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Thinking and feeling together

By Elisabeth Wellershaus

Where – and with whom – does theater take place today? In parks, underground stations or playgrounds? On audio walks? An article about the potential for encounters in the theater.

Slowly, the memories of last autumn are beginning to overlap with the current summerlike impressions. They insinuate themselves over the images of outdoor swimming and picnics in the park, over droughts and heavy rain episodes that form the backdrop to our fragile present between fluctuating temperatures. My perception of autumn used to be of a time of year when things calmed down. When life became cooler and more manageable and I found myself again after the shimmering summer months. But you get used to the fact that manageability is no longer the yardstick by which life can be measured. That the weather, climate and seasons have become just as unpredictable as living together in overburdened environments.

The number of COVID infections is currently on the rise again. However, so far, not to the extent that they are becoming a permanent issue in the media. But enough that contact and encounters with others could decline again in the coming months. That moment when FFP2 masks were suddenly no longer an everyday accessory seems difficult to recall. Those days when dinner with friends felt like a wild party and an evening at the theater like a small revolution are a distant memory. And that's probably normal. That the memory of keeping our distance is fading – even if it has left its mark.

The independent theater scene has gone through ups and downs in recent years. It has had to stand by and watch as venues closed their doors indefinitely, as its own work took place in isolation due to the necessary pandemic control measures and audiences stayed at home. However, due to its structure, this scene has long been accustomed to working under adverse conditions. As a result, a number of artists have once again managed to turn adversity into creativity. They have adapted to new rehearsal and performance conditions. They have asked urgent questions of society and looked for more inclusive venues in which to think about new paths into the future.

For one thing, the impact of these unstable conditions can be read into much of their current work. But there is also the apparent desire to delve deeper into certain themes and production approaches, to take the time to encounter the audience in new forms and constellations.

This year's edition of the Bundesweiten Artist Labs is deliberately dedicated to this aspect of encounter. The COVID-era support from NEUSTART KULTUR, which gave some cultural workers unexpected freedom to work for short periods of time, has come to an end. The task now is to use new meeting spaces that were conceived and tested during the pandemic but without a safety net. The discussions taking place in this edition of Artist Labs are dedicated to an evaluation of working under the conditions of a pandemic – and the time afterwards – in a wide variety of forms. And to the question of how the relationship between performers and audience can be stabilized under the current conditions.

Nighttime exterior view of the Haus der Berliner Festspiele. The interiors of the foyers are illuminated. People can be seen silhouetted, standing together in front of and inside the building in conversation. © Dorothea Tuch

Because: where is performative contact possible everywhere these days, where – and with whom – does theater take place today? Where a super-diverse society encourages more detailed engagement with new audiences? Where universalist visions meet intersectional realities? Where the inflationary use of terms such as diversity is scrutinized? Where children become researchers to be taken seriously and young people become experts on decolonization? Where desires are given space again and where more questions are asked than reflexive answers offered? In parks, underground stations or playgrounds? On audio walks, in virtual venues and wherever performative interventions can still surprise?

Over 60 groups are taking part in Bundesweiten Artist Labs in 2023. The approaches that are to be examined and documented are correspondingly heterogeneous. Because, as is so often the case these days, it's about almost everything. This year, the labs will be supported by a team of 10 curators who will dedicate themselves to the diversity of voices and ideas by focusing on specific thematic areas. The concept of the accompanying editorial contributions follows this logic and is dedicated in 14 articles to the topics of this year's labs. It addresses the realization that art and performance depend more than ever on networking these days; that interdisciplinary approaches and the avoidance of clear labels describe societies undergoing rapid change. Journalists and experts will therefore also write about the topics from their own personal perspectives and document their conversations with the lab participants.

What interests us above all: Where is the potential for dialog in times of supposed fragmentation? In which spaces is it possible to argue constructively? Where can participation and repoliticization take place without losing sight of each other in the turmoil of difference? And where can the various audiences with their different needs feel at home?

To address questions like these, open spaces and perseverance are required. It takes time to restore an intimacy that our society has almost forgotten in recent years. Perhaps through this performative approach we will even discover the radical tenderness that Seyda Kurt writes about in her book of the same name. In an attempt to get a little closer to it, the cultural workers in this year's Artist Labs are exploring where the boundaries between art, care work and visions of the future lie.

The central question remains: How do suspended audiences become tangible accomplices?

We will only find out together.

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).