Due to this worldwide health crisis the performing arts have come to a standstill almost everywhere. This affects not only the work of the artists, but also that of the art critics. However, change creates opportunities. Suppose you could use this time of contemplation to think up a number of things: What changes in the role of art criticism (in relation to the performing arts) would be desirable? Could the international performing arts festivals play a role in this? And what do you hope to get more time and publishing opportunities for in the future as a critic?
For those who are in the performing arts it will come as no surprise if I say that performance is about sharing. Performing is not limited to acting, or being exposed, or being technically perfect, or being appealing. It is all this and something more. It is being generous, being prepared for the unexpected, being receptive, initiating a communion, this on-spot communion which is not negotiable, not balanced or stable, almost irrational – however desirable and sought after.
And the performing arts critic – if aiming to be fair to the object of criticism – cannot be a stranger to this spirit of generosity. The critic is generous in giving the most precious element of their craftsmanship – the ability to write accurately and meaningfully – to what is not describable, what is not even fixed, what cannot be repeated, something that is not reproducible. An impossible task, purely an expense, unreasonable, almost laughable. That is why performing arts criticism fits so badly in the new media economy. It is useless, it reviews what is no longer available, it announces what it cannot guarantee, it experiments with what has no market value.
Et voila, sharing is no longer possible. Isolation and a new hygienic ethos sentence each of us to no communication, no exchange, no communion. Performance, whenever it resumes, may no longer be that irrational, generous. It will be calculated, with meters and sheds, sanitisers and quarantines. Until the next pandemic wave. I admire the strength and devotion of ensembles, orchestras and choirs that master Zoom in order to perform together, I cherish this shade of hope that one day the situation of generous togetherness will be possible again. I check with horror the distancing rules and ugly photos of destroyed stalls of concert halls and theatres. And desperately realise that my professional life, if not my whole life, is at stake.
It is not a lack of content for criticism – there is even too much. Coming from Russia, I am not snobbish about streaming; my professional standards have always pushed me to learn by video what has not yet come to Moscow. It is not, however, where Fleurov becomes a critic, where I pick up on this logic of generosity, where I commit to this communion with artists and audience, and readers. Here I must sharpen my senses so as not to miss any of what I would have perceived in the auditorium.
It should be said that no-sharing is not an unusual situation for a Russian critic. The fact that there is very little in the way of independent cultural media, plus the state control of many major media (cultural content included) and the lack of interest in the cultural agenda from the media confine art criticism and journalism to the social-network ghetto. Art criticism is largely isolated from the audience, from society, from the community. Blogging is not a solution once social networks require likes and resist generous gestures. The virus seems to accentuate this professional confinement despite the illusionary rise in viewing statistics.
The epidemic crisis gives time for thinking and reflection. Some trends and ideas are noteworthy: democratisation of the arts and shifting of hierarchies in art consumption, poverty of technological tools, decay of the criteria of quality and virtuosity of the performance, etc. This is an important change... which must be tested in the situation of live performance. Otherwise these trends develop in some other way, alien to what is at the core of the performing arts and arts criticism.
I would rather preserve my tools, my competences and the uniqueness of my metier. If I had to choose (hopefully I will still write about the performing arts), I would rather write about or contribute to projects and activities which still aim to rebuild community, the common cause outside the performing arts. There I would be able to apply my sense of togetherness, my knowledge of the performing arts as a laboratory of social relationships and my spirit of generosity. Let there be social projects, research projects, political projects; mine may be the most sophisticated eye with which to see invisible bonds and strategies connecting people, those flows of energy which any performer knows. There are few professions that train this sensitivity and ability to verbalise and thus to activate these bonds.
In keeping with this spirit of sharing, one could hardly ignore such a unique form of being together as a festival, whether local or international; the latter only emphasises this capacity to bring people together. A festival is above all a concentrated common effort for a common cause. The performing arts critic is at home here and may deploy his or her competences and skills, especially if the festival is for everyone and not for a specific audience (socially or culturally). The troubling consequence is that like any other form of generous togetherness, the festival’s very existence is at stake now.
My choice of a piece from the Holland Festival 2020 programme that I would contribute to as a critic is guided specifically by the professional ambitions and values which I wrote about above. Not only because the piece is appealing but also because the whole organisation of the project promises this generosity and community that determine my professional consciousness.
If you could choose any production or artist from the initial Holland Festival 2020 programming to write about, or meet the artist, who/what would that be and why?
The choice of a project to review in the program of the 2020 Holland Festival is less guided by the curiosity and appeal of the theme or the score than by the special viewpoint and organisation of the project, and of the project in general rather than of the piece to be performed. The choice is Ben Frost’s opera The Murder of Halit Yozgat.
When I insist that the whole project matters here, it is because the case of the murder of young Yozgat was finally reconstructed by independent researchers from Forensic Architecture, a group that uses a very specific and unexpected expertise – spatial and media data analysis, urban environment – for the cause of civil rights and civil justice. The group is as much an artistic project as an academic and civil one. The investigations that Forensic Architecture conduct activate the data (which are not always obvious) in order to reconstruct circumstances which have been obscured. In this regard, its investigations are truly performative acts. The group is spread globally and linked by the invisible bonds of common cause.
The composer and director Ben Frost seems to follow the investigators’ logic and uses theatre and performance to question the apparent (but ultimately impossible) total blindness of all present in the crowded tiny internet cafe where the murder took place. But he also activates the effort made by Forensic Architecture to reveal the social and political conditions for the crime. A truly performative act.
Anton Fleurov (Russia) is a music theatre critic and journalist. He writes for the website Colta.ru, the Kommersant newspaper, Theatre magazine and the magazine of the International Theatre Institute MIF-Info. He is co-author of the book Faire vivre l'opéra, written following the 50th anniversary of the Aix-en-Provence Festival. He is also curator of programmes at the Golden Mask Theatre Festival in Russia.