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Empowerment: New friendship with an old friend

By Sebastian Köthe

Sometimes you get too used to certain terms, especially the really important ones. Sebastian Köthe spoke to Oliver Zahn, Estrella Jurado and Sarah Israel about their Artist Labs to reengage with the concept of empowerment.

Empowerment, self-empowerment, capacity to act, agency – some terms are strange. It's like love at first sight, with them you see the world through fresh eyes, you want to bring them with you everywhere. That's what it's all about, that's important, that's how we can describe it. At some point you get used to the new terms, you say them out of habit, perhaps out of a sense of duty. They no longer make you think, like the friend you go for coffee with once a month and then always talk about the same old problems. Of course, it's all down to me. These terms for a friendship with a white cis man are not that interesting anyway. But I'm attached to them and want to renew the friendship. So, it's time to take a step back, do something different together, get to know each other once again in an unfamiliar way.

What could be more appropriate than a series of conversations with artists about these very terms. While it’s dull to bring concepts to art and interpret them in that way, it is always invigorating to let art concretize them.

Oliver Zahn is working on an inventory of the psychological impact of the coronavirus pandemic under the title “Zwangsmaßnahmen”"Compulsory Measures": "What the fuck just happened?" he asks himself when looking back at the past few years. For him, art is not a "healing process." In his performance essays, he deals with historiography, with the influence of non-human actors on people, with the relationship between repetition and change. He has created pieces about the Hitler salute, about the appropriation of minority dance forms, and about his own body as an archive of flight and displacement. He currently sees his artistic work primarily as a "genealogization of the present, as a tool to understand and address evolved structures." What we learn to understand as historically evolved does not overwhelm us as natural and insurmountable. What has become one thing can also become something different. According to Zahn, understanding history leads to "informed decisions".

I like "informed decisions" because they represent a pleasingly realistic artistic goal – aside from self-realization, authenticity and creativity. The trick is that Zahn's enlightening endeavor doesn’t confront the audience in the form of an, often hierarchical, science but in the form of art, which has completely different means at its disposal. It is an exploratory art that dares to be associative, to choose its means freely and openly acknowledges the body's cognitive power – without losing any of its saturation with the world. It enables artists to position themselves without having to stick with the individual perspective. Zahn remains suspicious of psychological characters in the theater. He says: "Individuals are models, but not triggers for something bigger." He doesn’t focus on individuals, but on the "dynamics in which they are formed" – for example, the theater with its various audiences. Because we – like history – have become like this, we can also become something different. Even if this is not entirely in our own hands.

"Wi(e)der setzen – Szenografien von morgen" “Setting again(st) – Scenographies of tomorrow” is the name of Estrella Jurado and Katharina Becklas' lab. The title speaks of the displeasure of having to sit down again in the classical spoken theater and being performed at frontally. After speaking with Jurado for a few minutes, I realize that I have always underestimated her job description: Scene and costume design is not just about furnishings and fittings, but about the making of the space itself. A space that creates and – non-verbally – communicates certain possibilities offered by its spatiality: For example, the invitation to look around, to join in, to be loud or quiet. Scene and costume design, which Jurado and Becklas also represent in political undertakings such as the "Initiative für Kostüm, Szenografie und visuelle Kunst in den Freien Darstellenden Künsten” “Initiative for costume, scenography and visual art in the independent performing arts," is a "fundamental work on how theater can take place."

This results in multiple forms of empowerment. The audience does not come as a "formless mass" that is only expected to listen passively, but is allowed to behave sensually. Such a space-conscious theater is more inclusive: more accessible for people with physical disabilities, for example through touch tours, but also for a neurodiverse audience, who can find relaxed and aesthetically thought-out forms of retreat in relaxed performances.

However, empowerment is just as important for the artists themselves – the vast majority of those working in stage and costume design and visual art are women and queer people. The work requires a high degree of flexibility, is physically demanding and poorly paid: "You are often alone, even when buying wood or setting up and dismantling." Because the visual arts are almost always brought into the projects too late, the "fundamental work" on the theater space and its potential are often not fully exploited – instead, only improvised makeshift solutions are found.

"People who work with material are also responsible for questions of sustainability." Estrella Jurado tells me how she once refused to order material at short notice from a particularly unpopular online mail order company during a final rehearsal – because it simply wouldn't have been sustainable. She then says the key sentence: "You have to empower yourself to be able to take responsibility." Empowerment is not just focused on the self. It is about others. Self-empowerment is about being able to take care of others.

Sarah Israel conducted the "Expanded Listening – New Spaces on Air" lab together with Oscar Ngu Atanga and Sarah Zeryab. Radio becomes expanded, she explains to me in conversation, when it encounters other spaces such as theaters or museums, but also when it makes other things – other voices, other practices – audible. In the lab, Israel, Atanga and Zeryab work with artists, DJs and radio producers to investigate how dance becomes audible, for example. They are thinking about more than just microphoning the body. They are exploring how to translate the meaning of dance into words and sound collages. When dance is made audible, what is revealed? Where do dances come from and what stories do they tell? How does dance become part of a spiritual practice?

For Sarah Israel, radio is, among other things, a tool of empowerment. Listening to or producing radio is more low-threshold than making theater, podcasting is the new writing: a form of positioning oneself that is effective with audiences and comparatively accessible. An important aspect of this is community building on platforms such as "Refuge Worldwide". Radio, according to Israel, is a search for new spaces on air for people who have no other way of coming together. While workshops and short-lived art projects like to entice people with the creation of temporary communities, Israel emphasizes how small-scale, lengthy and existential community building often actually is: Communities and artistic forms of expression arise "from life struggles, lived experiences and lengthy forms of practice." Such body and movement identities "cannot be created in two weeks in an art project." Instead of "overloading" herself and others with such demands, Israel is more interested in creating an awareness about what can be realistically achieved.

For example, paying people fairly for sharing their experience, knowledge and skills, designing work processes that are on an equal footing or paying attention and showing interest. And finally, "naming where something comes from." Instead of appropriating the aesthetic practices of marginalized groups such as voguing or ballroom dancing, as happens time and again in the performing arts, it is important to share the spotlight or the radio frequencies, to give other voices space, and to refrain from certain positions altogether. This is how I understand Sarah Israel's proposal: For certain people in privileged positions, empowerment and disempowerment go hand in hand.

Perhaps I have been alone with terms such as self-empowerment, agency and empowerment for too long. If I had looked at how they are used by other people earlier, I would have rediscovered them more quickly in all their diversity and brilliance. The conversations with Oliver Zahn, Estrella Jurado and Sarah Israel brought back to life concepts that had become frozen for me: In the opening up of apparent inevitabilities, in the assumption of responsibility for sustainable processes and in the simultaneity of disempowerment and empowerment.

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.

Dr. Sebastian Köthe is a research associate focusing on the area of aesthetics at the Zürcher Hochschule der Künste.