The Ravel of Us and Them

Via Intolleranza II in Brussels: What can become of Luigi Nono’s high modern seriousness when Christoph Schlingensief crosses it with his life, his projects, with colonialism, and critique.

By Diedrich Diederichsen

Right at the beginning, when Christoph Schlingensief’s Via Intolleranza II has just got going a little, they start picking on the “false texts of Mr Nono”. Only briefly. After that, we don’t learn much about Luigi Nono’s Intolleranza 1960, which according to some announcements was to be produced by Schlingensief and his ensemble, cast around the opera village in Ougadougou and in other centres of the Schlingensiefian sphere of influence. Now, the piece, which had its world premiere in 1961, only delivers the title and a little choral music that mixes creatively with all sorts of sound sources, and is only allowed to remain alone briefly. But perhaps such a slight reference, which most of the time is not even latently noticeable in the colourful activity on stage, contributes more to the consistency of this latest attack from the Schlingensief camp than the direct addresses to the “perverse Europeans” that are also there. The recipients of course don’t have a problem with the compliment “perverse”, especially not in Brussels, where the show premiered.

A refugee, working abroad as a miner, wants to go back to his repressive home country. He ends up in the universal demonstration of 1960 against both “discrimination” and “la sale guerre”, and he shouts “Morte al fascismo!” He is arrested, tortured. Sartre himself is, with his original voice, is “outraged”. The struggle continues. “The yearning for my homeland changes into the desire for freedom.” In the second part, the story is transported to a higher level of abstraction: the present consists of absurd bureaucracy and the empty prattle of the culture industry. But the refugee has found a companion. Pictures of the great political crimes of the century plague the couple, and on the land, they get caught up in a natural catastrophe (the flooding of the Po Valley) with a background of ecological crime. Everything goes under, a Brecht poem gives dry comfort.

That is roughly the plot of Luigi Nono’s Intolleranza 1960, called a “scenic action”, but in early German versions also simply an “action”, and also an “opera”, based on an idea by Angelo Maria Ripellino. At its time, the work represented in every respect a radical break. The rigorous Darmstadt high modernism of the 1950s, now recognized and critiqued by some of its students as a noble form repressing history, is opened up in all sorts of directions in Intolleranza, including some rather illustrative passages that are quite hard to take nowadays, like when the text mentions torture, and this is musically illustrated by a sudden increase in volume and a rising pitch.

Choruses of the tortures, the captured, the Algerians, a plot reduced to symptomatic scenes, masses of literary quotations, current politics (the Algerian War, racism in the US, flood disasters in Italy) form a mixture of political radicalness (that to this to this day remains difficult for some opera houses) at the moment of breaking with its teachers, who had already themselves been regarded as radical.

Not least the replacement of the proletarian subject of history with an ideational generally suppressed is bold. On the one hand, this anticipates what was best about 1968: the transformation of a Marxism that had become a state doctrine during the Cold War into a theory of current and (for the first time) global struggles, from anti-colonialism to the early ecology movement; on the other hand, also an anticipation of those subsequent times when around 1980 slowly identificatory consternation replaced politicization. Pathos, kitsch, boldness, dryness – Christoph Schlingensief’s aesthetics of going out on a limb unprotected is also stretched between these poles. Like Nono’s work, it wants to anticipate without being able to decide between apocalypse and revolution, or between personal catastrophe and having one’s wishes granted. As a model, this piece, which wanted to invent a new political idea with a new theatre form in one move, this was probably a better point of departure for Schlingensief than his favourite composer Wagner, who also briefly howls a bit here. Gesamtkunstwerk, almost a century later.

After a bone-dry beginning with a stage set that looks like something made in evening classes, and lamentations about the difficulties of this production – between citizens of Burkina Faso stuck because of the ash cloud to the sick chief dramaturg Hegemann, who was said to be absorbed by the stir caused by the debut novel of his daughter –other actors take over the stage in various waves. Berlin musicians playing a bit of Nono from a tape with strange radio receivers, and later jamming officially; an about twelve-year-old super talent from Burkina Faso, who takes up and mixes plotlines, sometimes as a child, sometimes as an adult, as perpetrator and as victim, for a brief moment he is also Nono’s refugee; a rapper appears, then an angry intellectual; a woman who is announced as Burkina Faso’s Björk; she starts to sing and utters mainly phrases by Adorno.

