Academic journal article About Performance

Staging Encounters with the Radically Absent(ed): The Politics and Ethics of Performance in Some Recent Examples of UK-Based Art and Theatre about Forced Migration and Asylum

Academic journal article About Performance

Staging Encounters with the Radically Absent(ed): The Politics and Ethics of Performance in Some Recent Examples of UK-Based Art and Theatre about Forced Migration and Asylum

Article excerpt

This essay examines the ways in which some recent performance work in the UK has formed critical and creative responses to tragic events, such as the grisly discoveries of dead bodies fallen from the wheel bays of commercial airliners or the drowning deaths of 23 Chinese cockle pickers at Morecambe Bay on 5 February 2004. These deaths represent a small number of the 11,105 documented refugee deaths directly attributed to the policies and practices of "Fortress Europe" (UNITED 2008). In examining a Video Ballad by Banner Theatre, a studio theatre production by Cardboard Citizens, and an audio-visual installation by Graeme Miller, I aim to explore the question posed by English Canadian popular theatre practitioner and scholar, Julie Salverson: "What is the alternative to a tragic response to a world that is, itself, tragic?" (2006: 150).

Salverson's question arises from what she identifies as "an aesthetic of injury" (2001: 122) in community-based theatre/performance for social change. When working with the testimony of those in marginalised or oppressed communities the tendency is to privilege a documentary realist genre (or some variation thereof), which lays claim to presenting authentic, that is, direct and unmediated, experience of a particular problem. In so speaking "truth" to "power" the idealisation of authentic experience obscures the act of translation (from personal story to public performance as theatre) and the role and subjectivity of the theatre worker in the process of performance making. Given the gradual yet substantive increase in, and success of, documentary "truth telling" theatre, including verbatim "word for word" plays (see Reinelt 2006; Bottoms 2006), and the "boom" (Dwyer 2004) in popularity of Boal and Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) techniques in which participants (actors and spectactors) share experiences of a common problem, Salverson is concerned to trouble the model of mimesis that underpins a genre of work that aims to give voice to the marginalised or oppressed. There are two reasons for this. First, the uncritical representation of authentic experience "produces a reductive and stationary model of cthe event' that pays attention primarily to £the victim' [ ... and] in an overly deterministic way privileges injury" (2001: 123). Second, the representation of the victim's experience of injury and loss encourages a mode of reception which Salverson describes as "an erotics of suffering" (2001: 123). audience members are moved to identify with the victim and are then subsumed in the pleasurable experience of pain and suffering shared. As Salverson states, "the subject of the testimony and the potential witnesses are excluded from more than the most superficial engagements which are structured, ironically, in terms of a feel-good kind of empathy" (2006: 149).

Drawing on the pragmatic ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Lévinas, Salverson suggests that there is an alternative to "the hopeless, self-enclosing indulgence of a tragic response to existence" and that it consists in the "challenge to witness" that is provoked by "an encounter with the Other" of the order demanded in Lévinas' philosophy (2006: 147). Perhaps the most difficult aspect of Lévinas' work is that he insists that, "the ethical alternative is only possible when I declare that I can never know (and thus erase through my assuming to know) the Other; I can only respond, attend, and remain willing to hear beyond my own conception" (in Salverson 2006: 147). Thus, Salverson speaks of tragic, paralysed and foolish types of witnessing. Tragic and paralysed witnessing is connected to an aesthetics of injury which, she says: "risks enacting narratives of suffering that reduce testimony to the interpretive frame where all otherness is sentenced to loss" (2006: 150). As Salverson goes on to say, "presumptions and preconceptions about pain and how to recognise it restrict the ability of a potential witness to perceive strength and resilience in a survivor and the possible vulnerability or damage in oneself as a listener to stories of violence" (2006: 150). …

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