In recent days, the counterpoint between two images flooded the networks. This is, the view from the height of the classic stalls of an Italian-style theater and the same view, of the same stalls, after applying the rules of sanitary distancing.
In the first, marked with the word "before", the focus is on the regular arrangement of the rows of seats in parallel circular sections: full, velvety, with the latent vibration of the bodies that were there, which at some point will return, the sounds, the emotions, in short, the emblem of a space and cultural practices that take place according to precise rituals that have been cultivated for centuries, which are conserved and at the same time recreated and critically revised in the encounter with the contemporary.
In the second, marked as "now", the photo shows the brutal mutilation of the theater as a social space: the harmony of the replica of the curved segment is broken, that latency of the presences of bodies, sounds, looks, emotions was torn, the continuity of the space, and with it that of a ritual, is broken.
But I do not write these lines to defend the continuity of the opera theater or any specific tradition, but these images once again activated the question that some of us have been asking ourselves for weeks in this global context of health emergency about what is “necessary". If this time in suspension serves to take care of ourselves and one another and to preserve human life, it should also serve to be able to think about it. And we know that human life is in society, it is with and among others. So, if we agree that this is constitutive of life, as much as we have the certainty of the need to live seriously considering the environment (which is the only space that has benefited from this crisis at the moment), which way of social life do we want to restore in order to replenish the human in the world?
I would like to retake the firstly proposed contrast of the images. What does this decision to mutilate the theatrical space tell us, beyond the rapid response on the surface strictly linked to “adapting” to the current situation of preventive distancing? What do we understand by “adapting”? Humanity has undergone severe trauma, men, women, children managed to find a daily life in the most extreme conditions. I am thinking, for example, of concentration camps, where those who suffered from them adapted themselves to a previously unimaginable limit. However, the first thing those who managed to survive sought was to reestablish the human condition in their lives: to recover their family bonds, friends, their places of belonging, or to change them, after verifying that it was not there that they wished to return to restart the rest of their life.
So, and to continue with the case of theater seats as an example to think about, at this moment in which those of us who are dedicated to culture are witnessing the suspension of the usual formats in which it is produced and circulates socially, why choose to return to the previously installed practices, mummifying them? Why operate as a taxidermist who, instead of thinking about protecting an endangered species of birds, retains its image in flight, as if that allowed it to preserve everything that that species means within the ecosystem in which it lives?
If we agree that within cultural activities, theater is one of the most quickly recognized as a social issue -among other things because it takes place in a space occupied collectively, because it addresses a community with which it seeks to think, to whom it challenges and, in the words of Bertolt Brecht, whose meaning “is to say what is important from a social point of view" that causes astonishment, reflection and moves the spectator from inertia-, in this mutilated version of theater, what would we be rescuing? What would have remained of the social issue, of its rituals, of its ability to activate thought, of latency?
Is it worth “adapting” to that or are we really losing a fragment of humanity in these types of adaptations, insofar as we identify humanity with society and both with culture? Because, also, we agree that when asked to answer what is necessary, obviously in the face of that abyss between life and death in which we are presented with the discourses of this present pandemic, the only thing really necessary is to preserve life. But, since we are already too far from those prehistoric times, as many events have occurred and lots of culture built societies at all times and places (and we will surely continue to do so), how do we think with/in/a capital built throughout the centuries? What future do we want for cultural production?
To think (about) the emergency is not an easy task. In the first weeks of the imposition of confinement in different parts of the world, we all tried out ways to “adapt” to this, which was understood as temporary. We built daily routines in that long and diverse variety of actions that have been described many times already, we tried virtual ways to meet one another, to teach, to keep projects alive. But always with the certainty that it is temporary. That these adaptations, in addition, only reach a portion of the planet's societies, since another part is the one that works for this to happen, and another segment is excluded from one or the other option; in short, the differences are deepening.
So, those of us who have the privilege of being able to stay at home have the responsibility to think with this exceptional condition and find ways to open the discussion about what is necessary, without becoming essentialists, but precisely by socializing the problem and trying to find alternatives that overcome even the pre-existing conditions.
Thus, if we define theater from its status of social issue, and having in mind the urgency, why not re-imagine public space as the place for theater? Why not put those traditional formats on hold, for as long as necessary? What is the need to turn the theater into a Frankenstein? Or maybe it already was, at least in terms of the “social issue” understood as an activator of critical consciousness and, therefore, this mutilating gesture is showing the ways in which capitalism reconverts the space to make it an even more elitist site than it was before.
Perhaps the void shown by this new rhythm of seats in the theater room is not only what we literally see, but what in gestures like that is empty is actually the place of the other, assigning that place to the system but forgetting that the system without the subjects does not work. Meanwhile, the other empty place in decisions like that is the place of thought. So: let's not adapt, let's keep thinking.
Diana Wechsler is an Art Historian and Head Investigator at CONICET. She is Director of the Department of Art and Culture of the National University of Tres de Febrero, Argentina.