Lab Project


Faustin Linyekula, Peter Sellars

PS: One of the most important things in my life was meeting Faustin Linyekula, and feeling a completely new sense of possibility from the work being generated out of Kisangani and the idea that Kisangani is a place from which to speak to the world. What theater actually does is speak from a place and move history across time and space.

I was so moved by Faustin’s early work because it was not about elaborate resources, but rather about the infinite capacity of a human being. The total resources were actually inside the skin and they include ancestors, both old and recent, and unborn children, and everything we are actually carrying with us as we move our bodies through time and space, in this world we are living in now where we can be in China tomorrow. But what goes to China when we go to China? And what from China touches us or doesn’t? What’s the same wherever you go? And also, what is truly different wherever you go? 

The beautiful thing about the human being is that we are not things, we are not objects. We are beings, so we are changing all the time. What about you changes when the landscape changes? What about you changes when the government changes? What about you changes when history moves? Are we moving through history? And how is history moving through us? 

I think theater is the place to carry these histories.  And one of the most important things in my life was the discovery of dance as a carrier of history. History is in motion and therefore, many cultures chose dance as a way to embody history and history is danced rather than written. This man on my left took history that was impossible to describe with words, where words would not suffice. What overwhelmed me about his work was this idea that the only possible testimony comes from his body and that our habit of wanting to reduce history to words, when actually history is not reducible.  The body is actually insisting on the full dimensionality of history as experience.

FL: There is this word that exists in Lingala, which is lobi, we use exactly the same word to say yesterday or tomorrow, so if someone says lobi it could mean yesterday but it could also mean tomorrow. I find that fascinating, that the ancient could invent that relationship with time, where the ancient and the unborn are kind of intertwined, so maybe the context can tell you that they are talking about the future or the past, but actually it is just one big cycle, lobi, which shifts the relationship to time from the timeline, where actually antiquity is part of tomorrow and tomorrow isn’t antiquity. I was born in the 70s, so books were part of the culture I was born into, and having a father who is a school teacher, writing and reading was part of my life. And yet, when I started becoming aware of the world I was living in and trying to make sense of it, I realized that maybe words are not enough, or at least written words. Somehow spoken words are another physical manifestation. I could take more risks with spoken words than written ones because the spoken words are like a breath, they acknowledge the passage of time and they are meant to disappear, only leaving an echo of something. So how then would this notion of time, which is bounding together the past and the future through the present, with this acknowledgement that it is always changing like the body itself, how then can this manage to capture something of our place and our time?

PS: Actually, if you look into the eyes of that little girl, you’ll see your great-grandmother’s eyes, your body is made from and belongs to all these other people. This is what I think eternal life means. Literally, not just as a metaphysical idea, but actually a physical idea. For me, the sheer physicality of what is passed on is really powerful. So, our friend Guillermo Gómez Peña, who is a Mexican performance artist, always likes to say that when he sits in a cafe in Mexico City and writes in his notebook and sips his cappuccino, he has to think of twenty generations in his family, who were in the fields before dawn and worked till after dusk, so he could sip his cappuccino. And that is why we are here on earth, to do something our parents couldn’t do, our grandparents couldn´t do. Here we are. What can we do? And you can feel not just the weight of that but also the joy of it. The planet has been waiting for what we are going to do next. And it creates a different kind of energy, of weight and power and beauty in the gestures we make.

The reason we get most things wrong in this life is because we don’t know what the context of most things we are looking at is. To take an obvious stupid example, Europe after Brussels and the Paris bombings, it has joined the war on terror: "your freedom fighter is my terrorist". It is the same gesture. But two different sets of people read the same gesture in a completely opposite way because of the context. And so, theatre is the art of creating a context, so that a gesture has resonance. Resonance for me is this thing that has not only to do with how something speaks across generations and time, but also how it resonates in place. Because place is not actually about what it looks like, a place is about sound; place is about echo. And it is about deep listening, it is finding the point where truth resonates. Where you are actually achieving an interaction with the landscape, the place, and the place is answering back to you. And it is all about being able to go to a place, anywhere, and sit there and listen, and know everything that ever happened at that place. And realizing that every place is speaking. 

FL: We dream of poetry, we hope that the work that we are doing is somewhat poetic but, what does poetry mean outside of a context? What does theater as a poetic act mean? At least I’m clear about one thing, that art cannot save Kisangani; but maybe no one is asking art to do that anyway. But what does it mean to come up with a poetic theatrical gesture in a context? In this scary America that is coming; the context of permanent violence between one and other, the context of the commodification of human beings and lives and dreams, the commodification of beauty, what does it mean to make a theatrical gesture in a context like that one? 

