Denis Diderot, the author of Jaques the Fatalist and co-author of the Encyclopédie, is rarely associated with the work Paradoxe sur le comédien (Paradox of the Actor, 1770-1778), which is in fact, the first attempt in history to theoretically organise acting techniques. Why a paradox, we may ask. Because according to Diderot, an actor on stage was supposed to imitate feelings so vividly as to impart them upon the audience, and at the same time, so superficially as to not to lose control over them and to consciously influence the effect produced among viewers. Diderot was the first to thus separate imitation and purgation (mimesis and catharsis), which at his time, defined acting. Setting the eighteenth-century philosophy of theatre on a new course, he also established that the art of acting must constantly be redefined, that it was essential to constantly seek new languages of expression and to reflect on the workings of theatre.
Such a reflection is apparent in the work of Lotte van den Berg, the curator of the Malta Festival Idiom The Paradox of the Spectator, who reverses the perspective on how the performing arts are understood. In her approach, theatre does not begin with the actor but with the viewer: the one who chooses to watch. Van den Berg believes that to pause, to take a seat and to watch requires similar courage to the one required to go out on stage. What does the act of watching entail? Why do we constantly need to look at others? Who determines the plane of being a spectator and the personal responsibility for what one is looking at? What makes us look away and what can we not take our eyes off? And how are we changed by the image we look at? The word “paradox” in the title of this year's Idiom points to the inner contradiction of being a “spectator”: not only in the latest play, but also in social life.
In the modern world, we are all snooping and being snooped on. This problem was opened up for discussion two decades ago by the Big Brother television franchise. Today, judging by the role of the Internet, the show seems a harmless episode in the history of popular culture. Thanks to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or blogs, snooping has become widespread. We can constantly both monitor the lives of others and be observed. And we do not find this at all surprising. We disapprove of the increasing number of cameras recording our behaviour in malls, workplaces or at road junctions, but are happy to upload photographs on the web, to reveal the details of our private lives and to create our own self-images: to fashion ourselves anew based on how we would like to see ourselves. It is not enough to say anymore that life is a theatre where we alternate between being the actors and viewers of our own and someone else's fate. The metaphor of people playing roles imposed upon them by a director is no longer sufficient, whilst the theatre it refers to has become obsolete. Contemporary artists use various approaches in their attempts to activate viewers, and to depart from the traditional stage/audience system and the active/passive division.
Viewer participation has become so important because, today, daily life forces us to consciously take stances, and this produces consequences: both ethical and political ones. News like the Nepal earthquake, the suicide bombing in Pakistan or the tsunami in Japan reaches us immediately. New technologies widen our access to information, and consequently, the spectrum of being a witness affecting our sense of shared responsibility for the reality in which we live. How do we determine the limits of this responsibility in a globalised world? Are we still capable of empathy as we face such a magnitude of disaster? What stance should we adopt towards events taking place in the other hemisphere? Should we become spectators, witnesses or actors? Should we watch, report or take part? How can we live our own lives as we concern ourselves with worldwide problems? Should we build walls or share in the suffering of others? The example of refugees coming to Europe from Syria and Africa shows that the viewer/actor/witness position in the modern world is variable, and must therefore, be constantly re-problematised. This is a matter that concerns us all.
For some, Diderot’s proposals from over two centuries ago may be valid, and for some completely outworn. However, in Paradoxe sur le comédien we can clearly see the enormous intellectual effort of this Enlightenment thinker who wanted to to influence the theatre of his time, to change it and to point it towards new pathways. The role of a performing arts festival is to make a similar effort in order to initiate a discussion on artistic practice in relation to the phenomena of the era in which it exists. During the twenty-sixth Malta Festival, we want the viewers, the passers-by, the artists, the guests and the organizers to form a group together in order to discover some new perspectives on being a spectator. The performances, installations, lectures, films, concerts and debates will create an eclectic fresco which, in many ways, will bring to light the eponymous paradox of the spectator: it will problematise the act of watching and provoke those involved to look. The Idiom programme features projects which give a similar role to the viewers, who will decide for themselves what they want to see and what meanings to accept in their act of perception and identification. This includes a performance where the audience looks at the action from afar and experiences a growing sense of helplessness, as well as a live installation that introduces ambiguous images into public space, forcing passers-by to stop, and to consciously look at and define what they find confusing. There will also be a show reminiscent of a wild party over which we lose control, a tour of an abandoned theatre where the division of roles between the supernumerary, the viewer and the actor becomes completely obscured, and a performance/conversation in which the viewers/actors will jointly consider alternative debating methods.
In the context of the Idiom, of particularly importance will be this year’s Generator Malta, the plane for engaging a particular group of viewers, actors and witnesses, i.e. the residents of Poznań. The city, which has always been present at the Malta Festival as a subject, an experimental training ground and an inspiration, stands alongside the viewer as a protagonist in which we can also see a paradox. To its residents, the city displays a dual dimension: it can be a shared asset that belongs to society and supports connections, but also a sphere that alienates people and conforms to the interests of some narrow groups. Finally, it is a plane of rebellion and resistance, the scene of fighting for freedom. These latter values will be referred to by Jan Komasa in a multimedia performance commissioned by the Malta Festival to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the Poznań 1956 protests.
The festival programme is not about instructing the viewers or telling them what is right or wrong in our private and collective strategies of looking. We wish to present a variety of perspectives on and attitudes towards being in the world, as well as some different possible approaches to the observation of and participation in the arts. What does it mean “to act” or “to watch” or “to act by watching”? Theatre, sociological and anthropological philosophy, politics and everyday life are inextricably intertwined, and Lotte van den Berg points out that in these uncertain times we need dialogue, i.e. skilfully conducted conversation, more than ever. The paradox of the spectator will not be removed, but a reflection upon it may help us understand that which surrounds us and take a conscious stance.
Dorota Semenowicz and Katarzyna Tórz
Programme Section, Malta Festival Poznań