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On Artist Labs, choreographies, pandemics, Reclam books and time

By Marny Garcia Mommertz

How inclusive are theaters and audience spaces? The pandemic, Reclam books and a biennial in São Paulo provide our author Marny Garcia Mommertz with insightful answers.

It's early September and I have an online appointment with theater maker Mable Preach to talk about the Artist Lab „Playful Haus.“ As I try to connect my laptop to the Wi-Fi, I think about the São Paulo Biennial I visited a few days earlier. It was presented by four curators, three of whom were Black. It was the first time that this biennial has been curated by a majority of Black experts, so there was a sense of tension and euphoria in the air in the days leading up to the opening. When the team was introduced during the press conference and the first cheers could be heard from the audience, I had goosebumps. The exhibition entitled "Choreographies of the impossible", which imagines the future with at times radical images, is one of the first group exhibitions that really picked me up and swept me along as a young Black woman with connections to the Caribbean and Germany. As a viewer, I had the feeling that I was being addressed and that I had been considered in the conception and careful curation.

My thoughts are interrupted by a noise from my laptop; Mable Preach is there. She tells me about her work on "Playful Haus", and about her main concerns when creating a play that addresses violent topics such as colonial history. What makes her project particularly exciting is the development process, as her target audience is actively involved in creating the piece. A workshop has already been held, with BIPOC schoolchildren aged between six and 17 as well as teachers from various schools taking part in order to incorporate their wishes for the content of the play. The intention was not only to perform the play on stage, but also to present it in the form of a “Reclam” book, she said. Some of the teachers had agreed to discuss the play in class. I wrack my brains trying to recognize the word "Reclam". It's only when Mable notices my confusion and helps me out that I remember with a sick feeling in my stomach the bright yellow editions of classic literature that I had hated in secondary school.

Teaching is a popular profession on my mother's side of the family. A great-grandfather, a grandmother and two of my aunts were or are school teachers. So school was always an important part of my life, and I often cursed it. I found German lessons in particular terribly boring. In and of itself, I liked tasks such as interpreting poems or analyzing plays. But my enthusiasm was curbed again and again, and it was only later on that I understood why. The required interpretations or analyses were anchored in a canon and a way of thinking that I simply couldn't access: According to my teachers, I was interpreting poems and analyzing plays in the "wrong" way – and so the feeling that they weren't written for me took root.

In fact, many German schools still focus on learning a certain canon and on certain readings of works that do not correspond to the realities of many schoolchildren's lives. It makes a dramatic difference when German lessons also include plays in which a non-white German audience is the focal point. There would probably also be less resistance to Reclam books, which I remember as representing outdated curricula.

One of the students told us in the lab that for her, the content in the theater is at least as important as representation. It was not only important to her that Black people or people of color were also on stage, but that they conveyed a certain content. Again, I have to think of the Biennial. The exhibition in São Paulo took me out of my usual white-dominated arts and culture environment. Three weeks later, I’m still affected by the content that was shown: the examination of archives and memories of the Black diaspora. A space in which dialog and exchange between Black and indigenous artistic perspectives from the Caribbean, Brazil and Europe had become possible. In the meantime, I had the feeling that I was not only an observer of this "impossible" exhibition, but that I had become part of its movements and choreography.

During one of the pandemic lockdowns, I read Tina Campt's "A Black Gaze". In the book's introduction, she describes her process of looking at works of art: She sits down on the floor in front of the works with a pen and notebook and takes time to let them affect her. When photographers and other journalists walked through the exhibition in São Paulo during the preview of the Biennial, I was stressed and tense. The sheer number of works seemed overwhelming. Then I thought of Campt, who I happened to bump into hours later, and sat down in the middle of an installation that particularly attracted me. Over the course of my visit to the Biennale, I spent several hours with various works and also in actual conversations with their creators. In retrospect, this slowing down of an otherwise fast-paced Biennale program reminds me of moments during the pandemic lockdown. Even then, it was essential to develop individual mechanisms and your own rhythm to deal with fears, worries and agitation. In São Paulo, the thought of returning to this strategy helped me to stay focused and productive.

PSR Collective's Artist Lab, entitled „Social Choreographies in a Troubling Time and Place“ also deals with identifying practices, insights, and strategies from the height of the pandemic. Together with collaborators from the independent scene, the collective examines experiences from the time of the pandemic restrictions and focuses on various topics: dealing with temporal perception and with spatial and national borders. It also deals with the specific experiences of members of the collective who live with chronic illnesses and are marginalized in mainstream society. In conversation, PSR member and drag queen Olympia Bukkakis tells me that the aim is to understand how different formats that emerged during this period brought communities together. And which strategies were maintained or improved.

Like many of this year's labs, Bukkakis' group is trying to address how marginalized artists, audiences and communities in particular can come together better. They are exploring how the term "social choreography" can be brought to life in theater and beyond. After all, doesn't everyone constantly perform "social choreographies", whether involuntarily or deliberately? Wasn't it ultimately also the discomfort within a learned choreography that made me break out of familiar patterns at the Biennale pavilion? That moved me from impassive observation to experiments and choreographies of thought through a static exhibition?

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.

Marny Garcia Mommertz is an author and artist who explores the archives and memories of Black people and communities in Europe, Cuba and Brazil. She currently works as Managing Editor for Contemporary and América Latina and is a Fellow at PACT Zollverein in Essen. She holds an M.A. in Museum Studies from the University of Amsterdam.