Taking the disturbing tradition of the Volkerschau human zoos and dragging it into the 21st century, South African director Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B confronts its visitors with the development of racism. Performers from Namibia and Berlin are encased in settings that explore not only colonial history in Namibia and the Congo, but current migration and deportation practices as well. This installation performance is the first of two works from Bailey at this year’s Foreign Affairs festival, followed by the modern-day retelling of Ancient Greek myth MedEia.
Explain the differences between the Exhibits?
Exhibit A was the first commissioned work which was very much focused on Germany. Basically it’s an expanding series of works, I’ll never do Exhibit A in that form again. I’ve subsequently explored the Belgian and French colonization in Exhibit B and Exhibit C, which is geared for 2014, takes on Portuguese and British in Africa, so the work just becomes bigger as the letters go up the alphabet.
What about these Exhibits makes them your ideal pieces?
They’re working with the post-colonial history of my country and of my own being of having one foot in the West, being the product of colonial ancestors and having one part of myself in Africa, so the work talks about that gap that I straddle as a human being. It’s deeply personal for me and because it’s so much about racism and the images that foster racism that I myself was subject to throughout my youth.
What led you to make installation-oriented works like Exhibit B?
My work is really very much orientated around the dynamic between performer and spectator, to the point that with Exhibit B you’ve got audience members going one by one through a series of performances, which is very much a strange relationship between one performer and one audience member.
Have you had an experience with an audience going too far with this intimacy?
There was one piece I did that was a genesis to Exhibit A which had a refugee woman with a toddler in a cage – it’s a long story, I won’t get into it – but somebody crawled across the table and tried to cut her out with a pair of pliers. Because of the conventions about the boundary between performer and spectator, it takes quite a brave person to cross that boundary. I’m always wanting to break those boundaries down, but I do rely on those boundaries to some extent, because they do keep the audience in its place, so they don’t touch one of my performers etc, although that has happened occasionally.
How do you deal with the colonial era in the 21st century?
We’ve been forced to deal with it in South Africa because our history of explicit racial prejudice is so recent, so we really had to. But I think in countries where it subsided just a few generations back, you don’t have to think about it as much. I think in Germany the Holocaust is such a huge block of granite in the viewfinder that beyond that is quite tricky.
Do post-colonial attitudes also influence our attitudes toward migration from Africa to Europe today?
The tides are running the other way to a degree there was a guy from Nigeria speaking at a conference in Belgium recently, and he was saying basically he feels that Africans should be able to come to Europe and get whatever they ask for. I think colonialism was really about a Western European/American settlement in Africa, to some degree settlement, but really milking it for it’s resources and destroying the structures that already existed or harnessing and corrupting them for their own use. Possibly that’s still being done to some degree, but I think the influx of immigrants to Europe is quite different and Exhibit B certainly doesn’t look at that as a colonial process, rather it sort of charts a stream of racism, and racism is still alive and well. Of course these things shift all the time. Even in the colonial era there were shifts. In South Africa early colonialism was very influenced by the Enlightenment and by the concept of the noble savage. But by the end of the 19th century, it really shifted.
What do you think of the use of blackface?
I’m thinking of using it in some way in Exhibit B in Berlin: I’m not really sure how, but then obviously it’s occurring in a framework that’s really interrogating these issues so it becomes a statement or a provocation. My project Apartheid: The Musical, which is on the history of apartheid in South Africa, is not focused on the liberation movement; it focuses on the white oppressors that actually ran the apartheid regime and I’m playing that all with a black cast in white face.
How do you balance European performances and doing work in South Africa?
It’s basically impossible to get funding to do a work in South Africa. I used to be able to skim off ten thousand euros from a couple of tours and then stage a work I’d made for a European tour in South Africa for a couple of weeks, but that’s impossible now, we’ve managed to get a little bit of money this time so we’re going to run MedEia in Cape Town for four nights just before we go to Berlin, but I tell you that cost us €15,000 which is a fuck load of money where we come from, so it’s really not easy at all. We’re dependent on the European market, which is not ideal at all, also I think that the European market is very fickle: they’re always looking for the new flavour of ice cream.
Do your sometimes-irreverent techniques, like those in MediEa, always translate to a European audience?
MedEia is a very dark and tragic story, and I do it with this fantastic drummer and my chorus is incredibly sexy and they’re rapping the story. So it’s this sort of rock and roll lounge type setting for this dark tragedy, so it’s going to be interesting to see how that goes down. And see if its layers are read or if it’s just glossed over as something that’s completely absurd.
What kind of reaction are you trying to get out of the audience?
I always like to disturb: I’m a little bit like that as a human being. The thing that I like most is to create a world. I seldom go to the theatre because I don’t like sitting in a sterile environment just looking at a show. I’m not that kind of person so I like to create an environment where you’re really immersed in something. Which is why I’ve made a lounge concert like thing for MedEia, because for me to go into a concert is a very different thing than to go into the theatre, even a different kind of lighting. You’re really making it an all-embracing kind of concert environment and that for me a much warmer space to go into. This lounge rhythm starts at the beginning and goes right to the end, this kind of hypnotic beat starts to take you to a different space. And in Exhibit B you’re going one by one through things, so I’m actually creating a journey that’s really embracing and immersive and within that you can be delighted and disturbed, but I’d like you to be disturbed more than anything.
Exhibit B, Sep 29-Oct 3, 17:00, 17:45, 19:15, 20:00 | Kleine Wasserspeicher, Belforter Str. Prenzlauer Berg, U-Bhf Senefelder Platz
MedEia, Oct 6-7, 20:00, Oct 8, 20:30 | Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Schaperstr. 24, Wilmersdorf, U-Bhf Spichernstr.