Belarus Free Theatre’s networks of dissent
The repeated violations of subordinate aerial spaces by U.S. drones constitute one of today’s most striking examples. Just as sovereignty is no longer flatly territorial but instead volumetric and three-dimensional, so too are the ways to challenge or deny it.
– Grégoire Chamayou, Drone Theory
“Tonight we are live-streaming. We hope that people online could see us in Belarus, in Ukraine, in Russia and many other countries where we don’t have artistic freedoms.”
– Natalia Kaliada, Belarus Free Theatre
Last week, Belarus Free Theatre were in the midst of their Staging a Revolution festival, at the Young Vic, and on the internet. The performances took place between Nov 2-14, in various secret underground locations, mirroring the performance model BFT has had to adopt in its home country of Belarus, to avoid arrests and persecution. In Belarus, the staging of the company’s performances is an inherently political act of civil resistance and activism, in defiance of state censorship. In Belarus, theatre (/the arts/public activity) is complicated by its relationship to ever-present systems of state control.
The pieces performed as part of Staging a Revolution are similarly complicated. Alongside evoking the condition of theatre under an oppressive state, and the resultant air of solidarity, each performance is accompanied by a post-show discussion tackling themes and politics relevant to the theatre piece. As a result, Staging a Revolution entangles its performances within a discourse of activism, public debate and open discussion. On top of being a theatre festival, Staging a Revolution is a networked series of debates, interrogating sexual discrimination, banking reform, mental health, online privacy, state disappearances, war correspondence, human rights, media freedom, the future of aging (it bears to list them all). Staging a Revolution unites both art and activism’s tendency to foster connections between groups of people with common ideological grounds.
AND, on top of all of this, the streaming online of every performance expands the gesture beyond being a mere metaphor for solidarity. On one level, streaming the events online expands the audience and increases the potential size of the ideological community engaging with the work and debates presented. It also removes theatre’s dependence on space, fundamentally challenging the nature of theatre as spatially-oriented and rooted to a fixed time and geographical location.* In Staging a Revolution, BFT are encouraging a worldwide network of solidarity and an ideological community larger and more connected than has been possible before the dawn of the internet. This all functions like a supercharged, albeit familiar, model of activism and resistance: gather as many people to your cause as possible, by the means available to you; once you have enough people on side, you’ll start to get noticed, and can act, together, in whatever way you see fit to instigate change.
Audiences engaging with Staging a Revolution become part of a global, virtual and, most significantly, stateless community. In a piece of networked performance (like a streamed theatre show) the location of the audience becomes incidental – they no longer need to experience the piece in a specific time and place. In the same way, the community joined by the audiences of Staging a Revolution are not restricted by time or, crucially, geography. A viewer in Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, is just as much an audience member, just as much a member of this virtual community, as the Londoner in that basement with the performers in front of them.
But when the audience member is watching from Russia, Ukraine or Belarus, their participation becomes far less benign. Watching from within a state that exercises censorship and internet restriction laws, the act of watching becomes radicalised, in defiance of those laws and the ideological sovereignty of that government. When the event they are engaging with is so steeped in an activist tradition and community-building, audience members become part of a stateless, virtual community of resistance. BFT are building on the brief history of internet activism, uniting geographically scattered individuals into an act of mass civil disobedience, in effect creating an ideological haven beyond the control of any single state.
Belarus Free Theatre’s Staging a Revolution festival is using theatre, open discussion and the internet as tools to defy the sovereignty of oppressive and censorious governments worldwide, contributing to a globally developing vocabulary of digital dissent. Networked performance, and the removal of dependence on space, can exercise big implications.
Theatre couldn’t get more radical.**
**But it could do it more often.