Pieter T’Jonck in De Tijd, Fri 18th of June 2004
Montage and research versus faith and demagogy
French-Austrian group Superamas makes contaminated theatre with ‘Big2’
Either you love the French-Austrian theatre group Superamas, or you hate it. There seems to be no way in between. But whomever, like a programmer of a big Flemish arts house, claims that Superamas makes ‘bad theatre’, seems to be blind for one thing: the group doesn’t assume to make good theatre. They do, however, in ‘Big2, the sequel’ touch upon the fascinating superficiality of our society. ‘Theatre contaminates art with mass spectacle.’
Big 1 started out as a reality show, than served a dance act after ‘Fat Boy Slim’ and further down slipped into a soap opera. The soap after that evolves into a genuine advertisement of a city jeep, with two sassy ladies lying on the bonnet. In the epilogue these same two ladies ask themselves highly serious questions about Adorno’s thought that cinema is the manipulation of the people. These heterogeneous scenes were repeated incessantly, from new points of view, and spiced up with scientific documentaries about the way emotions and rational behavior are intertwined. Big 1 in this way became a fascinating example of ‘dangerous reflection’. Nowhere in the performance, however, there is a moral note on the danger of a commercialized, banal or perverted society. But by repeating the same scenes over and over, the performance does bring to light how our thoughts and representations are colored precisely by the banality and bad taste we presume to be far above. And if this is a bad, an inescapable or even an enjoyable truth, is left to the spectator’s own judgment. Big 1 showed the multilayered structure of the world, without comment. The group in that way operates more like a research team, than as a group of ‘artists’, as understood in the old-fashioned way. The ‘personality’ of the artist is even so unimportant that the group stubbornly refuses to communicate the names of its members. Exactly this, as it appeared in a conversation, makes it possible to take a critical stand: in lack of an identifiable character, the viewer has to make out for himself how and in what degree his view on things lies under fire.
With the choice for the ‘sequel’ Superamas seems to incorporate the identification with the mechanisms of mass culture even more poignantly. Is that a conscious statement? Superamas: ‘In the past, we already frequently have been accused of being apolitical or of taking impossible stands. One even thinks of our work as ‘bad theatre’. But to be able to make such a statement, you have to know what theatre is supposed to be. We don’t try to figure that out. We just use the theatre conventions to ask questions. Not to come up with answers. There are enough theatre companies who formulate critical questions, and immediately provide you with the right answers. It is almost compulsive to position yourself as a critic of contemporary society. And people love it. They get reprimanded for their compulsive consumption drive and they applaud it. That’s strange, isn’t it? We, on the contrary, explore and exploit in all openness the experience of the spectacular society. Into that research certainly fits the ‘sequel’, the episodic narrative structure. In this performance we follow another strategy to communicate the same questions. What you will certainly recognize, is the principle of repetition. That’s not just a gimmick. Repetition changes the interpretation of an event. Other elements, other perceptions slip into the experience. It’s a strong means to make the spectator conscious of his interpretational, his thinking process. And of the fact that his thinking is partly structured by the ‘formats’ and mechanisms of the popular culture of images.”
But there also is a big difference: Big 2 has as subtitle ‘Show/Business’. “The performance has taken the form of a comedy, whereas Big 1 looked more like a performance in the strict sense of the word. So Big 2 has a frontal, typically theatrical setting, and is accompanied by nice poppy songs and those more. Real spectacle, in short. It’s not exactly a side splitter, but it’s positioned more in the proximity of comedy in the Ernst Lubitsch-tradition.”
Big 2 again contains specific ingredients. Superamas: “We bring two guys and an air hostess to the stage. They meet in a cosmetics boutique on the airport, and get into a discussion about cosmetics. Superficiality rules of course.
You could ask yourself, though, how and why we want to relate to these products. It’s not in the least our intention to lecture the audience on that subject. Quite the contrary: we cling to precisely that superficiality. In contrast to the shallow world of cosmetics we show the interviews with John Rose, executive manager of Rolls Royce, who talks about the discharge of 5000 employees. That hard fact stands in shrill contrast to the image of the incomparable luxury that is connected to the brand name ‘Rolls Royce’. The reality is of course, that this firm is no longer building cars, but airplane engines. The tension between the desires or longings that cling to the name, and the reality hiding behind it, is quite interesting.”
In art as well, this seduction and harsh ideology exist simultaneously, apparently separated, but strongly intertwined.
“Every form of theatre is, at the same time, a form of propaganda. Business and art are connected in an inextricable way, the more if they negate the fact that they are. But again, we do not avoid that subject. The obvious strategy would be to retreat into the holy sanctum of the arts. This response advocates the idea of a clear opposition between mass culture and the individual relation towards the arts. In the arts there is the possibility of a truth being spoken, of a meeting of thoughts. In that sense art always contains a promise of happiness. But that also goes for political formations like the Vlaams Blok. They also promise happiness. In both cases this is based on a belief. In opposition to faith and demagogy, we foreground montage and research. And what do you perceive then? Theatre contaminates the arts with mass spectacle. You are alone with your view, but at the same time you’re part of a group. That is not innocent. Karl Kraus already said it. “Among friends I feel I’m being myself. But in a larger group, it seems I no longer know who I am.” That confusion we play back to the spectator. It’s up to him to draw his conclusions.”