Over ten days at the end of an eerie mild winter in Berlin, Hebbel am Ufer (HAU) hosted Spirits, Jinns, and Avatars: On Magic in the Digital Age. The festival featured a range of experimental media from VR, installation, and dance, to an interactive bar karaoke story time to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim. Many of the works dealt with historical social reckonings—honing in on moments of the past, or elements of accumulated present, that reveal something strange, devious, or overtly destructive. Others dealt with the theater itself—playfully using technology as a medium to question vitality. “History is changing,” proclaimed Danielle Brathwaithe-Shirley’s featured video game Pirating Blackness / BLACKTRANSSEA.COM (2021). The desire to manifest seemed to be the animating force of the festival. The festival statement makes note of an opposition of magic and technology, spirituality and the digital, seen in contemporary society, asking what (political) potential an alternative to that dichotomy has to create new strategies for the future. While the inclusion of the different media rubbed against the canonical vision of the theater by allowing new forms to carve their way through the black box, this desire for new paths also served, at times, as a reminder of the system’s limits and the need for a materialist sensitivity as we work within it. The featured artists were as diverse as the media: from regulars on the European art festival circuit to Mazaher, a group from Cairo that performs songs from traditional Zār rituals, communal healing rituals, where attendees confront the spirits that constrain them.
To begin the spiritual shift, Mazaher opened the festival to a packed house. Four musicians played percussion and sang in velvet jalabiyas behind the leader of the ceremony, swaying in a syncopated rhythm like a pendulum that froze at the edges. While the leader’s voice filled the main theater, the house lights were kept half up to blur the audience/stage distinction, mimicking an environment closer to what you’d find at the ritual, where participation is assumed. The absorbed audience joined the swaying, while a smoke machine pumped behind the percussionists, bringing the theater and Mazaher’s left-behind Zār context into focus. The disjunction between a Zār in Cairo and the smooth wood of the towering theater represented well the challenge currently facing Western art institutions: how can spaces that were intentionally made to erase the world around them be used to connect—spiritually and politically—to the world outside of them?
Where Mazaher’s distance from the theater was apparent, Philippe Quesne’s play without actors Fantasmorgoria (making its German premiere) was meant for the black box, featuring his distinct use of rhythm, balanced stage design, and stunts, done with whimsical theatrical precision. While pianos twitch on stage, skeletons are projected onto screens and plumes of smoke, a disembodied voice asks, “Do spirits have an end? . . . Can they move across time and space?” The piece is sweetly funny, and the statements it posits about vitality and animation are quintessentially existentialist (“they don’t call life ‘duration’”). It guides the audience to question the difference between ourselves and the moving pianos: what is it that makes us alive and them not? This question of life and death was also present in Data Death, an immersive VR installation by Nadezhda Bey. The VR headset puts you in the middle of a funeral for lost data as a vocoder choir sings a digital Lacrimosa for all the data that’s come to an end, a reminder of the devastating moments of losing documents or photos; of accidentally wiping an old iPod when something deeply important and deeply immaterial is lost. Like Fantasmagoria, Data Death revolves around the ephemerality that technology lends to our reality and the place that the spirits of data can hold in our cosmologies.
Eisa Jocson's gender-bending pop-music performance of deconstructed eroticism, Macho Dancer, stood out amongst the technologically overt in its stripped-down use of the theater. Following another theme present in the festival, Macho Dancer deals with gender, as the piece is inspired by the work of masculine erotic dancers in Manila and its connection to what Jocson refers to as the “happiness production industry.” It features Jocson on a platform gyrating, stomping, and thrusting to US-American pop ballads. Its similarities to Magic Mike and its use of US-American pop music referenced eroticism and sex work in an era of globalization; the way desire embeds itself across borders through the digital, revealing gender, sexuality, and desire’s transmutability. Similarly dealing with gender, TARAB, the third part in a contemporary dance trilogy عطش ATASH عطش, headed by the Iranian-Austrian choreographer Ulduz Ahmadzadeh, uses his research on pre-Islamic Middle Eastern dance to create a piece that confronts the colonial, sexualized view of feminized pre-Islamic dance. The dancers—throwing their hair, slamming their feet, and not attempting to maintain the stoic steady breathing that marks contemporary dance—move to a soundtrack of live Persian drumming. During the performance, the seven dancers exchange delicacy, aggression, and masochisms. The performers pant in unison, while one carries a cumbersome metal frame covered long fringe on their shoulders down a flight of stairs, as wind machines fling their costumes and hair in their faces. The performance is itself a dance of contemporary and ancient styles and the tension between the two methodologies is evident throughout the piece. At times, the styles felt at odds—meeting but still in opposition struggling to find harmony, as their respective mediums hold each other at arm’s length, creating a thoughtful dance that hovered around the piece itself.
