‘If the shoe fits, wear it’ by Oliver Frljić (http://kulinarskakritika.blogspot.com/)

Borut Šeparović is a specific figure in Croatian theater. The relevance and recognition of his work and of theater group “Montažstroj” in the domestic and, much more in the international context were never capitalized by an institutional position. In this context, a workshop he held in 2005 at the Academy of Drama Art in Zagreb for students of theatrical directing and dramaturgy, which, even given its excellent results, did not ensure his further presence in this institution – the workshop was unofficially announced as a pre-appearance introduction, after which Šeparović was to be given a teaching degree – was exemplary. As is well known, nothing came of it. A one-time engagement in the Croatian National Theater in Zagreb, with the absence of any support by the management, according to the “iron repertoire logic” (by the way, what remains of the “iron repertoire” in the third year of Lederer’s management?) and the disagreeable but inherited obligations, also failed to achieve for Šeparović what Indoš worded in the syntagm “a penetration into the mainstream”. Many people on the theatrical scene today believe that Šeparović should return to his neo-avant-garde stage and invent the Borut we knew in the late 1980s and early 1990s – authoritarian, uncompromising and raw. The fact that his theater now raises much more complex questions of representation and performance isn’t adequately critically interpreted. The critical and non-critical public is overly entertained by presenting, promoting, consuming and rejecting of some new Frljić, Tomić, Kurspahić and Maksić in order to adequately elaborate on Šeparović’s theatrical longevity, his always present, but now more developed, social responsibility and the leaps in quality of his work.
Before reviewing Šeparović’s latest production, the play “Timbuktu”, created on the basis of Paul Auster’s namesake novel, a small historic digression will put this production into the context of a much wider problem that determines today’s Croatian theatrical scene and its protagonists. This is a text that was created as and titled “A Polemic Editorial Note”, co-signed by Vjeran Zuppa and Igor Mrduljaš, given rise by Vlado Krušić’s critique of the play “Shakespeare the Sadist” (both texts published in “New Prologue”, September-October-November 1986 issue). I append the following paragraph here:
The Ristićesque talent of Branko Brezovec is undisputable, but this talent, whose method is permutationalism, deals with change in the existing, and not with change of the existing. Just like in Ristić’s case, there is a special kind of conservatism in act: radical conservatism. The victory of the New must not be in the procedures changed. Directing is in neither case a creative, but a procedural issue. One mostly directs that which does not resist change!
Although written back in 1986 and in a significantly different context, this paragraph opens the still actual problem in the domestic theater of directing as a procedural issue and that which resists that and such procedure, a problem that becomes a sort of demarcation line between those who see “the victory of the New” in “procedures changed” (comp. Eurokaz), and whose mission to seek the novum as a “change in the existing” (comp. ADU and the course Modern and Innovative Directing) inaugurates the “radical conservatism”, and those who can or dare the think of changing the existing and realizing it to some degree.
Expressing skepticism toward the victory of the New that might be reduced to the negatively connotated “procedures changed” of Zuppa/Mrduljaš (“I never saw myself as someone who does innovative things… […] I don’t really believe in the myth about the new.”, in Marin Blažević’s “Discussions about the new theater”) Borut Šeparović demonstrates with his latest play “Timbuktu” the possibility for directing that doesn’t deal with permutation and blurring of existing forms, nor professional or ideological positions, but directing as a dialectical process of (re)creating reality in which, I suppose, Zuppa’s/Mrduljaš’s “change of the existing” comes under. Along with that, Šeparović invokes a theater of a different social responsibility with this project, which is and remains a permanent unknown to the rest of the Croatian theater.
In different exclusions a theatrical act is constituted by, the exclusion of species, who, from an anthropocentric viewpoint, don’t seem to perceive the difference between performance-neutral acts and those who by the very awareness of the performing subject or through the colonizing act of watching move/promote from the area of performance neutrality, is one of the important issues, which is still reflected upon either too little or inadequately. Even in the cases of plays who use these species in their performance, their presence is usually not portrayed in their dissolving, but intensifying potential, considering the anthropocentric character of the theater. To put it in McKenzie’s terms – the challenge to the anthropocentric norm does not reach deep into the problem of the bases of theater – the play demonstrates that the anthropocentric norm of the theater is strengthened by the presence of the non-human.
The very first scene of Šeparović’s play “Timbuktu” opens the problem of theatrical representation and the reflection of the species whose exclusion and partial re-inclusion constitutes the concept of man. On the stage, seemingly void of any human subject, there is a dog that remote-controlled cars speed around. The cars flail about the stage often circling threateningly around the dog that, with obvious unease, remains calm and virtually motionless the entire time. Everything is intensified by one of the cult songs of the noise group Sonic Youth “Macbeth”, touching upon the American paranoia in the (post)Reagan era. The calmness and motionlessness of the dog and cars reaching a speed of up to 60 kilometers an hour produce a specific kind of unease and fragility. Even though this scene will dramaturgically be included into the narrative derived from Auster’s novel, its separate observation makes it a type of performance essay. Linking on stage the premises of two seemingly so distant groups as are Societas Rafaello Sanzio and Survival Research Laboratories, Šeparović indicates one of the basic mechanisms functioning in the theater – each mimicry or apparent absence of a human subject in or from the space of what I will designate as the space of performance in the narrow sense, only additionally strengthens its anthropocentric character.
