The Artist As Public Intellectual @en

Melancholy in the Desert. An Aesthetics of Exodus

Natascha Siouzouli

ECTOPLASMATA © Nova Melancholia

ECTOPLASMATA © Nova Melancholia

We still believe, or many of us do, what the Exodus first taught, or what it has commonly been taken to teach, about the meaning and possibility of politics and about its proper form: – first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt; – second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land; – and third, that “the way to the land is through the wilderness”. There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.1

 

Exodus
“You are leaving at last!”: A captain at the port of Piraeus addresses the clueless passenger of his ship, whose day started with the strong desire to visit the P.s and who ended up departing for an unknown destination. This is the ending of the poem I Episkepsi (The Visit) by Greek poet Miltos Sachtouris, recited by the female performer Elina Mantidi at the end of the performance Ectoplasmata by the artists’ collective NOVA MELANCHOLIA/Vassilis Noulas. “You are leaving at last!” is the redeeming remark addressed in a very docile tone to someone, who somehow always wanted to leave but did not know how. The clueless passenger accepts this turn of events without protesting that this was not his initial decision. The performer, who recites the poem and who was wandering around wordlessly during the performance, holding a cup of coffee in her hands, watching TV for some minutes, lying down, looking out of the window, or just sitting motionless, also finds a way out of all this – she is at last free to leave the stage, the performance is over.

This text is dedicated to an exploration of acts of leaving. I am focusing particularly on ‘exodic practices’ and investigating the specific ways, in which these practices are performed in theatre and/or performance art today. In doing this, I would like to rely on three recent performances of the artistic collective NOVA MELANCHOLIA2, namely Meditation I: Concerning Those Things That Can Be Called Into Doubt (Athens, 2011) based on René Descartes’ text; Ectoplasmata (Athens, 2013) using poems by Greek poet Miltos Sachtouris, and Adieu To Emmanuel Levinas (Athens, 2013) based on Jacques Derrida’s text with the same title. I am arguing that these three performances are indeed “exodic acts,” performing modes of ethical (i.e. political) coping within specific settings and contexts. In what follows, I want to elaborate on the various articulations of these acts in order to be able to describe in detail the kind of ‘Exodus’ that is suggested here.

Before I enter into the discussion about the concrete manifestations of exodic practices in the performances, let me first try to clarify a bit the notion of ‘exodus’ in this specific context. I am using the broad term ‘exodus’ in order to refer to various related notions such as leaving, exit, escape, departure, desertion, anachoresis to name just a few. Exodus would mean, then, literally the act of leaving behind a concrete framework of existence and more precisely – due to its special connotations originating from Jewish or Greek history3 – breaking out of an unbearable state of servitude and oppression. Significant political theorists and philosophers elaborated on the notion of ‘exodus’ linking it directly to possibilities of resistance and the articulation of radical politics today.4 Exodic practices are, thus, generally understood as productive acts of escaping repressive regimes, destabilizing them and setting the basis for a new kind of being. It is not the place here to present the discursive story of the notion, its transformations and ramifications; rather, I am much more interested in special qualities that characterize exodic practices and that are relevant for the artistic articulations to be discussed in this context.

Some of these qualities and facets, which seem to play a particular role in the context of my discussion, seem to get surprisingly overlooked or concealed when theorizing exodus. Theorists tend to speak about ‘exodus’ with a certain guilt, I would say, in order to destigmatize the notion from an impression of laziness, inactivity and resignation. They are keen to attach the exodic act to a ‘productive end’, to a creative praxis that brings about change or at least the promise of a change.5 What they seem to neglect is the importance of the act of exiting as such, the moment when the outbreak begins and – following here the biblical imagery – the long, exhausting ‘march in the desert’ before something really happens. I favor an understanding of the exodic act not as organically linked to a telos, to the ‘promised land’ as imagined end that functions always as a drive. Rather, I would prefer an understanding of exodus – and the march for that matter  as departure that has much more to do with despair, pain and limits than with a clear and planned aim. So, my focus – and the focus of the performances I am discussing here, I would suggest – lies mainly on this space and time in-between, in which the exodus has to take forms and figures. This exodic topos in-between is perhaps not confrontational, but it is not safe or controllable either. It favors “an oblique or diagonal stance”6  that instead of showing a clear and undeniable direction, much rather reveals possibilities of moving.

