Jonas, we met during our conference Politics of the Applied. Theatre and Art as Intervention in January in Berlin. At that time you were already involved with the project Ruhrorter. Can you tell me what you are trying to do with this? Would you say you ‘intervene’?
It was at the Theater an der Ruhr that I got to know Adem Köstereli, a young director and former member of the youth theatre, who was planning to conduct a second project with refugees in the Ruhr area (first project, 2013, Ein Teil von Mir). At first I only envisaged accompanying the application process for funding from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, but then we thought it would be an interesting way for us to combine anthropological documentation with ‘researching theatre practice’. From that point of view, I turned from anthropological observer to collaborator, but did not intervene in the sense of a pedagogical critique. I think it is more fruitful to think of intervention in the literal sense of ‘coming between’ and/or ‘becoming entangled’ – which opens up the concept and scenarios of intervention for more nuanced scrutiny. The project itself borrows its name from an abandoned, multi-storey, post-industrial complex near the Theater an der Ruhr, which used to house an asylum refugee centre for 400 people. Its rooms and the traces of the people gave us the idea to stage the theatre piece Zwei Himmel (‘Two Skies’) on its top floor, whilst creating an interactive installation Palimpsest in the empty living rooms below. Accompanying these artistic space-creations, we also designed a series of public interventions called 15 Minutes. It interrogates the dimension of time before and during the deportations which most refugees experience. 15 Minutes does so through public, scenic performances, interrogations of by-passers and the involvement of chance encounters. The series initiates interventions, but ones that are carefully balanced by the director and the participants so as not to appear as mere provocations, but as instigations for reflexion. I accompany these and communicate the thought-processes behind the actions to the public through various forms of media. So the project and I produce intervention with a 'yes, but ...'
I would like to hear more about the 15 Minutes project, about which I also read a few articles in German. In one I read about the question how the stigmatisation of being a victim, being fearful as a refugee, how these processes of stigmatisation can be interrupted. How to become a human being, an agent, and whether not theatre can be such a moment of interruption. For a lot of applied theatre practitioners such a thought seems relevant, too. I personally find it hard to maintain and often see it disappear in an aesthetic process that is ‘brought to someone by someone …’. How do you create a space in Ruhrorter, in which participants (and perhaps you could say more about who they are and how they get to participate) feel safe to express themselves, as, yes, certainly vulnerable human beings, but as subjects with their own strong voices and opinions?
15 Minutes is the name we gave to what may be called one of the foundational pillars of the project. It is, at its core, a series of public interventions, which revolve around some of the stories we have been told by participants during rehearsals, for example those of forced deportations. In such a situation, the persons to be deported have very little time to pack their things before they get sent off, be it to the airport in Dortmund or another temporary camp. During rehearsals, the terribly oppressive meaning of being 'a citizen on time', or not even a citizen, just a 'temporary person', maybe not even a person came up in verbal and nonverbal ways, in conversations and during improvisations. So we decided to interrogate this dimension and to look for artistic, abstract, and playful ways of making this publicly visible and aesthetically appreciable. We performed scenes in the refugee camp in Oberhausen from which three former participants were deported, asked people in Mülheim an der Ruhr about their thoughts on having 15 Minutes to pack up their lives, and are planning to perform further scenes in public transportation. Key to 15 Minutes – and in fact the entire project Ruhrorter – was that Adem Köstereli felt it was important not merely to exhibit or to moralise about the situation of its participants – as some contemporary documentary theatre practice does – but to allow them to create forms of encounters themselves, to produce performative instances that could induce (their) reflection. Many participants of the project have issues or painful memories associated with languages and discrimination. It is therefore an interesting aspect to work with elements developed by Pina Bausch and the Theater an der Ruhr on this matter, i.e. a theatre predicated on transgressing and going beyond language. The role of music, dance, bodily gestures, and light is important for many, as they have noted in interviews with me. So, one of the elements of becoming a subject and an agent is a theatre that is not about translation but about transmutation – the process of changing elements of memory and art into a different form. Ambiguity is often more helpful than explanation for many participants. Something that is crucial during rehearsal processes and also for the public interventions is the idea that everything that gets 'acted out' is both about them personally, and yet at the same time is not. This paradox works insofar as the process of Ruhrorter is predicated upon extensive conversations, then long phases of fragmented improvisations, during which many personal stories develop into themes and topics, situations and scenarios, rather than exhibitions. This way, each performer feels related to his or her performance, and yet is sufficiently detached to 'play with their memories', as a one participant put it to me. As for the participants themselves, I followed Adem to visits in the asylum refugee camps where we asked if people were interested in coming along; so we met people like a 39 year old Iranian academic, who fled from political persecution, or a 20 year old Roma from Serbia, who was born in Germany, sent off to Serbia, and twice fled back to Germany, where he now cares for his mentally ill parents.
It sounds like such a delicate balance that needs to be found! Were there moments of hesitation? Or were there refusals to speak (or to transmute as you put it) about such highly personal experiences? Fear to say too much and to risk a certain, already precarious status?
