Tag Archives: subversion

Realities and Truths

On this day we discussed museums in Warsaw, Prague, Berlin, Eisenhüttenstadt, and Vilnius, which all deal with the history between 1945 and 1989. I liked the way this activity was organized, working in small groups was productive and we got a good overview about the five museums and a sixth one presented by the moderator.

While I understood the frustration of one of the participants, after every single museum (except one) had been heavily criticized for their approaches, I felt like there was also an important lesson to be learned from this frustration:
That there cannot be one true interpretation of history, which can claim to represent the reality of a given historical moment in space and time. This also means that a museum aspiring to present a neatly worked out master narrative of the period referred to as “Communism” is most likely to have a distinct ideological agenda, and neither willing nor able to include multiple, contradicting perspectives.
Similar problems occurred when we started discussing words, such as “communism” and “genocide” (“freedom” could inspire similar discussions). While being neatly defined in dictionaries, these words remain abstractions. Using them to represent real-life phenomena makes it extremely difficult to talk about historical events, without stepping into ideological traps and constantly missing each other’s points.

For me, these discussions showed the importance of working with as little abstraction as possible. By this I mean “doing” (as in, researching, studying, teaching) history “from below”, starting for example with an individual person and their experiences. Or with a certain place, a building, monument, or a city. Or with an object, as it is often done in museums nowadays.
Approaches like this, in my opinion, have the advantage of raising interest by their immediate accessibility, by being tangible and material. Literally everything, everywhere, can become a point of interest from which to start. When studying history on this “ethnographic” level, there are always material objects, concrete places, special individuals to hold on to, making it harder to be distracted and confused by abstract ideologies, political and social changes, and propaganda(s).

It was great to have the extra-hour for free discussion! Perhaps one hour “open space” every day would have been useful?

Speaking about Speaking Out

Speaking of marginalized and dominant discourses, the latter being (naturally) overwhelmingly present on Sunday, on Monday we got a presentation of a theater project which aims at giving a voice to those who were excluded from the national euphoria in the early ’90s.

There is a good chance that Nai Wen’s perspective as someone who came to Germany as an adult helped her to ask the questions and get the answers which the performance project she presented is based on. Working with techniques of the Theatre of the Oppressed, and Brechtian alienation effects, on the site of the well-established memorial site Bernauer Straße, her original project combines multiple dimensions of a de-colonial, subversive approach to history:

By generating a script from interviews with contemporary witnesses, people from the margins of German society are given the opportunity to speak out, and a sense of authenticity is generated.
By using the, sometimes graphic, overacting and alienation techniques, this sense is smashed to pieces, and the individual experience is genera
By acting on-site, starting off with the traditional format of a guided tour around an official memorial site, official discourse is at the same time challenged and
interacted with.
By leaving it to visitors themselves to figure out who and what is part of the play, individual involvement is encouraged.

For me, this performance project stands out as an example of creative, dynamic, and engaging approaches to deal with history. Especially when dealing with people who are neither very fond of “traditional” ways of learning about history, e.g. books and museums, nor represented in official discourses, I imagine projects like this are potential “gateways” to generate interest in historic events in general.

Nai Wen’s presentation was, unfortunately, very disappointing. Some short clips, and then a workshop in Theatre of the Oppressed, or just more room for questions, might have allowed (me) a deeper understanding of her work, and prevented exhaustion!