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Against Pigeonholes

By Georg Kasch

Culture despite the Crisis: how does #TakeThat funding from the Fonds Darstellende Künste work? Episode 1: Jana Zöll explored the connection between norms and attributions in her #TakeCareResidency

Lacking a head is rarely a beautiful state to be in, but it can open up completely new perspectives. In this case, on the body. In Jana Zöll's zoom performance "Ich bin," (I am) created in February 2021 in the series "Challenge Accepted" at the Theater der Jungen Welt Leipzig, the audience sees the performer only at the very end. Before that, Zöll leaves traces: post its on which she has written her characteristics, photos from before, that only show cut outs - and a plaster cast of her body without a head.

Jana Zöll, performer, actor, dancer, author and inclusion consultant, lives with brittle bone disease and uses a wheelchair. The fact that she is perceived as deviating from the norm, and the consequences of this, is her theme in "Ich bin". The visual has a tendency to override all other impressions: Zöll is judged as either inadequate or held up as the heroine of ‘in spite of’. That is why it is so important that those watching the performance first form an image of her that is composed of extremely diverse details and characteristics before they see her.

Jana Zöll is sitting in a wheelchair. She wears a blue dress, is made up and has a golden band around both wrists, which she holds up to the camera. © Steven Solbrig

The plaster cast in the performance is one of the visible results of Zöll's #TakeCare residency "Too queer to be queer - I am the antithesis" at Cologne’s Freie Werkstatttheater. These residencies are one of a total of eleven funding programs launched by the Fonds Darstellende Künste as part of Neustart Kultur 2020 to support the independent scene as comprehensively as possible in the corona crisis. When the fund launched its residency program in the fall of 2020, it cooperated with the Alliance of International Production Houses and with Flausen+, which supports and brings together freelance artists, especially from small independent theaters outside metropolitan areas. Through Flausen+ and the Freie Werkstatttheater, Zöll had already done a previous residency together with the performance collective Polymora Inc., which she co-founded.

With Polymora Inc, Zöll was deeply involved in identity politics, but always felt she didn't fit into any category, "I struggle a bit with identity politics." Thus, the focus of Zöll's research emerged: how does a woman with disabilities fit into identity politics debates? How much are external and self-perceptions shaped by all the pigeonholes, categories and norms in our society? And how can we succeed in regaining control over the interpretation of our own bodies, at least to some extent?

"I needed knowledge," Zöll says. She researched on the web and read professional literature such as the volume published by Transcript Verlag, "Gendering Disability. Intersectional Aspects of Disability and Gender". In the experimentation phase, she dealt with her body and movement and learned about systemic constellation work as taught by Wilfried Nelles. For this she would, for example, place slips of paper with terms such as "femininity" and "normativity" on the floor to allow inner images to emerge in her energy field. Sounds a bit esoteric, but it also had an impact on her performance, in which she collects terms on slips of paper to show how much overlap there is between the characteristics attributed to men and non-disabled people on the one hand, and women and people with disabilities on the other.

The plaster cast of her body was also created during this research phase. "It was about externalizing one's own body, being able to look at it," Zöll says. Actually, she wanted to be able to dance a form of contact improvisation with her own body. For the corona pandemic was a special challenge for Zöll in that, as a high-risk patient, she was not able to leave her Leipzig apartment for a long time and there were no physical encounters with other artists. Therefore, everything had to take place in her own apartment: research, bodywork, rehearsals. So who could she dance with?

"The plaster cast can do something I can't. It stands," says Zöll and laughs. For dancing, however, it proved too immobile and heavy. "I developed even more ideas from it, but in the end I couldn't implement them," Zöll says. For example, the plan to set up the plaster cast at locations in Leipzig and capture the reactions of passers-by to it with a camera. The fact that this wasn't possible isn't all that dramatic, because that's exactly what the residencies are for – to be able to research and try something out for two months, beyond a production constraint. "There was no pressure to deliver a performative result," Zöll tells us. "Not even from workshopping. After all, the point of the residencies is to stay in artistic practice."

Jana Zöll has benefited from the TakeCare residencies of the Fonds Darstellende Künste for a second time. With Steven Solbrig, she formed the performance duo Jane Blond and that Stevil Kniewel. Together, and in cooperation with Frankfurt's Mousonturm, they are researching care, assistance, nursing and help. They document their results in a blog.

In general, Zöll was very lucky during the corona pandemic: all the residencies and collaborations that had been planned took place anyway, albeit online – and the two #TakeCareResidencies also allowed her to work on her themes in a concentrated way, even though there were far fewer opportunities to perform.

Solbrig was, apart from her assistants, also her only contact person during corona. Thus, at least in this second residency, an in person exchange could happen. Before her "Too queer to be queer" residency, she was either engaged as an actor or worked as part of a collective. Now, as both an artist and a researcher, she was on her own for the first time. "Alone in a vacuum and without a concrete goal — that was a real challenge."

An exploration of identity politics and herself, from which something very productive then emerged – even though this is not a condition for a residency – with the zoom lecture-performance "Ich bin". Zöll doesn't remember why her plaster cast originally didn't have a head - presumably it was for practical reasons. "But it makes total sense," she says today. Because in the performance, too, she uses the aforementioned traces to assemble an image of herself as white, European, with a high school diploma and acting training; as female, single, straight.

Above all, however, she tells of how she was divided up by her environment at an early age: into a deficient body and a head on which she was supposed to concentrate because she was clever and "reasonably pretty”. She tells us that she had to work for femininity, physicality and eroticism. And she asks the audience: what impression do you have of me?

The fact that the evening works scenically, in a rather restrained way, again has something to do with the restrictions imposed by corona. However, Zöll also finds it fitting that it has become such a "lecture." Because in the research, she also learned a lot about herself: "I'm simply a cerebral person."

In the series "Kunst trotz(t) Krise" (Culture despite the Crisis), cultural journalists Elena Philipp and Georg Kasch take a look behind the scenes of funded projects on behalf of the Fonds Darstellende Künste. What is the impact of the fund's #TakeThat funding as part of the NEUSTART KULTUR program of the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media?