Note from the Director Yan Duyvendak [Still In Paradise]
Often, performance is negatively defined: «It’s not theater;» «it doesn’t follow dramaturgical models;» «it isn’t re-performed.» Or with a frame of reference limited to the body art of the 60s, as though this subsumed the entire field of performance: A single idea, drawn out over time, developing themes such as sexuality, intimacy, endurance in the face of pain or effort…. The guiding principle that I prefer to carry forward, from those early and auspicious days of performance, is that of the breaking of dogmas. These artists looked beyond received techniques and outside of the usual scope of each artistic medium. They looked to make meaning outside of established codes.
That’s what interests me: To become familiar with the limits of a discipline and go beyond them, move the boundaries, destabilize, knock down the walls, and move outside of preconceived ideas to make meaning, and/or to make it implode.
I like, following Walter Benjamin, to immerse myself in a preexisting model, to take a position «against, intimately against,» and to blow apart its ordinary workings. Gently but firmly.
Since September 11, 2001, the world has become harder, crueler, more absurd. In the face of the violence of a system which locks us in and turns us all into indistinguishable bits I wanted to reply that the human being remains, unique, rich, worthy – and worthy of interest.
After September 11, I had the idea – as silly as it was naïve – of interviewing some terrorists. Assuming this to be a simple matter, I went to Cairo at the beginning of 2007 – where I found it very difficult to meet any. I did, however, cross paths with many Cairenes. Here I found the meaning of my quest: I was looking for points of view that would open themselves up to me, without taking note of the fact that I knew nothing of the country, of the culture, or of the people in the midst of whom I searched. As one scratches the soil looking for bones. I began to open my eyes: I recorded some interviews, I took pictures, I collected, I documented, and… I discovered the Other – I needed to come face to face with a creature of flesh and blood.
In Egypt, I saw the West «against, intimately against» the East.
I provoked a duel in plain sight. With Omar Ghayatt, performance artist, also originally from the world of the visual arts, who had participated in the same residency program in Bern that I was now doing in Cairo.
A few months later, we presented Still in Paradise. Since then, the piece has developed and evolved over time – we add new bits according to current events or our own desires. The spectators are with us on stage. We show them the evening’s program and they raise their hands to vote for various fragments. Each of these playlets touches on some aspect of the encounter between the Middle East and the West which has come up in the confrontation between Omar and me. We bring the spectators into a very Egyptian – very gentle – atmosphere of conviviality. Of which we know practically nothing in Europe, in our capitalist society that posits the individual as the gold standard. The prism of otherness permits discovery, allows us to see received ideas in the context of a relationship with the other, and to take a step towards him. We also try to enumerate and to undermine the commonplaces of struggle between the Middle East and the West, in order to substitute for them a more specific and rigorous awareness.
The piece plays with any number of theatrical conventions, such as rules of performance, cinematic traditions, Arabian tales, the risk of silence, confession, confidence.
I am pleased that genre isn’t the main issue. We are trying to call forth meaning, to generate it. That’s our goal. And all means of getting there are permissible.
Still in Paradise is one of my biggest adventures. Artistically and as a human being. As Omar puts it: it’s not only an artistic project, it is the project of a life.
It made me realize that my tolerance only extended itself to things I understood. But – I don’t understand Omar, and yet I see his integrity, I look at him and I love him as he is. That is what I have learned with this piece.
I love re-performing Still in Paradise. I love what gets created with each audience. I love how they resist taking off their shoes at the beginning of the piece. I love how the space onstage, formerly cold and empty, transforms itself into a space for «co-living,» resolutely open and political – in the sens of polis – and revives the question of how we can all live together, on top of one another in the city. Omar calls it a ritual we do with the audience as if we would add a note in a big, ongoing diary…
In a sort of subterranean, indirect manner, the work is political, humanist. It attempts to bring together artistic research and reflection on society’s problems. With the secret hope of discovering there some possible routes toward atonement – toward combating the loss of confidence in mankind – because, no, I don’t think that the efforts and actions of human beings are vain.