The theatre is a democratic space. (Well, yes, and this is especially important in this case). The audience is expectant (yes, and open-minded). They are neither less nor more important than those on the stage (yes, those two knights, for they are the performers). Yes, and those knights are no less and no more susceptible to change than said eager audience. (Yes, because the audience and the performers encounter each other here). Yes, that is clear, and this encounter happens precisely within this theatre space because here the cultural tradition, society and the superego have fought for and ushered forth democracy. (Precisely so! Because every man was born free, and this, too, is important here, so surely this is the most democratic of spaces)… Indeed, it is a space where you can say whatever you want. (Yes! You can say whatever you want!) And, in this space, which is thus both aesthetic and semantic, we begin. (Yes, this is where 99 words for void begin).*
99 Words for Void is created and performed by Maike and Iggy Lond Malmborg. The performance ran for three times in November at Kanuti Gildi SAAL in Tallinn, and is now expected to tour. This is a collaborative piece that aesthetically straddles both the familiar form of theatre and the less traditional phenomenon of performance art, using both to its advantage while seemingly turning the expectations of these forms inside out. In its narrative and linguistics the performance sits between fiction and reality, an uncomfortable and powerful site that enables the active position of the audience, as viewer and as citizen, to be revealed and reflected.
Through carefully constructed and restricted forms of language (yes, and the repetitively affirmative use of this language), the Lond Malmborg duo (hence forth simply Lond Malmborg) do not just perform a narrative, but they actually carry out an action. This action is built up of familiar humanist statements, ‘every man is born free’, for example, followed only by another affirming statement. Quite quickly, each statement begins to be erased by the next, which in its turn becomes meaningless. Ultimately, a sense emerges that no critique or alternative is possible. Yet is seems that if only we were able to glance away from the narrative before us, we would see the crumbling edges of this artificial and blinkered view. But the audience, though privileged and democratic, is complicit and thus unable to interrupt, or to escape. The real sense of entrapment befalls those who realize that this narrowed and abused ideological rhetoric, which Lond Malmborg describe as a “dialogue without dialect”, cannot simply be escaped upon release from the performance but pervades within the core of our society. These humanist ideologies, embedded in common language, are manipulated to a point of emptiness on the theatrical stage, as on the political stage by neoliberal rhetoric. Thus the “cosy claustrophobic” atmosphere that Lond Malmborg attempt to create becomes a foil for the Eurocentric capitalist turn, which embeds freedom with violence and defines inclusion by exclusion.
The narrative of the performance allows for similar notions to be played out, carrying the audience from the humorous and believable, eventually through to racist language that with lucid finality draws a distinction between THEM and US. The discomfort is palpable, the atmosphere decisively claustrophobic. For what should we do? We have been lead throughout to believe that we’re in agreement about what is good and right in the world; now suddenly it seems there is no alternative, no voice with which to cut short this narrative, no exterior language to challenge the logic of its ideology.
Sparked initially by observations made in the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack in the beginning of this year, the performance remains heavily relevant and poignant in the light of further attacks on Parisian civilians over the weekend. If anything, the performance seems to point to an ironic lack of democracy across the divide between lands, ideologies, and actions that are perceived and justified as Western, and those that are not.
Importantly, the performance offers no critique or support of what it deftly reveals. The adoption of theatrical aesthetics ensures that the artists are separable from their semiotic roles. But the labour they expend sets up an environment that enables certain linguistic forms, institutions and ideologies (yes, their uses and misuses too) to be exposed.
This is a perceptive and extremely manipulative construction, made all the more a successful and complete experience by the close coupling of the performance’s form and its discourses.
*Italics are the author’s own words and are not quotes from the performance but do paraphrase or imitate its form.