 

The dream 7

MEDITATION I © Evi Fylaktou, Nova Melancholia

MEDITATION I © Evi Fylaktou, Nova Melancholia

The second part of the performance Meditation I: Concerning Those Things That Can Be Called Into Doubt is constituted by a series of songs (by Juliette Gréco, Laibach, Lena Platonos etc.) accompanied by various transformations of the female performer: she appears amongst others as a somewhat deformed Jesus, as a peculiar giant insect or as three-headed freak. Each transformation corresponds very vaguely to the song that is played; each scene functions as a kind of live video clip. The songs do not seem to have anything in common or to follow any kind of coherent logic. I call this second part of the performance, in which the Cartesian text as such does not play any role, a ‘dream sequence’, because it escapes causal logics and lingers in an in-between topos of uncanny forms and queer bodies.

MEDITATION I © Nova Melancholia

MEDITATION I © Nova Melancholia

As if I were not a man who sleeps at night and often has all the same experiences while asleep as madmen do when awake – indeed sometimes even more improbable ones. Often in my dreams I am convinced of just such familiar events – that I am sitting by the fire in my dressing gown – when in fact I am lying undressed in bed! Yet right now my eyes are certainly wide open when I look at this piece of paper; I shake my head and it isn’t asleep; when I rub one hand against the other, I do it deliberately and know what I am doing. This wouldn’t all happen with such clarity to someone asleep. Indeed! As if I didn’t remember other occasions when I have been tricked by exactly similar thoughts while asleep! As I think about this more carefully, I realize that there is never any reliable way of distinguishing being awake from being asleep. This discovery makes me feel dizzy, which itself reinforces the notion that I may be asleep!8

Descartes himself wonders, while writing about doubt and performing the “demolishing of [his] opinions”9 whether he is asleep or awake; whether his is dreaming or not hesitating indeed to come to a conclusion. The performance stages this hesitation by refusing to allow any act of situating it. In the first part of the performance, the actor speaks the whole text into a microphone and exposes it more or less as what it is, i.e. a philosophical text to be perceived and – ideally – understood. Suddenly, the second part of the performance departs from the concrete context of the text and performs a world beyond. The exodic practice consists in this choice to exit to a dream world that negates deciphering and interpretation.

This withdrawal into the world of dream is for the performance connected to despondency and helplessness – see here for example the discreet appearance of another performer in the second part, pointing a flashlight to the audience and transmitting an SOS Morse signal. The protagonist remains caught in this in-between topos (between ‘reality’ and dream, between in and out etc.) without end, forced to (re)configure it again and again,10 establishing it at the same time as the only possibility of being. I call this specific situation melancholic because it insists on the necessity of a cruel escape.

MEDITATION I © Evi Fylaktou, Nova Melancholia

MEDITATION I © Evi Fylaktou, Nova Melancholia

 

The zombies/ the beyond

The performance Ectoplasmata took place in a small private apartment in Exarcheia, an area in the center of Athens (Greece) in February, March and April 2013. It was acted out by five performers in front of fourteen to fifteen spectators each time. The entrance was free of charge. The performance began as an exodic practice: out of theatre (buildings), out of public space, out of economic exchange. By performing at home and for free, NOVA MELANCHOLIA was performing first of all a breach into the expected framework, within which performance usually takes place.

The performance acted out the exodus as an escape from a system of life. The escaping action was articulated as ethical attitude towards an unbearable context. Ectoplasmata in an private apartment, in today’s Athens performed escape indeed as an “unpretentious act” of subverting subjectification and betraying representation”11. Four actresses and one singer (the director himself performing two songs and withdrawing again) staged a series of poems by Miltos Sachtouris, which were not initially written for theater. The girl wandering around with the cup of coffee in her hands was the only one who seemed to be moving in a ‘real space’, performing banal actions as described above. The other three looked like inhabitants of an unfamiliar landscape (beyond life?), soaked in blood, with an amputated hand in the mouth or resembling giant, furry, rather amorphous creatures sometimes hugging, sometimes struggling against each other. In a similar manner, the poems recited rather upset the situation instead of clarifying it. It was difficult to understand who speaks, because the reciting voice did not belong to the performer, who was simply opening and closing her mouth or because it came from the off. In this sense, the performance did not stage subjects and characters. It much rather painted a bizarre landscape lying beyond, inhabited by creatures that occasionally adorned their space with words.

ECTOPLASMATA © Nova Melancholia

ECTOPLASMATA © Nova Melancholia

The actresses, the space and the words/ poems ignore or betray representation in that they refuse to settle in a “real”, “normal” context. Instead, they repeatedly manifest their strangeness and state of not-belonging. The actresses-zombies, the apartment-stage, the poems about departures and death are already “beyond”, they do not belong, they are unsettling and they unsettle the context they are in. They perform an exodic aesthetics in that they demonstrate precisely their being as a being beyond, producing consequently an anomaly of placement and positioning.

