Peter M Boenisch
“Make World”: Archaeology as Alienation in Contemporary Performance

To start with, I would like to confront two opposing statements. On the one hand:

Every performance, if it is intelligible as such, embeds features of previous performances: gender conventions, racial histories, aesthetic traditions - political and cultural pressures that are consciously and unconsciously acknowledged. […] it is impossible to write the pleasurable embodiments we call performance without tangling with the cultural stories, traditions, and political contestations that comprise our sense of history.


Today’s alien discontinuum operates not through continuities, retentions, genealogies or inheritances but rather through intervals, gaps, breaks. It turns away from roots; it opposes common sense with the force of the fictional and the power of falsity.
These conflicting views vividly emphasize the ambiguity of the inescapable intertextual entanglement of the ephemeral presence of theatrical performance in historical past and cultural memory. The former paragraph, which has been taken from Elin Diamond’s introduction to her edited volume on “Performance and Cultural Politics”, summarizes what quite obviously can hardly be denied: Theatrical performance as ‘restored behaviour’, to apply Richard Schechner’s definition, is - just as any cultural practice - “interwoven with all social practices; and those practices, in turn, [with] sensuous human praxis, the activity through which men and women make their own history”, as Stuart Hall has put it. On the other hand, adhering to its function as a medium, theatre does not only merely store and transmit information, but also processes this information. Performance thus at any time rather actively creates than merely mirrors. At this point, Kodwo Eshun, from whom I have taken the latter statement, warns us. Academic analysis is hardly served by “mishearing antisocial surrealism as social realism.” Remembering the past in the present is unlike bringing dusted files from the depths of the (cultural) archive to light: Any cultural performance, such as theatre, relies on history, but unavoidably (re)creates and (re)presents, in other words: performs memory. Theatre theory therefore has to negotiate between these polar positions. With my paper, I would like to emphasize the necessity of a more dialectical understanding of the interplay between theatrical performance and cultural memory. In order to pinpoint the specific nature and potential of this versatile mutual relation, I shall introduce the concept of performative alienation as it has been suggested in the field of Cultural Studies by writers such as Kodwo Eshun. I will thus describe cultural archaeology as alienation of facts, rather than a reconstruction, and alienation as a potent way to experience cultural memory.

The notion of ‘alienation’ has been developed in recent CultStud-writing to trace particular strategies in the context of African-diasporic culture which in a most literal way re-members its own, which in this case means: its eradicated history. In his influential study The Black Atlantic, Paul Gilroy - presently Visiting Professor of Sociology at London’s Goldsmith’s College - has, in an exemplarily postmodernist move, deconstructed traditionally fixed and stable ethnic categories. Gilroy instead describes Black Identity and Culture as an ongoing process of travel and exchange, of crossing and re-crossing the Atlantic. In the end he associates modern (and postmodern) Western philosophy with the experience of the real, brutal practice of African enslavement, describing “blacks as the first truly modern people, handling the nineteenth century dilemmas and difficulties which would become the substance of everyday life in Europe a century later.” (221) Thus, Gilroy himself suggests links between black diasporic “subculture” [in brackets!], its experience and strategies, and our own (post)modern culture. He uses examples from philosophy (Richard Wright), literature (Toni Morrison) - and especially from black music which, as he argues, has most forcefully unseated language and textuality, those strongholds of traditional Western rationality. He reads all these various aesthetic manifestations of the black (trans-)atlantic culture as attempts to express the unspeakable - without trying to recover and reconstruct history. British cultural critic Kodwo Eshun follows Gilroy’s path with his own, aforementioned study More Brilliant Than The Sun. Adventures in Sonic Fiction. There, Eshun illustrates how artists like Sun Ra, Miles Davis and George Clinton as well as contemporary- HipHop and Drum&Bass-musicians create ‘sonic fiction’, to use his headline term, to deal with their peculiar cultural memory. In their music we find MythScience about the Rings of Saturn, or the legendary Mothership Connection. Eshun stresses black music’s particular un-reality principle of alienation as its key signifying practice.
One of the most extraordinary and most influential instances of sonic fiction comes with the music of Detroit techno music pioneers Drexciya. Drexciya is a two man project - but actually it is more of a place, a virtuality, an entire alien universe. Over more than ten years of releasing their music, the duo has never unveiled neither their names nor their ‘real’ identity. Rather than re-presenting themselves as the (black) Detroit techno musicians they are, they suggest that their music is produced by mysterious aqua-men, who are seen only in paintings on their record covers and who, of course, communicate with us through their music. In the sleevenotes to their 1997 double CD The Quest, a collection of material previously released on vinyl, they describe Drexciyans as some marine species descended from ‘pregnant American-bound African slaves thrown overboard by the thousands during labour for being sick and disruptive cargo. Could it be possible for humans to breathe underwater? A foetus in its mother’s womb is certainly alive in an aquatic environment. Is it possible that they could have given birth at sea to babies that never needed air?” Consequently, Drexciyans are introduced as exactly these ‘water breathing, aquatically mutated descendants’ (ibid.). Drexciya, the band, thus create their own cultural mythology, they defamiliarize, they alienate history and cultural memory using performative sonic fiction. With each of their purely instrumental tunes, with each song title and record cover, they map out a cartography of the alien underwater worlds of the Drexciyan amphibians: Listeners are taken to “The Red Hills of Lardossa”, “Bubble Metropolis” and their newest lab, “Neptune’s Lair”. There, we encounter “Darthouven Fish Men”, “Mutant Gillmen”, and “dreaded Drexciya stingray and barracuda battalions”, and we learn about the sophisticated underwater nature and technology, about “Manta Rays” and “Polymono Plexusgel”. And we hear that Drexciyans are well prepared for war, with their advanced weapon arsenal of “Aquatic Bata Particles” and “Intensified Magnetrons” - the original magnetron, by the way, was the heart of the microwave radar sets which were used by the USAF in WW2.
Drexciya records resemble acoustic photo albums, and sonic special-effect movies. They create what Kraftwerk, the pioneers of contemporary electronic music, have termed “tone-films”. However, in downright contrast to similar mythologically informed cultural fiction, such as e.g. the Star Wars-movies, Drexciya avoid the perpetuation of traditional cultural strategies of representation. Taking instead the peculiar tactic of performative alienation to an extreme, Drexciya manage to break up the inherited chain of signification. They even create a certain freedom which is located at the same time within and yet without - or, more precisely, as the underwater world geographically suggests: underneath hegemonic discourse. Thus they manage to express and communicate something unspeakable, delving into areas which have been forgotten and suppressed by the hegemonic discourse of White and Western Cultural Memory. The performance of purely instrumental techno music becomes an extremely effective political tool, even a weapon.

