Ivan Medenica, Bitef Artistic Director - photography: Nenad Šugić
Ivan Medenica, Bitef Artistic Director - photography: Nenad Šugić

Edge of the Future

It is clear and thus unnecessary to emphasize what an arduous journey making the programme of the 54th Bitef was. The negotiations with the companies and the theatres whose performances are chosen lasted for months because it was impossible to predict how the global coronavirus pandemics was going to develop. Although all the human activities in all the parts of the world have been rendered difficult, some of them even impossible, it does not seem egocentric - or it does, but in a way that is appropriate for theatre - to claim that one of the most jeopardized fields is the organization of international theatre festivals. What makes it jeopardized is the fact that theatre practice itself, under the circumstances of the necessary physical distancing, has become almost impossible. Additional frustration, immanent in an international festival, comes from the fact that air travel has been rendered difficult, from recommendations (not) to travel to certain countries, mandatory quarantines… With all those challenges in mind, Bitef art and production team cannot guarantee that the festival will take place as planned, between 9th and 15th September. It will depend on the pandemics, on local and international protocols of public gatherings and air travels, etc.

Still, even under these circumstances, we have managed to create a programme behind which we firmly stand both in terms of concept and artistically, and which is “sustainable” in terms of production. The only thing is that this edition will be somewhat more modest, which is logical for a continuous state of emergency. The reason is not only financial - a drastic and unexplained reduction of the subventions from the Ministry of Culture, as well as one general uncertainty of whether the sponsors would be ready to support art at a time like this - but is linked to production in a broader sense as well. Less numerous ensembles (most performances at the 54th Bitef programme do not have many performers) run lower risks of having a member fall ill and therefore cancel, while independent troupes are more flexible and can meet the demands of pandemic protocols more easily.

While developing the main programme, Bitef team has had to bear in mind some other challenges which might be triggered by the pandemics too, and we hope that we have done everything we could in order to prevent any problems that might arise. One of the considerable challenges is a potential ban on public gatherings, i.e. the necessity to keep a distance in the audience. Organizational difficulties have made us abandon our initial idea to continue our cooperation with Luka Beograd, where it would have been possible to build audiences with an appropriate distance between the seats, so we will have to create physical distance within institutional theatres. What it implies is that a number of seats will be made unavailable, which implies a smaller number of people in the audience, which causes another problem.  All of this will, unfortunately, rule out the possibility for all the interested ones to attend the performances, although we have ensured each of them to be played more than once. Namely, with the necessity for physical distancing, the seating capacities have been at least halved.

Despite all the adverse circumstances, the preparations of the 54th Bitef main programme were also marked by some favourable ones. The main one was that the festival dramaturge, Filip Vujošević, and I, as its artistic director and selector, saw over thirty-five performances prior to the beginning of the pandemics, which, alongside several video-recordings of performances that we saw later, created a “reservoir” sufficient enough for making the final selection. Therefore, travel disruption and impossibility to see live performances, as the most reliable way of selection, have not harmed the 54th Bitef programme: the basis of the programme was set over a year ago, after we had seen the performance Uncanny Valley. In other words, we have managed to establish both main lines in the festival concept, the artistic and the thematic, plus two additional aspects - non-European theatre and new authors. All of the selected performances belong to some of the categories, very often more than one … And what are the main artistic and thematic lines of the 54th Bitef?

“Scientists divide the history of our planet into epochs such as the Pleistocene, the Pliocene and the Miocene. Officially, we live in the Holocene epoch. Yet it may be better to call the last 70,000 years the Anthropocene epoch: the epoch of humanity. For during these millennia Homo sapiens became the single most important agent of change in the global ecology. (...) Since the appearance of life, about 4 billion years ago, never has a single species changed the global ecology all by itself. (...) This single ape species has managed within 70,000 years to change the global ecosystem in radical and unprecedented ways. Our impact is already on a par with that of ice ages and tectonic movements. Within a century, our impact may surpass that of the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.“ (Harari, Homo Deus).

