BALTIC VIBES AND ITS DISCONTENTS
Here are some notes about
- Vibes group
- Poste Restante: Civilization and its Discontents
The following took place in Baltic Circle theatre festival 2013 (hereon BC), in Helsinki.
We’re surrounded by artificial fog. It’s hard to see more than 20 centimeters ahead. I sit down on the floor next to other people. A performer in front of me is trying to place her wireless mic headset on place, unsuccessfully. Before shutting off the mic, she calls out to her fellow performers, asking what’s up.
She gives me a plastic plant and tells me to take care of it for a while. I’ll pass the plant on.
Before she leaves, the following, seemingly spontaneous discussion takes place.
Audience member (not visible): Why are you being so ironic?
Performer: I don’t see why we would be ironic in this situation we’ve created for ourselves. I get that this might seem ironic. But I don’t feel ironic at all. (The performer packs up her makeup bag, then moves on)
Ten minutes later my friend tells me how “people are starting to create their own artsy performances” in midst of the fog. He is referring to the plastic plant I received earlier and passed on. It’s now circling around the space, from one person to the next.
For their second ever performance, Vibes had created an optimistic, beautiful, heavenly space. Partying to Ravel’s Bolero, having a big sparkly golden sheet around to play with, hosting makeup sessions for each other, using insane amounts of fog, making obscure chit-chat of the Wojciech Kosma type: Vibes had seemingly gathered all the cool bits from their rehearsals.
I went to couple of those, since BC’s festival director Eva Neklyaeva had asked me to work as the festival dramaturg, which in the end boiled down to few sessions with Vibes and some more with Juha Valkeapää, plus one energetic meeting with Oblivia. And of course posing for BC pics for online hype, my fave bit. I also did some card reading for Vibes and BC staff.
Vibes’ second performance was the closing event for the five-day long festival. Granted, most of BC’s international guests had already returned to their positions as directors, curators, professors and artists in institutions around the globe, or, in most cases, in Europe.
That’s why those guests saw only Vibes’ first performance on the festival opening day. There, Vibes reached for the conceptual escape ladder. The group appeared in front of the audience, all smile & good posture, surrounded by a peculiarly strong aura they’ve managed to create together during a year of scattered rehearsal periods.
They told the audience that there is no performance, but it’d be great if we could all hang around for the next 90 minutes. Since it was such a simple gesture that screamed for analysis, it’s easy to imagine this piece to be the defining rumor about BC 2013, say, on coffee breaks during a theater conference in Copenhagen: “They did jack shit”.
But what these rumors would fail to depict is the fact that Vibes are capable of pulling off just anything. Their charisma is overwhelming. Seeing them standing in front of the audience is one of the most powerful images I’ve ever witnessed.
That’s why, in the beginning of their no-show performance, I really believed them to be these magic creatures who can turn this 90 minutes of whatever into most coolest, socially transgressive get-together ever.
But they didn’t. They wouldn’t hold on to their god-like pose & heavenly distance, but instead opted for a humble connection with the audience. The gods in Ancient Greece might’ve been human-like, but no one ever forgot they were gods, still.
One audience member, a choreographer from Portugal, started voicing critical remarks. He wondered wether there isn’t anything else in the world the artists, or us, the audience, would like to do or say than the makeshift pointless games and attempts at partying, which had been suggested and tested out so far.
He talked about Europe having no intention in general. I got somewhat agitated, and asked him if he’d like to talk more about this with me, tomorrow. He agreed, but it had to be before 9.30 am.
I saw him again next morning, 8 am. We met at his hotel’s breakfast buffet. He was staying at AVA hotel, a very reasonably priced, rather off-center, 70’s Soviet bloc -style conference hotel, frequented by e.g. small business owners’ associations from Eastern Finland heading to Helsinki for a seminar.
I’ve been staying with AVA numerous times. The sauna department is amazing. I remember drinking 80% vodka straight from the bottle every evening, alone, when I was directing a festival of my own. I was sad then but now I’m not.
Looking at a festival’s accommodation policies can reveal a lot about its production ethos. BC’s weapon of choice was hotel Arthur, in Kaisaniemi. It’s inexpensive, centrally located, carries some history, and reminds of me tobacco smoke and thin walls (though I’ve never stayed there). A very practical decision, no fuss, or risk of overdoing it.
There are producers who can perfectly understand the level of comfy things each particular artist requires. Some are happy with anything and can give a magnificent performance while staying in the worst stinky rat hole, whereas others simply perform better when they feel like they’re in the hands of a master massager.