The need for such a peculiar strategy of (self-)representation which eschews dominant cultural practice is only too obvious within the context of black-diasporic culture. However, I suggest that the same concept of alienation also works, stripped from this particular context, as an equally forceful, highly dynamic signifying practice within any context of aesthetic performance. Alienation, therefore, becomes highly important for our considerations of theory, theatre, and the theory of theatre. That is why I would like to turn to an entirely different instance of the same strategy of re-shaping and thereby intensifying the experience of history, memory and culture, this time within a more traditional performance context (albeit, once more, no traditional theatre context).
The production “Kanal Kirchner” was staged at the bi-annual Munich theatre festival Spielart in November 2001. The performance collective Hygiene Heute which created this remarkable performance experience has been in the news, at least in Germany, only a couple of days ago, at June 27th, when they re-staged and re-played a ‘real’ government debate simultaneously and in real-time while it took place at the German Bundestag in Berlin at the old site of the German parliament in Bonn. Each of the almost 700 German MPs was embodied by ordinary citizen who had volunteered to stand in and speak for ‘their’ MP, following the original debate live by earphones. Last November, Hygiene Heute presented their “Kanal Kirchner” in Munich, a very particular audio tour through the city of Munich which the audience could take during the two weeks of the theatre festival. Every 15 minutes, one by one, the audience started this tour, equipped only with a walkman, a tape and no idea what was going to happen. The one hour tour took the audience to various places in the city: the building of the main arts centre, an old chapel, a block of flats, the streets. Combining the common form of presenting cultural memory and heritage sites by an audio-guided tour with an extraordinary site-specific performance, “Kanal Kirchner” similarly relies on techniques of alienation. The narrative the audience followed on the tapes was centered around the fictitious librarian Mr. Kirchner who has allegedly disappeared three years ago - the tape which the audience received being introduced as a rare sign of life of Mr Kirchner, which had been found on a public toilet - which was in fact where the performance-tour started. Not unlike Drexciya, but this time using both text, sound effects and a music soundtrack, the tape superimposed a second, virtual reality on the well-known (or not so well-known) sites the audience walked through. Kirchner was the one who was on the trail of this secret, Matrix-like reality. Oddly designed radiators on the wall, a playground, fanciful architecture, decorated shop windows and graffitis all were connected with mysterious Big-Brother-like secret societies: the snail and the spider. The voice on the tape pointed out the evidence, and invited you to watch, to listen, to smell, to experience. At one point, it was implied that the listener was in imminent danger of getting trapped and caught by the ‘snail’. In the midst of the labyrinth of never used emergency exits of a huge underground car park, the voice said: “Run. Open the door. (Damn, another corridor). The snail is almost here, can you smell it? (Of course you did!) Run faster, open the door at the end of the corridor” - and the poor audience (who was alone and probably more and more lost at this point) found themselves in just another corridor! Numerous participants reported feelings of claustrophobia, extreme fear - and couldn’t do but stop the tape.
Although one never left a factual, everyday environment, literally concrete buildings, thus: reality (unlike in the theatre!) - the experience of this ‘real’ world was eradicated by alienation, as was any border between reality and fiction. The voice told you: “Watch the people at the tramway stop. See the ones with the suitcases?”, and went on to explain their relation to the ‘snail’ organization. There were, of course, people with suitcases standing at the tramway stop! So who was an actor in this game (in fact, there were none)? The audience lost any certainty. When I went on the tour which led us as well through a public park, suddenly a police car approached - which had nothing to do with the performance at all, but of course I was by then far from being sure of that, and it would have been no surprise for me if the officers had jumped out to arrest me as I was spying the world of the spider, just like Kirchner. In the end, “Kanal Kirchner” culminated downright in reality - at least according to the original concept of the performance. The entire path of the one-hour walk was at any time watched by original surveillance cameras - none of these had been specifically installed for the piece, they were really real. It was initially intended to give each of the participants this tape recording of his/her tour - but, of course, authorities denied access to their surveillance network to record the tour. But even without that videotape: Just as Drexciya perform and thus make tangible, even for non-blacks, the experience of African-diaspora by leaving historic facts aside and creating an alienated past and present instead, Hygiene Heute with their audio tour-performance, applying similar strategies of sonic alienation, unveil a secret and disturbing aspect of every-day reality which is usually simply cut out of our experience and knowledge. The alienated surrealism in both cases tells us more about these hidden areas of life and reality than any realist play, not the least because they dive under conventional strategies of performative signification. The radical dis-connection with reality makes it all the more obvious - and by the way in a certain sense more pleasurable as well, as one of the Drexciyans stated in a rare interview: “Instead of just laying it out there and making it dull and boring, once you have something that is a mystery, people enjoy that more”.

