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The quiet cultures of resistance

By Elisabeth Wellershaus

Micaela Kühn, Alfredo Zinola and Zwoisy Mears-Clarke are among those reflecting on artistic freedom and safe, inclusive spaces in this year's labs.

Security is a complicated construct. Some people feel it when they devote themselves to defending against foreign influences, the attempted containment of social heterogeneity. Others experience security as protection from the attributions of those who are offended by the presence of marginalized fellow citizens. Coexistence is increasingly being put to the test when reflexes toward exclusion and the desire for more participation and visibility seem to divide society into opposing camps.

At the beginning of the year, choreographer Alfredo Zinola and his producer Micaela Kühn also experienced what it means to be caught in the crossfire between different perceptions of the world. At a school workshop, the creative approach they used to attempt to convey a panorama of diversity to young people offended a few outraged parents. Unlike the majority of parents at the school, these parents were disturbed by images of people touching in a tender – non-sexualized – way that was not based on heteronormative concepts.

What sounds like a brief episode from the cantankerous present turned into a minor media scandal, led to weeks of online hostility against the artists and went so far as to cause funding structures to be temporarily called into question.

At first, Kühn and Zinola wanted to just put the whole experience behind them. But then they decided to address what they had experienced. Their lab was entitled "Experiences of public aggression, media scandals and de-escalation strategies." And while working on it, they realized that their experience was one shared by many of their colleagues. In discussions and workshops with artists, sociologists, cultural politicians, theater representatives and communication experts, they wanted to find out how to deal with aggressive reactions from the public. What strategies can help one find a response to the rise in violence and radicalized opinions?

In times of increasingly harsh tones in debates, artists are having to deal with the fact that they occasionally reach audiences whose criticism crosses certain boundaries. And then, how do they deal with attention that gets out of hand and turns aggressive? "On the one hand, we don't want to be constantly prepared for this eventuality," says Kühn. On the other hand, the exchange with colleagues, the support from creative circles, is essential when it comes to fending off attacks, some of which can be extremely aggressive. "Ultimately, it's about artistic livelihoods that are being threatened at various levels," says Kühn. From mental overload to the financial threat that arises when potential audiences and funding institutions are swept up by a certain rhetoric. Together, it’s possible to decide that it’s often not worth reacting to the confrontation. That a constructive approach is to simply continue with one's own work.

A few years ago, the "anti-racist reading show" Hate Poetry came up with an example of how to deal with hostility. Back then, journalists read out shocking letters from readers in a slam poetry style and together they exposed often surreal racist content. They also showed that it was possible to take a collective stance and to retain control of one's own narrative. Kühn says today: "I am generally not in favor of a culture of early canceling. Even of opinions that are very different from our perceptions of the world. The moment they are banned, it really fuels the craved adrenaline rush on the other side."

Zwoisy Mears-Clarke is just as emphatic about trying to make her own practice more open. Even if from a slightly different perspective. Mears-Clarke used to work in mechanical engineering, and dance was her passionate hobby. After two years in a "sexist and racist environment," however, she made a radical change. Why not give dance a go, as it seemed to demand more and more of her attention anyway?

Mears-Clarke could not immediately identify with the conceptual approaches of the Berlin dance scene. However, the sheer joy of physical movement and encounters ultimately lead her to develop her own performance structures. An aesthetic that developed through extremely direct contact between the audience and performers. Mears-Clarke soon began to hold these encounters in completely darkened theater spaces. And through the exchange with colleagues and the audience, she noticed that this opened up the spaces in unexpected ways: for a visually impaired and blind audience, among others.

Mears-Clarke's performances developed into a confrontational examination of exclusive spaces. Spaces that were not welcoming to visually impaired, blind, deaf or chronically ill spectators. The lab „Barrierefreiheit und Performance per Post und im öffentlichen Raum“ (“Accessibility and performance by post and in public space”) ontinues this examination and explores the question of how the aesthetics of access can connect heterogeneous audiences with new production conditions. It explores what it takes to make theater spaces inclusive in a sustainable way – from collaboration with marginalized groups, to digital and audiovisual formats for contracts or theater programs, to negotiating with those politicians who would have to support the corresponding change measures for production processes and marketing.

Whether in the examination of accessibility or non-violence, the search for resilience in times of crisis ("Resilienz in krisenhaften Zeiten"), the audience of the future ("Publikum der Zukunft") or creative alliances ("kreativen Allianzen") outside one's own bubble, brave spaces ("Brave Spaces") and safer spaces: The many different formats show how a theater that resists can oppose the dominant and radicalized forces in society, both loudly and quietly.

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).