In his adventurous stage work, performance maker Ariel Efraim Ashbel creates speculative spaces in which a multitude of historical, political, theoretical and pop-cultural references collapse.
How can representation in theater be overcome? Ariel Efraim Ashbel’s activities range from director, dramaturg, lighting designer or self-called facilitator. Surrounded by a transdisciplinary team of friends, the Berlin-based artist established a spectacular but also playful stage language at the interface of theater, dance, music and visual arts and was presented at steirischer herbst, Kampnagel, donaufestival or HAU Hebbel am Ufer. An interview by Lewon Heublein with photos by Marie Haefner.
At least since your last piece »no apocalypse not now« you are an expert in the iconography of the apocalypse. At the moment we are in the first part of the Corona crisis, which will have an enormous impact on our culture and economy. Therefore it is obvious to ask you if you have already encountered certain aesthetic of the apocalypse in these times that you can reconnect.
Definitely. It’s uncanny to enter this moment right after being immersed in apocalyptic language for so long. My research partner Romm Lewkowicz and I were working on the concept for over two years. We’ve encountered so many manifestations of the question of »the end« – aesthetic, political, religious, economic – and it’s wild to see how some of these images are forming around us right now. It seems as if people are enacting their apocalyptic fantasies or narratives they’ve learned from religious fictions and their incarnations in pop culture.
As early as we can culturally recall, we’ve been preparing for our end. We dread and fetishize it, so whereas the economic systems and those providing health care seem to be overwhelmed and unprepared, conceptually we’ve been very ready for this moment. Even on a purely visual level, it’s of course weird now to see the stage pictures from my last piece with Jessica Gadani dancing in a mask and American flag bikini top – a quote from the problematic Playboy Bunnies scene in »Apocalypse Now«. But I think the more interesting side of it, at least what I can recognize in the haze of the moment, is the epistemological shift that the apocalypse - a revelation - brings forth.
When you feel this kind of disruption, your whole perception changes.
The coordinates of space and time, the most basic building blocks of what constitutes our notion of reality, are morphing into a vague flux. The idea of time – days, nights, hours, weeks – is almost completely disintegrated. We know the catastrophe is here, but we can’t really feel it. The wish for excitement, for a cataclysm, is not being fulfilled, and while we hoard toilet paper or guns and become all preppers, there’s something else at play here. Something new, something more processual in nature that behaves differently: It creeps up on us and takes over in a strange new way. I believe this kind of »catastrophe without event«, like Eva Horn calls it, is the most interesting aspect of this apocalypse. The disruption of space and time could hopefully allow some new movement, which God knows we desperately need. What it will be remains to be seen. As you mentioned, we are in the first act of this crisis, and I’m interested in listening to the strangeness before I make something out of it. However, it reminds me of something I saw in an Insta story the other day: A friend wrote that in our freelance lives, the shift is felt in the fact that we’ve moved from having no time and endless space – always running from plane to train –, to having endless time and no space. I think that pretty much nails it.
I would say that in your work you are always looking for a better future. You once described theater as a tool for constructing other realities or other ways of communicating knowledge. Can you elaborate on these thoughts a little further?
That’s exactly what I mean when I speak of the epistemic shift of the apocalypse, that’s where I think it connects to theater. If the world as we know it is coming to an end, it must become better, because there’s a space to know differently, to go beyond anthropocentrism. I try to do this by collecting images that challenge the position of the human being. It’s a way of inviting transformation and establishing a different movement of ideas or even a different definition of what »ideas« are; not monads, mental abstractions or ideological pathologies, but sensual articulations, clusters of content that matter in a myriad of ways. I always advocate for a theater that moves knowledge in this sensual way. A poetic trajectory can break open the procedures that make us form meaning by addressing our desiring, not only our imagined sense of making sense.
Since theater is a sensual space, a space of sensitivity that goes beyond representation, theater it is – and with the absence of the bodies of my collaborators I feel it today more than ever – an opportunity to find access to many different kinds of companionship. When I make a show, I have no goal of what I want you to »take« from it. Rather, I offer a bunch of loose ends, many beginnings scattered throughout space and time, material around which a concept organizes itself. It’s a complicated task, and besides its aesthetic playfulness, it has an ethical side, as it requires an active letting go of notions of utility and relevance. To steal another idea – the title of »no apocalypse not now« is taken from Derrida – I think performance has the potential to materialize what Timothy Morton calls a »dark ecology«. A space of addressing things that goes beyond the categorical restrictions of Western thinking, especially by acknowledging that »the dreamlike quality is precisely what is most real about ecological reality«. I believe the same can be said about performative reality.
It’s like creating a blind spot or a glitch in this institution called theater, which is very strongly connected to Western historiography. Is this one of the reasons you like to make full use of the theater apparatus?
