your correspondent is blessed with just slightly more capacity than is currently available to him.

Basically a rumination on ‘crisis’ from the perspective of Europe, Gog/Magog 4 is a truly terrifying gesture, the likes of which are increasingly common in contemporary theatre arts. Not content with mere fear or immunisation in synthetic drama, artists are going deeper to mine the darker parts of humanity’s current expression, with the artist becoming the human - often soothing - front to a truly desperate global discourse. It’s a cynical frame that employs actors as human agents in the way that neoliberalism does – smiling, human fronts to a deeply anti-human project – in order to mirror the conditions (or some specific conditions for specific people, but its increasingly global) of our present existence.

The Europe instalment follows on from other previous examinations of conflict zones of Ukraine, Syria, and Israel, also performed at Berlin-Mitte’s Theaterdiscounter. This time, the conflict is closer to home, and it probably shows in the level of discomfort for both actors (nearly all European I suppose) and audience. The Eurocentric content is deliberately deployed to unsettle ‘our’ resource-filled, satisfaction-saturated existence, and to press the buttons which hurt most – from economic and cultural superiority, to white supremacy, to capitalist exploitation.

For all this, Gog/Magog 4 manifests in quite a charitable, Christian form. The leader of this cycle (in English at least), Arne Vogelgesang, welcomes us with a Jesus-like serenity, and insists that we should put protective covers on our shoes (which actually were totally unnecessary). We are led to the amphitheatrical installation, a half-circle surrounded by scrim projections animated by Sanderovich’s surreal designs, and invited to sit on flesh-covered cushions. Then, the first of 6 ‘learning streams’ begins.

Essentially, these streams navigate through different facets of European-ness, from identity (in which we are ‘treated’ to a rap from a fictional far-right identitarian group), to survival training for the coming apocalypse led by Christopher Hotti Böhm, to various biblical references. ‘Stream’ is a good word for these vignettes, as after a while they blend into each other, merging and fading like pedagogical dreams. At one point, the audience is asked to hold paper towel, and throw it when they have heard enough, only to be hit with a barrage of discourse about environmental catastrophe (I threw the towel almost immediately, as from experience such barrages of profoundly negative information have a paradoxically anti-environmental effect).

Monday, April 23, 2018

Hate Library: Interviews with Nick Thurston

One work during this year's Transmediale in Berlin was Nick Thurston's Hate Library, which was effectively a mass-publication of online hate speech forums. The work drew out a shocked reaction from me - not at the speech itself, (which is normally banal and poorly written) but at the gesture, which seemed to trample on a lot of ethical guidelines regarding the reproduction of hate speech in public forums and in art.

I interviewed the artist for Samizdat, the interviews are in two parts. Part 1 is about Art and the ethical guidelines for hate speech today, Part 2 is about Publishing and covers similar territory.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Mirror, Mirror

I don't know much about what it is like to be a black woman in eurocentric societies. I know things that I have heard from authoritative sources - that one experiences daily microaggressions or worse, that one's voice is rarely heard politically, that one is restricted to certain forms of visibility (eroticised, rendered primitive, feared), and that if one moves outside of these restraints, there are harsh disciplinary measures waiting. Then there are the first person accounts of racism, for example in the field of journalism, which if you listen to them, oscillate between horrifying and a kind of WTF? WHY??

I've heard these things, and have also actively researched them. And yet I feel I still know, and will only ever know, an extremely small part of what this life is like. That's not to be defeatist, just to say that this is fundamentally not any reality I could possibly inhabit, and so attempts to empathise based on my own experience or knowledge will always fall short.

Nevertheless, attempts are regularly - and not without bravery born of necessity - made to communicate this experience across various subjectivities that comprise a given audience. Soul Sisters' Mirror, Mirror, a work first developed in 2017 and undertaking its second rendition at Ballhaus Naunystraße, attempts to do just this. It's beauty is in its simplicity - 5 black women tell their stories to an audience, with some slight variation and mixing of formats. Stemming from initial writing from Soul Sisters founding member Christine Seraphin, the collaborators have crafted a warm invitation to an audience to empathise, relate, and possible to cross the divisions that a difference in experience brings.

Image Credit: Soul Sisters

Monday, January 15, 2018


In 2013 I wrote of Nassim Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit, Red Rabbit:

“Who does it serve? Initially, I thought, surely it is the country (Iran) itself. As the night wore on, I whittled this down to 'the individual', optimistically hoping for a Beckettian, Orwellian or Ionescoian argument. Finally, I was left with, sadly, only the writer himself.”

