Interview with Vlatka Horvat
With „Utopian Realities – 100 Years of Now with Alexandra Kollontai“ HAU Hebbel am Ufer inquires into the topicality of political and artistic developments that became possible for a few years following the 1917 Russian Revolutions. The Croatian artist Vlatka Horvat, in her first work for the stage „Minor Planets“, deals with the behaviours that people develop when previous structures collapse, as well as with the general insecurity that characterizes our current political situation.
Utopian Realities: 12.–22.1.2017
Cooperation HAU Hebbel am Ufer with Haus der Kulturen der Welt
Minor Planets: 20., 21., 22.01.2017
„Minor Planets“ is your first full production for the stage. HAU encouraged all artists participating in the festival to „enter unfamiliar territory, build unusual alliances, explore both new forms and new contents, and in doing so step onto very thin ice.“ Did you have a „utopian moment“ at some point of the production? Is the feeling of walking on thin ice, i.e. experimenting with new forms, necessary to create a sense of utopia?
My background a long time ago was in theater. Most of my working life I’ve been working in visual arts, so this is a bit of a return to the early days. It was a shift from working in the studio, which can be a solitary experience, to working with people in the room, which is, of course, different: getting out of your head and putting some ideas to test in the room, with people. When we started, I did some research, and I had notebooks of material and ideas, but of course that all changes when it meets other people and in the process of trying to enact these things in time and space, using bodies.
We did a couple of workshops in the summer, which was a chance to test some of these ideas I had. It was an exciting process to see what holds water or what is a potential material to pursue. Some of it sounded great in my head (laughs) but isn’t anything once you put it in the room. I was very lucky to be working with an amazing group of performers, so there was a sense of throwing things up in the air and seeing what they do with it. I tried to devise structures, prompts or instructions for action for the performers that were, sometimes deliberately, sometimes by default, not entirely precise. A fascinating thing happens when different people interpret the instructions in various ways. I had a hint of something in my head, just a germ of an idea, and asked people to try something and they all interpreted it differently. There were also interesting creative misunderstandings. It was a generative sort of process that opens itself up to surprise in the sense of something else being possible than what you thought. Maybe that’s the kind of utopian germ of something.
It’s quite an interesting way for me to work. When you’re in the studio, you’re confronting or encountering your own processes and thoughts. Naturally, there are voices from the outside, things that you read and look at or people you talk to. Working in the theater, on the other hand, is a process where things are sometimes reconfigured when they meet other sensibilities, other people and other ways of understanding, of trying to understand what you asked them to do. It was great!
You conceptualized „Minor Planets“ based not only on your research on the Russian Revolution but also on your experience of the Yugoslav wars during the 1990s. Are you able to draw a parallel between those two historical events and maybe even beyond?
There were several different starting points for the piece. Of course, there was the research into the Russian Revolution. Part of the invitation from HAU was to engage with this historical moment. As I was reading about it, I was thinking of the experience of the breakdown of Yugoslavia. The parallels that I was drawn to had to do with the breakdown of systems or this idea of radical change that happens in a society on a structural level, a change that reconfigures the system or the structure in which everybody operates. I was also interested in the effect on regular people living in those conditions. How do they cope with that sort of systemic change? What are some of the maybe improvisatory strategies or ways of making do people have to come up with to account for this kind of change, which always takes you off guard? There’s no way to prepare for something like this.
Last year, when I started speaking with Annemie (Vanackere, ed.) and Sarah (Reimann, ed.) from HAU about this project, the refugee crisis was quite at its peak, at least if we judge it by the amount of attention it got in the media. It was very prominently in the mainstream media, so I was also thinking about that upheaval. You see people who are displaced, and their lives are completely stopped short or cut short. Life becomes about movement as a means of survival.
Underneath all of it, there’s the financial crisis of the late 2000s and other moments of crisis which seem to be a permanent state of the world at the moment. There are no solutions, so it becomes a kind of a limbo state, becomes normalized very quickly, becomes the status quo.
These were all the things that I was thinking of, these contexts of insecurity or confusion in the world in which we live and operate. Sometimes they are caused by these radical shifts like the Russian Revolution or the breakdown of Yugoslavia, and other times they are more gradually incremental. Things take effect over time and maybe even unnoticeably on a day-to-day level, but suddenly it hits you in the face, and you’re forced to react. I did not concentrate on the actual moment of the Revolution or the war in Yugoslavia, but more on the condition in a society in which everything’s changed from how it was before. In the case of Yugoslavia, from socialism to whatever this thing is now, some kind of brutal capitalism, where everything that people went by or the understanding of your life has radically shifted.
What I also wanted to focus on in the piece was the sense of possibility in that kind of upheaval.
