Decide or else

*Decision-Making in Society, Politics and Art *

The news that Great Britain is leaving the European Union broke in the middle of the Impulse Theater Festival 2016. During the first thematic discussions for this year’s festival the USA elected Donald Trump President. Before the festival begins a number of other momentous decisions have to be taken – then shortly afterwards there will be elections to the German parliament. Writing this foreword it is impossible to foresee what the mood at the opening of the festival will be: short-winded optimism that things didn’t turn out as badly as they might have done or a frustrated analysis of the causes? For some time now, how we decide things and what decisions we are allowed to take have been questions of life or death.

Impulse regards theater as a social laboratory. In the course of four festivals since 2013 we have investigated how political theater can look and act today, what relation it has to society and to what extent not only artistic outcomes but also provisional arrangements, working methods and forms of organization can themselves be political experiments.

We will be extending these ideas in the current edition: ‘Decide or Else’ – this isn’t just a democratic promise, it is a threat. How should we decide things now, and what decisions are we allowed to take? What processes of recruitment and negotiation are prevalent in politics, society and the economy? And does art have something of its own to hold up against the crisis of democracies?

Decision-making is a political and at the same time a highly personal matter. The Latin word ‘decisio’ has its roots in cutting, from which there is no way back. So the festival begins with a reference to the most famous (non-)decision-maker in theatrical history: for Boris Nikitin’s ‘Hamlet’ to be or not to be, to delay or to act is no longer a question of making a decision but a tension that has to be borne – and as such it is not dissimilar to the artistic trap set for us by Monster Truck with ‘Sorry’: in this controversial work, created together with the Nigerian choreographer Segun Adefila and his young company The Footprints, we become unwilling accomplices in a nightmare-like form of postcolonial cultural exchange. The desire to take action finds no outlet – a situation produced in a very different way by Milo Rau with ‘Five Easy Pieces’, one of the most heavily-discussed European plays last season. Here children replay the story of the Belgian pedophile murderer Marc Dutroux and once again responsibility is delegated to us in the audience: what are children supposed to know, do or say? What role are we playing as witnesses? We are left to our own devices even more in Dries Verhoeven’s both political and poetic live installation where we meet the protagonist of a foreign world all on our own. ‘Guilty Landscapes’ demands that we perform the paradoxical feat of questioning ourselves while at the same time taking a stand.

By comparison the decisions placed at the center of ‘Du gingst fort’ (You Went Away) appear at first glance to be personal or even provincial. The fact that they are no less political and universal is shown by the Styrian women’s collective Die Rabtaldirndln searching for those who moved away – from the countryside to the city, away from the support of a close-knit social community to comparative anonymity, but also freedom.

Who will help and look after you when networks of family and neighbors are no longer strong enough is what the young Giessen graduates of Swoosh Lieu ask as they collect those whose unseen work makes life – and indeed survival – possible. While the staged installation ‘Who cares?!’ presents a feminist perspective on the conditions of care, ‘Die Erfindung der Gertraud Stock’ (The Invention of Gertraud Stock) by the equally young theater company vorschlag:hammer focuses on a single life. Using interviews, photos and personal records – both true to life and freely invented – they lead us through the biography of an unconventionally conventional woman at the end of her life.

At the opposite end of the age spectrum are the three- to ten-year-old spectators and performers of ‘DA GEFAHR!’ (50 Dangerous Things), a work by the FUNDUS THEATER from Hamburg, in which it becomes evident how the scope for decision-making is restricted by norms and precautions from a very early age. If the theater can be the space where you can lick a 9 volt battery after all, then perhaps there is hope – even when elsewhere once proud theater buildings are being converted into underground car parks as the filmmakers Daniel Kötter and Constanze Fischbeck demonstrate with ‘state-theatre #4 – 6’ in the Depot of Schauspiel Köln.

She She Pop and Gintersdorfer/Klaßen – familiar guests of the festival – and the group internil, who are invited to Impulse for the first time, make more optimistic use of the theater space when they dust off the form of the monologue at the end of the festival, linking back to our opening production of ‘Hamlet’: what say does the individual have in society? And where are the boundaries between the individual and the collective, the performer and the audience?

The invited program at Impulse, which traditionally attempts to provide an insight into the landscape of independent theater in German-speaking countries, is framed by international perspectives: in WDR’s large broadcasting studio the film ‘Germany Year 2071’, made by the Nature Theater of Oklahoma from New York together with the citizens of Cologne and Berlin, will be given its world premiere. The radio play of the same name – a co-production with WDR – will receive its premiere broadcast the evening before the festival begins and provides the overture to a series of radio plays that will take over the ether as an additional stage for Impulse.

Meanwhile, in the great hall at Ringlokschuppen Ruhr in Mülheim, the British company Stan’s Cafe use their expansive theatrical installation which nevertheless consists of nothing but piles of rice to investigate with humor and consideration the factors on which our decisions are based. Here statistics speak for themselves. In each pile, one grain of rice represents one person: a landscape that means the world and whose themes are closely linked to the Silent University Ruhr, the autonomous knowledge platform which Impulse initiated two years ago now in Mülheim. All its teachers are refugee academics who – because they lack work permits, their qualifications are not recognized or for other reasons – are otherwise unable to pass on their knowledge here.
In Düsseldorf ‘Delicate Instruments of Engagement’ takes place as a durational performative action and living exhibition some thirty years after the death of Joseph Beuys within the city’s legacy as an historic site where the boundaries of art and politics were broken. Together with five performers, Alexandra Pirici, one of the most successful choreographers of her generation, unfolds a landscape of gestures, images and moments in the spaces of Düsseldorf’s Kunsthalle and Kunstverein, mixing iconic and lesser known images and events, gestures from pop culture and politics: Ceaușescu’s execution, Pussy Riot’s “Punk Prayer” in Moscow and Joseph Beuys’ advert for Japanese whisky that helped him finance his ‘7000 oaks’ for documenta.
In conversations, lectures, working meetings and above all at the Impulse conference on the final day, artists, theoreticians and activists, most of whom have been connected with the festival over a longer period will once again directly address the question of what kind of decisions we are allowed to and should be able to make. Chantal Mouffe, who as a political philosopher has had a strong influence on our thoughts in recent years, will take part, along with Antanas Mockus, the legendary former Mayor of Bogotá, whose work and faith in the power of an active civil society are still both moving and motivating.

While most works at Impulse take a very direct view of our society and its problems, the festival center – designed by Richard Lowdon, founder member, performer and designer of the legendary theater company Forced Entertainment – deliberately withdraws into the studiobühneköln: ‘Sideshow’ is a bar, a stage, a wonderful garden. Taking its name from English fairs and community fetes where modest attractions are offered along with the right drinks, this sideshow offers performances, concerts, discussions and more. We look forward to meeting you at the bar after the performances when we can focus on the important things: in other words, the unimportant ones.

After five years, four editions and a fundamental reconstruction of the festival that now takes place annually in three cities, at the end of this festival the team and artistic director will change, having reached the end of their term. We would like to offer our sincere thanks to all our partners and funding bodies, but of course especially to all the artists and our audience for the time we have been together! Next year there will be new festival makers behind the bar – and the old team will simply drop in for a beer.