concept Olga Jitlina
sound Yakov Lurie
design of the poster by Ksenia Belaya
photo: Sinje Hasheider
Theatre piece realised in the frame of Nordwind festival (curator Jens Dietrich) at Kampnagel theatre.
With participation of: Dietrich Kuhlbrodt, Anas Bardan, Lampedusa Group in Hamburg activists: Owusu Patrick, Michael Olokodana, Esther Olokodana, Ali Ahmed, Yulia Averina (Sopran), Ekaterina Kausch (Piano)
Photographs used in the piece by : Alex David, Anas Bardan
The Translation performance commissioned by the Nordwind festival and realized at the Kampnagel theatre in December 2015 is a product of Olga Jitlina’s collaboration with opera singer Yulia Averina, a piano player Ekaterina Kaucsh and Lampedusa of the Hamburg group, a political organization of refugees.
The plot of the performance represents an imagined collective interview of the group with a German official, on the subject of their official status in Germany. Normally, it is on the basis of such individual interviews that decisions of weather to grant or deny refugee status are made. The criteria for the decision include a true description of the circumstances, and reasons why protection in Europe is sought. Translators are provided for applicants who cannot speak the host country’s language.
However, it is frequently the case that accounts of events that the applicant is asked to repeat multiple times during the course of the application, although originally consistent, are translated differently, giving the impression that the applicant is giving inconsistent and misleading accounts, and as a consequence of this, the application may be rejected. Thus, the question of translation becomes sometimes literally the question of life or death.
In addition, in practice, the question of whether descriptions of extreme experiences and conditions that a person has experienced are always translatable, remains open.
Trying to imagine how an individual and a collective story of migration, political subjectivation and struggle could be told I decided to base it on Andrey Platonov’s novel called Dzann or Soul. Written by one of the most amazing Russian writers, it narrates about a nation consisting of outcasts of different ethnic groups dying from poverty somewhere in a desert in Turkistan. The protagonist, Nazar Chagataev, son of a Turkman woman and a Russian soldier belongs to this nation. When he was a child his Mother, trying to avoid seeing him die of hunger sends him away. He ends up studying in Moscow and then coming back with a mission of rescuing his nation. Together they depart on an almost a biblical journey in the deserts trying to survive and achieve a collective happiness, the essence of socialism for Chagataev. But even after those members of this community who manage to survive, build a collective farm, achieving happiness is still problematic.
The question of how bare life can be politicized, articulated by Giorgio Agamben more than half a century later is one of the crucial questions of the novel Dzann, and also the crucial question of our performance.
Besides Platonov’s novel we used some poems by Iosif Brodskiy and prose by Osip Mandelstam, Russian poets with Jewish roots.
Another practical problem of translation appears in the meetings of multinational and multilingual groups of refugees. All communication and decision making is challenged by the necessity to translate everything to multiple tongues.
We use five different languages in the performance. Trying to construct one narrative out of many languages we aim for a utopian goal of reaching to a universal language which might have existed before the fall of the Tower of Babel or to the mystical effect of glossolalia when driven by the same goal we would suddenly start to understand foreign languages of each other.
The translator who mediates the communication between the group of refugees and the German official is an opera singer. She “translates” their story to the language of European opera tradition performing areas by Handel, Mozart, Wagner and songs by Schubert.
Nowy Port where the video was shot is a neighbourhood of Gdansk (former Danzig). The old Hanza city had been independent, passed from Poland to Prussia and Germany several times. Located nowadays in Poland, the city is marked by two historic events crucial for 20-th century history, namely, the first battle of WWII and Solidarity Movement.
The renowned Independent Trade Union “Solidarity”, which was active from 1980 managed to change the regime in the country after which in1990 when it’s leader Lech Valensa was elected as president. Paradoxically, the last biggest workers movement in Europe had put an end (or maybe just coincided) not just to Soviet Imperialism and workers exploitation but also to the whole condition under which the existence of working class as a majority was possible.
Nowadays Nowy Port is considerate to be a bad neighbourhood in which beautiful old pavements and many buildings seem not to have been repaired since WWII. We have asked the middle-aged and senior inhabitants of the neighbourhood to sing some parts of Walter Benjamin’s essay “On the Matter of History”.
German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin started to write his renowned text “On the Matter of History” in 1940 in the internment camp in occupied France short time before his suicide committed out of despair unable to cross French-Spanish border.
Combining historical materialism with Jewish Messianic tradition Benjamin speaks of redemption of the past. Looking at the yards, staircases, streets and the canal of Nowy Port, across which on Westerplatte WW II first battles started, as well as at the famous cranes of Gdansk Shipyards we are trying to grasp, as Benjamin puts it “…an irretrievable picture of the past, which threatens to disappear with every present, which does not recognise itself as meant in it”.
The senior inhabitants of Nowy port who have lived through drastic historical changes sing in an amateur way some fragments of Benjamin’s text accompanied by professional baroque cello player Anna Jankowska.
The locals sing the text as a choir and also individually to the tune of La Folia by Arcangelo Corelli, a popular baroque tune, the title of which can be translated as ‘madness’.
The video was produced for the public art festival called Narracje which happens every fall in a different neighbourhood of Gdansk.
Cello: Anna Jankowska
Choir: Iwona Chudowicz, Grażyna Gabryszewska, Jacek Tomczak, Andrzej Liss
Man with flags, sound assistant: Jan Hardy
Camera assistant: Leonard Kaczorowski