You are right, this balance is a very troublesome process and one that requires a lot of intersubjective 'work' during rehearsal processes. What seems important to me to add is that the project is at its core about theatre. One of the undoubtedly beneficial aspects of a theatre that seeks to engage socially and politically is its focus on the rehearsal space and the stage. These often small and hidden rooms in a theatre institution provide in themselves already a form of hideaway, as many participants have noted. Furthermore, and that is what I mean by transmutation rather than translation, this project and the work of the Theater an der Ruhr, which is closely associated with us, is predicated less on the intelligibility of a single language than on other forms of conversational communication. In other words, we have had situations in which Adem would say something in Turkish to an Uzbek who spent time in Istanbul and Kabul, who would then translate to two Afghani men. Or sometimes he would not, and things develop without language. This doesn't mean, of course, that issues didn’t arise over the performative depiction of religion, for example, or taboo items such as cigarettes or alcohol. While an Iranian and an Egyptian improvised a critique of the religious opportunism and exploitation of many refugees in Germany (stories they wanted to 'perform about'), a discussion broke out between a Roma who is a Jehova Witness and a Turkish Muslim Girl about their faith. In such situations, the initial aesthetic situation turned into an ethical query about the kind of performer each participant wants to be. This is a continual process and a central problem on which the project spends much time reflecting.
The name Ruhrorter in German resonates so locally and very much indicates a site and its specificity. You described how the site and situation inspires and determines the process and finding of theatrical forms. Could you say some more about the project's temporality? Its sustainability? How fixed (over time) is your group, I could sadly imagine a somewhat high percentage of fluctuation?
Absolutely. This is one of the central issues this project faces – and also one it seeks to confront directly. The name Ruhrorter simultaneously denotes a particular street, and a building, but also a person from that area, an area which in this case is situated between Oberhausen, Duisburg and Mülheim, three different places/spaces (Orte) right by the Ruhr. And yet the building itself is temporally complicated. Yes, it is a concrete building and yet it has been unused for 9 years. It is abandoned, yet it still bears the traces and marks of its former inhabitants, many of whom are no longer in the country. Taking this site as a metaphor or a prism through which to regard many of the issues this project engages with, the temporality of the project is partly what the project is about. It is undoubtedly difficult from an artistic point of view to put together a performance with people whose papers and thus legal existence as ‘citizens’ or persons are temporary. Last year, a core actor was deported a week before the opening night. This year, three participants have already been sent out of the country. In a different way, it brings this problem to the attention of the others still involved and present. What are continual artistic processes? How can one sustain a performance group? Concerning continuity and sustainability, this project is the second in a trilogy. Some performers from last year returned this year, some have since fled across various states, others are negotiating their second asylum application.
I think the project establishes an awareness of these issues among other refugees, the public and the institutions, which is an important aspect of sustainability.
I am really impressed. And it does seem like such a basic question of theatre –continuity, fluctuation, a situation changing and causing the artistic development to go this or that way. Could you say more about the last aspect? The continuous establishing of awareness? And perhaps in specific relation to Ruhrorter, but also on a more abstract level – how do artistic practices such as these 'educate' or 'activate'?
For Ruhrorter, the continuous establishing of awareness was an important query from the beginning. Many projects, especially theatre projects, which are by nature often ephemeral and short-lived, evaporate after their first few performances. We felt that this is not merely counterproductive to a project with and about refugees – more so, it would be perverse. Therefore we decided to focus not merely on the eventual 'premiere' of the theatre piece but also on the process to get there. This was where we felt that it might be interesting to have an anthropologist, me, accompany the entire process. It is very interesting for me, but also for the artistic process and the social interaction to reflect upon methods of creative work, intersections of ethical and aesthetic problems, etc. that arise over such a long rehearsal process, one of almost 7 months. On a different level, and this is one of the reasons I was attracted to the project, Adem felt that it was important to establish a project that would not seek to educate or impose a reading of the political situation. Instead, he wanted to work on creating visions, narrating, dreamlike, about the ways in which people in such difficult situations, under permanent stress of being deported imagine themselves to be otherwise, creatively, artistically, beautifully. My role, facilitated by my credo as an anthropologist, is neither to praise nor to judge the project, but to describe the process and its ethico-aesthetic complexities. So one could say we seek to 'activate' awareness by documenting, presenting, and describing aspects of this complex artistic process to the public – in our performances, but also in newspaper columns, articles in magazines, and our website. And lastly, the project’s focus on self-reflexivity on stage also evokes its own kinds of thought activation among participants; creating spaces for such self- and other- encounters seems more important to us than to teach, or educate.
His research on theatre and artistic processes in contemporary Germany combines cultural history with the anthropology of art, ethics, and patronage. Building on ethnographic fieldwork with the Theater an der Ruhr, he explores the relationships between pedagogy and Bildung, theatre and intercultural dialogue, cultural politics and creative labour ethics. He is editor of the edited collection Theatre, Reflexivity, and Change: The Transformative Potential of Theatre and Performance (forthcoming with Palgrave Macmillan) and convenor of the Cambridge Interdisciplinary Performance Network. Jonas' email is email@example.com.