Earlier this month I attended a lecture by Matthias Lilienthal, the former artistic director of Hebbel am Ufer (HAU). HAU as it is affectionately known in Berlin is an organization with three performance spaces in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, and is one of the largest, best funded, and risk-taking performance theatre complexes in the world. As one of the most important and innovative avant garde theatre directors, Lilienthal has "created, instigated and nourished many of the most important developments in theatre in recent decades," according to Tom Sellar of Yale who introduced him.
Lilienthal was interviewed after his talk by Gideon Lester, my exciting new colleague who now is director of the theatre program at Bard.
While Lilienthal is an artistic director and has a background in the theatre, he calls himself a "booker" of talent more than an artist or a curator. He is committed to theatre that has social and political impact. His mission is to constantly create friction. Friction means in his telling, "to be polemic against society and be an urban laboratory for the future." That said, Lilienthal insists that he remains an artist, someone who in his words cares most about the aesthetic experience his works bring about.
Lilienthal discussed a number of his past projects to explain what he means by a theatre of friction. One of the most famous and interesting is FOREIGNERS OUT! SCHLINGENSIEF'S CONTAINER, a performance, installation, and movie that he produced in collaboration with the filmmaker Christoph Schlingensief.
FOREIGNERS OUT! premiered in Vienna in the summer of 2000, at a time of great anti-immigrant sentiment in Austria—it was shortly after the xenophobic politician Jörg Haider came to power in Austria. Schlingensief and Lilienthal put two large containers in the public square in front of the Viennese Opera house and filled them with 15 asylum seekers. Above the asylum seekers, the artists hung a sign that read: "Foreigners Out." They then gave the Austrian population the opportunity to vote which foreigner to expel from the country. Over 10,000 Austrians voted every day and the first person sent home was a Nigerian woman.
Lilienthal speaks of a "hysterical longing for reality in today's theatre." Much of his work and the work he "books" mixes reality with theatre. His most famous performance piece, performed all over the world, is "X Wohnungen" or "X Apartments." Artists are asked to create artistic experiences that last up to ten minutes and take place in private apartments or houses. In one example that Lilienthal showed a clip from during his talk, audience members in groups of two are led into apartments of immigrants in Cologne where they are told to kneel in front of doors with keyholes. Through the keyholes they watch a Muslim woman in a burka and hijab strip naked and recline on a couch. They are then interrupted, given tea and told to go out.
Lilienthal explains that "we are playing a private reality, with voyeurism and with exhibitionism." His participatory performance art is "a kind of playful treatment of reality. You are playing with prejudgments against migrants. You are playing with your own voyeurism." The effort is partly to create discussions about Islam, religion, and sexuality. But it above all, in his words, to "to bring together experiences of reality."
Lilienthal was quite critical of the New York art scene, arguing that NYC artists are too commercial and that there is no meaningful artistic forum in the U.S. as there is in Germany. His point is that his HAU stages have, in his telling, become the center of German and European art worlds, presenting all the most interesting and most important artists from around the world under a single umbrella. He lamented the fact that there was no similarly dominant and unifying artistic space in NY or in the U.S. New York, he said provocatively, in the East Village, is a provincial state.
Lester asked Lilienthal what would he have done in NYC had he accepted a job here? He answered, (I am paraphrasing here),"I would have presented art that offers a polemic against society. I would like everyone to know me and then I would have been... perhaps they would kill me after a year."
There is something both noble and anachronistic in Lilienthal's Socratic dream to create art so full of friction and power that he would be killed for it. It is a noble dream because it imagines that art, like philosophy, might still have the power and importance to be seen as a threat to the state or the society. It is anachronistic because art and philosophy have long since lost such centrality.
When I asked Lilienthal about this, his answer was that it was different in Berlin, where the arts are more central and given more public financing and public attention. But I don't accept the argument that the arts are so much more important in Berlin than in NYC. In Berlin, as everywhere today, the intellectual world is just no longer governed by a unified aesthetic or a single dominant medium. There is a mass culture, but the premise of the mass culture is consumerism. Everybody buys what they want and art connoisseurs consume what they like. Most intellectuals and educated people now consume art and news that is hardly distinguishable from middle or low-brow tastes; indeed, the distinction between high and low is now illegitimate. But more important even than that, is the fact that those who do like the best art or best philosophy or best theatre or the best philosophy do not agree on what the "best" is.
One sees this fracturing of culture everywhere. The New York Times was, for a period of time, the arbiter of what mattered in the United States. That is no longer the case and has not been so for decades. It is not the Internet that brought about the factionalization of cultural and political opinion, but, on the contrary, the loss of any single or dominant opinion made the cacophony of voices and platforms on the Internet appealing and powerful.
Similarly, philosophy is broken into analytic and continental schools, and within each there are esoteric sub-schools so specialized that advanced papers and thinking can be read and understood by only dozens of people around the world. The same fission occurs in literature and art as well. Who now feels the need to read all the books profiled in the NY Times Book Review or the New York Review of Books? The selection criteria are ever more arbitrary and there are no longer any acknowledged gateways to culture.
There are, of course, still important artists and writers, but they appeal to ever-more specialized and localized crowds of followers. Lilienthal's dream of a unified artistic world with a single influential cultural world is long gone. And this is true in Berlin as well as in NYC. We will never again have a situation where the chattering classes are all reading the same books and seeing the same shows. The culture is simply too diffuse and differentiated and democratized. There are no measures of quality that are widely accepted. So what we have are simply sub-groups and sub-genres and sub-cultures.
A version of this argument is made by Peter Sloterdijk in his essay Themes from the Human Zoo. Sloterdijk writes:
Because of the formation of mass culture through the media—radio in the First World War and television after 1945, and even more through the contemporary web revolution—the coexistence of people in the present societies has been established on new foundations. These are, as it can uncontrovertibly be shown, clearly post-literary, post-epistolary, and thus post-humanistic. Anyone who thinks the prefix `post' in this formulation is too dramatic can replace it with the adverb `marginal'. Thus our thesis: modern societies can produce their political and cultural synthesis only marginally through literary, letter-writing, humanistic media. Of course, that does not mean that literature has come to an end, but it has split itself off and become a sui generis subculture, and the days of its value as bearer of the national spirit have passed. The social synthesis is no longer—and is no longer seen to be—primarily a matter of books and letters. New means of political-cultural telecommunication have come into prominence, which have restricted the pattern of script-born friendship to a limited number of people. The period when modern humanism was the model for schooling and education has passed, because it is no longer possible to retain the illusion that political and economic structures could be organized on the amiable model of literary societies.
What Sloterdijk rightly sees is that literate means of cultural analysis have lost their once-dominant place in the social and political formation of society. Books and theatre and artworks have been replaced by mass entertainments and diversions, so that literate works are relegated to sub-genres of importance only to their particular fans and followers. Art and philosophy, therefore, become socially and politically marginal.
Instead of seeking to bring back a unified culture of art in which artists matter to the social and political worlds, as Lilienthal dreams, it would be more radical and more honest to admit that we live today in a world in which those who make art, write literature, and think philosophy matter ever less. To think the challenges of doing art and thinking in a world immune to the charms of art and thought is the challenge we are faced with today.
Matthias Lilienthal's talk is fascinating and, as you can see, provocative, which is justification enough to spend one hour this weekend watching him. Thanks to Theatre Magazine for posting the video of the talk. Here is your weekend read.