Being a fit producer requires considerable clout, buddhist mindset, and the ability to see social situations coolly as mathematical functions. I have the utmost respect for people who can host a diner or a talk with élan.
It’s not easy to take care of all those tedious details, like how many people can fit into the festival car and whether you can actually cover the two extra guests in the dinner plus there’s that problem with the name tags for today. And so on (and this is just the nitty-gritty bit of producing). At the same time, you should have an air of nonchalance around you, like Milan Kundera in his summer house typing away clever remarks about post-war Europe.
Usually the most enjoyable festivals, for a guest, are the ones where the organisers only care about the most rudimentary things (food, warmth, love) and acknowledge that people don’t really need any more pandering, well chosen fonts, fringe events, or complimentary t-shirts.
BC has some of that seaman attitude. BC’s festival director is known for her straightforward output bordering into crisis management. Artists and others tend to hold her feedback in high regard, myself included. Also, there’s no BC T-shirts, a thing she proudly mentioned to me already a few years ago.
Back to AVA hotel. Me and the audacious choreographer were both on time. I didn’t pay for my breakfast, but just walked in and begun to eat. We talked for 45 minutes about Vibes, the idea of Europe (again) and how to present nothing in a meaningful way. He went to pack his bags, and then headed for the Helsinki-Vantaa airport.
This was the best talk I had during the festival. I did very little mingling, as I enjoy formal meetings way more. And I happened to miss all the official festival talks.
Also, there were performances conflicting with the festival talks. It made me wonder: Aren’t the festival staff valuing the talks as highly as the performances? Isn’t this a small enough festival so you could be able to attend all the events? Shouldn’t each thing within a festival be amazing and important?
BC events were spread around the city, which meant there was no central place for hanging out, and that there was a some commuting back and forth to be done. What was it that gave way to this scattering tactic, remains a mystery to me.
Lastly, I’d like to tell you about Poste Restante’s piece Civilization and its Discontents. It took place in an anonymous office space in Sörnäinen.
We were waiting for the show to start, there in the shabby lobby. There were some 30 people, mostly international guests, judging from the topics of their chatter (EU funding for arts, sleeping in airports, alcohol and mild drugs).
The performers (4 or 5 persons) were quietly passing through the lobby while we waited for the show to begin. They stood out from other people with their conservative, cheap-looking uniform office clothing.
Later on, I learned to identify this as part of their style: for example, a presentation was done with an old-school projector instead of a mac & a beamer, background music was played back from a cassette deck etc.
Finally, we were let into a seminar room, with five rows of half-circular tables. As with all the performances, everything was impeccably well organized. Bubbled water bottles (even the bottles were the traditional, 0,33l glass kind, not the new & plastic) and A4 paper sheets awaited us.
We were given a short, simple introduction to Sigmund Freud’s book, Civilization and its Discontents. They told us how they wanted to subvert normative power structures.
Then we filled out a form concerning our favorite cake fillings. I chose only fruits and nuts, no bottom. This proved problematic, as we were then asked to form four groups based on our preferences. I compromised for a group that had some fruits and nuts.
Soon we found ourselves baking a cake. But first we had to make a decision, as a group, about the fillings. The performers tried to make the situation seem problematic, but all of us in the audience/group just wanted to proceed painlessly, so there was no drama. I gave up on my vegan dreams and other people in our group accepted chocolate and pineapples as a sensible combination.
The second group assignment was to create an orgy room. The point of the task was pretty unclear for most of us. I remember the performers talking about a sex/orgy club they’ve formed, called Leviathan, which is about new kind of equality.
Before designing the orgy room, we all filled another form, anonymously, about our sexual desires. The last page queried arousing objects, ie. pink mattress, rubber gloves, porn on TV, etc. The performers had divided these answers based on some sort of logic and then gave each group a set of answers.
Our group got the forms with most ticks on the “porn on tv” box on the last page. Someone in our group sneered at this option condescendingly, although it was only probable that we were looking at a form filled by one of us. Sadly, “Civilization…” didn’t manage to look any deeper into such issues.
During the bizarre concluding conversation, which felt more like being forced to perform opinions, it dawned to me that the performers already knew what they wanted us to say. The discussion was, like many group discussions with a bunch of random people with ringleaders holding a predetermined agenda, pointless.
Then time ran out and we were free to roam the orgy rooms we’d created & to try the cakes. Massive Attack’s Inertia Creeps was playing on the PA in the lobby, and a drag queen was dancing on a pedestal: the subverted workplace, as Poste Restante would have it.