Posts Tagged ‘Art’

This past weekend I took part in a very cool project called House of Democracy. It was one of the events at the Helsinki World Village Festival, an annual festival that brings together performers, musicians, activists and other involved individuals from all over the world. This year’s theme was democracy. Something that is always in short supply.

House of Democracy was set up to show people  how democracy works. It was a simple tent with a voting poll inside, where you could vote for the theme of the next year’s World Village Festival. Now, you may say, what does this have to do with theater?  The House of Democracy was, in fact, a piece of performance art. The theme for the next year’s festival has already been set (it’s going to be Human Rights) and so the whole voting poll was a show we put on to illustrate a point.

The set up was pretty elaborate and there were a number of stages, but the gist of it was as follows. Outside the tent stood a clown who with cheerily ushered people in, promising them an opportunity to see democracy in action. Inside perspective voters were greeted by two grim individuals in booths and two queues (Men vs Women; Poor vs Rich; Foreigners vs Finns, etc.). The booth people were hostile and demanding, pelting voters with arbitrary question, forcing them to switch lines and generally acting unpleasant.

Vintage Vote poster from Obey

Even though there appeared to be two queues, only one actually led to the to the voting area. The other one just sent you outside where you got a leaflet stating that you had just experienced democracy as the majority of the world experiences it, i.e. you didn’t get any of it.

Those who despite all obstacles got inside were treated like royalty. There were comfy couches, drinks, and polite staff. Voters were encouraged to vote for human rights and there were plenty of subtle and not so subtle prompts.  Those who chose to vote for something else would see their ballot torn to pieces right in front of them. As the would-be voters, either disgruntled or content, left the tent, they got a flier explaining that though they did vote, it didn’t mean anything since the elections were fixed. And the staff, the clown and the bureaucrats were all actors putting on a show.

This project was really interesting and challenging. It was imporv from start to finish and keeping in character wasn’t always easy. Especially when you had to be incredibly hostile to people. It was terrifying to see how few people protested or got angry with you for asking personal questions. I was truly glad when someone would stand up for themselves and call me out. But it was disheartening to see how many went along with it and voted for the very thing we suggested.

Caption: “I vote for people’s happiness!” Soviet poster.

This performance art piece really made me think about ways of combining theater and activism. We often think of theater as one-way – the audience is passive, soaking up what’s going on on stage. The play can have a message and the audience is invited to consume this message and possibly internalize it, but they’re not expected to experience the message firsthand.

If Shakespeare was right and all the world’s a stage, then we are all indeed actors. You’d be surprised to see how easily people fall into expected roles. As any sociologist will tell you, people start following unwritten scripts the moment they recognize the situation and very rarely deviate from these scripts. The goal of such a performance (and of many experiments conducted by social scientists) is to see how far you can push the script before people feel compelled to break it. And many of these scripts need to be broken if we want to build a better world.

Whatever you feel about democracy as a political system and it’s obvious shortcomings, I’ve always believed that art exists to help people think about the world around them. Theater can do much more than just entertain. It can be a catalyst for change.

The House of Democracy was the brainchild of Kepa and Political Parties of Finland for Democracy, Demo Finland, who promote international cooperation on democracy. The project was brought to life by artist Jani Leinonen,who is known for his somewhat controversial art (he once kidnapped a statue of Ronald MacDonald and held it for ransom).

Fun fact, both theater and democracy were invented by the Greeks.


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King Lear and the fool in a storm

John Gilbert, from The brothers Dalziel, by George and Edward Dalziel, London, 1901.

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Mary Robinson - Perdita

All who happen to be in London this Autumn are extremely lucky. Tomorrow, a new exhibition opens at the National Portrait Gallery, which I’m very excited about.

The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons will explore the lives and portraits of actresses from Restoration, when women were first allowed on stage, to the early 19th century. There will also be a complementary exhibition, The Actress Now, showcasing contemporary actresses such as Dame Judi Dench and Dame Helen Mirren.


Here’s the description from the NPG website:

The First Actresses presents a vivid spectacle of femininity, fashion and theatricality in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Britain.

Taking centre stage are the intriguing and notorious female performers of the period whose lives outside of the theatre ranged from royal mistresses to admired writers and businesswomen. The exhibition reveals the many ways in which these early celebrities used portraiture to enhance their reputations, deflect scandal and create their professional identities.

