Chapter One: Isolated Writer
The first day of The Performance Arcade. I am sitting in a container on the Wellington Waterfront. A desk with a laptop is in front of me. I am typing. I am expressing my thoughts through the keyboard. My writing is revealed on the screen outside the container. The audience is reading the flow of my mind. But the container is closed. I am hidden behind the fourth wall. Nobody can see me.
I am a dramaturg and performance analyst. My mind is occupied with my current position as a performer. I type:
"Should I talk my shit out loud? I am confused. This is a performance. I am sceptical about whether art is the right place to discuss personal luggage. Art is an expression, of course. Every creation is individual. But it must also be universal. An artist must be able to create archetypal language out of individual language and thoughts.
The situation I am in is like a kind of Brechtian alienation effect. Bertolt Brecht believed that the right way to create a good political art is to get rid of the emotions on the stage. An actor is not supposed to feel what he acts. He must do every single action rationally and send the message through fiction and metaphors. So I am producing an alienation effect. The audience can see the projection of my thoughts, but not my body. What I type, say, does not necessarily match with my emotional experience. An actor is replaced by the screen.”
I expressed these thoughts as a participating writer for Filter//Free, the ‘live writing’ performance conceived by Louise Lin. Concealed within a container, each writer shared their inner world with the public for three hours. Revealing the flow of my mind on the screen evoked in me paradoxical feelings: although thoughts are individual’s intimacy, so my privacy was exposed in front of the public, I felt isolated and disconnected from the outside world. Trapped in the container. The screen was all that was left from my deepest self. Media builds our personality. Medium is the message, as Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan said. Isolated individuum behind the walls of the container depicts the postmodern world of narcissistic individualism, where the lack of empathy erases the sense of community.
But Filter//Free goes beyond postmodern societies way of being. The fourth wall of the container has a little gap, a mailbox, through which the audience sometimes sent post to the writer. I soon began to receive questions and comments on my writing. My isolation was no longer isolated. My words on the screen started to establish bonds between writer and audience.
I felt like a postmodern version of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra who was self-isolating in the mountains to meet his deepest self. Zarathustra’s main teaching was that, to reach happiness, we must get rid of the “heavy burden of life”. The prophet of overman believed that the only way to reach this was through “The Death of God”. But ironically in the postmodern era, where consumerism killed all the beliefs and values, the new god was born – we can name it “an individual self with no sense of community". So the question is: How to kill individuality? The answer is paradoxical: to isolate and take off our social masks. We can reconnect with each other only through unfiltered thoughts. Filter//Free so revives Zarathustra’s teachings.
While I was sitting and writing in my zarathustrian isolation, I received a message from the outside world. The message described travel to the United States. It contained a racial epithet, depicting the experience of the writer, a black man, on his travels.
Two months after The Arcade, the world witnessed as the murder of George Floyd proved to be a tipping point against generations of systemic racism and brutal law enforcement. Global protests followed; Donald Trump suggested on Twitter that protestors could be shot.
Retrospectively, the message I received was an echo of upcoming events and the circularity of racism in our history. As artists, how do we challenge a society built on racism? How do we emphasize that Black Lives Matter? Which tactics of resistance can art use? The offensive language intruded into the cave of Zarathustra. I felt challenged to grab the opportunity, to test the limits and effects of art. I decided to respond to the message with subversive affirmation.
Inke Arns and Sylvia Sasse define subversive affirmation as an artistic performance that overemphasizes prevailing ideologies and thereby calls them into question. I typed on the keyboard an unfiltered thought of the prevailing ideology. The screen became a reflection of reality produced by social media – medium is the message. My action revealed the affirmed concept, but simultaneously distanced myself from this concept – screen as an alienation effect. Written words merged the imitation of affirmed concepts and warning that racism is a fiction, a lie produced by prevailing ideologies. Art as a creative space can deconstruct dominant meanings of the language and summon us to alternative ways of thinking. The community can be established only when “Black Lives Matter”.
What an irony. When I started to type the words of this chapter, I was self-isolating between the walls of my room. The Covid-19 epidemic was devastating outside. My container had no gap. All the bonds of community were cut. I was waiting for the day when this chapter gets published that these words can finally receive responses.
Readers, companions, please share your opinion with me. Write in the box below. What do you think about the use of hate speech in art? Do words sound different in different environments? How effective can subversive affirmation be? Does art have the power to deconstruct slurs?