Black and white photo of closed stage curtains.

Brecht on Bromarvgatan – preliminary reflections on She She Pop’s Besessen

Ownership is a significant theme in She She Pop’s Besessen, which will be performed at Hangö Teaterträff on Saturday 11 June at 8:30pm in Hankoniemen lukio. The performance’s theme suits the festival well, not least because Hanko in itself is an interesting city when it comes to conflicts and frictions that arise from questions and connections concerning ownership. “Residents of Hanko have a right to the ‘sunnyside’ too! Save Roxx!” it said on a sign held up at a demonstration that took place outside Hanko Town Hall in October 2016. The pub Roxx was a stone’s throw away from the iconic warehouse row in the eastern harbour, which has several restaurants and pubs that are, for the most part, only open in the summer. Roxx was one of the few pubs in Hanko that were open year-round and that had a strong local touch. In 2016, it remained unclear whether Roxx would be able to continue on lease or not. The companies behind Regatta Spa Ab – with businesses near Roxx – hoped for the latter, as they likened the pub to a shabby suburban pub that did not entice tourists, one that had a hugely negative effect on the city’s image. The controversy ended with Roxx staying put, and this year, the pub gained a new owner and a new name: Stranden.

The dispute regarding Roxx was no isolated phenomenon. On the contrary, it can be viewed as one of several controversies to become visible, and one that had certainly been brewing under the surface. Hanko has become a city that “entices investors”, which inevitably affects who has the right to the city (or “the sunny side”). After Roxx, the conflicts regarding the city have concerned building sites on Drottningsberget, among other things. However, what is perhaps the most visible conflict in Hanko this year has been about a much more serious subject: the coal transports from Russia to Koverhar, which XR and Greenpeace blocked in a protest against the fact that said trade contributes to the financing of the Ukraine invasion, while at the same time fossil fuels in general lead climate policies in the wrong direction.

Before we take a closer look at She She Pop, a collective founded in the ’90s at the Giessen Institute for Applied Theatre Studies, it is worthwhile to consider some of the foundations on which contemporary forms of ownership and production rest. How might theatre be helpful in perceiving the world in new ways, as variable and changeable? What is the relationship between art and societal conflicts? Eetu Viren considers these questions in the book Vallankumouksen asennot – Brecht, Benjamin ja kysymys estetiikan politisoimisesta (Tutkijaliitto 2022) with the writings of Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin as his starting point. The book begins with a short analysis on modern capitalism.

How theatre can aid us in viewing the world as changeable and in overcoming the forced structural narcissism

Unpaid work is the basis of the society in which we live. Capitalism is a monetary production economy where those who own money can allow unpaid work to be performed, thereby increasing the value of their capital. If people were to be paid for all the unpaid work they do, capitalism would not be able to exist since there would be no accumulation of capital. As a result of production development, a much bigger portion of production is performed outside of paid employment, through crowdsourcing, internship jobs, and volunteer work, which has entailed that competition for workplaces – or “income places” – has continuously increased. Someone who does not join the competition might have no income and therefore no access to all the life’s necessities that are only sold on the market in the form of wares.

Employers cannot pay for all crowdsourcing members that contribute to production, and are forced to find alternative ways of attracting a workforce they can exploit. In today’s world, it often occurs through an “economy of promises”, where the employer promises that the workers will benefit from the resume notations and merits that unpaid work entails. This is particularly marked in art and cultural industries where the fight for visibility is a central area of competition. Unpaid internships and volunteering often work as a promise of future income in another position, which in itself works as a way to buy and subordinate one’s workforce.

What makes the new forms of exploitation so complex and anxiety-inducing is that it’s not only the physically labouring body that is exploited, but also one’s entire personality and identity. An important method of exploitation is therefore the promise of visibility, which is why it might feel great to be exploited. “To think that I was chosen…” People might even be ready to fight for their spot in the exploitation game, to gain access to an “income place”, a fight where the dearest of friends are ready to stab each other in the back.

