Since the beginning of the pandemic, not only has the political space changed massively. Also cultural workers had to get involved in a new reality. Béton Bleu spoke to the theater director, filmmaker and activist Milo Rau on the role of art as a means of resistance and how it will change after the pandemic.
Béton Bleu: Dear Mr. Rau, are you missing the stage? Or did the pandemic inspire you to carry out your work beyond the stage?
Milo Rau: I believe that on the one hand crises always strengthen the system, but on the other hand they also open up new paths. In the theater in particular there are a lot of things that can only be done live and together. And a production company like the IIPM [International Institute of Political Murder] quickly gets into trouble when it is no longer possible to tour. In Ghent, where I run a state house, I tried to pay the free people their fees, even if they weren't playing, and also to find other dates so that the loss was as low as possible. At the same time, it is perhaps a good thing that this urge to return to the halls of the 19th century has been on hold for months. That you were forced to find other ways.
BB: Do you have an example of these other ways?
MR: For the first time I was able to show my works like “Lenin” or the “Congo Tribunal” to an international audience, and those who were concerned had access: the Russians, the Congolese. The lenders would never have been willing to do this beforehand. I will work to ensure that this opening remains. At the same time, we started showing our performances outside and thinking about ways to program fundamentally differently.
With our "All Greeks" festival we will play all Greek tragedies in the open air for a month, 32 pieces, always from 7 to 9 o'clock or 8 to 10 o'clock in the morning. Why should you always play in the evening with artificial light? Why always work first, then art? Why not just turn everything around? These are things that are obvious, but that you can't figure out if you're not forced to. But I'm a little afraid that the theater and the culture of debate will be more conservative after the crisis than before, because people in crises always feel an urge to hyper-normality.
BB: In the pandemic, art left its often observing role and was itself very directly affected. In many countries, including Germany, the cultural institutions are at a standstill. We see how the workers in the culture industry in France defend themselves and demand greater support from the state. Culture is a very direct part of the pandemic protest culture. How do you perceive this change?
MR: The theater is a live kind, it needs a public performance, that has always been its essence. It's different with film. The cinemas are closed, but everything can be streamed - for example, we built a platform ourselves for the “New Gospel” with 150 closed cinemas together. Public space and physical participation are central to the theater. At the same time, I find these theater casts almost a bit counterproductive: Why do you really want to return to these theaters? Why do we hold on to these structures? Why don't we try to use and expand the opportunities we have now as well as possible.
One should not occupy the institutions to play there, but to force them to democratize their means and possibilities. It's a bit like with parties, at some point you noticed that they are not as effective as hoped and that extra-parliamentary movements are needed to really change something. Therefore art has to hack politics and above all the economic system, one has to find ways parallel to the normal ways of capital. New distribution and new production methods. And then the compulsion to break new ground suddenly becomes very liberating and forces one to choose post-capitalist alternatives.
BB: What do you mean by that specifically?
MR: At the beginning of the pandemic, I designed a poster for the Kammerspiele that said: If you are not relevant to the system, then the system may not be relevant to you. This desire to be systematic within the capitalist system, as part of the entertainment industry, is the wrong approach. It's better to create parallel economies. As I said: With my new film "The New Gospel" we also considered whether we should go to Netflix or Amazon. Ultimately, however, we decided to build our own platform - and thus had the best box office results we have ever had, in solidarity with the closed cinemas that receive the proceeds. You don't have to tell the same stories over and over in the same rooms with the same actors.
BB: In the manifesto of your NT Gent theater it says “It's not just about portraying the world anymore. It's about changing it. ”In your work you dealt with the genocide in Rwanda and the expulsion of the indigenous people of Brazil. Your last film "The New Gospel" was shot in Italy, the actors were refugees themselves. How do you get people not only to consume art, but also to use it as an opportunity to help shape the world?
MR: I happened to be reading a Beuys biography, and Beuys showed me how to do it, albeit in an old-fashioned German way: It's about combining art and capital in a revolutionary way. You have to "hack" capitalism, the economy. Art and engagement cannot function independently of capital, then they are powerless. It's not just about political reach or power of interpretation. It becomes revolutionary when you manage to link the economic and cultural system.
