The Potential of Performativity

Florian Malzacher im Gespräch mit Piersandra Di Pietro

Nero Magazine
02 Aug 2017

In englischer Sprache

Piersandra Di Matteo: After your pioneering number of Frakcija (n. 55, 2010) dedicated to the curation in the performing arts, a new book Empty Stages: Crowded Flats. Performativity as Curatorial Strategy (Alexander Verlag, 2017) on this object – jointly edited with Joanna Warsza – just appeared. What distinguishes, in your opinion, the peculiarities of the curator who acts towards the creation of live arts? What kind of outlook emerges from the contributions and from your practices?

Florian Malzacher: I always believed, my work could only gain from learning from the skills, techniques, tools of the very art forms I am dealing with as a curator. So I have been interested for quite a while in how the tactics and strategies used in performance, theatre, dance, even music could be of value for the practice of curating. What role can narration, dramaturgy or concepts of time and space play for a curatorial project?
How do we consider also a curation as a social sphere, creating a temporary community in the way that theatre (at least theoretically) does? Such approaches can almost become performances themselves, as for example in the case of some projects by choreographers like deufert&plischke and Boris Charmatz, or examples from visual arts like those of Hans Ulrich Obrist, Philipp Pareno or Pierre Bal Blanc.
Of course bigger festivals or even venues have to deal with much more pragmatics, so these considerations seem to be less obvious in the daily work of most live arts programmers. But even there the acknowledgement of the concrete context, situation and the possibility of working with them can be very productive.
When we talk in the book about performative strategies we are aware of the definitions of the term brought famously forward by J.L. Austin, Judith Butler and others, stressing the transformation of reality with words and other cultural utterances. But we also emphasise the often dismissed, colloquial notion of the term “performative” as something being “theatre-like”, believing that those two strands are in fact interdependent and intertwined.
When we look at the potential of performativity – in both meanings of the term – it becomes clear that this opens many possibilities for the notion of curating. And since it stresses the idea of co-presence of spectators, performers or whoever else is involved, it directly also leads to the idea of creating a social sphere. And this is an aspect that again directly links to the political potential of theatre – a potential that can also be used in curating, as I believe.

Your curating projects are always permeated with the need to shed light onto the relation between art and politics, political strategies in art and artistic strategies in politics. I am thinking of Truth is concrete, the week-long marathon that brought together 100 artists and activists from all over the world in Graz in 2012, discussing from the Arab Spring to the protests in the Ukraine…. Or your contribution to sustaining the The Silent University, the autonomous platform for academics (refugees, asylum seekers and migrants) who cannot share their knowledge. Which kind of link to you see between theory, practice and production?

Well, I don’t think of them as separated. For me it’s not possible to work in this field without integrating all these aspects. But there might be put different importance on them. Of course it might not always work, but I always would see them quite equal – I guess with art being primus inter pares if we could separate these four. But then again: I don’t really think there is an art – at least a live art – that would not be also theory, practice and production at the same time.
Putting a special emphasis on theory within a program helps to put a focus on certain aspects of the performances. Inviting for example Chantal Mouffe was important for the festival to think about the political potential of theatre and to contextualize the work. The same goes for the advisory board for Impulse which had no specific task but to discuss freely about topics and performances, but also anything else they felt to be relevant. For this I invited mostly people that came not from theatre, like the political theorists Oliver Marchart and Boris Buden, philosophers like Marcus Steinweg, but also curators and theorists from visual art like Beatrice von Bismarck or Ekaterina Degot. So already early phases of creating the festival were informed by many, if you wish, theoretical discussions. But they were inseparable from aesthetic and even sometimes pragmatic considerations.

“Decide or Else” is the title of your last edition of the Impulse Theater Festival…

This relates very much to what I just mentioned. There can be of course many definitions of theatre. But all would – at least for me – have the idea of the co-presence in their centre. Maybe it is a bit idealistic to believe that theatre can create temporary communities, but for me this is a crucial point. I like to use Mouffe’s concept of pluralistic agonism for describing the political potential of theatre (and of a certain kind of curation). If we want to create democratic spheres we need to allow dissensus and not resolve it immediately in a forced consensus. Not allowing dissensus leads to antagonism, a clash, maybe a civil war. A situation we can see in many parts of the world at the moment. Instead of antagonism we need to create places where we can act out our differences as adversaries – we need agonistic spheres. It’s not by chance that Chantal Mouffe has borrowed the name “agonism” from the theatre, from “agon,” the competition of arguments in Greek tragedy. So, in short, I believe that theatre can be a truly public space by being an agonistic sphere.

What does “Impulse regards theater as a social laboratory” mean?

We had many projects in recent years that tried to work in this direction. Two minutes of standstill (2013) by Yael Bartana tried to bring the city of Cologne to a complete hold in commemoration of the victims of right wing violence – the negotiations and discussions before the actual event were not only part of the project but probably the most important aspect. Lotte van den Berg’s Building Conversation (2015) is exactly what the title says: an attempt to enable conversations between the people coming to see a show. It is a theatre stripped down of everything that is not essential in Lotte’s view: Just a conversation between a defined group of people following a certain set of rules. In 2016 Dana Yahalomi/Public Movement created in Düsseldorf a performance with the leading cultural politicians of the state of North Rhine – Westphalia: Macht Kunst Politik brought them together for a staged and at the same time very real debate on concrete cultural policy. And of course the Silent University, initiated by Ahmet Ögüt, that you mentioned, would belong here as well. Additionally we had a small conference in each festival – e.g. one called Learning Plays (2016) that I curated together with Nora Sternfeld and that used Brecht’s idea of the Yes-Sayer and the No-Sayer as a guiding concept.

This year was the last in which you direct the Impulse Theater Festival. What are you bringing with yourself, and what are you leaving behind with this experience?

I just curated a program in St. Petersburg on occasion of the 100th Anniversary of the Russian revolution: Sense of Possibility. But for now I am not planning to take over a next big festival or a venue immediately, I rather want to work for a while on smaller, more precise projects – and also have a bit more time for writing. But who knows…

This interview is part of the series VOICETOPIA.
Conceived for NERO and curated by Piersandra Di Matteo, it is a space dedicated to the performing arts, contemporary theatre, performative formats as procedural phenomena, the topology of speech and tactics of interaction between practices and theoretical hypotheses, a platform for dialogue with artists, curators, performers.