The competition on who gets to be exploited might not even be about old-fashioned opportunism, because at times there might not even be a tangible use in exploiting others. No, the phenomenon is better described as forced structural narcissism. Exploitation and the desire to be recognised and gain visibility are intertwined and therefore difficult to identify and acknowledge. How might I, the performance of myself, my self-development, be a form of exploitation?

Perhaps it is precisely because it is so difficult to identify and acknowledge the forms of exploitation that occur in artistic work that artists and cultural workers are so often ready to support those who are “weaker” in society, which can also be seen as a way to frame exploitation as something that occurs outside of one’s self. The phenomenon might even be illustrated by the fact that theatre often addresses societal injustices and even contemporary forms of subjugation that occur in the labour market, but very rarely their own production conditions or the related applications, Covid restrictions, and the internal competition for visibility and recognition – that is, the forced structural narcissism.

But why should the conditions of artistic work be an important theme to consider in general? Viren does not mean that artists should muster a revolutionary frontline troop or that an activist interest in various questions should be a moral obligation for artists and cultural workers. But what makes the conditions for artistic work so interesting is that they seem to have anticipated a more generic change in the working and production conditions of modern capitalism. What has been distinctive for artistic work is now more broadly visible in the labour market; a phenomenon that is worth a closer look.

20th century avant-garde has been defined as an attempt to void the separation between life and art, something that seems to have become reality not in a libertarian, Situationist manner, but in a more twisted capitalist manner. Artists can less and less often support themselves by selling their work, and must instead sell themselves, be their own products. Life becomes a portfolio that funders, gallerists, and open calls must be coaxed into reading. Competition spreads to all areas of life as even social media profiles must be professionally curated and “interesting”.

Brecht and Benjamin do not suggest that theatre’s political potential lies in theatre that takes a stand, that is, the idea that theatre can convey information on injustices in order to make the audience engaged. Instead, the goal amounts to changing the societal functions of theatre and performance: to make it into a laboratory for the development of subversive subjectivities rather than informing, maintaining, or contributing to processes of self-development. How might one find ways of weakening this structural narcissism, which is anxiety-inducing even for those that happen to win the competition for visibility, workplaces, and grants?

Interludium: Uncle Melker receives a call from a Kulturfonden representative

An interesting example of a fairly anti-Brechtian treatment of the conditions of artistic work can be found in Astrid Lindgren’s TV series Vi på Saltkråkan. In the last episode, an upper-class family is about to buy the cottage that lies on an island in Stockholm’s archipelago, which the Melkersson family has rented for years. The precarious cultural worker Uncle Melker becomes despondent and anxious when he realises that the family must relinquish their summer paradise. They have no chance to bid higher than the other stakeholder. But like lightning from a clear sky, Uncle Melker gets a telephone call. He can’t believe his ears; the representative on the other end of the line tells him that he has received a grant from Kulturfonden! (Not Svenska kulturfonden, mind.) He heads to the bank, announces that he will offer a higher bid than the other stakeholder, and of course wins in the fight for their cottage. All is well and good, and the summer paradise remains the Melkerssons’.

In a more Brechtian version, the representative from Kulturfonden might have announced that Uncle Melker has unfortunately forgotten to account for a grant he received long ago, and must now immediately pay the whole thing back (possibly with “interest as per the Interest Act”). What’s more, Melker is reminded in a friendly but firm manner that “unaccounted for grants affect one’s chances of receiving future grants, just so you know”. And so Uncle Melker must get rid of both his cottage and what little savings he has, and becomes anxious over the fact that his mistake from the beginning of his career might mean that he’ll be unable to receive even small grants in the future.