The performance daubs the exodic with melancholy. The exodus that the performance proposes is a melancholic withdrawal, which articulates itself as a quiet and subtle escape. This kind of withdrawal, apart from suggesting an ethical attitude, constitutes a political act in that it manifests itself as an odd, eccentric event. The melancholic exodus does not concern everyday people regressing to melancholy; it is the inhabitants of this landscape of beyond that are escaping. They exist already at the same time in- and outside by performing an invitation to an exodic mode of being.

The most challenging thing about the performance is this difficulty of situating it. It takes place in a melancholic here that embeds at the same time an odd beyond. It performs exodus as an ambivalent practice in an ambivalent place. In this sense, it somehow suggests that the exodic action has already taken place, escaping perception and time. Hence the melancholic Gestus towards an action that remains mostly unlocated and fleeting.

ECTOPLASMATA © Nova Melancholia

ECTOPLASMATA © Nova Melancholia

 

The address/ adieu

In April, May and June 2013 NOVA MELANCHOLIA continued the ‘farewell-tour’ by staging Jacques Derrida’s eulogy Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas in various Athenian locations (in a museum, in the squatted theatre EMBROS and at two central public squares). One female performer stood in front of a microphone and addressed Derrida’s text to the gathered group of people – her audience. On her side, a vase with white flowers – extremely typical for Greek cemeteries – looked somewhat poor and meager for a funeral. She was wearing a dress in dark red/ purple and pantyhose. She was mourning a loss; she was addressing a departure.

ADIEU TO EMMANUEL LEVINAS © Nova Melancholia

ADIEU TO EMMANUEL LEVINAS © Nova Melancholia

Nevertheless, this was a performance, no “real” funeral (particularly not the funeral of Levinas!) was taking place. Who, then, was leaving? Who was the farewell addressed to? The event performed an “attacking farewell” (Virno 2010, p. 50, my transl.) in that it addressed an ‘adieu’ to a city, its particular audiences, its particular settings. The performance constitutes a “droiture” (straightforwardness and uprightness)12 confronting its audiences and places with a coming departure. The performance, about to leave, addresses an “adieu” to its context. In essence, the performance performs what it does, its exit and its end.

At the end of each performance the actor performs a painful gesture by emptying the vase from the flowers and asking for a voluntary (financial) contribution for the spectacle13, sometimes bursting out in tears. The responsibility towards the Other – that the text addresses constantly – gets transferred through this gesture to the audience which is invited to assist the performance or the performer to really exit. The event performs thus the exodic practice par excellence confronting the context, in which it is staged, with its ephemerality, its end, its departure. Melancholic is this gesture of performing ‘adieu’ from the beginning to the end.

 

Melancholy in the desert

I suggested in my text that the performances discussed here establish a certain “aesthetics of exodus” in that they expose or literally perform exodic practices. The performances chose various ways in order to articulate exodus – the dream, the undead, the adieu…The articulation begins as a withdrawal from the unbearable, from despair and from pain and lingers in the in-between topos of exodus (“the desert”), without pointing to a direction, but instead by exhaustingly marking the void that is left behind. The performances do not seek the Promised Land; instead, they grave their print by marching quasi on site. This makes their unfolding melancholic: the certainty of a promised land and the certainty of never reaching it.

The most provoking quality of these performances is perhaps their insistence on overtly occupying the “in-between” – Meditation I paints a landscape between reality and dream; Ectoplasmata situates itself between life and death and Adieu marks the space between here and beyond. This in-betweenness and/or unsituatedness are melancholic because it never comes to a still (a pause, an end), but rather suggests a constant restlessness, which only makes the void deeper.

The performances flirt with subtly proposing an ethical coping with the current Athenian situation. They try out the anachoresis from a specific state, a quiet exodus, which does not designate the direction or the place of arrival, but rather points to the vacuum left behind. This is why exodus is always first of all an act of disobedience: it does not primarily refer to an affirmation or a presence that eventually comes after the act itself,14 but insists on the void, the absence, the trace that remains. Exodus does not have to do with going somewhere, but with leaving from somewhere.

The performances suggest, in effect, a rather disquieting exodus, which is not to grasp but remains undefined, ambivalent, existing at the same time within a system and outside of it. This is exactly the advantage of theatrical praxis: it occupies an ambivalent and very powerful space, which is capable of giving rise to such threatening exodic actions that negate determination. In this sense, the remark “You are leaving at last” is in effect addressed to theatre as a constant reminder to defend the place and the power from where the dangerous exodus is to be initiated.