Mobility and movement are important factors in „Minor Planets.“ The performers move around objects, overcome obstacles and encounter each other. Their minds and bodies need to make sense of the structures they are now part of. Interestingly enough, „Minor Planets“ goes without speech. At which stage in the production process did you decide not to have your performers speak and why?
When I started working on the piece I was very much interested in movement in relation to this sort of displacement or the process of exile that was one of the consequences of the Revolution. So I was thinking quite a lot about movement and what it means to keep going, both in a literal sense in terms of movement, but also in the sense of what it means to keep going when everything falls apart. There seems to be a notion of progression that’s linked to movement, movement as a means of getting over things. I wanted to see what happens if we just focus on interactions with objects and space. It wasn’t a definitive decision early on that there wouldn’t be any text. Actually, I’ve been open to that for quite a long time. We did some improvised bits that involved language in the rehearsal process. But the focus of how the rehearsals were unfolding and the kinds of materials that we were fleshing out and finding in the room felt like they wanted to be focused on movement. So it wasn’t any kind of conceptual or ideological decision (laughs). The material articulated itself in ways that were suited for exploring movement and interaction and being there. It didn’t ask for a layer of text and language. There’s a level of abstraction in the exploration of all these ideas that I mentioned before, because language is obviously much more precise, even in its imprecision. I was interested in exploring these ideas and make them resonate in ways that don’t rely on language.
You were born in former Yugoslavia, lived in the USA for 20 years and currently live in London. Your artistic work takes you not only to Berlin but to places like Zurich, Zagreb, Poznan and Istanbul. The freedom of movement is essential to your life and work as an artist. Furthermore, you do not stick to one artistic field but work across various ones. The rise of fascism, Brexit and Trump’s presidency all pose a threat to mobility, be it by the aggravation of asylum laws, bureaucratic visa and citizenship regulations, building walls or cutbacks of the National Endowment for the Arts. Is the threat to mobility a threat to democracy and also a direct threat to life?
I think that’s a really pertinent question. It’s by chance that the premiere of the show today is also the day of the inauguration of Trump, which has been something pertinent on my brain lately and in the back of my mind. You’re absolutely right: All those things, Brexit, a wave of closing off-gestures by governments in different places very much put a threat on openness as a way of inhabiting the world. It’s important to me to think of these things not just in the relation of how they affect you and your life, even though my experience has been one of moving a lot and leaving what used to be Yugoslavia before it fell apart as a teenager. The majority of my adult life has been moving and immigration systems and having to apply for visas. That’s quite prominent in my experience of being a person.
At the same time, I’m very aware and conscious of the fact that – as much as I could think some of these things were difficult and frustrating – I’m in an extremely privileged position. I have an agency which comes, if nothing else, from the ability to speak English, or from a certain level of education, from being white. There are all these things that shift that experience and make it easier. It’s important to not just base your understanding of those things on your personal experience. All those processes, as difficult as they are for me, are incredibly more difficult for people of color, women of color, people who don’t have a sense of agency that comes from language, or don’t have the wherewithal with a set of resources available to them to draw on in those processes.
These fascists‘ or the neo-fascists‘- I think we do need to call them actually with that name because that’s what they are – attempts to close off borders, to install a policy that excludes people, that separates people into categories, that stratifies society based on those who are desirable and those who are not, are a threat to everyone. Yet they are especially threatening to people who are more vulnerable than we are because we are in a position of privilege. It’s important to take up this fight and the resistance against those structures, impostors, and policies not restricted by the experience of your own personal life. There has to be more of a – I don’t even know if I want to call it solidarity – but just the possibility for things that are larger than your life, people whose lives are more fragile and precarious and vulnerable than your own. The restriction to movement is a big one, but there are all kinds of things that are under threat: women’s rights, reproductive rights, health care issues, access of all kinds, LGBT rights. All those have to be tackled simultaneously. The fascists want to restrict all basic human rights, and that does impact everybody in the long run, even if some people think at the moment it doesn’t necessarily impact them.
How would Alexandra Kollontai react to the anti-feminist tendencies in European countries such as Poland and Croatia? The Polish parliament dismissed the ban on abortion in October 2016 after thousands of women had taken to the streets in protest. The abortion rights in Croatia, however, are still under fire: not only because of the political conservativism but also because of the massive clerical influence and due to the pressure exerted by society as well as Catholic activists who form prayer groups in front of hospitals.
