The very, very, short version

This book is the result of my extended ethnographic and archival research on cultural policy and contemporary performance in Berlin, Germany. The project examines a number of the major aesthetic and infrastructural shifts in Berlin since the end of the Cold War in order to understand ways in which theater and performance provide us with both a conceptual and practical means to rethink and even to re-shape our institutions of public life.

The slightly-longer, more-official, abstract version

My ongoing book project intervenes in contemporary debates about the relations between art and the infrastructures of its support. Rerouting a series of interdisciplinary conversations in theater and performance studies, literary, cultural studies and beyond, I consider a range of cultural practices in order to demonstrate just how “cultural policy” must be rethought as much more than an administrative agenda for divvying and delegating funds and resources. Instead, I argue that performance as policy has a unique capacity to inspire experimental modes – or arts – of what I call “institutional (dis)avowal.” This conceptual frame takes seriously the ways in which performance practices lean on and into systems of state support as the very means by which they seek to imagine and enact their undoing. In other words, I focus on the seemingly paradoxical circumstance in which those artists who receive public support make use of it in order to critically question its conditions and, simultaneously, work to imagine just how infrastructures of public culture could, even should, be organized differently. I argue further that the city of Berlin serves as a paradigmatic site for this inquiry. Much has been made in recent years of Berlin’s reemergence as a global “creative mecca,” as the “destination for modern bohemians.” Paradigmatic Stages traces the fraught history of this emergence – of a Berlin caught uncomfortably between the shrinking welfare state (theater) and the emergence of an “alternative” ethos of self-administering and project-based creativity. By examining the restructuring of a number of Berlin’s central public performance infrastructures, the debates and legislative decisions that influenced such transformations, and the interdisciplinary arts practices that responded to and emerged from these shifts, I work to provide critical traction to the complex operations of performing arts policy in post-Wall Berlin.

The significantly-longer chapter breakdown

Though each of my four case studies engages a particular set of institutions, performance pieces, and policy problems catalyzed by the costly processes of German reunification, the chapters also progress chronologically and build upon one another thematically in order to narrate the dramatic reimagining that is Berlin’s theater and performance landscape. Throughout the Cold War, and on both sides of the Berlin Wall, legislators, arts administrators, and artists alike maintained a steadfast commitment to longstanding national traditions of public support for the arts – most especially the performing arts. Theater subsidies in the Federal Republic of Germany, for instance, were higher than any country in the world. Centralized support for the theater in the German Democratic Republic did not lag far behind. In August 1990, the German reunification treaty committed explicitly to maintaining the continuity of this rich cultural life in the newly unified nation. This legislative commitment, however, proved much harder than expected to uphold. Serious financial shortages accompanied by deep political and cultural divisions sparked, almost immediately after reunification, a slew of highly-publicized structural debates about the future of the state-subsidized arts landscape in Germany. Due to its unique status as city, state, and capital, Berlin became the site of much cultural political attention, with an intense focus on the pressing “Theater Situation.” The first half of the manuscript focuses, in different ways, on the infrastructural fallout of reunification in both the former East and West. Chapter 1 examines the controversial closure of the three-stage State-Stage Complex, the largest and most expensive in (West) Germany. The public conversations that culminated in the closure of the State-Stage Complex and the performances that were staged in protest serve as a heuristic for a more detailed historical conversation about the origins of the state-stage and its – sometimes self-imposed – floundering in the face of the new Berlin government’s emerging neoliberal agenda in the early 1990s. Chapter 2 focuses on two prominent former East Berlin state theaters that underwent major infrastructural and/as aesthetic adjustments in the mid-1990s: the privatization of Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble and Frank Castorf’s rise to prominence as the new artistic director of the Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz. By means of an analysis of Castorf’s own recent engagement with Brecht’s Lehrstücke and its accompanying theory, I argue that Castorf works explicitly to refunction Brecht’s hopes for a very different kind, or art, of public – and publicly supported – theater in reunified Berlin.

In the second half of the manuscript, I consider projects that reckon with the precarious future of the state-stage through very different practices of (dis)avowal – practices that try to “free” themselves of this one infrastructural model in search of others. After its closure in 1990, the Palast der Republik – former East Berlin cultural center and seat of the East German Parliament – quickly emerged as one of Berlin’s most controversial sites of contested memory. The subsequent decision to raze the Palast and to rebuild the Imperial Castle in its stead catalyzed heated architectural and city-planning debates (and protests) in the early ‘90s that continue into the present. Chapter 3 examines a series of interdisciplinary performance experiments with/in the shell of the former Palast that set out to critique its destruction, but also to collectively investigate the possibilities for a kind of radically public and entirely temporary performance institution in the center of the “new” Berlin. I argue that this durational project, titled Volkspalast, or People’s Palace, attempted to enact a “spectral” mode of institutional disappearance – exploring different ways that arts infrastructures might value and remember the visible, the “real,” the built, and the present. Finally, Chapter 4 focuses more explicitly on the heterogeneous assortment of performance practices and organizational structures that constitute Berlin’s so-called freie Szene – “free” or off-scene – in order to examine just how these “alternative” works, both onstage and off, set themselves apart (or not) from the aesthetic and labor configurations and funding structures of the state-stage. In light of these questions, I turn to the popular Hebbel am Ufer (HAU) performance complex – an epicenter of Berlin’s free-scene – and a recent performance at HAU by andcompany&Co titled The (Coming) Insurrection Following Friedrich Schiller. I examine the ways in which this performance tracks and performs an infrastructural politics of Berlin’s free-scene by offering an immanent critique of the recent mobilizations on its behalf. I argue further that the performance exposes the complex ways in which HAU both makes use of the steadily increasing precarity of a project-based and mobile performance economy while also providing a necessary bastion for artistic laborers in search of a secure home base.