Presence in the Absence. In Covid-19 Times Art Goes Online – or Not

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Text: Max Glauner

Theatres, concert halls, galleries are closed – and are trying everything to be present on the Internet. This does not always make sense. Sometimes it does.

What does art do when it lacks the audience, the public? When museums, theatres, galleries remain closed? At best, it uses the Corona shutdown for reflection, for creative collection. Art does not arise from the fact that an actor or musician wants to entertain a viewer, or at least not exclusively from that. It arises out of inner necessity and passion for the cause. Artistic creation may be understood as an emancipatory act that does not ask what the audience wants, what the public says, where the money comes from. Artists are therefore always also survival artists.

If artists say nothing for the time being, make nothing known, it is not only disturbing. For in Corona times, the public sphere is first and foremost a digital public sphere on the Internet, meaning clicks and likes in virtual space. On the Net, everyone automatically competes with snappy clips from the advertising industry in social media feeds that propagate „social distancing“ in order to advertise a parcel service in the same breath. Split-screen conferencing formats community and conviviality on the screen. For the time being, art doesn’t have much to say about that.

Shaky break fillers next to the finest canned food

Or does it? Up and down the country, theatres, opera houses and orchestras put recordings of their performances on the net. Museums and galleries organise video tours through their abandoned exhibitions, stream live from their artists‘ studios and living rooms. And at home, musicians reach for the keys or the turntables in front of their mobile phones.

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The shaky home office break filler with a view of the guest toilet (Mark Waschke for the Schaubühne) or of macramé hangings in the bedroom (Isabelle Redfern reads „Oblomow“, Schaubühne) stands next to digital HD products of the culture industry such as the „Digital Concert Hall“ of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. This provider has been on the scene for quite some time. It offers the finest sound and vision in a concert archive, free of charge during Corona times – including a live Easter potpourri from a canned film. Of course, this is not entirely altruistic, because as long as the concert is closed, it signals presence in the absence and hopes for new audiences and subscribers.

Rüping has already brought the Dekalog on stage at Schauspiel Frankfurt in 2012/2013. Now it is being adapted for the net: ten monologues on ten evenings. One can be curious about the five live episodes to come. The next one will be shown this Saturday evening at 9 pm. The project deserves attention because it is supported by the EU-funded Academy for Theatre and Digitality in Dortmund and the Initiative Digitale Dramaturgie. The expectations are correspondingly high.

„Dekalog“ borrows the exclusivity of place and time from the theatre: Ther is only one performance on an evening date, only live webcasts can be followed. It is not streamed from the living room, but from a white cube in the shipbuilding industry, sparsely equipped with props. The audience at home in front of the screens is involved: At the click of a mouse they can decide two or three times per evening about good and evil and the further course of the action. A chat room allows commentary and discussion.

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The raw, unfinished nature of the setting, the uniqueness of the live broadcast and the wit of the actors and actresses have an extraordinary charm: this performance format without a rewind button creates great intensity – and gives pleasure. One really has the impression of witnessing a new performance practice that is in the process of developing. However, the slogan of the evening: „You decide what is right and what is wrong“ currently exhausts itself in a plebiscitary bar chart logic. There would be other ways to participate on the net: The feedback loop between user and stage could probably be readjusted. One can be curious about the five live episodes that are still to come.

The Splitscreen Community

The participatory format of the „Social Muscle Club“ from Berlin and Basel need not worry about participation and a discursive public sphere. The Basel curator Beni Wyss was inspired by initiatives of British workers‘ associations, which combined the education and community of the proletariat around 1930 with organized rounds of games at beer tables. At the beginning of the 2010s, he first developed a setting for public spaces in Berlin in which the public comes together over food and drink and, accompanied by a small entertainment programme, sets in motion a group-dynamic wish machine. At the end of March, the event went online for the first time from Zürich with the conceptional suport and the moderation of Ramona Sprenger and Björn Müller. Almost one hundred people took part via a zoom conference call.

The transfer from the real to the virtual live sphere was technically and dramaturgically smooth. The evening was not only lively and entertaining – everyone brought wine, beer, tea to the PC – but also created relationships beyond the casual round from the non-binding gaming community.

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For this purpose, the hundreds of players were divided into groups of six to nine, in „tables“ hosted by a host. Each participant had to write down on a piece of paper a wish he or she would have liked to fulfill and in return had to write down a wish he or she could fulfill. By lot it went around and it was negotiated who would get Erika’s cake or sing a song for Jasper from Berlin. The seemingly trivial matter grew into surprising stories and commitments during the evening, in which a lot of life was discussed on the side. As simple as the principle was, as convincing and functional was this split-screen meeting, which for a few hours created a community beyond the usual zoom conference feeling.

Voices from Berlin and Paris

This is all the more remarkable as the gap between analogue and digital order is large, as even strong attempts to thematise and close it can impressively demonstrate. As the first contribution to an online series of the Berliner Ensemble, „Voices from an Empty Theatre“, actor Wolfgang Michael presents a text by author Roland Schimmelpfennig on the equally empty stage. He tells above all about the plight of his theatre colleagues, dry, unsentimental and serious. He leaves behind a sense of the economic and cultural impoverishment that threatens us post-pandemically. Small theatres, project spaces, cultural initiatives will close unless society comes to its senses.