In the meantime, the stage set becomes successively more complicated, until the by now typical visuality is reached that Schlingensief has refined since his Bayreuth Parsifal with a special highpoint in Mea Culpa, always in cooperation with Voxi Bärenklau: varied projections on uneven walls and textiles, a village- like stage set with labyrinthine paths between tables, band stand, cabins, and built elements; barbed wire and the projection of L’inferno (1911) by Guiseppe de Liguoro, whom Schlingensief had already shown at HAU during the most recent Berlinale, mark the borders of the seemingly continuously expanding events.

Because even if new plot lines becomes recognizable all the time – spin-offs from earlier Schlingensief productions, stories of his illness and from the village – nonetheless one theme determines the throng and polyphony almost consistently. In always new single contributions, motifs from the history of colonialism and European racism are parsed: from the human displays in Hagenbeck’s zoo in Hamburg and the excesses and the normality of scientific racism of the 19th century all the way to the post-colonial world order and its rules for the representation of Africa and Africans.

Two things here are particularly successful: before the syncretistic sound background of abstract electronic beats from contemporary global dance musics, the dialogues and monologues in French, German, and Moore (the language spoken by half of Burkina Faso’s population) become a pull of knowledge and intentions that surpasses the fragility and precariousness of the individual performances. Of course most of the colonialist crimes are too well known to upset us merely by being mentioned, and too enormous to make their mere mention not seem frivolous.

In such a brief appearance, the angry intellectual comes across on stage too much as a figure (and this is obviously intentional) to do justice to the object of his anger. And the central circus director and guru-performer also does not do justice in either of his roles to his goals (which are both ambitious and never clearly formulated) of making all of this plausible as a contribution on the path to his African opera village. But the dense series that rains down on us takes the status of last words away from these interludes; in the juxtaposition of performers running about, nobody purports to be a frontal prophet, or if so, then only as a pose. What remains is a substrate which attempts to derive an ideational overall gestalt from the postcolonial facts in a similar way as Nono tried to do that with his refugee out of the various factors of the early 1960s.

The second thing is an unusual humour. I read in one review that you never know who means what seriously here. That is indeed unclear, and that’s a good thing. The angry intellectual is an actor who simultaneously voices the good reasons why an African intellectual can be angry, while at the same time parodying the figure of the angry black man who ever since Fanon has been so beloved by a certain intelligentsia of the north – a love which might also finally play a role in the project which we currently marvel at. Thirdly, however, he positions himself as an authentic person of today in relation to the good reasons articulated in his text, as well as to the problem of being possibly instrumentalized for the life dream of a guy from Oberhausen. Throughout, a scheme is used where an authentic person appears beyond his or her stage function, then plays a role which in turn positions itself to a stereotype, which refers to an ideological context.

But there are no clear transitions between these stations which would deflate this principle into a pale didacticism. Nothing of the complexity is in this case – or in the many similar cases of this fast-paced and entertaining performance – spelled out, everything is elegantly and with great accuracy played and danced in the performances. A performed self-reflexivity is developed here that never lapses into the well-known irony that on principle finds the primary concerns and the possibility of articulating them only funny and thus invalid. Precisely because the project, due to its asymmetries, its various exploitative relationships, its projections about a completely different world, is quite questionable, it here gains a dynamism that articulates itself above all as breakneck humour. All participants make a profit from the swirling contradictions.

With this, we’ve almost reached a reversal of the Nono constellation, where only the emergency brake of a sacred-humanist identification of personal dismay could do justice to a newly sensed complexity of political globality. Its naivety was then later a cause of amusement for postmodern irony. Here, a seriousness becomes visible in the self-reflective gaiety that allows for complexity; a seriousness that is no longer naïve, even if some of the goals of the work, intended to make the world a better place, seem rather child-like on paper.

However, at the end it was almost a renouncement of this style of thinking and presenting when the boss very simply and a little patronizingly declared that the opera village would now be handed over to its inhabitants, and we Europeans would have to start learning from those Africans. Working with such a clearly posited dichotomy of “us and them” was something Via Intolleranza II had just relegated to a past world.

Source: THEATER HEUTE #7, July 2010


In Brussels, Schlingensief laments his failure in Afrika in Via Intolleranza II after Luigi Noni.

By Reinhard Brembeck

Christoph Schlingensief once again is on a stage, in Brussels, in the Koninklijke Vlaamse Schouwburg, at the opening of the Kunsten Festival des Arts there. At the beginning of the year, the political anti-theatre maker founded an opera village, a Festpielhaus Africa. In its centre, there is a school for several hundred children, a school with photography and music classes, which is to be extended by a rehearsal stage, workshops, a cinema, a sound studio. It was to be a counter project to Bayreuth, but it also seems reminiscent of Hellerau, coupled with development aid.

