The pre-corona era increasingly seems very far away, out of time, a different place. This affects us not only temporally , as in our simultaneously progressing into the future and looking back at our pasts, or spatially, as we encounter different physical alterations of ordinary protocols and procedures when, e.g. going to see a doctor or run a bureaucratic errand. It also engenders different feelings, affects, angsts, expectations. In this we can see that the past and present experiences are indiscriminately mediated through the pandemic. Panmediated.
Going to work, getting food, watching TV, listening to the news, or seeing a theatre show in panmediated Slovenia is refracted through sometimes intrusive and as a rule unclearly and arrogantly communicated safety measures; the exteriority (whatever is out-of-body or, in pandemia, out-of-home) can be experienced, seen, heard, or smelt, and touched and felt, through the veil of the invisible, yet potentially deadly viral agency. The protective gear is a screen (mask or interface). The screen always mediates. But all is not screen(ed) (?).
So it was with great expectations and some anxiety that I attended a couple of Mladi Levi Festival 2020 performances. It seemed more than appropriate to start with Jaka Andrej Vojevec and his Theatre of Human Kind: Plastocene. The premise was much in line with the recent end:debates and my penchant for sci-fi: a group of attendees become extra-terrestrial visitors, space archaeology enthusiasts, on an excursion to archaeological sites in Ljubljana where they, or rather we, traced the plastic remains of an Earthly civilisation long since gone. The plastic remains remain as a source of socio-culturo-technical interpretation of lifeforms, into which a tale of the collapse of civilisation is woven. The show is post-endly in its premise, throwing the “visitor” into the future to take part in a guided tour through the remains of human remains disinterred from under a shield of methane by space archaeologists. Before the preregistered group embarked on the fictional expedition, each person got a plastic/wooden helmet/headgear and 3D goggles, distinct markers of out-of-placeness and a call to see things differently. We had to give our names and addresses in case the virus spread among us, retroscopic enthusiasts. Everything has to be tracked. Everyone masked.
The tour-theatre group was thrown in a rather complex situation, in between real and surreal, fact and fiction. The ‘normally’ transparent process of actually going to a show in panmediated world is an out-of-the-ordinary experience with added steps and procedures as mentioned above. Throughout the performance, the visitors tried to keep the physical distance, an urge that seemed to dwindle as the group progressed on its designated track. As we did so the screen of unease slowly dissolved to give way to more relaxed interaction both between visitors and the presenter and the artefacts. Is this normalisation? To just let the environment (both in its normativity and perceptive openness) seep into us without noticing, or in fact through mitigated interactions between and among humans, the environment, the dreams? But what is normal, especially in the role of a post-endly scavenger for deteriorated lifeforms? And particularly if we think about the imminent, planetary doom?
To put this macro- and retro-scopic endeavour into perspective, the theatre performance For the Health of the Nation (Brina Klampfer, Peter Frankl, Vid Merlak, Urša Majcen) offered a more micro take on the present, everyday realities of Slovenian pandemic, post-pandemic, panmediated quotidian . The specific ‘focus of dissection’ was the question of culture, which in 2020 Slovenia seems to go along the lines of (a paraphrase from the performance): “all is fog, there is no future, everything is collapsing.” Reverberating Franco Berardi and the Sex Pistols in their detecting the no-future-predicament, the mono-performance readily inscribes itself into a prospect-less here-and-now. Through the deletion-by-bodily-force-and-weight, of chalk-written artists’ names on the wooden floor, the performer alludes to a general aversion to critical voices that came to dominate the everyday, in and through the media-political complex. It is a statement on the erasure of vibrancy and elusiveness of artistic practices that seem to be a problem for a re-nationalising, hyper-patriotic, faux Heimat-lich endeavours to install as a measure of quality the lowest possible denominator that, allegedly, has the capacity to “speak to and for the nation”.
In this one can clearly detect the underlying socio-hygienic imperative to eradicate the disruption, dissent, criticism as virally dangerous, infectious, contagious. As satirically as the performance thematises this issue, the horror of reductionism and the terror of prospective political arbiters of everything, including art, is palpable. In this, one could argue, the extra-diegetic space where audience is sat during the performance, is screened-off behind masks. This very point of distinction or a sort of panmediated border is further emphasised by the audience-scapes conforming to health authority provisions maintaining 1,5 meters of physical distance, except for same household dwellers. As much disruption as health regulations are, in this case, the very distance and masks became a prop to support the sometimes-erratic performance in its emphasising the implicit silencing of panmediated era. The collectively-individually worn screens on the one hand made a mass out of individuals but on the other provided a screen through which the performer teased out responses. The mask became a two-way screen, a portal through which the audience (or rather members of the audience) uttered punch lines to shortly and bitingly depict the situation. Next, the responses were read by the performer, himself recorded, only to be finally replayed on screen.
Is this how circulation of ideas works? What are the technologies or techniques that filter them, or screen them out? Technologies? Political discourses? Media representations? How to think about screens, screening off, masking and unmasking when no past exists but the one repurposed through the pandemic? As much as Plastocene was an exercise in futurology, the For the Health of the Nation was rather a reminder how easily, also in the time of pandemic, stuff (art, culture, history, memory) gets erased or rewritten. And that it takes courage to think about or engender practices and initiatives, to allow and hear and listen to voices that may disrupt, but that may also point to concepts, ideas, solutions that allow us to put the ordinary, or the normal, into wider perspective.