But as emphatically as the message is meant and staged, it hardly reaches its audience with a performance that is eavesdropped on the media public of the 20th century, under today’s conditions. Schimmelpfennig’s text is good, but there is no theatrical tension whatsoever on the computer screen.

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One way out of this is to concentrate on the artistic core business. The author and theatre director Wajdi Mouawad makes this attempt: on the website of his house, Théâtre national La Colline in Paris, he evokes an intellectual, spiritual community that relies solely on language – a basic element of theatre. Instead of moving images, he offers a poetic „journal de confinement“, a diary from the curfew, read in and accessible as an audio file. No more. „We can no longer see each other, let alone come into physical contact with each other, so that the spirit has to unfold its full power here,“ he writes on the website of his house. „In this unhappiness and sadness, there is also the possibility of reconnecting with the power of the spirit.“

And La Colline offers a second format based on the word alone: telephone conversations with ensemble members and staff, another invitation to engage in the immediacy of the voice. Anyone who so wished could register for a telephone call by e-mail until 24 April. Members of the ensemble and friends of the house will then call you and recite a text or poem, including such prominent stage characters as Jane Birkin, Maruschka Detmers or theatre director Mouawad himself. It is certainly a touching and intimate moment, unusual for both sides, perhaps even embarrassing, that consistently situates itself beyond the digital order.

A special kind of pictorial contemplation

And the fine arts? Absurdly enough, it lacks this immediacy on the net. No video zoom can replace the walk through a museum, a studio or an installation. The texture of an oil painting or a drawing cannot be reproduced on the digital surface, not to mention the fact that its reproductions are lost in the flood of images on the Net. Even video works that are completely accessible on the net appear without the context of a specific performance situation, often bloodless and dull. And yet there are also strokes of luck.Bildschirmfoto 2020-04-29 um 15.53.37.pngThe Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn, for example, walks through the gallery rooms with his mobile phone camera one day after the closing of his exhibition „Eternal Ruins“ in Paris. He explains picture by picture, „chat poster“ as he calls it. Because the works are constructed like a smartphone display with image and text bubbles, they find an analogy in the video image excerpt of his improvised tour. In the 25 „chat posters“ shown, the trivial layout of the speech bubbles counteracts the depth of the thoughts of the revolutionary, Spanish fighter, philosopher and mystic Simone Weil.

The text quotations appear in the frame like slogans: „Beauty is the harmony of chance.“ Hirschhorn, otherwise known for his expansive installations, projects the sentences onto images of ruins from all eras and also provides the screens with crystals as conventional metaphors of eternity. The result is a strange mixture of kitsch and profundity, a blatant contradiction that brings the philosopher’s world of thought into a new field of tension. We do not experience the images haptically. But in the online setting, a strong immediacy emerges, a community with the artist, the images and the world of Simone Weil’s thoughts.

Do it yourself ad absurdum

Although there are strong works and creative new developments: It remains a challenging question how obvious a good part of the artistic online activity really is. The „Performance Now“ festival in Graz provides a strong answer. Here, too, a change had to be made: Under the title „Performance Homework“, the festival website now offers original instructions for domestic use. The artist Thomas Anderson proposes a breakneck „Table Climbing“, David Sherry mounts himself on his head in „Proving“ bread dough, Anna Vasof models a „Hand Mask“ out of plaster – all of these are invitations to the audience, who are likely to be overwhelmed with the reenactment of the performances.

The strength of these works lies precisely in the fact that the invitation to participate is taken ad absurdum. Their instructions for action are an overstraining program. They make the withdrawal, the loss of immediate artistic encounter palpable.

Art, the creative act does not necessarily need us, the audience, they say. You need us.

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First published 29.05.2020 German version, online, ; pictures on this page Kunsthaus Graz, Artists, fist: Anna Vasof, Hand Mask, s(econd, third, fourth) David Sherry, Proving, (five) Anna Witt, Sixty Minutes Smiling (Fake it till you male it), (six) Aldo Giannotti, Corcles of Action, (last) Michikazo Matsune, Core Field Glasses) (below) Performance Homework, Self-Portrait in Bed inspired by Henry Matisse.


Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, “Zwangsvorstellungen”:

Theater Rabenhof und ORF, Marathonlesung «Die Pest»:

Berliner Philharmoniker, «Digital Concert Hall»:

Schauspielhaus Zürich, “Corona-Passionsspiel”:

Social Muscle Club, “Social Distancing? Social Muscle Club!”:

Berliner Ensemble, «Stimmen aus einem leeren Theater»:

Theatre National La Colline, “Les poissons pilotes”:

Thomas Hirschhorn, «Eternal Ruins”, online:

ACT v2.0, Performance Festival:

Kunsthaus Graz: 

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Über Max_Glauner

Lecturer, Researcher, Autor & Cultural Journalist Zürich | Berlin
Dieser Beitrag wurde unter Ausstellungen, Geschmacksfragen, Kulturgeschichte, Kunst im öffentlichen Raum, Performance & Performing Arts, Psychogeografie, Theater, Theorie, Zeitgenössische Kunst abgelegt und mit , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , verschlagwortet. Setze ein Lesezeichen auf den Permalink.

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