Some of the treasures that will appear at this exhibition include the Three Witches from Macbeth painting mentioned here earlier and the recently uncovered – pun very much intended –  portrait of Nell Gwyn in dishabille. There will also be a number of events, guided tours, workshops and a conference which, judging by online descriptions, should be a lot of fun.

Sadly, I won’t be able to make it to London this Autumn and so I will have to live vicariously through bloggers and online reviewers who will be attending the exhibition between 20 October and 8 January and recording the event for posterity.

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This group portrait by Daniel Gardner depicts three of the most influential political ladies of the late 18th century in the characters of the Weird Sisters from Macbeth.

The Three Witches from Macbeth, 1775

The ladies are, from left to right, Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and the sculptor Anne Seymour Damer. They were not only great beauties of their time, but also close friends and political allies. As political hostesses and Whig supporters, they wielded a lot more power than was common for women at the time.

While the witches in Macbeth could be seen as a supernatural force or Macbeth’s desire and ambition manifesting itself, they could also be viewed as a shadowy political force, working just out of sight, orchestrating this whole coup de force and getting the candidate of their choice into political office though artful machinations. It is quite possible that contemporaries saw something of the Weird Sisters in Viscountess Melbourne,  Duchess of Devonshire and Mrs Damer.

You can see Gardner’s The Three Witches at the National Portrait Gallery exibition The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons (20 October 2011–8 January 2012).

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I’m not a huge fan of  Shakespeare’s Rome and Juliet, but these photos by Annie Leibovitz for the December 2008 issue of American Vogue are stunning.

Juliet is played by model Coco Rocha and Romeo is brought to (still) life by ballet dancer Roberto Bolle. And yes, that is John Lithgow playing the friar.

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

Romeo:  O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear-
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows
As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows.
The measure done, I’ll watch her place of stand
And, touching hers, make blessed my rude hand.
Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight!
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.

Nurse: His name is Romeo, and a Montague,
The only son of your great enemy.
Juliet: My only love, sprung from my only hate!
Too early seen unknown, and known too late!
Prodigious birth of love it is to me
That I must love a loathed enemy.
Nurse: What’s this? what’s this?
Juliet: A rhyme I learnt even now
Of one I danc’d withal.

Romeo: O, wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?
Juliet: What satisfaction canst thou have to-night?
Romeo: Th’ exchange of thy love’s faithful vow for mine.
Juliet: I gave thee mine before thou didst request it;
And yet I would it were to give again.
Romeo: Would’st thou withdraw it? For what purpose, love?
Juliet: But to be frank and give it thee again.
And yet I wish but for the thing I have.
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.
I hear some noise within. Dear love, adieu!

Friar Laurence: These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which, as they kiss, consume. The sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite.
Therefore love moderately: long love doth so;
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.

Benvolio: Here comes the furious Tybalt back again.
Romeo: Alive in triumph, and Mercutio slain?
Away to heaven respective lenity,
And fire-ey’d fury be my conduct now!
Now, Tybalt, take the ‘villain’ back again
That late thou gavest me; for Mercutio’s soul
Is but a little way above our heads,
Staying for thine to keep him company.
Either thou or I, or both, must go with him.
Tybalt: Thou, wretched boy, that didst consort him here,
Shalt with him hence.
Romeo: This shall determine that.

Friar Laurence: Peace, ho, for shame! Confusion’s cure lives not
In these confusions. Heaven and yourself
Had part in this fair maid! now heaven hath all,
And all the better is it for the maid.
Your part in her you could not keep from death,
But heaven keeps his part in eternal life.
The most you sought was her promotion,
For ’twas your heaven she should be advanc’d;
And weep ye now, seeing she is advanc’d
Above the clouds, as high as heaven itself?
O, in this love, you love your child so ill
That you run mad, seeing that she is well.
She’s not well married that lives married long,
But she’s best married that dies married young.
Dry up your tears and stick your rosemary
On this fair corse, and, as the custom is,
In all her best array bear her to church;
For though fond nature bids us all lament,
Yet nature’s tears are reason’s merriment.

Juliet: What’s here? A cup, clos’d in my true love’s hand?
Poison, I see, hath been his timeless end.
O churl! drunk all, and left no friendly drop
To help me after? I will kiss thy lips.
Haply some poison yet doth hang on them
To make me die with a restorative.
Thy lips are warm!
Yea, noise? Then I’ll be brief. O happy dagger!
This is thy sheath; there rest, and let me die.

A glooming peace this morning with it brings.
The sun for sorrow will not show his head.
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished;
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

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