To understand this strengthening, we need to point to the (re)construction of human as human, which occurs through the workings of what Agamben calls the anthropologic machine. These workings reside on a dual exclusion similar to the state of emergency. “As long as this is an issue of producing man through the opposition man/machine, human/inhuman, the machine necessarily functions through exclusion (which is also already the capturing) and inclusion (which is also always exclusion). Indeed, because the human is already assumed, the machine produces a kind of state of emergency; a zone of vagueness in which the outer is nothing other than the exclusion of the inner, and the inner is in turn only the inclusion of the outer.”
Šeparović opens the space in which a dog, from a metaphor of obedience grows into a metaphor of the entire theatrical space as a place of invention of the always new disciplinatory mechanisms, through the discipline of the dog that from an anthropocentric viewpoint doesn’t seem to realize the difference between the performance-potential and –neutral acts in the theatrical context. The crossover from a society of discipline into the society of control still doesn’t signify the complete erasure of what was the dominant fact of the former: the demarcated space and its disciplinatory effects. The limited space still remains an important moment in constituting our relationship toward reality. The fact that the theater as an ideological state regime survived this transition is exemplary in this sense. Different materializations of the society of discipline are integrated into the society of control to the extent in which the subjects produce “a man of control [who is] wavy, or vibrating, in orbit, in a continual network.”, as Deleuze states in the “Post scriptum for the society of control”.
The scene in which Šeparović lowers an iron grid to divide the dog trained to perform from his untamed counterparts functions as a kind of on stage exemplification of the relationship of the society of discipline and society of control. While dogs behind the grid mindlessly run, bark and urinate to mark their space, the trained dog calmly sits in front of it. The need to spatially restrict the former was exchanged by the off-theater programming and in-theater reprogramming of the latter. Drawn into the theatrical representation system, the trained dog enters a fluid game of a determinator, in which his real presence on stage is always (de)realized by the viewers’ performance of the act of watching.
The lowering of the iron grid, along with the functional and meaningful separation of trained and untrained dogs is also significant regarding the theatrical tradition of “the fourth wall”. Moliere asked in “A Versailles Improvisation” “whether this invisible wall covers the crowd watching us”. The materialization of the fourth wall in Šeparović’s play keeps this binary division into the crowd watching surreptitiously and those who, seemingly unaware, subject themselves to viewing. However, Šeparović’s restoration of the fourth wall functions also on different meta-theatrical levels: the separation and discrimination of species with a lower or higher awareness about the theatrical from those with full awareness, the expectations of the audience considering what should be happening on this and that side of the wall, etc. Still, in this case, the fourth wall/the iron grid opens the most space in considering internation as an inherent practice in the theatrical and all sorts of other social performances. There is an identical policy of spectacularization of division and limitation of movement at work here. When describing the viewers in the cave, Plato identifies them as prisoners and, as Samuel Weber notes, what is more important, “they are prisoners not aware of their imprisonment”. The theater always works on limiting and programming of movement. This limitation and programming can relate to the literal, physical movement, but also to any other as well. At that, it is important that the theater simultaneously conceals the ideological position being used to work on the limitation. It, as was indicated earlier, belongs in the inventory of the society of discipline, but also remains in the society of control.
Our assumption that other species, and anthropological research that indicate that some cultures also have no awareness about the theatrical frame, implies what I will define with the syntagm “the resistance to fictionalization”. In this case, regardless of the clearly theatrical context of performance, the work relating to one’s own production into a representative of a certain off-stage fictional universe is absent. Šeparović makes the relationship between the residues of the society of discipline, the absence of the performers’ awareness about the performing context and the production/consumption of the fictional even more complex, through the narrative spoken from the audience by Sven Medvešek, which constantly oscillates between the semantic charging and discharging of the disciplined being/residing of the dog on stage. In paradox, this very narrative, derived from Paul Auster’s novel, becomes the stronghold to what I determined with the syntagm “the resistance to fictionalization”. The attempts to include the disciplined canine being on stage into a determining economy of the narrative and the production of the surpluses of meaning, with constant delays and disfunctionality, keeps pointing/returning us to the real presence of a dog in constant and smaller and smaller intervals. The sum of these intervals, of course, isn’t meant to establish an assumed pre-representational situation, but does introduce a certain acceleration, which opens the possibility of transition into a negative mimesis.