This is how one of the currently most famous scholars in the world, Israeli historian Yuval Noa Harari describes the impact homo sapiens has made on the planet Earth, and its global ecosystem. I have chosen Harari as a reference to this topic not only because of his fame but also because, as we are going to see, the performance based on his bestsellers - Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century - will introduce us to all the topics treated by the 54th Bitef: from the biggest current problem, the climate changes, the destruction of ecosystem and, consequentially, a real threat of cataclysm, to the projection of the world beyond, the world which is in the contemporary theory referred to as posthumanism and transhumanism. This thematic focus is additionally justified by the fact that the first group of topics, the ones linked to ecological crisis, is not only global but local too, since Belgrade is one of the world cities which has a serious problem with air pollution. Furthermore, the reason that Bitef might not take place in 2020 is also ecological: what, among other things, caused the coronavirus pandemics, was the ecological disbalance.

I use the notions transhumanism and posthumanism in their broadest sense, possibly even colloquially: not as a projection of a world without people (which was the topic of 52nd Bitef), but of a world which will not be anthropocentric anymore. Out of the desire to get as “upgraded” as possible, and thus achieve the ideals of bliss, immortality, and godlikeness, as Harari writes in Homo Deus, man has, paradoxically, lead to the defragmentation of human subject. In theoretical sense, I see these notions as Cary Wolfe states them: transhumanism represents an intensification of humanistic ideals in the sense of technological upgrade of man, while posthumanism is the critique of such an, essentially still anthropocentric concept, in favour of the idea of equality between all living beings… With all of this in mind, artistic line of the 54th Bitef became self-evident. It comes down to various forms of the digital body of a performer, i.e. the defragmentation of human performing subject. According to Steve Dixon, digital body of a performer implies virtual, cyborg and robot body. The virtual one belongs only to the virtual space and is, therefore, always an image, a representation of another body. Cyborg is human body with some machine interventions, while robot is an entirely machine body… In some of the performances of the 54th Bitef, body of a performer gets supplemented or even substituted with a drone or a robot, while in others it is still one and whole, but gets, through lights and other effects, and robotized choreography - meticulously deconstructed, dehumanized.

As we have already suggested, the entire thematic range of the 54th Bitef - from the destruction of global ecosystem to unsettling outlooks for the humanity - is introduced through the performance which we have, logically, decided to place as the first, in the traditional Prologue Day. We have also emphasized that it bases its treatment of these and related topics on Harari’s analyses, conclusions, and prognoses. The performance in question is the spectacular ensemble-performance under a striking title - 2020 - by the Croatian director Ivica Buljan, coproduced by three renowned theatres/cultural centres from Ljubljana, Slovene National Theatre Drama, The Ljubljana City Theatre, and Cankar Centre. Such placement of the performance 2020 within the 54th Bitef dramaturgy has been decided upon by two additional reasons. The performance contains some elements of immersive theatre, thus creating a link to the last-year festival. Owing to its title, its topics and the fact that it is one of rare grand performances in the region, possibly also in Europe, which managed to appear in 2020 (before the pandemics), it represents a unique homage, a cynic might call it a posthumous one, to a year which has deeply shaken, jeopardized and unquestionably, although still unclear in which form and to which extent, changed our lives and the world, including the theatre (both as art practice and as institution).

The grand opening will present the performance Traces by one of the leading choreographers in Europe and in the world, Wim Vandekeybus, and his company Ultima Vez from Brussels. In a very energetic, witty, and exciting choreography, which involves elements of spoken theatre, this performance develops a dramaturgical arc - not in the least illustrative - from constructing roads through forests, destroying nature, to a comic but also threatening finale in the form of the nature’s vengeance. One of the two thematic wholes of the 54th Bitef, which comes down to problematizing ecological challenges in the contemporary civilization, is rounded off with the performance Lungs by young Slovenian director Žiga Divjak, based on the eponymous play by the contemporary English playwright,  Duncan Macmillan, in the production of Slovene National Theatre Drama from Ljubljana. This play, which deals with the challenges that love couples have to face nowadays, raises, among other things, one seemingly absurd, even morbid, but essentially legitimate ecological and ethical question: is it justified to have children in an overpopulated world in which every being uses invaluable supplies of oxygen, but also in the world where that new life is to face some serious existential problems with possible tragic outcomes, such as ecological cataclysm, pandemics, and huge economic and social crisis. This minimalistic performance, based on an amazing play of two young actors, presents a new name not only of Slovenian, but judging by his creative potential, also of regional and European directing, Žiga Divjak, which is one of the missions of Bitef.