So it was with some hesitation that I approached the playwright’s latest project, which is simply titled after the playwright’s first name Nassim. Because I suppose that, if you were going to realise a self-valorising objective as an artist, you would create a play titled after yourself. Hmmm.

Almost a sequel to the globally successful White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, Nassim does a lot to elucidate that initial project. The audience arrives on the premise not unlike its predecessor: that they will see another play in which the script is read by an actor (an obliging Thomas Spencer for the premiere) who did not yet read it. However, a twist is thrown in while the house lights are still up: this time, the actor would be reading from a projected screen. Nope, wrong again. This time, we would be blessed with the presence of the playwright himself, as Soleimanpour is fetched by the actor and brought to the stage to wild applause.

Image: David Monteith-Hodge/Studio Doug

At which point, this really becomes the Nassim show. For a playwright (who sometimes have a year-long response time), Soleimanpour has a great sense of wit and timing when interacting in his second language, and the play proceeds through some entertaining modes of Farsi class, learning about each other’s lives, and storytelling – always returning to a faintly nihilist ‘what do we do next?’ moment hovering in the air. Through this, we are offered seemingly private information about the playwright, discovered through interactions with him via the premise of learning: we get to view his passport, we get to send a message to his wife, and we even get to speak with his mother in Iran.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Voila! Festival Wrap-up

Theatre naturally lends itself to moving through worlds.

The etymology of the word ‘theatre’ has architectural connotations – it comes from the Ancient Greek word for the ‘place of seeing’. That place is quite specific, connected with architecture, but not necessarily bound within it. Although this is challenged by today's theatre artists treating place quite loosely (site-specific theatre, for example) and also exploring the flexibility of form (participatory theatre, for example). In its western form, theatre is a place facilitating a constructed reality.

Such that, perhaps, visiting the theatre today, one is not even moving through cohesive 'worlds' anymore, but experiencing something like a multi-track reality, that the individual desperately tries to fuse into a harmonic whole.

All this to say, by the end of the Voila! Festival, your correspondent couldn't shake the feeling that maybe he had moved through a few too many realities than a capable physician would recommend. The chaotic fusion of politics and art that was my experience at COP 23 in Germany (containing its own strange geopolitical displacement of Fiji and Germany effectively sharing the event, or if you view it more cynically, as I did, Germany hosting the event and Fiji unfortunately playing the role of some exotic, symbolic window-dressing) was replaced with the Euro-UK project of Voila!, which itself took me through some of the more distant areas of highly diverse London, and some equally kaleidoscopic staged ontologies.

It's fair to say that I was pretty spent by the end, magnified by the usual problems of not being paid for much of it, this type of labour being seen as largely valueless in contexts that favour labour that creates material wealth directly, or is involved with other types of more fashionable simulation such as IT. Compounding that is my own increasingly fluid categorisation, moving between nation states, residing in some, speaking the language of others, sometimes doing that badly. Draw from social security? Ha, good one. Ask a neighbour for help? Don't count on it. Get that random 10 euros back that you were charged for withdrawing 20 pounds? Doubtful.

But you can afford it, right?

I'm certainly not alone in this state of transience and permanent negotiation with dominant structures over which I have virtually no control, as was proven in almost every show that I saw in Voila!. It’s also a precarious time for the festival itself – perched uncertainly within the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, it finds itself thrust into a quasi-activist platform, where even existing as a European becomes something of a protest. I’ve always found the UK’s relationship with Europe strange, one of total interdependence mixed with fierce proclamations of autonomy. Expect nothing to change on that front. For the theatre, which benefits hugely from intercultural exchange and diversity, there are challenges ahead.

Some of these I outlined in a practical/theoretical workshop in London’s Cockpit Theatre, entitled Performing Europe's Non-Withdrawal: Crises of Environment and Identity at COP 23, and part of the Voila! Festival. The event was essentially a demonstration of the work from Bonn, with a performance of Gaia by Canadian writer Hiro Kanagawa, acted out by Shaila Alvarez and ably supported by Frank McHugh, who had earlier performed in (and in the case of McHugh, organised) a Climate Change Theatre Action in London earlier in the week. We finished with a short demonstration of the exercises which were used to demonstrate material in Bonn.

The full text of my presentation, is available here.