In a small dark room on the top floor of HAU2, monochrome waves glitch across the floor while players/audience sit in a simple wooden sailboat facing a projection screen and press buttons drilled into the boat’s side. “The surface of the sea remembers your history,” says Danielle Brathewaite-Shirley’s video game, Pirating Blackness/ BLACKTRANSSEA.COM. The setting itself is confrontational: get in the boat and understand who you are; the surface of the sea remembers your history and it’s scrolling beneath where you sit. The game is played through an avatar, but the avatar reveals itself to be you when a Rorschach inkblot is under its mask. You choose your characters (those that were carried across the sea or colonizers), the game’s intentions (remember the past, rewrite history, or know there was something more), and actions (see or don’t see). If you choose “those who carry across the sea” and run into a see-er and you choose to see, the see-er gives you insight into those who can’t empathize with you (“they need you to fit into whatever shape they need you to”) and, in a moment of rawness, cries out to you to save your labor because you are “worth more, you are worth so much fucking more.” The game traces historical feelings to open up new presents; every engagement with the game affects the avatar’s life outside the game: they get sick, their “mask slips.” The game’s multiple endings also reflect a sense of agency in the gamer (us) in our present socio-political reality; in one ending the ship sinks—the colonizers don't make it across the ocean, and the avatar reappears, reckoning with the crimes of the ones who came before them. In another ending, “those carried across the sea” travel with their precious cargo (their history) to find a space to live their truth, and “the scab of shadows” opens, “letting us reclaim the space that hid us” because “history is changing” and “the new history will remember us.” The credits roll: “this game is dedicated to black trans history.”
Where Quesne used the black box maximally and Jocson stripped it down, Nkisi, Ariel Efraim Ashbel, and Paul Maheke's Sènsa took us into the belly (backstage) of HAU’s main theater. The title Sènsa comes from a Bantu word that translates as “coming to visibility, to appear, to reveal itself, to make sense.” Nkisi’s soundtrack went from consuming drone to her signature polyphonic techno while Maheke moved through the audience, their arms covering their face as they shuffled in and out and spun around in rapture. Ashbel controlled the light installations around the space and made delicate use of spotlights, illuminating Maheke and strobing against the backstage walls, the flashes illuminating faces of the audience scattered backstage and the sway of pelvises accustomed to the 4/4 techno beats. Some friends and I kept smiling at each other, sensing the familiarity of their piece’s proximity to our own familiar ritual: a good club night. Maheke left the audience to reappear at the edge of the stage, the curtain now opening onto the house. They were lit by an expanding fractal spotlight, the floors of empty audience chairs somewhat ominous but non-threatening behind them. The light then went dim as we turned our back on the empty theater and back into the belly.
The piece highlighted the initial challenge of the festival: how can art enact a politics for a sought-after future when these spaces are meant to erase context and history? In Sènsa, that decontextualization is undermined. The fingerprints of stage hands coiling ropes, the fire marshall sitting on stage with us, and the illuminated exit signs on every door speak to context, regulation, and labor. The architecture of the stage and the smooth yellowing wood of the theater speaks to a long history of what was allowed on it. As Maheke moved back through the stage with a full bodied slow gallop and Nkisi’s track turned more solemn and yearning, the cavernous space felt truly hopeful in the dim light. Looking our context squarely in the eye, the theater became a fractal.
- IMAGE CREDITS
Cover: Mazaher © DorotheaTuch.
fig. 1 & 2: Installation Geister © DorotheaTuch.