Culture of Fear: Uncomfortable Transactions Between Performance and Terrorism

Dr Markus Wessendorf
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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
Stream: Media, Film Studies, Theatre, Communication, Political Science, Politics, Globalisation
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: Culture of Fear

Dr Markus Wessendorf

Assistant Professor, Department of Theatre and Dance, University of Hawaii at Manoa

I received my PhD in 1996 from the Department of Applied Theatre Studies at Justus-Liebig University Giessen (German) for a dissertation on Richard Foreman's Ontological Hysteric Theatre. My primary area of specialization is in experimental and avant-garde theatre. Apart from several essays and a monograph on Richard Foreman, I have published articles about Bertolt Brecht, Richard Maxwell, Norman Price, Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl, Edward Sakamoto, The Wooster Group, Ron Athey, the choreographer William Forsythe, and various German performance artists. From 1992 to 1997 I was assistant professor at the Department of Applied Theatre Studies at Giessen. In 1998 I was a guest scholar at the University of Queensland/ Brisbane, where I worked on a DAAD-funded post-doc project on "cultural transactions between Asian theatre and contemporary Australian performance." From 1999 to 2001 I taught theatre as an adjunct professor at various drama departments in New York City (NYU, Queens College, Marymount Manhattan College). I have also worked as a theatre director internationally. In 1989 I directed the American premiere of Heiner Müller's "Germania Death In Berlin" at ABC No Rio/New York. In September 1998 I staged "Barking Dogs" by Australian playwright Norman Price for Brisbane's Metro Arts Theatre. I also presented Cynthia Farar's "Curdom" at the New York International Fringe Festival 2000. My production of Friedrich Schiller's "The Robbers" was performed at Honolulu's Kennedy Theatre in April/May 2003.

Ref: H05P0366