Theatre beyond hope and fear

But why such dismal endings? Isn’t it pleasant when everything ends up all right? Yes, and that’s what’s so dangerous about it: Brecht and Benjamin believed that it can be harmful to embrace the forms of the bourgeois novel and performance, because they are so often optimistic. They often describe an individual’s growth to a full member of society, before which said individual has encountered various obstacles and challenges. In reality, however, precariously positioned cultural workers can’t hope that a representative shows up out of nowhere, pours money onto them, and saves them whenever their landlord decides to sell the flat they live in, thus forcing them to move.

As we’ve seen, cultural workers can’t even rely on getting treated somewhat fairly by centrist and leftist governments during a pandemic. Despite the competition, the means for artistic work are not entirely non-existent due to the relatively many foundations and funds that have chosen to support art and culture, but we still need a bigger societal upheaval in order to seriously upset the power relations that make access to both room and income – which Virginia Woolf identified as the prerequisites for creating – pervasively uncertain. Both Brecht and Benjamin are of the opinion that workers’ emancipation can only be achieved by the workers themselves. As Brecht writes in the poem Lob der Dialektik:

An wem liegt es, wenn die Unterdrückung bleibt? An uns.
An wem liegt es, wenn sie zerbrochen wird? Ebenfalls an uns.

Or, as David Riff translates into English:

Who’s to blame if oppression remains? We are.
Who can break its thrall? We can.

Happy endings allow the viewer to continue to hope that everything will end up all right, while less pleasant endings emphasise that it’s not worth it to hope for a saviour or that justice will be administered within the boundaries of the capitalist mode of production we live in. This aspect is particularly manifest in one of Brecht’s plays, The Exception and the Rule. A rich merchant must traverse the desert in order to close an oil deal. During the trip, the merchant treats his porter more and more brutally as his fear of the desert increases, with no police in the vicinity to protect him. They get lost with their water supplies running low. The porter tries to offer the merchant some water, but the paranoid merchant believes he is being attacked and shoots and kills the porter. In the end, the merchant is acquitted: the bourgeois fear of the proletariat is enough cause to shoot a proletarian, whether or not the threat was real.

A similar pattern can be found in The Threepenny Opera, in which bandit king Macheath’s execution is stopped at the last minute when a royal messenger comes riding in to say that Macheath has been given a castle, a title, and a pension. The hope that in the long run oppressors must pay, that justice will finally be done, must not be kept up. Justice simply does not exist in capitalist societies; instead, the world must change through mutual action. Hence the reason why theatre shouldn’t reach catharsis but instead aim to eliminate both fear and hope in order to create conditions for mutual thought and action that do not depend on outside authorities.

Fuckgirl contra Stanislavski 

Viren suggests that education programmes in acting are still centred on Konstantin Stanislavski’s naturalism, in which the fourth wall between the stage and the public is raised so that viewers are able to observe the actors in their roles unnoticed – almost as if the audience wasn’t there at all as the actors remain “unaware” of the audience’s presence. The idea is that when an actor “forgets” the audience, their own bodily relationship to the rest of the room, they are able to more exactly match the director’s vision with their body. To that extent, the structures of more traditional theatre are reminiscent of a disciplinary society’s method of acquiescence where most things are subject to the director’s vision. In acting programmes, students must rid themselves of mundane bodily mannerisms, reshape themselves into actors according to certain conventions, and finally “forget” the audience’s presence behind the fourth wall.

This description of Stanislavski’s authority does not seem to match the Swedish education programme at the Theatre Academy, where Anders Carlsson worked as a professor for five years up to 2021, after which Aune Kallinen took over. During Carlsson’s time, Brecht played an important role as an entry point to acting, and the term Verfremdung, alienation, was particularly key. Esa Kirkkopelto, professor at Malmö Theatre Academy, Lund University, suggests that a suitable Swedish translation would be “märkliggörande”, that is, “to make peculiar”. Relationships and events that we consider to be natural, perhaps given and immutable, can through Verfremdung become peculiar and rally a desire for political change. Brecht did not want the audience to be engulfed by the story, but instead for them to critically reflect on it so that it would leave space to act, become, and be active. Hence no catharsis, as in that case the problem would already be solved and any critical reflection over what one has witnessed on stage would seem less important.

