Krisen des Versammelns

Voices Offstage: Assemblies in Crisis

by Sybille Peters

Each of the last decades was shaped at its inception by some world-spanning event. The breakup of the Eastern Block defined the 1990s; 9 / 11 defined the 2000s. The 2010s began, for me at least, with the Real Democracy movement, with Occupy, with 15M in Spain, with the occupation of Syntagma Square in Athens, with the fight for Gezi Park in Istanbul. At each of those times, assemblies that broke conventional rules were held everywhere. Suddenly the many were standing up against being represented by the few. Suddenly cooking and care work were taking place at the centre of rather than outside the assembly. Yet straight away, a stop was put to this renewal of the assembly, and what’s more, with quantities of tear gas. So I have spent large parts of the last decade trying out and developing new forms of assembly in places where they could not be prohibited. Or so I thought. In the theatre, to be precise. For at the same time it seemed self-evident that people could not not assemble. Education, politics, law, religion – all pivotal social systems are based on the need for us to come together, in schools, universities, parliaments, courtrooms and mosques, albeit according to fairly old rules that make assembling thoroughly unpalatable to many of us. So free spaces were needed to experiment how we might assemble in different ways, and thus possibly change what education, politics, law or religion is and could become. It wasn’t always easy. To find orientation within groups, to foster collective action – more and more people found this arduous in recent years. It became ever-harder to pry people away from their screens and lure them to partake in a shared presence.

And now – at the outset of the 2020s – the theatres are shut, the free space to assemble closed down, and the screens have usurped whatever was still left. Now we have an idea of which event will define this decade. The virus has brought assembly and care work head to head in painful opposition; with this, numerous other traditional forms of assembly, those we’dbeen seeking to change over the previous decade, are now also falling apart. Now everyone is going through the motions of finding a New Normal that ideally would do without assemblies.

And while football fans are bereaving and the festival season has been cancelled one can still sense in this New Normal a profound wave of relief, a widespread assembly fatigue. It’s no secret: most of us hated all those meetings and plenums, and looked forward to the point in the day when we could leave and return to our cocoons. The right to home office is the demandof the moment. And even if we like to believe that many people desperately miss getting together in the theatre, in particular it is the assembly hosts who should take note of this deep-set assembly fatigue.

Enacting new rules engenders new realities and, at that, in a far-reaching process of infection. This is what I believe in.. So it is possible I am exaggerating the situation. However, I am beginning to ask myself, will this period of distance and isolation prove to have been a rupture from which assembly as a cultural technique essentially comes out the loser? Could that be possible? A decade without assemblies – the idea of this scares me because I believe that we need assemblies, that we cannot survive all isolated in our cocoons. But at once I also see assembly fatigue as a chance to raise new and sometimes difficult questions, also for the art of assembly: what kinds of assembly do we no longer want, and why? And what kinds of assembly do we nonetheless need, unconditionally and especially now?

Sibylle Peters is an artist and researcher focussing on participatory approaches.

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