BB: How does that look?
MR: When we were shooting “The New Gospel” in the refugee camps in southern Italy, we said: everyone who plays here has papers afterwards, is a citizen. And to ensure that this is sustainable, we began to link the distribution channels of the film to those of goods, in this case tomatoes. And then all of a sudden it's no longer about a film and image politics, it's no longer just about fair production conditions, but about a whole alternative system. Because if you don't bring the tomatoes that you produce fairly to the end consumer, you have a problem. If hashtags and campaigns don't bring in any money in the end for a certain cause and that cause is unsustainable, then nobody is helped. You have to bring about change within the system by occupying the distribution channels. It's no longer just about occupying images, but also about the land, distribution channels, political decision-making positions.
BB: How does art help with that?
MR: By understanding every project as a microeconomy. There are huge collective efforts such as the new distribution system for “The New Gospel” or the fact that the NoCap tomatoes promoted as part of the project are coming to supermarkets across Europe. But small projects are also important: fundraising campaigns to buy land for the production of alternative goods. Every act, no matter how small, counts: I link all interviews - including this one, for example - to a donation for a campaign that supports the integration of refugees in southern Italy. So we can get maybe one person a day, ten a week, 1000 a year out of dependency and slavery, and all of this through the means of art, because these are the only means that I know and can use.
Of course, it is also important to cast a black or female or Muslim Jesus or apostle, as we did in the film. But you also have to ask yourself: who gets the money when people go to the cinema? What will become of these people afterwards? How do we fundamentally change their living conditions? You have to change the way in which film, literature, how conversation, how all of this is produced, yourself. We have to think and act in solidarity, both fundamentally and structurally. It's no longer about creating perfect bubbles, the ideal art festival with the ideal program brochure. It is about changing the world for precisely those people who for centuries have only been the objects of these artistic discourses. That's what I mean when I say that culture and capital have to be linked.
BB: Isn't it also important that art maintains a certain distance in order to be able to observe developments, or is interference necessary in order to be relevant?
MR: In a world in which everything is linked down to the smallest detail, in an economy in which there is no outside, distance is a statement in itself. The so-called “outside”, the “distance” is another word for privileges. In other words, all human action is political, so I don't think there is any non-political space. If you perform a piece by Chekhov or a symphony by Beethoven in Germany in 1944, you are apolitical in the sense that you create a pure art space within the millions of murders and thus support the fascist regime. We create our economic system every day through the actions of all of us, keep it going, but also change it.
It is therefore a great mistake that one must strive for world revolution overnight. Rather, it's about the little files. Freely based on Brecht: I don't try to look at the factory from the outside, I am immersive, I go into the factory, I stand at the workbench, I try to create a local, real solidarity and then systemically globalize it gradually . The distant view, the fear of making mistakes that is very widespread among the privileged today, ultimately supports the status quo.
BB: Beyond the pandemic, for some time now we have been experiencing massive restrictions on fundamental rights such as freedom of the press, assembly and human rights, and targeted discrimination against minorities and immigrants in individual European countries, such as Poland and Hungary. What role can art play in the resistance movement in Europe?
MR: What has always helped me a lot is the solidarity that shows that you are not alone. State power always functions with essentialisms, people are racized, essentialized according to their origin, gender, religion, isolated. So that it seems as if they are being rejected precisely because of this quality, their skin color, for example - and they are looking for the fault in themselves. The Holocaust and processes of de-solidarization in society in general worked because people no longer felt affected by what was happening to others. Hate campaigns always work through stigmatization, and in the end everyone thinks that the oppressed and excluded are essentially their own fault for what happens to them - or at least they are embarrassed and silent when someone is framed.
BB: What role does art play in preventing this tactic?
