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Utopia & Lost Futures: "To remember means to conjure up". Traces of feminist epistemologies...

... in "grotesque" performances.

May 2022. First thoughts from Anna-Lu Rausch

Encountering the embalmed heart of a particularly brave sailor on the Greek island of Hydra, a friend of feminist writer Mona Chollet once asked her: “Do you think we might actually be as brave as he was if we’d eat his heart?” Chollet did not immediately reach for knife and fork but replied that when it comes to getting a grasp of someone else’s power, it might be enough to get in touch with an object, an image, or a thought to achieve spectacular results.

Not long ago, I too found myself confronted with a symbolically charged pound of flesh, whose story I longed to unhinge. I stumbled across this heart within Johanna Maria Fritz’s photographic series of practicing witches in Romania while studying the epistemological function of grotesque – male - figures and reading literature by contemporary witnesses of the Shoah, specifically Ruth Klüger’s childhood memories “Still alive – a Holocaust Girlhood Remembered”. She writes:

“To remember means to conjure up, and effective conjuring is witchcraft. [...] 
I sometimes say it as a joke, but it is true, that I do not believe in God, but I do believe in ghosts. To deal with ghosts, one must lure them with the flesh of the present. 
Hold out friction surfaces to them to tease them out of their state of rest and get them moving. Graters from today's kitchen cupboard for the old roots; cooking spoons to stir the broth our fathers brewed with the spices of our daughters. Magic is dynamic thinking.“

Ruth Klüger denies the possibility of being able to reconstruct the past through mere retrieval. Rather, she argues, it is necessary to assemble surviving fragments into a narrative of memory in the shared social act of conjuring, revealing connections where they exist, and creating them when they are conceived in retrospect. She locates this dynamic process in a witch's kitchen and places it into the hands of society’s magically gifted daughters. I would like to argue that the choice of this metaphor is by no means accidental, but rather points to the enormous possibilities of feminist knowledge production that find expression in the figure of the witch. Following Ruth Klüger, I enter her kitchen, which is always shaken by a stiff breeze not allowing one to rest within common historical narratives, but rather opening spaces to perspectivise histories anew. What has been pushed to the periphery, what was bestowed with the concept of the monstrous, is thus to be revived: the witch as a hyperbolic, grotesque figure, native to the world of carnival and carrier of bodily based knowledge.

According to Mikhail Bakhtin, these are characterised by the transgression of their own bodily boundaries and their specific ambivalent corporeality. Dichotomies – such as life and death or good and evil– are of no particular interest when it comes to their performance. Instead, the performance functions as a reminder of the human being's belonging to the cosmos, of her materiality connecting her to all others. In this way, the - performing as well as the spectating - subject identifies with the infinite collective and can leave the domination of all dogma behind to taste the regenerative power of a utopian freedom that lies in transcending the self. This knowledge of the possibility of transcendence and contingency is what makes grotesque figures epistemic figures.

While it is easy to trace the European (?) history of grotesque male-read figures from the medieval carnival to the postmodern clown, one is faced with fragmentary records when it comes to grotesque femininity - at least if you look for female clowns or comic figures and their typical attributes. In her research on female clowning, Kathy Schlegel has shown to which extent traces of motifs related to older systems of knowledge – to witchcraft - can be found in the female masks, the zegne, of the commedia all'improvviso – especially before their systematic taming from the 16th century on, when powerful, adorable queens of the wild hunt who led the army of the dead across the night sky in the European Middle Ages, turned into either flirtatious servants or harmless lovers or were banished to the circles of hell and madness.

I read this process in context with the colonisation of the female body in course of the witch-hunt as described by Silvia Federici; the Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos describes this form of domination as an attempted epistemicide. In his reflections on the decolonisation of history, de Sousa Santos therefore proposes a strategy to create a more just world: by handing epistemological agency to bodies, spaces, and practices of the marginalised, their bodies of knowledge, born in the struggle against patriarchy, capitalism, and colonialism, can be revitalized and used to overcome the repressive dominance of the epistemologies of the global North.

An important role within this coup is attributed to the so-called post-abyssal artists. Modern social life, de Sousa Santos argues, is based on a subdivision between humans and sub-humans, separated by an abyss, a fine line, invisible to those promoting the aesthetics of the global North as they consider them to be universal. The post-abyssal artist however…

“is an absent artist before becoming an artist of absences…walks on the abyssal line […] specializes in struggle, experience, and corporeality. […] is a monstrous translator. She translates the abyssal exclusions into aesthetic motives and forms that are monstrous and intelligible at one and the same time. […] As an amplifier of the not-yet, the post-abyssal artist turns ruins into seeds, invents new territories as liberated zones, and old territories as counter-hegemonic time-spaces.” (de Sousa Santos 2020, 121 ff.)

Post-abyssal artists can be located, I believe, by seeking out the witches of history, which I plan on doing within further research. This is essential to broaden the understanding of the female grotesque performance but furthermore to enrich theatre anthropology with performed female knowledge that has been buried for too long.

Each potion brewing leaves traces, however fine they may be. I started my journey by studying photographs of dancing demons – due to the medium’s special ability to capture a past moment in a physical way as Roland Barthes once stated and due to the special relationship between dance photography, and early cinema at the turn of the 20th century which in a way underlines what is inherent to the corporeal grotesque: that dance is magical movement.

Those photographed by Fritz are therefore joined by Valeska Gert and Anita Berber, whose photographs I came across in the archive of the Theatre Studies Collection at the University of Cologne. Both were dancers who drew attention to themselves in the Weimar Republic - albeit in very different ways. While beautiful Anita Berber's dances, which oscillated between shocking symphonies of nudity and a drug-intoxicated, death-loving tarantella, became the symbol of the inflation-ridden den of iniquity that was post-World-War One Berlin, Valeska Gert, a bizarrely eccentric, wildly expressionist dancer, defied any definition and became the darling of the avant-garde – cooperating with Brecht and the Dadaists, shining as the star of her own Cabaret. They were united in transgressing aesthetic boundaries as well as being labelled “grotesque” because of it – both creating significant stage personae who bear resemblance to masks.

As much as both were scandalised, they were worshipped because they gave a body to contemporary and everlasting struggles and insights. Anita Berber’s youthful decaying body is an ambivalent reminder that we are mortal and predicted to sin; Valeska Gert’s manifold transformations – sometimes she depicts road traffic, then she is an old bawd mumbling - speak to us of the contingency of life which we should embrace to the fullest as she did. What to call such a life? “Ich bin eine Hexe! I am a witch!” announced her autobiography, inviting us all to the liberated zone she created within her life’s work.

I intend to follow her there – maybe with the help of Mihaela Minca and her daughters, prominent practicing witches within the Romani Culture in Romania, who – belonging to a too often marginalised and discriminated minority – have never forgotten the powers and knowledge they carry within them and whose thinking therefore never ended to a be a dynamical process – let’s stir that broth and eat that heart!

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