After that, the focus of the 54th Bitef shifts from ecological to similar issues, to the concept of posthumanism in the broadest sense. In the Belgian performance I Put a Spell on You, by a young but already internationally renowned Iranian choreographer Ehsan Hemat, a robotized choreography with three performers from Iran, Belgium and Japan, together with the supervision of their fourth partner - a drone - articulates one of the main problems in the world today, the one no longer ruled by humanistic values: media and technological control and manipulation. This performance, to the extent which were realistic this year, marks yet another important line in the concept of Bitef: presenting and promoting artists from non-European and non-Western cultures.

The cornerstone of the 54th Bitef artistic line, the one on which this festival concept is based, is the production by the famous Munich Kammerspiele, in cooperation with the equally famous company Rimini Protokoll, directed by Stefan Kaegi, one of the three directors of this collective, and also a director beloved by Bitef audience. The only performer in this solo-performance is a humanoid robot, an amazingly true copy of a real person, writer Thomas Melle. This performance is brought about in the form of lecture-performance, and the topic of Melle’s lecture (he gives the voice to the robot) is autobiographical: the writer’s bipolar disorder, marked by the fear of losing control, which is exactly what Melle does when he allows the robot to speak instead of him - he lets it assume his own “subjectivity”. This intelligent and witty performance links universal questions of posthumanism with the ones related to the essence of theatre: the question of whether a “live” actor on stage is necessary, the conditions/circumstances of empathy from the audience, etc. Even if we assume that the activity of a humanoid robot can provoke an emotional reaction in us just as if it was a human being, the question remains if and how the other direction in the interrelation between audience and performers work, i.e. if and how reactions by the audience can influence the performance itself (Erika Fischer-Lichte determines this interrelation as “autopoietic feedback loop”).

The climax of both artistic and thematic line at this year’s Bitef, and therefore a project suitable for the festival finale, is a French performance-installation Flesh by the director Franck Vigroux. It does not follow any plot, it is completely abstract, and comes down to a visual-atmosphere installation with two dancers whose bodies, their human identity, are radically deconstructed through costumes, light, smoke effects, and other stage elements.

At the very end of the festival, we present the only representative from Serbia at the 54th Bitef, the performance Living Room, produced by the Belgrade Drama Theatre which is, based on his own concept, staged by the young German director Ersan Mondtag, with whom is Bitef audience already well-acquainted. Similar to his previous performance, which was the first in this distinctive trilogy, the concept of the project Living Room is based on a spectacular and symbolically precise stage design of a specific, closed world, inhabited by lonely, alienated existences. This lyrical meditation on time, transience and loneliness is an authentic contribution to one of the thematic lines of 54th Bitef, the vision of “posthuman world”. The choice of this performance, which will premiere at Bitef, has yet another justification: it supports contemporary, Bitef-like trends in Serbian theatre, which has been one of the festival’s missions since its inception. There is no need to remind of the fact that Mondtag, as he states it himself, was internationally discovered by Bitef, when, at its 51st edition, he had two performances. That was the first time he was presented outside German-speaking region, while today he is a “rising star” of European theatre.

Thematically, this Bitef focuses on dystopian perspectives of the humanity, which is mostly, although not exclusively, conditioned by the collapse of the global ecological balance (which also gave rise to the pandemics we are currently facing), while artistically, it experiments with the possibilities of performance which would not necessarily revolve around human participant. Therefore, the 54th Bitef is, on both levels, emphatically focused on the future and, on both of them, it implies new realities, including the theatrical one, which might not be anthropocentric… The question whether we should dread this kind of future or, longing to return to the nature, rejoice at the thought of it, remains, for now, unanswered. This kind of future is no longer futuristic projection, it is here, we are about to jump into it, or rather collapse into it, for who can tell whether it brings (and whether it should bring) anything good to homo sapiens? We are standing at its edge, like at the edge of an abyss… Bitef anno domini 2020 or - Edge of the Future.

Ivan Medenica, Bitef Artistic Director and Curator