MR: Art can create solidarity and identification through image politics. With the help of general terms, pictures and stories, for example with the story of Jesus, one suddenly realizes that this is human history, that is a history of the oppressed - and it takes place today, it affects us all. And you don't think what takes place in Poland takes place in Poland, what took place in the 1940s only took place there. There is no such thing as time and space as an artistic topography. Art can be counter-historical, art can come into contact with the dead, art can talk about what has not yet happened. Art can be utopia, and art can simultaneously allow this utopia to take place in the absolute, emotional and collective reality of a theater project and a film evening. Art can affect directly and is at the same time absolutely fictional. Bringing reality and utopia, practice and hope together - that is art.
BB: Do you see a danger in the fact that at a time like now, in art, it doesn't take place in the same way, where stages are closed, where people can't take to the streets and can't get together, it becomes easier for dictators and autocrats To affect systems?
MR: Yes, rights are turned back in crises, crises are regressive. The confusing thing is always: the most conservative, the most destructive is brought against the experienced destruction. Crises and war dehumanize the way people interact with one another. The main problem today is that art is being removed from the context of life. A theater rehearsal, watching a play, then being together and talking about it, that is the actual process that interests me. It is not a clearance to which you go with a mask on your face, consume the thing and go again and not get too close.
Separating life and art is one of many capitalist strategies of alienation that have been going on for centuries and therefore nothing special - but at the moment we see it in its purest form: you buy a ticket, enter a chat room and look at other people that are live somewhere else. As I said, this is capitalism in its purest form: art becomes a consumer good, the body of the other becomes an object of distant consideration. Theater consists precisely in bringing the body into a lively, utopian practical context. This is what has been brutally removed for the last 13 months. You only grow and change in relation to and together with others.
BB: Are you currently experiencing greater solidarity across national borders?
MR: Yes and no. Especially at the beginning there was a strong tendency towards nationalization, and even now there is still extreme federal fragmentation, even within Germany. A de-solidarity has taken place, not as a conscious political decision, but simply because the long-term solidarity structures - such as unemployment benefits, health insurances - are national. And that is a general problem that also shows up in the fight against climate change or in the goods industry: the long-term costs are outsourced to the Global South, where these systems do not exist. The people at the beginning of the production chain can't suddenly stop producing cotton or coltan for a few months just because the T-shirts or the computers are not needed. They have no manufacturing industry and they cannot do anything with these raw materials if they are not taken from them.
On the positive side, however, we also noticed how powerful these nation states were, at least at the beginning, what extreme demands a nation state can make on its citizens and also on its economy. It sounds a bit strange, but this rational, broader-based, solidarity-based discipline of the citizens reassures me in the age of climate change, where only collective actions bring something.
BB: And do you also see that in art and culture?
MR: The problem in art is that a lot of subtle, intelligent, but also narcissistic people come together, with a strong tendency to minimal dissent. I'm here in a one-on-one interview, but I'm organizing a panel of ten artists and letting them discuss the very issues we have just touched upon: global solidarity, changing the world. After ten minutes, solidarity and listening are over; after ten minutes, essentialism begins: who speaks, why, with which words. There is an urge to be right and to dwell on certain formulations that are ok or not ok. Anyone who has ever written an open letter with five NGOs knows how long it takes to agree on the details.
That is the problem of the cultural business that we deal with universal questions - memory, tradition and possible utopias - but at the same time, like every gathering of people, we are a club of small minds and narcissists. That is what we are sick of. We do not have the "coolness" of scientists and researchers who accept a bacterium as a fact and do not want to interpret or determine it. In art, solidarity that does not have a negative connotation, where you don't turn against something with an open letter, for example, but has a positive connotation, where you search for solutions together and passionately, is difficult to produce. I suffer a lot from this, from this often completely destructive aggressiveness. And that's why working in solidarity is actually the only thing that still interests me.
BB: And the art scene didn't learn anything last year either?
MR: I wouldn't put it that way, there were initiatives and there was definitely pressure on the state. Artists are very good at this because they are heard, because they are professionals in using public opinion and the media. I think, in purely structural terms, there is solidarity in art.There is basically a willingness to pay more attention to certain social aspects in the niche than is the case in other professions, in which one does not have the luxury of going roundabout.
BB: Do you think that the importance of culture in the consciousness of the population has increased thanks to the pandemic?