I have no insight into what the education programmes look like nowadays, but one of the recently graduated Finnish-Swedish actors to have received an education during Carlsson’s time as professor, and who has clearly found use for Brecht’s tools and methods, is Antonia Henn. Henn’s work Fuckgirl, performed at Viirus during spring 2022, begins with a naturalistic monologue that seems like it’s there to trick the audience. The “fourth wall”, however, is torn down at the start as Henn addresses the audience directly and asks their opinion on her lipstick. The monologue is followed by a choreography composed of camera, sound, and somatic movements; it is a dialogue between performer and the camera where the seemingly prevailing gaze is challenged. Henn works physically with metamorphoses, where she continuously goes in and out of a role and creates something we might call distancing or alienation effects. All of this takes place in dialogue with sound designer Ellen Virman and videographer Sara Forsius, which brings a hierarchy-critical perspective towards the conventional structures of a performance.

When the play was reviewed in Hufvudstadsbladet, where I too write, critic Barbro Enckell-Grimm was not wholly impressed: there is no emotional outlet and no catharsis. According to Enckell-Grimm, the play does not offer exploration, development, or escape, and the audience forgets neither themselves nor the surrounding world, not even for a short while. On the other hand, perhaps this can be seen as a conscious aesthetic choice rather than a shortcoming? To not give the audience the catharsis they sit and wait for, to not to forget the surrounding world, can just as well be a way to create distance and space for reflection, an attempt to summon bodies in revolt. Problems may, through catharsis, come by a convenient solution, but it could just as well render the audience passive, which Henn’s performance manages to avoid.

Considered methodologically, perhaps we can expect something similar in Hankoniemen lukio on Saturday? We know quite little about She She Pop’s Besessen besides the theme of ownership and obsession, and that it is somewhat Brechtian in nature, similarly to Henn’s Fuckgirl. The collective wants to elicit a new meaning of theatre without an audience. While Brecht opines that those who stand on stage try on various attitudes and techniques in front of an active and critical audience with whom they have built a bodily and mutual relationship by tearing down the fourth wall and addressing them directly, it is a splintered collective that speaks in Besessen. A “polyphonic soliloquy” is promised in which the actors and the audience together create a choir-like formation that seems to welcome the singular differences between its members rather than melting them into one unified mass.

On Hangö Teaterträff’s production conditions

But back to Hanko. How does the city’s ownership structures affect Hangö Teaterträff’s production conditions? The festival is dependent on its volunteers that freely choose to come and build the festival, lug things around, handle stages, and sell tickets. The payment they receive is lodging in Hanko during the festival as well as food. When I take a look at (13 April, I’m out in good time) to see how much a Saturday–Sunday night in Hanko would cost for two people during the festival – there’s the club to consider as well – I realise that the cheapest alternative costs an incredible €504 for one night. It’s a holiday cottage with 24 square metres. I try other alternatives, thinking I’ve done something wrong, but unfortunately it’s as bad as it seems. The cheaper options are sold out at least on the day on which I do my Googling. In light of these lodging costs, the compensation they get is a clear incentive to sign up as a volunteer instead of paying a fortune for lodging.

As in so many other cities characterised by tourism, a tension between tourism and the local has existed in Hanko for a long time. Hanko’s history goes back to the foundation of Finland’s first winter harbour and the bathhouses that were meant to serve rich tourists and patients for whom rehabilitation during the summer weeks was recommended. Class structures were (and are) visible. To this day, people talk about the “nice” southern side of the railway, where the costs of vacation places near the beach often correspond to prices in Helsinki, and the “less nice” northern side of the railway. Which is ridiculous! Besides, the northern side of the railway has really nice places, such as the quay at Hangonkylä harbour, Lillmärsan’s outdoor recreational area, diving tower, and bathing site lit up by the setting sun, and even a fish and shellfish restaurant. Like the areas north of the long bridge in Helsinki, one might nonchalantly wonder if the areas north of the railway in Hanko have begun a process of gentrification.

