3 months ago

Witness

Global Cultural Fellows reflected on "Mies Julie" and "Ramy: In the frontline" in today's session on Witness.

Do artists have a predisposition to bear witness? Why and How?

That was a primary concern for the Global Cultural Fellows after seeing Yaël Farber’s Mies Julie and Ramy Essam’s Ramy: In the frontline.  Their discussions acknowledged many challenges including moral and ethical respsonsibility of artists, being a witness through direct contact versus secondary representations, and witnessing via digital and multimedia platforms.

To bear witness requires the individual to engage with the outside world – both inside and outside performance spaces. The five Fellows in the Witness group acknowledged this dynamic as they opened deliberations for Day 4. They used their individual presentations to provide snapshots of how they encounter acts of witnessing in each of their artistic practices.

Chris Creegan exposed the role of place in witnessing by reading aloud Tony Walsh’s poem “This Is the Place,” a mediation on Manchester’s history and legacy the artist orated in public in the wake of the May 2017 terrorist attacks. Acknowledging his ties to his native Manchester, Chris stated to the group that they may not appreciate the dialect or regional references as he does because “they’re not of your place; they’re of mine.”  

For Jumana Al-Yasiri, place was not local, or even regional, but a transnational connection to the Arab Spring for those like her, born in Damascus, Syria, who have been affected by the violence. Jumana spoke about her reaction to last night’s performance of Ramy: In the frontline, Essam’s multimedia retelling of his personal experience as symbol of Egyptian resistance during the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. She stated that while she is not Egyptian, the tribulations Ramy: In the frontline bears witness to something that ‘happened to all of us.’

Ramy and full group discussion

With Day 4 occurring near the midpoint of the week-long Global Cultural Fellows program, the speakers were able draw on previous discussions to make connections between themes. Devika Ranjan related her interpretation of Lal Batti Express. She found significance in how the performers used their bodies to express their testimony of prostitution in India. Devika facilitated partner-based movement exercises between the Fellows in order for them to understand first-hand how movement and stillness can communicate acts of bearing witness.

Following yesterday’s small-group discussions, the Fellows proceeded to break out into their ‘World Café’, which emulates the free movement between conversations in coffee shops and salons. Devika’s group focused on the ethics of witnessing; Marika Constantino initiated a dialogue on creating platforms for witnessing; Caitlin Nasema Cassidy asked her group to articulate the responsibilities of bearing witness; Jumana led a discussion on the artist and witness; Chris used ‘World Café’ to elaborate on place as a central factor to bearing witness.

The ‘World Café’ and the subsequent large-group dialogue highlighted how bearing witness intervenes in political and social tensions, but also demonstrated that bearing witness is a deliberate action. Reem Alsayyah explained her decision to perform in The Queens of Syria, based on hers and peers’ experiences with the violence in Syria. She said, “I felt it was my responsibility to be a witness and not a victim.”

Reem’s decision to use theater as medium for expression certainly suggests that artists are predisposed to bear witness. Xenia Hanusiak contended that witnessing is point of activation for the actor, which she applied to Mikael Löfgren’s comparison between the male lead’s revolutionary politics in August Strindberg’s Miss Julie and Farber’s adaptation set in post-apartheid South Africa.  Löfgren also challenged everyone to think of the difference between first hand or ‘real’ and fictional witnessing. 

The collaboration needed to stage The Queens of Syria, but also Mies Julie and Ramy: In the frontline, resonated with Marika’s small-group discussion on platforms. Group-member Eona Craig advocated for connectivity and greater awareness for the ‘here and now’, which Ellen Heyward described as necessary building-blocks for “making people protagonists in the narratives in their own story”. In the context of today’s theme, Ellen’s comments were certainly applicable to artists and non-artists.

Debating the role of the artist enhanced the conversation, but also compelled the Fellows to reel in the discussion and focus on defining the act of witnessing. An exchange between Reem and Jumana expanded on Asif Majid’s provocation on the difference between being a witness and being an observer. For the Fellows, the premise that witnessing is a productive action led them to describe observing as passive. Jumana articulated this difference by stating that the news exists to learn what happened, but theater takes reality and draws out the underlying truth from those events and conflicts.

The recognition that theater has the ability to bear witness initiated a subsequent exchange on Essam’s interactive production, which defies the customary rules for traditional theatrical performances. Asif implored the group to examine the effects Essam had on audiences rather than the production’s form; the latter, Asif cautioned, would trap the Fellows in the same high-low dichotomy they resisted on Day 2.

Asif’s comments were met with murmurs of approval, capping off a spirited string of disagreements. The Fellows were visibly moved to have the opportunity to air and listen to numerous competing perspectives on the power of witness.

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