With Drexciya’s music and the “Kanal Kirchner”-tour, we have met performances which refuse to be located in a well-ordered continuum of cultural memory, but rather foreground the gaps and the dis-continuum with factual reality, alienating it, re-creating it, presenting it instead of re-presenting it. These performances truly ‘make worlds’. As the computer experts amongst our audience will know, ‘Make World’ is a command in the computer language UNIX which rebuilds and updates the operating system according to changes and additions while it is running. These ‘made worlds’ blur conventional borders between mere suggestion and factual information, between social reality and science fiction. Borders which are nothing but optical illusions anyhow, as Donna Haraway had suggested back in 1991 in her famous Cyborg Manifesto. Alienation as performative strategy turns performance into an effective political tool, challenges hegemonic writings and readings of memory, the experience of past and present.
At this point, I can only indicate some central conclusions: Considering cultural, theatrical performance as cultural memory, we have to acknowledge that theatrical performance is anything but a mere ‘container’ of historical facts, but always a performative construction, embodying the entire scope of contradictions and eradications inherent in its original context. Writing the history, memory and theory of theatre, we should thus - not only in terms of ethnic respects - follow Paul Gilroy where puts forward a plea for “the need to indict those forms of rationality which have been rendered implausible by their racially exclusive character and further to explore the history of their complicity with terror systematically and rationally practiced as a form of political and economic administration.” (220) We should not limit ourselves to search for the already known, but might think of critical, academic interpretation as an equally active, performative act with the capacity to render objective facts and hegemonic discourses as necessarily relative. Then, why shouldn’t we use ourselves these strategies of alienation to defamiliarize what has been taken as a given and amplify the alienation of reality which is inherent in theatrical performance, rather than taming the alienated worlds through theory. That is exactly the position Kodwo Eshun takes, and to conclude, I want to sample a from his introduction to More Brilliant Than The Sun, replacing his original field of research, music, by our own field, theatre and performance: “Theory always comes to theatre’s rescue. The organization of performance is interpreted historically, politically, socially. Like a headmaster, theory teaches today’s music a thing or 2 about life. It subdues theatre’s ambition, reins in it, restores it to its proper place, reconciles it to its naturally belated fate.” Eshun continues to outline a provocative, alternative approach, and again I quote and reformulate: “Here, Performance is encouraged in its despotic drive to crumble chronology like an empty bag of crips, to eclipse rerality in its willful exorbitance, to put out the sun. Here the mystifying illogicality of performance is not chastised but systematized and intensified. Instead of theory saving theatre from itself, from its worst, which is to say its best excesses, performance is heard as the anaylis it already is. Far from needing theory’s help. Theatre at any time has been pregnant with thoughtprobes waiting to be activated, switched on, misused.”