The happiness of young adults…just an illusion?
Trigger of Happiness by Ana Borralho and João Galante is about young people and their personal reflections on joy and happiness. It’s a noisy, colourful and informal undertaking, and, at first, causes anything but feelings of happiness – among the audience, at any rate.
Tanzquartier Wien has followed in the footsteps of many other major dance institutions and festivals in Europe in conducting the experiment of joining the artist duo up with twelve young laypeople to put a ninety-minute piece on stage after only seven days of rehearsals.
Borralho and Galante are among those artists who believe that the socio-political relevance of their art, i.e. its potential for empowerment and transformation, arises from direct communication with people. It was with this in mind that Galante extended the invitation to construct a piece “intended to give a voice to teenagers”.
It’s an interesting and responsible task to put under-represented groups on stage to make their perspectives accessible and, ideally, open up new artistic spheres of activity as well. And a very zeitgeisty one at that!
There are a number of possible motivations for cultural participation: reaching a broader audience and engaging new target groups (audience development), education in democratic, civil-society or artistic terms (pedagogy), promoting the creative industries (entrepreneurial logic), fighting against structures that create inequality (social work), and, not least, stabilising and legitimising cultural institutions as such.
However, participatory art production also entails many pitfalls. In view of the socio-political experience of powerlessness and exclusion in daily social life, Hanne Seitz, former Professor of Theory and Practice of Aesthetic Education at the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam, has identified many such projects as being a pretence.
Naturally, having a voice does not automatically mean determining the content of what is being said. It cannot be denied that the twelve young adults who, on 9 November, presented their associations and approaches to the subject of happiness to a Viennese audience for the first time on the stage of TQW’s Hall G had an amazing stage presence and were definitely authentic.
The artists who worked with them, however, could be criticised for the “service to society” – referenced by both in an interview to define their work – not revealing itself at first glance.
The images strung together by the young performers tell stories of childhood fears, of social adversity while growing up, of dealing with sick parents, of love, friendship, sexuality, drugs and suicide attempts.
The process of identity formation is coherent. Identity is developed in a negotiation process with or as opposed to others. It’s evident – and, no doubt, valuable – that the group has developed a high level of trust and mutual esteem in a very short time and that it was made possible for the participating adolescents to reflect and form an identity in a group. But is the process, such as it is, fit to be put on stage?
The artists, for their part, supplied few effects to frame the participants’ work. Pounding beats that take hold of you, photos that reveal views of teen bedrooms and courtyards, and a rotating revolver to play Russian ink cartridge roulette with. It makes sense to keep the dynamism of the performance alive for the actors as well through this element of randomness. It is not enough to count as directing.
Participatory art projects addressing specific societal phenomena and examining specific current cultural or social conditions – in the present case, the views of young people on what for them constitutes happiness in life – require a special translational effort on the part of artistic professionals so that they may be negotiated discursively and collaboratively.
What was presented here was a start. The actual work on an artistic narrative and the exploration of the socially relevant issue of the young adults’ concept of happiness were not delivered on the opening night.
 Hanne Seitz, Modi der Partizipation im Theater: Zuschauer bleiben, Publikum werden, Performer sein…. In: KULTURELLE BILDUNG ONLINE: https://www.kubi-online.de/artikel/modi-partizipation-theater-zuschauer-bleiben-publikum-werden-performer-sein (2015, letzter Zugriff am 26.09.2018)
Susanne Wolfram works as a promoter, dramaturge and cultural educator at the interface of art, science and society, and holds teaching posts e.g. at the Institute for Cultural Concepts, the Music and Arts University of the City of Vienna (MUK) and the New Design University in St. Pölten. She is currently working on her thesis at the University of Hildesheim on the subject of “Cultural participation and participatory urban development”.
More texts in TQW MAGAZIN