That’s becoming more and more of a pertinent question everywhere. Poland and Croatia are examples where this has really been something on our radar, but there are other places like the US with a recent vote in the parliament and congress to defund the Affordable Care Act, the so-called ObamaCare. The big motivation for the far right and the Republicans there is actually related to defunding planned parenthood. So often these moralistic preoccupations or obsessions of the far right focus on particular things like in this case: Planned Parenthood provides abortion. A restriction of planned parenthood, however, is a restriction of health care in general, of reproductive health care of all kinds. These sorts of abortion regulation laws that the far right in places like Poland, Croatia, the US, Ireland and elsewhere is trying to put in place is based on such ignorance: You can outlaw abortion, but you can’t prevent abortion. You can only prevent safe abortion. People will find means, and that just means it will be putting lives at risk.
But I think what you said about the influence of the Catholic church and different kinds of structures, society exerting more and more power in these countries that have been marked with a rise of fascism and nationalism, like a lot of Eastern Europe at the moment, is extremely worrying. That kind of erosion of the difference between the state and the church, in particular, talking about Croatia, the kind of incursion that the church makes into policy making and into influencing governmental processes is very troubling. Moreover, it’s not only on the level of women’s rights, but it’s on the level of human rights and any kinds of rights that aren’t the prescribed ways of being in the world by these structures of their political agenda, and not just moral agenda. The Catholic church’s influence in policy is about politics, it’s not about just theology.
The protests in Poland were inspiring. It was a moment where you felt like it was actually possible to influence policy in a concrete way. It’s easy to get into that mode of complacency, of complaining, being enraged and being activist via social media. But going out on the streets does have an impact. I’m aware of today, tomorrow, and this whole weekend, the waves of protest organized in the US around the inauguration. There’s a big women’s march planned for tomorrow. Cynical voices say there’s no point. But actually I think there is a point in that. There is a point in not becoming complacent. Speaking out and making a fuss and getting angry and resisting – it’s not just words! Words have political impact as much as actions. Continuing to resist the process which has brought normalization of the far right and fascism and the church is actually important. You must not allow that to become the new „normal“ from which then the line of what is acceptable as intervention into people’s lives continuously moves. It’s difficult on the everyday level. It’s a process of negotiation with oneself to think yes, you have to get on with it, but also don’t lose the anger and rage and a sense of impact that has to be possible if you don’t just sit back and say „yeah, fine.“
In your conversation with Annemie Vanackere for the festival magazine, you said that you approached the periphery „both as a site of marginalization and as a site where things can happen that are simply not possible in the center.“ People on the periphery, i. e. for instance women, people of color or the LGBT community, come together and fight for their rights. Sometimes they achieve a small success. Yet they remain endangered, threatened and forced to keep fighting. Without hope and the belief in the unbelievable, without utopia, people would stop fighting. Is it, therefore, the responsibility of all people on the periphery to continue dreaming? Is it our inevitable duty to start a revolution?
There are lots of peripheries. It’s not a homogeneous sort of thing. For change in the sense of a real, actionable resistance to these structures and policies of the current shift towards fascism and the far right and restrictive attempts on our lives, they do require a sense of cooperation and solidarity of various communities on the margin. There’s a lot of criticism for example on the part of women of color of white feminism because it tends to be quite insular and hasn’t taken fully into account or listened to positions and voices of the more complex, nuanced people. A lot of these concerns overlap – the LGBT rights, women’s rights, immigrant rights, working class rights. All those things are inseparable from one another. They all have to be tackled and addressed. You can’t compartmentalize them.
I’m a bit suspicious of that community thing. It says: Pick the thing that is most important. But actually, all these things are! Your feminism, your working class rights, all those things are part of the same cause, and they can’t be segmented. There is power in also mobilizing the critical mass. The dreaming is important, but action is also important. You have to be able to imagine things as being otherwise. The shift in people’s imagination, in their sense of what is possible for their lives and for lives of others, has to be a fuelling kind of thing.
In the last year or so, much more so than before, I’ve been extremely aware of how little I know about what kind of impact you can actually have. There is a certain sense of unknowing about what is useful. Personally, I’m trying to read a lot more by writers of color and to learn from that to not be in this kind of closed-off, insular thing that’s informed by your personal experience. What other voices say is useful for those of us who are in privileged positions in relation to race, immigration status and all those other things. As much as dreaming and imagining it’s also imperative to understand you aren’t informed enough about the efficacy of your own action. You actually have to look to other people to understand what is useful from your own way of engaging with problems and questions that don’t just impact your life. That sense of going out there and just looking and being aware, of taking advice is important. Sometimes you cannot even rely on your gut feeling. You need to be aware of the problematic of your own position and of your own limited understanding of what constitutes meaningful action in relation to some of the more marginalized voices and positions than your own.
Is it utopian to believe that if all marginalized groups came together, we could actually make a difference?
If we didn’t think there was a possibility of that, then it would be very difficult to go on.