The director Milo Rau and his theatrical hyper-allegories
It is a truism that parliamentary debates or court proceedings are always also pieces of theatre. Reality theatre groups like Rimini Protokoll and cultural critics like Jean Baudrillard have helped raise awareness, within the cultural sector at least, of the aestheticization of public and private life, and of their gradual blurring. So when the Cologne-based Swiss director, writer and theorist Milo Rau stages or restages court cases with casts including ‘real’ public figures, as he has been doing for several years, his aim is certainly not to highlight the grey areas between reality and fiction. He has other concerns: ‘as I understand it, theatre is not an information medium, and it’s not an educational medium, it’s a medium for the present or, rather, for presenting the present.’
Born in Bern in 1977, Rau came to prominence with his reenactments of political events like the fall of the Ceausescu regime in Romania in 1989 (Die letzten Tage der Ceausescus, The Last Days of the Ceausescus, 2009–10) or a broadcast on the Rwandan Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines whose bizarre hate propaganda helped trigger the genocide of 1994 (Hate Radio, 2011–2). In March 2013, this was followed by the staging of a court case at the Sakharov Centre in Moscow with participants including Pussy Riot member Yekaterina Samutsevich and staunchly conservative journalist Maxim Shevchenko. The subject of the proceedings was freedom of speech in Putin’s Russia.
In all of these performances, Rau’s message is that conflicts are never past. They are endlessly present; eternally returning. When jaded Europeans think they can withdraw to a post-historical comfort zone, they devote themselves to a state once fittingly described by the philosopher Leszek Kołakowski as a ‘culture of analgesics’ in the ‘cosy atmosphere of harmony that always prevails where no one has any concerns’. The target of Rau’s endeavours is precisely the hypocrisy displayed by the advocates of political correctness who ignore centres of conflict until they go up in flames. His choice of theatre to criticize such false harmony makes sense. Hegel called theatre an ‘art of performance’ and a ‘real and present action’ in which ‘execution’ outshines representation. As such, Rau’s productions can be described in terms of ‘creating striking present’ (Martin Seel) or ‘producing events of emergence’ (Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht).
In May this year, Rau took on the Swiss magazine Die Weltwoche, staging a show trial at Zurich’s Theater Neumarkt, Die Zürcher Prozesse (The Zurich Process, 2013), on the following charges as listed in Switzerland’s criminal code: §258: scaring the population; §261: racial discrimination; §275: attack on the constitutional order. Since 2001, under editor Roger Köppel, Die Weltwoche has been pursuing a controversial far-right approach, not stopping at the use of demagogical means – in particular its front page images. These have included a Romany child threateningly pointing a pistol into the camera, and a defamation of the (admittedly obscure) Biel-based Islamist Nicolas Blancho as ‘Bin Laden in Biel’.
More than 30 public figures from Switzerland and abroad took part in the trial: writers, politicians, lawyers, publishers, academics, ordinary citizens. And Rau’s aim ‘to highlight the central lines of conflict in our society over the past decade’ was actually achieved. As he put it: ‘the Die Weltwoche is a pretext to think about Switzerland’. The cracks in the notion of bucolic ‘Swissness’ were clearly visible. At one point, Blancho compared Köppel with Joseph Goebbels, proving his ability to match Die Weltwoche where populism is concerned. And Daniel Zingg, representing the Christian lobby group Gegen die strategische Islamisierung der Schweiz (Against the Strategic Islamization of Switzerland), made generous use of platitudes, as when he reduced Christianity to the gospels’ message of love and Islam to bellicose political rhetoric. For the defence, the controversial lawyer Valentin Landmann gave a particularly distinguished performance. For the prosecution, Marc Spescha from the left-wing camp was unable to score many points. And so, unsurprisingly, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.
Rau’s mission, then, is to present the present or the recent past whose effects are still being felt. This presenting of the present implies that it is not sufficiently present to us; that it merely passes us by and therefore must be exemplified and explicated. Rau wants to shake up a media culture in which provocation has become a narcotic commodity and in which the injection of the real into art – previously considered avant-garde – has been taken over by the rise of reality TV. This sounds like a classically left-wing position, and in a recent interview Rau described himself as ‘much more left-wing than most on the left in terms of my willingness to fight’.
To date, Rau is not known to have engaged in any forms of combat outside the arenas of art and discourse. He may cultivate a gruff image with full beard and leather jacket, he may have founded a production company called International Institute of Political Murder, but his sphere of action is confined to the sheltered realms of the stage and of discourse. Instead of direct agitation, he privileges procedures that might boldly be termed ‘theatrical hyper-assemblage’ or ‘theatrical hyper-allegory’.
Artists like Kurt Schwitters once took found fragments from the totality of everyday reality, mounting them on pictures and thus removing them from their usual contexts of meaning and function. Contrasting it with symbols, which promote unity, Walter Benjamin referred to this principle as ‘allegory’. Rau removes found fragments of contemporary history from their media contexts, dramatizing and focusing them on the stage. This is done not with the aim of attributing new meaning to any given fragment, but, on the contrary, in order to make them accessible again in their specific, contemporary context that is drowned out by the everyday hullabaloo of the media. ‘Where waffle was, discourse there shall be’ to borrow Freud’s addage. Ultimately, Rau’s productions are affirmative forms of what Baudrillard analyzed in negative terms as ‘hyperreality’. Rau seems to believe that to realize reality properly, and especially media reality, it needs to be re-staged.
First published in Issue 10