Thursday, October 21, 2010

Tagfish à La Ferme du Buisson

La Ferme du Buisson

After a weekend of theater that doused us in the alienation of contemporary British (Forced Entertainment) and Japanese society (another Okada’s We are the Undamaged Ones), on Sunday night Anne and I ventured out to La Ferme du Buisson, a former factory site scattered with nineteenth century heritage buildings that have that been transformed into a cultural playground – there’s an art gallery, a theater, a hall, a cinema and, because it’s France, at the center of it all, sits an expansive bar and restaurant. The fun doesn’t begin and end inside the buildings, but continues outside with projections, sculptures, outdoor performances. For people like me who only move beyond the péripherique on the way to Germany or London, it’s always a surprise to find life, let alone high quality experimental culture, in the suburbs. And so, La Ferme du Buisson east of Paris was a real find.

And what better introduction to this vibrant cultural space than the performance of the collective Berlin, Tagfish. Billed as a docu-fiction, Tagfish is a video/performance ostensibly about the building of a hotel at the site of the Zeche Zollverein, the former coal mine in Essen, in industrial Germany. Six white middle-aged German men sit around a boardroom table, in ornate chairs. However, the architect, the town planner, the regional government representative, the journalist, the UNESCO representative philosophize, dream, debate and disagree about the project to come from the comfort of their own offices. The men do not meet, but are filmed individually, their discrete image shown on its own screen that forms the back of the chairs they would otherwise be sitting in. Thus, the men of this committee only come together on the stage of performance, as a series of video screens, mounted to chairs, placed around an on-stage table. And one chair, thus screen, is empty, but the occupant’s presence, his desire and his thoughts pervade the piece: this is the chair reserved for the Sheik who will finance the prospective hotel. After endless conversations in which the idealist urban designer, the pragmatist local government and so on, don’t so much disagree as prolong the conversation.

For me the piece extended beyond its specific subject matter to become a reflection on the ineffectivity and endless procrastination, the mire of decision making in institutions anywhere other than in the business sector. Painfully long pauses, the repetition ad infinitum of issues at stake, the needless digressions into other points of view reminded me all too well of the institutional committees on which I sit, committees that rarely make a decision and never convince me of the need to meet again. Predictably, there is no decision about whether and how to go ahead with the hotel at the Zollverein, even as the Sheik sits in the Middle East primed to sign the check. A work such as Tagfish so convincingly captures the ineffectivity and absurdity, even surreality, of these kinds of government orchestrated commitees in general: under the guise of democracy and consensus, they prolong the process of decision making until they can include everyone’s point of view, and then stymie all possibility of doing anything other than performing the fiction of their own necessity.

All of this said, however, I am not sure whether the collective Berlin was interested in this more general level of identification. Perhaps they were, but the uncertainty of their intentions is one of a number of flaws in the piece. There is much left undone and unexplored by Tagfish, shortcomings that leave the audience disappointed and frustrated. Thus, for example, while the discussions proliferate about whether the hotel should be above or below ground, whether it should have air-conditioning or not, there is only passing reference to the insufferable condition of the miners who once occupied the Zeche Zollverein. The briefest mention of the heat, the blackness, the humidity in the mines might be at the level of the discussions. However, if this is the case, Tagfish does nothing to critique the ignorance of the committee members, and the irresponsibility of their thinking. When they discuss the hotel designs, it is hinted that building underground works with the existing ethos and structures of the Zollverein. However, to reiterate, it’s worth getting angry over the idea that the experience of being in a luxury hotel could somehow compare with that of being in a mine, a comparison that is nowhere addressed, let alone analyzed.

Similarly, I couldn’t help wondering if the novelty of the use of an individual screen for each committee member, and in turn, their co-existence solely on the stage, was intriguing but empty of any further significance. Yes, it may be that the form of Tagfish is somehow echoing the ultimate breakdown of communication among the group. But I don’t think that is enough of an impetus or substantiation for such an otherwise innovative mode of presentation.  All of this said, Tagfish is one of those pieces that is so potentially rich, and that points to so many interesting and complex issues, particularly as they are raised across the landscape of Germany’s Ruhr Valley regeneration, that it’s worth the journey out to La Ferme du Buisson just for the après-performance discussion of the issues it raises.  And, of course, this discussion can take place in the inspiring and creative environment of an industrial site that was successfully transformed and is able to celebrate the vibrancy of contemporary culture. 

All images courtesy of Anne Steichen's iphone

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