But apparently the opera village project developed quite differently that Schlingensief may have thought originally. And thus he mixed up a theatre evening from all his experiences: the evening is his African diary, a taking stock of the African-European relationship, a pamphlet expressing his aesthetics, and finally it is also his abdication as the king of an off-theatre that is also suitable for festivals.

As his basis, Schlingensief takes Luigi Nono’s 50-year-old Intolleranza, an opera describing rather unsubtly the path of a migrant worker through exile, political uprising, and torture. Schlingensief is interested above all in the plot here, and unfortunately hardly at all in the music.

He and his dramaturges have divided the plot into ten tableaus, handed it to an African-European crew, and loaded it with a great deal of messages. The result is called Via Intolleranza II, and it is Schlingensief’s quite personal via crucis. The given rigorous form, however, cannot quite contain the themes, and it isn’t supposed to, and this continuous overflowing of Kunstwollen, or an art drive, into reality results in a playfully heaving one-and-a-half hours that gesture towards something excessive.

On the left a hut and a bench, in the centre a presenters’ table (there is a great deal of talk and interpreting between French and German), next to it a lectern, on the right the interior of a hut; in the middle ground two white curtains on which chapter headings and films are projected; in the background a band and a box for a Punch and Judy show for charts and diagrams. A typical Schlingensief installation, visibly homemade, a refusal of beautiful illusion and an emblem of the whole world.

“Why don’t you dance hunger”, says the white man to the black man. And he breathes his stomach away.

In this huge hullabaloo, two dancers, an old black one and a young white one, brilliantly sum up the central message of the evening. The white dancer does expressive dance, flowing aesthetics, close to arts and crafts. Now you dance hunger, he says to his black colleague. And the black dancer breathes out, makes his stomach disappear, and makes a face as if by Munch. Pha!, says the old one, you are young, anybody young can do that.

This key scene describes how Schlingensief as a theatre maker fails when dealing with Africa. Because he has already failed in Europe. Because he, Midas’ brother, only transforms everything he touches into a theatre art that is kept alive by the media. But Schlingensief yearns for reality, he wants life, uprising, revolt. Maybe he even dreams of the effect Daniel Auber’s opera The Mute Girl of Portici had in 1830 in Brussels: revolution broke out, and Belgium separated from the Netherlands.

With Schlingensief, Africa separates for good from Europe. Also because the singers-dancers-actors from Burkina Faso can do more, and they act more naturally and closer to life than their European colleagues. They can scream their indictment of Europe with furore, and the next minute dance joyously, they can die melodramatically and then pose clever questions to the audience, with that European discourse slang that in their case mixes irony with social indictment.

Compared to this furore, the European contribution pales. Especially because Schlingensief gives in to a rather German selfhatred and hypercritically denunciates his own culture, going far beyond the artistic field. However, he alone succeeds, in two short appearances, in matching the furore of the Africans. He tells us how, sick with cancer, he lay alone in a hotel in Burkina Faso, and then he heard the hotel’s employees at a festival where they voiced gratitude for all the miseries of life – for Schlingensief, the Internet-controlled progressive European, apparently the greatest imaginable provocation.

So that his thanks for his real cancer, directed at the rather less real Jesus, becomes a despairingly wild indictment. This is the second central scene of the evening. It shows why this project must fail in order to succeed. Because only by letting the African-European cooperation fail can Schlingensief provide the experience of the insurmountability of the cultural abyss for his audience.

But that is not enough for Schlingensief. He punishes himself for the attempt to trouble the Africans with a European cultural project. The doubt, despair, and failures paralyze the European part of this project. Like so many before him, Schlingensief despairs of Europe’s culture, its global claim, coupled with a lack of vitality, its apolitical attitude, and its inability to accept what is foreign as foreign, and not just merely as exotic ornamentation.

Thus Via Intolleranza II marks an aporia in Schlingensief’s work: Africa for him doesn’t open up an alternative, and the old Europe with its cultural institutions (Goethe-Institute, Bayreuth, etc) that support him stands in the way of his concept of a politically radical and existential theatre. Never has Schlingensief been so close to his ideal Antonin Artaud. Now it remains to be seen whether he wants to take Artaud’s path into artistic isolation and loneliness, or whether he prefers to endure the increasingly radical conflict between his dreams of revolution and the event-hungry culture of Europe that is in love with pure aesthetics.

Source: Süddeutsche Zeitung, 17 May 2010