It’s not only connected to Western historiography, it’s but also traditionally reflecting the contemporary political, religious or scientific trends of the moment. Modern theater has been thoroughly devoted to the universalist project of the »human«. Nowadays I would say theater is haunted by this, although we know that the humanistic ideology is neither sustainable nor relevant, and, to be honest, just not very interesting. I think this is partly the reason why my work has been gradually shifting more and more towards an articulation in the space. The space has so many potentials, experiencing it can really be transformative and I truly believe that the more we’re invested in the technical aspects of making theater, the more we elevate and celebrate them, and the more we detach ourselves from the prevailing logic of identification, the more we can achieve a meaningful situation. And I mean »meaning« in the broadest, most abstract, most sensual and playful sense of the word.
Although my work is research-based, I believe the part of it that actually matters doesn’t happen in the office or the studio. It happens in the theater. I’m very old-school in that way. It’s also a critical point of view; it would be easier to do a small show with an empty stage and two or three performers. That’s what all freelance experimental artists are expected to do; we’re pressured into making tourable work while being sold this lie that »less is more«, a useless remnant of the minimalism of the 70s and its boring derivative, the conceptualism of the 90s. Basically we’re told that conceptual rigor is more important than spectacle articulation. I utterly reject that, that’s why my shows are a fucking circus. The abundance of physical phenomena that enable performing has always been more exciting for me than any »idea« or »concept« – and I’m really invested in the function of »entertainment«. I think it has mad spiritual potential and the days of dismissing it are over.
What I especially like about your pieces is the heterogeneity of the bodies, where they come from and how they deal with (pop) cultural references.
Indeed, heterogeneity is important to me, and it stems as much from a political position as it’s a natural part of my social circle. I’m lucky to be surrounded by an incredible group of women who come from different backgrounds and hold different views, approaches and experiences regarding image-making. Having a diverse group in the studio makes the show richer. Also, I’m bored by the sameness of bodies we’re force-fed by social media and that unfortunately permeates our stages.
It seems, for example, that the performers don’t reenact scenes from movies, but rather emancipate themselves from certain hegemonic images. It is like an exercise in overcoming these dominant images without losing the playfulness of the act of copying.
You definitely read our approach to the archive very well; we enjoy messing with dominant images, and what you call the act of copying, I’d call the act of sampling.; In »no apocalypse not now« for example, over 80 percent of the materials are quotes. Their accumulating and layering allow us to address an archive of apocalyptic narratives and to start a process of associating with them. So, it is a practice of commitment to a set of questions and at the same time of emancipation, as it frees the performers from a need to »act« in a representationalistic way. Rather than representing, they’re presenting, reiterating and recontextualizing. We are navigating the archive intuitively, activating it through collaboration and riffing off of each other’s associations rather than following a singular research methodology. So, it’s not only multilayered, but also multidirectional. Many times one reference triggers a chain reaction, and by bouncing back and forth between us, new images reveal themselves and weird links start to emerge. When we take off, we’re more committed to the departure than to the destination, a much more joyful journey and in a way the most honest one we can propose.
This (and your T-Shirt) brings me to your latest collaboration with the artist Paul Maheke and the musician Nkisi: The performance Sènsa. Sènsa is a word in Lingala that translates as »coming to visibility«, or »to reveal itself«. Instead of deconstructing the dominant, you try to put marginalized images in the spotlight as a sensual experience.
I think Melika (aka Nkisi), Paul and I share a deep understanding and are equally devoted to formulating sensual experiences that challenge the politics of vision and visibility. The three of us, each in our own field, are hyper aware of essentializing discourse and actively figuring out ways to divert it. »Sènsa« articulates not in words but in moving images and sounds. One of the most beautiful things about it is that when we’re working, we never talk about what stuff »means« or what images »represent«, but focus on the craft: timing, actions, editing, spatial relations. We have this simple trust in each other, and we know that once we focus on our joint vision, the meaning will be there, it can’t not be. Your interpretation regarding what we’re trying to do is exactly that – one possible reading.
For me, the gesture of »Sènsa« has to do with both shedding light and bringing darkness to light, celebrating the vagueness that lies between light and dark. Rather than exposing, making visible or bringing things into being, it deals with the poetics of a space which keeps getting reconfigured. This dynamic and the way the vibrations between the three of us extend to the audience results in a beautiful, weird embrace that feels like a concert, a party, a sculpture, and a dance piece, all mashed together.
In terms of strategies for establishing a complicated net of performative intra-actions, I’d say that »Sènsa« is a direct continuation of my work with »Ashbel and friends«. Even in the literal sense, if we remember that »apocalypse« means revelation or unveiling – the removal of what hinders one’s own vision – there is an expansion or a modification of similar concerns to those of »Sènsa«. The deconstruction of the dominant and the redefinition of visual relations through sensuality aren’t opposites, but actually different points in a similar continuum, planets in the same ever-expanding multiverse.