PS: I think one of the most beautiful parts of being alive in this period is that we can visit each other. We are travelers. And this idea of how deeply you travel and how deeply you look and how places in the world and histories relate to each other in your own body and in your own experience is a really important thing, and I just want to emphasize how important one part of the world is to another part of the world, that is to say, I can do something in America because I’m thinking about Faustin in Kisangani. And when I visit Kisangani and say “This is what Faustin is dealing with”, I go back to Los Angeles and see Los Angeles totally differently and I can tell my students in Los Angeles: Do you realize what is happening in Kisangani? And that changes what people in Los Angeles think they can do. We are only permissioned from somewhere else to do something we wouldn’t dare to. It is acts of courage in distant locations that actually inspire people’s imagination to transform their own situations. We all need some China of the imagination. We all need some place where a courageous act is possible in order to bring that home into our own reality and create a courageous act. 

And so it is that resonance where you can actually imagine that you are not alone. For me, this idea of not being alone is crucial to theatre. In fact, theatre was invented to gather people, to say we are not alone. Theater gets us out of the “single great man” theory--nobody achieved anything on their own, and gets us into the idea that it is a community that is moving at any given time. There is not a historical fact, there is a dynamic. And at any given moment in history, the question is not, what are the facts?, the question is, what is the dynamic that makes certain things possible or not possible? Can we understand what the spark is? How things are moving or not moving? This is why theater was invented, to acknowledge and create a space to recognize a dynamic among people. And then the project of theater is the project of understanding equality and how can we create structures that demonstrate equality. When the whole world is given back to a mirror that shows unequality. 

And all these things are determined by where we stand, the question is where do you stand? Which side are you on? Those are literal questions in geography, in a landscape, and in a city. It is important to be standing somewhere in order to be able to say something. And if you are not standing there, keep your mouth shut. The nightmare is people that don’t live somewhere speaking for the people who do live there. What does it mean to actually be in a deeper solidarity? By being part of and in a certain community? As oppose to being a tourist and artistic tourist, political tourist, and opportunist? Where is the omni-ground humility? 

Standing in the real place makes you humble. It is easy to talk about the L.A.P.D. and the prison system until you are in it and then you realize it is not so easy to talk about it. And all the opinions of the world from outside the system will never move anything and will never have any impact in terms of changing the system, it is only the people that testify from within who are actually going to create change, so this gesture of rootedness, which is all about, where are your roots? 

I tell my students: what stories do you have the right to tell and what stories do you not have the right to tell? What stories are simply not your stories, so just shut up and get out of the way. Recognize, look in your own body, look in your own eyes, recognize what stories you are empowered to tell and recognize which stories you are absolutely not empowered to tell and respect that. Create the conditions for the people who should be telling the story. What you can do is deepen the resonance of their voices. But the idea of where you are standing, that’s the heart and soul of it. 

FL: Listening to you now, I remembered something I was reading by Fred Moten, who is an African American poet and thinker. He says we cannot represent ourselves, so we cannot be represented. 

If theater is a space where we can negotiate the possibilities, the possibility of a circle, what goes always comes back and you could say that is the world as it should be, but we all know that we live in a world that is not like that. But how much are we ready to take responsibility? To give that circle a chance to exist? Even for a minute. Being responsible for your own life, but taking responsibility for your position in this circle, knowing that you can only represent yourself; but maybe you could create a space where it becomes possible for the person next to you to also represent themselves. 

PS: We have created every architecture to actually cover that up, but in fact the circle is the reality, the ecosystem is the reality, the acknowledgment of the ecosystem. The question of the 21st century is going to be shared space. How do we share the air? How do we share the water? How we actually recognize every single thing we do and have it shared? And so, the circle is actually the reality. Not the metaphor. And again this project of theater is the record of shared space. 

You are not yourself, you are all the people that shape your life. You are all the people you imagined. You are all the people you are thinking about, who are not with you. You are carrying them with you all the time, every single day. There is no such thing as you. The more you look, you are everyone else in your life. It is just recognizing the you that turns out to be Faustin’s circle. 

Excerpts from a conversation at the Teatro Maria Matos Lisbon, as part of the Biennale Artista Na Cidade, with the support of EGEAC.