Regardless, She She Pop’s Besessen will be performed on the northern side of the railway. The performance seems to at least partially rest on Brecht’s concept of Lehrstücke, learning play, which could be a way to be rid of the moral in the sense that it weakens the self – it spurns the liberal bourgeois idea of an individual as autonomous, a lonely island in favour of diversity. At the same time, the Lehrstücke can dismiss the idea of pointing out individuals as guilty parties when it comes to poverty, environmental problems, and so on. It’s futile to blame individual finance bankers’ avarice for poverty or individual chairpeople of industrial companies for environmental problems, because capitalism is a societal formation where a call for individuals to take more responsibility is hardly effective as a strategy for change (as we’ve witnessed innumerable times).

These are some of the reasons why the theme of ownership in She She Pop’s Besessen is so interesting. “People are obsessed with ideas – but also with things […] ownership has become an eerily important subject in people’s coexistence: if you have nothing, you have to hire yourself out. But even those who own too much, so people say, become obsessed by it. There it is: the community of the possessed.” Such is the introduction to Besessen found on Hangö Teaterträff’s website. The question of ownership is not framed as a moral one, but instead as a structural aspect that has a far-reaching impact on people’s coexistence.

Karl Marx opined that the “free” worker is free in two ways: free to conduct their potential workforce as a commodity they can sell on the market, and free in the sense that they don’t sell other commodities that would oblige the worker to sell their workforce – or “hire themself out” – to an employer that owns the means of production. Marx meant that social relations under capitalism are to a high degree subordinate to a simple formula: M-C-M¹. M stands for the money that the owner invests in commodities (workforce, raw materials, means of production – money becomes capital), which are then sold on the market with the purpose of accumulating capital and gaining more money. The formula is not a moral matter, it instead describes the capital’s logic as individual capitals (be they companies, states, cartels, or something similar) must relate themselves to in order to manage the competition.

In Besessen, obsession is perhaps not an obsession with fine things – we all want fine things like good quality fall jackets, good food, and fine wines – but about commodity fetishism, in which commodities and ownership appear as wholly natural relations, like weather and wind, and not as the social or power relations in which they are imbedded. Brecht’s Verfremdung, alienation, seems to herein possess potential by presenting the foundations and forms of expression of a capitalist society as wholly peculiar. Perhaps theatre can shine light on phenomena such as unpaid work, economy of promises, and complex forms of exploitation in ways that create space for mutual action towards change, in contrast to various moral pleas for an individual’s obligations and responsibilities, which often lead to passivity (it’s their fault, not my business) or paralysis (I’m not enough, I eat wrong foods, I use wrong means of transport). Binding imperatives are rarely liberating.

Brecht’s Lehrstücken often toured various factories and could easily be moved from one place to another with some modifications, such as collecting questionnaires from the audience that were then used to develop the play. Perhaps we can expect something similar in Hanko. She She Pop has often adapted their performances to the place in which it happens. When it was performed in Vilnius, Lithuania, there were references to the Soviet era (which might actually be relevant in Hanko given the fact that the area was rented to the Soviet Union as a naval base), and it is said that the script might change mere days before the performance. A flexible script where the audience gets the chance to speak, experiment with statements as part of the gathering in Hankoniemen lukio, is akin to a flexible murmur, maybe. We cannot find something that “we all agree on”, but we can gather together and welcome difference as a radical necessity and practice.

Valter Sandell is a critic and PhD student who sporadically teaches critical theory at the University of Helsinki. Thanks go to Essi Brunberg, Kaneli Johansson, and Eetu Viren for their comments and suggestions for improvement, as well as to the Swedish Cultural Foundation in Finland for their support.

Translated by Essi Brunberg.