Martin Puchner in his article “Openly performing” writes about the turn-around of a representative situation, which he describes as negative mimesis. Negative mimesis here signifies a criticism of anthropocentrism in the manner in which it appears in the sphere of theater and performance, initiating the dislocation or de-centering of the human. Stating the example of Kafka’s novel “Report to an Academy” and the process of auto-anthropomorphisation undertaken by the monkey, Red Peter, in order to survive, Puchner points to the redundancy of attempts that would try to portray animals as animals, seemingly free of anthropocentric modes of representation. Kafka, although aware that his literary representation cannot abandon the anthropological machine, uses it against itself, producing a sort of controlled malfunction within which the inhuman can negatively appear. Šeparović uses a similar strategy in which the excessive anthropomorphisation of the dog slowly decelerates and finally stops the theatrical machine.
Writing about Plato’s prohibition of poets, Jacques Ranciere concludes that the stage, “which is at once a locus of public activity and a place to exhibit fantasies”, obstructs a clear division of identity, activity and place. The problem of (in)existence of the possibility to clearly determine identity remains another common denominator between the theater and different social institutions. Šeparović’s introduction of real homeless persons into the play, who also have their dramaturgic function even within the original Auster’s novel – specifically, the first owner of the dog is a vagrant, Willy – raises the question of the relationship between the social and theatrical distribution of identity. Homeless people, who often don’t have documents to verify their identity in a socially acceptable manner, enter the theatrical space as a space of identity multiplication. However, even though in the off-theatrical space the identities of the homeless fluctuate, considering the standing procedures of determination, in the theater, paradoxically, the situation is reversed. It can be reduced to the syntagm of “the resistance of fictionalization”, but unlike the case of dogs, with which our awareness about the assumed absence of their awareness about the theatrical frame, prevents or impedes the possibility of promoting them into the representatives of a fictional off-theatrical universe, with the homeless, resistance appears as a result of their complex social status. As the inability to determine the identity in the society automatically means an exclusion from political representation, the theatrical economy determines that an absence of a clearly definable off-theatrical identity means an absence of a reference field in regard to which the multiplication of identity might be (per)formed.
The German group Rimini Protokoll in their work also takes people outside of the theatrical milieu, with whom we have a problem in determining the difference between theatrical representation and off-theatrical existence (comp. blatant examples in the plays “Cargo Sofia” and “Sabenation. Go Home And Follow The News”). However, the choice of such performers in their work is motivated by their attempt to set up a complex relationship between documentary and fictional contents and the moment in which some sort of possibility for their universal interchangeability occurs. Thus, we are witnessing a community that represents nothing but its own inability to gain an adequate social-political, and then theatrical representation.
In the already mentioned article by Martin Puchner, there is a question at the beginning: “Is it frivolous to care for animals when human rights are endangered?” The play “Timbuktu” indicates that the problem is far more complex than the aforementioned question, whose raising is only possible in the context of philosophic anthropocentrism, which takes humans as the natural center of all ethical systems. Counter-pointing on stage homeless men and dogs, Šeparović demonstrates a kind of solidarity of that which exists in the interim or on the other side of exclusion, which constitutes the concept of a human being. Solidarity occurs through the very fact of total or partial exclusion, and this solidarity becomes a kind of pledge of up-and-coming post-essentialist policies. Will these policies be realized, will they be realized in their utopian or dystopian potential, remains to be seen. However, the new conceptual space opened by the concept homo sacer, a space in which we witness what can no longer be categorized either as human or animal, gives an possibility of thinking of a political community beyond the binary division and its inherent exclusions and inclusions that constitute the concept of a human being, and the horizon of potential political communities delineated by it.
The convergence of democracy with totalitarian regimes in post-democratic societies of spectacle appears in Šeparović’s play through the constant evocation of America. America is present at almost every plain: in the narrative, through the musical number, at the iconic level. However, instead of falling into the trap, set up by the post-9/11 inflation of America as the determinant and determinator, Šeparović uses America as a paradigm of institutionalization of the state of emergency. America, like the theater, exemplifies a zone of suspension of a certain legislature. Laws are still valid, but they are not implemented. Just like in the theater certain dispositions don’t develop its (full) performance potential, thus certain legal norms, in the zone of American jurisdiction, don’t apply to certain subjects (i.e. those who are still captured at Guantanamo Bay). In this suspension of certain legal norms, which seems to be common to both the theater and America, Šeparović establishes a link through which America becomes an equivalent to the theater. The theater represents a type of disruption of the regulated performanceness of dispositions, and America is a label for the exclusion of laws who are still in force.
The play “Timbuktu” demonstrates what occurs when directing shifts from change in the existing towards change of the existing. This existing is, in this case, the very metaphysical foundation of theatrical thought. This is why it produces so much misunderstanding and the question “what for” in that part of our theatrical public, who sees the existing primarily as that which “does not resist procedure” and which can thorough different permutations be innovated. Once again: “The victory of the New must not be in the procedures changed.”

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