Culture of Fear: Uncomfortable Transactions Between Performance and Terrorism
Long before the events of 9/11 critics had commented upon the dramatic, theatrical, ritualistic, and performative dimensions of terrorism, but also on the fascination of terrorism itself for modern theatre and performance artists. Terrorists of all backgrounds have, for a long time, staged and timed their plane hijackings, bomb attacks, and hostage takings to cause maximum "fear and terror" in the minds of Western media audiences. Modern theatre and performance artists, on the other hand, have frequently flirted with the notion of the artist as "aesthetic terrorist". From Artaud to Brecht, from Baraka to Goméz-Peña, from the Dadaists to La Fura dels Baus, artists have tried to make audiences feel "uncomfortable" — to shatter their sense of identity or physical integrity; to make them question their ideological assumptions, social prejudices, gender biases, or aesthetic preferences; or to provoke them into a higher state of spiritual or mental awareness. The aesthetic fascination with terrorism, however, was based on the assumption that terrorism and the performing arts were ultimately two radically distinct realms. The guerrilla tactics of modern and postmodern performance as well as the numerous attempts to realize Artaud's "theatre of cruelty" never went further than "terrorizing" audiences virtually — without inflicting real pain and suffering on the spectator — whereas terrorist acts killed real people and caused real damage, but rarely ever succeeded in establishing a total spectacle or global theatre of fear that would have posed a substantial threat to the political, economic, and psychological fabric of Western society (beyond individual nation states). The events, and aftermath, of 9/11have collapsed that distinction. The attacks on the World Trade Center, in particular, were uncannily successful in conflating the reality of the terrorist act — the actual destruction and carnage caused by it — and its theatrical dimension — the "harrowingly beautiful" precision of its performance, its perverse déja vu-effect fulfilling audience expectations already engrained within American popular culture, and its global symbolic resonance as well as effectiveness as media spectacle. Other recent terrorist actions (from the hostage taking at a Moscow theatre to the beheading of Nick Berg in Iraq) have also deliberately and frighteningly made use of "theatrical transactions" (Berg's orange jumpsuit was "borrowed" from a different "scene" — Guantánamo). The perfidy of contemporary terrorism is that it no longer allows us to separate the reality of gruesome acts from their theatrical media representation. The challenge to theatre and performance in this context is how to represent terrorism without duplicating some of its strategies as well as its effects. Since it is governments and terrorists that have the most to gain from the climate of fear induced by a "globalization of terrorist violence", how can theatre and performance represent and, perhaps, deconstruct terrorism without buying into that fear? In my presentation I will discuss two works that address these concerns in different ways: the play "Blood" by Catalan playwright Sergi Belbel, and the performance piece "Showtime" by the British company Forced Entertainment.
Keywords: Belbel, Sergi, Forced Entertainment, Media, 9/11, Performance, Performativity, Spectacle, Terrorism, Theatre, Theatricality
Dr Markus Wessendorf
Assistant Professor, Department of Theatre and Dance, University of Hawaii at Manoa