 


Notes

1. Michael Walzer: Exodus and Revolution, New York: Basic Books 1985, p. 149.
2. http://www.novamelancholia.gr/en
3. I am referring here to the ‘Sortie of Messologhi’ (in Greek: Exodus), 1826, while Greek war of independence against the Ottoman Empire.
4. To name only a few: Toni Negri/ Michael Hardt, Paolo Virno, Chantal Mouffe, Michael Walzer etc
5. Cf. for example Isabell Lorey: „Attempt to Think the Plebeian. Exodus and Constituting as Critique“, http://eipcp.net/transversal/0808/lorey/en (last accessed: 07.11.2013); the critique to the notion articulated by Chantal Mouffe and Oliver Marchart (Exodus und Stellungskrieg. Die Zukunft radikaler Politik, Vienna: Turia+Kant 2005; s. also: Chantal Mouffe: „Critique as Counter-Hegemonic Intervention“, http://eipcp.net/transversal/0808/mouffe/en, last accessed: 07.11.2013) is very much related to this fear of scarce efficacy. Even Paolo Virno, who accepts the exodic act as means to articulate radical politics today, cannot help but get defensive sometimes! (Cf. Grammatik der Multitude, Vienna: Turia+Kant 2005; Exodus, Vienna: Turia+Kant 2010).
6. Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri: Empire, Cambridge (MA), London: Harvard University Press 2000, p. 212.
7. Cf. my text: „Theorie und Theater: Eine melancholische Beziehung. Am Beispiel von Performances der Gruppe NOVA MELANCHOLIA“ (Theory and Theatre: A Melancholic Relationship. The Example of Performances by NOVA MELANCHOLIA), in: Mascha Vollhardt et al. (eds.): Theoriediskurse in Theater und Performance der Gegenwart (Theory Discourse in Contemporary Theatre and Performance), Heidelberg: Springer VS (forthcoming).
8. René Descartes: Meditation on First Philosophy in which are demonstrated the existence of God and the distinction between the human soul and body, pp.1-2, http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/pdf/descmedi.pdf (last accessed: 07.11.2013).
9. Ibid., p. 1.
10. See here also the very haptic and explicit body energy that the performance requires from the actor: the constant metamorphoses, elaborate gymnastic exercises etc.
11. Dimitris Papadopoulos et al.: Escape Routes: Control and Subversion in the 21st Century, Sidmouth: Pluto Press 2008, p. 73.
12. Jacques Derrida. Adieu To Emmanuel Levinas, transl. P.-A. Brault, M. Naas, Stanford: Stanford University Press 1999, p. 2.
13. The performance was free of charge.
14. The space of the exodus remains rather undefined and diffuse, it “relies […] on a latent abundance, an excess of possibilities.” (Virno 2005, p. 98) (my trans.)


Bibliography

Derrida, Jacques: Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas, transl. P.-A. Brault, M. Naas, Stanford: Stanford University Press 1999
Descartes, René: Meditation on First Philosophy in which are demonstrated the existence of God and the distinction between the human soul and body, http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/pdf/ descmedi.pdf (last accessed: 07.11.2013)
Hardt, Michael, Negri, Antonio: Empire, Cambridge (MA), London: Harvard University Press 2000
Lorey, Isabell: „Attempt to Think the Plebeian. Exodus and Constituting as Critique“, http://eipcp.net/transversal/0808/lorey/en (last accessed: 07.11.2013)
Mouffe, Chantal: „Critique as Counter-Hegemonic Intervention“, http://eipcp.net/transversal/
0808/ mouffe/en, last accessed: 07.11.2013
Id.: Exodus und Stellungskrieg. Die Zukunft radikaler Politik, Vienna: Turia+Kant 2005
Papadopoulos, Dimitris, Stephenson, Niamh, Tsianos, Vassilis: Escape Routes: Control and Subversion in the 21st Century, Sidmouth: Pluto Press 2008
Siouzouli, Natascha: „Theorie und Theater: Eine melancholische Beziehung. Am Beispiel von Performances der Gruppe NOVA MELANCHOLIA“ (Theory and Theatre: A Melancholic Relationship. The Example of Performances by NOVA MELANCHOLIA), in: Mascha Vollhardt et al. (eds.): Theoriediskurse in Theater und Performance der Gegenwart (Theory Discourse in Contemporary Theatre and Performance), Heidelberg: Springer VS (forthcoming)
Virno, Paolo: Exodus, Vienna: Turia+Kant 2010
Id.: Grammatik der Multitude. Die Engel und der General Intellect, Wien: Turia+Kant 2005
Walzer, Michael: Exodus and Revolution, New York: Basic Books 1985

 


Dr. Natascha Siouzouli is a theatre theorist. She works at the Institut für Theaterwissenschaft of the Freie Universität Berlin as a researcher in the project The Aesthetics of Applied Theatre. She co-directs the Institute for Live Arts Research |Π| in Athens. She also works as a translator.

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