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Encounters in the chaos of the present

By Elisabeth Wellershaus

When meeting spaces seem blocked as do the paths to cross-societal empathy: How can sociability be curated? Some labs have set out in search of answers.

Building sustainable connections is no easy business these days. Many people are too harassed by the excessive demands of the present. Too often the exchange of ideas about complex experiences is made difficult by polarizing debates. Staying calm and focusing on an unknown counterpart can be a challenge in these times. And perhaps this is precisely why some of this year's labs have taken up the challenge.

Anica Happich and Maren Barnikow, for example, are tracing the connections to abandoned and forgotten places. "I belong to the post-reunification generation and have only experienced the cultural centers and meeting places of the East as empty and closed," says Happich in a Zoom interview. "I'm interested in these abandoned places in my homeland and their stories." As a board member of the Thuringian Theater Association, Happich is well acquainted with the cultural structures in the region, as is theater maker and cultural scientist Maren Barnikow, who grew up in Gera. Both are now part of the PHOENIX theater festival team, which focuses on revitalizing cultural sites that have long lain vacant. Their lab Moving audience – moving artists?! – Ein Mobility-Check im Flächenland Thüringen ("Moving audience – moving artists? – A mobility check in the state of Thuringia") ties directly into this debate.

The focus is therefore on a federal state that many Germans are currently looking at with concern. However, the artists don’t want to exploit the theme of a "lost East" or join in the desperate rhetoric about an unstoppable far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Instead, they want to work in places where a sustainable exchange is challenging.

Only one other application from Thuringia was submitted for the Fonds Darstellende Künste’s research funding. This is why visibility and networking with colleagues through the Artist Lab are a real concern for Happich and Barnikow. The eastern German states are still characterized by significant movement between "flourishing metropolitan areas and rural regions that are bleeding to death," they say. In most cases, the movement is only going in one direction, and collegial exchange is also suffering from the impact of this exodus.

Five people are sitting on chairs and tables in a bright studio room. They all look happily into the camera. © Elena Kaufmann

Barnikow and Happich took their lab on a workshop journey through Thuringia to think about encounters in the opposite direction. After all, what happens when artists return to these regions? How do they encounter a professional independent scene with a porous infrastructure? A society that is characterized by emigration, unemployment, the exhaustion of parents' and grandparents' generations and the rise of the New Right, among other things? What does it mean to make theater in such places? How do artists enter a dialogue with an audience that has been missing from theaters up to now? And how do they deal with the fact that they may never reach some of them?

On the day of our Zoom interview, Happich and Barnikow are in Erfurt. Their theater festival has been held there for three years. And from there they can learn a lot about the cultural gaps across the entire region. "There is no production house for the professional independent performing arts, only a few independent theaters and long distances," says Happich. Among other things, they work at Platz der Völkerfreundschaft, try out forms of pop-up curating and team up with social workers. They perform in places such as the parking lot in front of an Aldi supermarket at the Melchendorf Market mall or at the former theater in Erfurt.

"Changing the direction of movement, reversing relationships, that is the co-creative practice of the independent performing arts in Thuringia," says Barnikow. "In recent years, we have realized how important it is to work at the community level." It is an individual understanding of sociability that drives her and Happich. It motivates them to connect with local structures, colleagues, and audiences.

The term sociability describes the development and expansion of social relationships. It describes the capturing and understanding of complex social structures and the ability to work together. The attempt to strengthen forms of commonality and multi-perspective openness is currently almost tantamount to a radically tender act. And many labs in 2023 have set out in search of new ways to connect. They have searched in places where the path to encounters seems to have been blocked for some time. "Because theater has to be more than just playing on stages," says curator and dramaturge Felizitas Stilleke. Her lab „Zusammenfinden“(“Coming together,”) which she runs with Philine Rinnert, also pursues the collective process of rethinking artistic work in exchange with audiences and colleagues from a wide variety of fields. And searching for spaces in which people can encounter each other directly.

Stilleke’s lab initially tried to address its own work internally. It moved through the city in a close circle of performers and theater researchers, before inviting the audience to engage with its own practice in the next step. They implemented their idea of a "flying cultural center" at locations that changed daily and with clear times during which the lab became an open performance space. Their aim was to think not only in terms of locations, but also in terms of encounters. It was a kind of "deep hanging out", which included cooking together, making music, marbling, manifesting, playing – as well as the constant exploration of their own demise.

Empowerment also takes place in various constellations at the Hamburg-based association Hajusom. The work of the transnational center, which has been based in Hamburg's Karolinen district since 1999, describes various forms of self-determination. Workshops and seminars are regularly held there and are primarily aimed at refugees. Mentoring programs are offered according to the "Each One, Teach One" principle, and the in-house theater ensemble regularly takes the jointly developed content out into the world on tour. The main beneficiaries of these structures are young people who face various hurdles in navigating their unfamiliar everyday lives in Germany.

Ideally, it would be precisely these people who would be sitting in the front row of Hajusom's theater projects. But how do you reach children and young people with stories of flight and migration? How do you involve them even more effectively in your own work, create supportive and inclusive environments in which they can help shape things from the outset?

The „Brücken schaffen“ ("Building bridges") lab addresses these questions and explores new models of participation. At Hajusom, community is to be created through joint action – whether that be cooking, eating, audio walks with performance groups such as JAJAJA or biographical projects. "With a planned tour that revolves around the life and death of Semra Ertan, for example, we want to try out formats of remembrance culture that are specifically aimed at teenagers and young adults," says Melike Bilir from Hajusom. Guided tours of Hamburg are to be offered to make the writer's work accessible to a young audience. "Where did she live, where did she read – who was she?"

And who are all these other people today who connect with our lives in overlapping social milieus, in anonymous and private spheres? How do we meet each other when we had become so used to keeping our distance during the pandemic?

"Being, staying, and being serious about it. With radical collaborations and co-creations," says Anica Happich. "These are the answers that authoritarian ideologies and their castles in the air cannot provide."

In the summer of 2023, in 64 Bundesweiten Artist Labs, independent artist groups explored the relationship with the audience in post-pandemic times. Our editor Elisabeth Wellershaus and a team of guest authors observed them at work.

Elisabeth Wellershaus is a journalist and author who deals with questions of decolonization and cultural negotiation processes around the topics of sustainability, solidarity and social cohesion. She works as an editor for various German-language media, including the 10nach8 column for Zeit Online. Her book "Wo die Fremde beginnt" was published by C.H.Beck in January 2023 and was nominated for the Deutschen Sachbuchpreis (German Non-Fiction Book Prize).