Director Mariano Pensotti Talks Radical Theater 100 Years After the Russian Revolution

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Director Mariano Pensotti Talks Radical Theater 100 Years After the Russian Revolution

As we approach the 100-year anniversary of the October Revolution next month, we should consider the legacy of this event and its importance in light of our contemporary social ills. The mass majority of the world finds itself living under conditions that have historically led to revolution: generalized injustice and inequality, economic instability, war, and disconnect between those in power and the people. 

A universal discontent is currently expressed through the politics of resistance: mass protests on the streets and on social media, symbolic gestures like sit-ins and individual actions, collective and grassroots organizing, and attempts to create safe spaces of autonomy. In some regions, movements like these have led to “revolutions” and their inevitable companion: the bloody, repressive, and conservative counterrevolution, as was also the case with the ascent of Stalin in the Soviet Union in 1924. Marx famously said of the 1848 French Revolution “History repeats itself: the first time as a tragedy, the second time as a farce.” Today, when we are way past the “third time,” what awaits the “democratic” world? Will we continue pushing for reform, through struggle and conflict, in the plastic system that is our democracy, or is yet another revolution in the making? On this backdrop, the perennial question of art’s role in social transformation arises once more. How can contemporary art become a form of resistance to injustice and an instrument of change, not only a depiction of it?

For me, the work of Argentine author and director Mariano Pensotti offers a promising response. His interdisciplinary practice is heavily influenced by the Proletkult Theater of the Russian Revolution. His latest project, Arde brillante en los bosques de la noche (It burns bright in the forests of the night), which debuted earlier this year, chronicles the lives of three contemporary women in Latin America with diffuse connections to the 1917 revolution, and asks us to consider the relevance of its ideologies and principles in contemporary society, specifically Argentina. 

 

Kunsten Festival des Arts, Brussels: Mariano Pensotti & Grupo Marea, Arde brillante en las bosques de la noche

 

Like the Proletkult Theater, Pensotti combines a multitude of media in his plays and installations including entire films; he places some of his works in the unsuspecting public space; his plots address today’s pressing social issues. This mix of form and content recalls Sergey Eisenstein’s “theater of attractions” style. Like the latter, Pensotti raises the spectator’s awareness of their own existence by forcing them to “co-produce” the meaning of the work, yet ultimately leading them to the conclusion he carefully planned.

Beyond formal and stylistic approaches inspired by revolutionary theorists, Pensotti is also keenly attentive to the mode of production of the work. Attempting to put his political ideas into practice, Pensotti founded the collective Grupo Marea with set designer Mariana Tirantte. Without relinquishing the director’s authorship, the group collaborates on the development of theater plays, installations, and artworks, splitting funding equally among the members, and crediting contributions collectively. With its roots in the collective theater practices of the 1960s, this more egalitarian model of production can serve as an example for improving human relations in the cultural field. It stimulates us to work more collaboratively and less competitively, to attempt resisting the pitfalls of aspirational capitalism and the “politics of envy” that govern the art world, to recognize each individual’s contribution to the whole, thereby truly making the personal political. These small gestures of resistance, if undertaken by a critical mass, can lead to larger, more durable, social transformations.

I spoke with Pensotti recently about Arde brillante en los bosques de la noche, a work whose artistic merit matches its political force, balancing the two without collapsing into neither pure form nor politics, creating the type of artistic work that responds to the needs of our troubled generation.

“[The play] has to do with the idea of being a spectator or protagonist of History, but also to address the question of whether witnessing somebody else’s story might transform your own.”

 

Theater Spektakel: Mariano Pensotti & Grupo Marea, Arde brillante en las bosques de la noche

 

Olga Stefan: Arde brillante en los bosques de la noche, your most recent play, asks us to consider, 100 years after the Russian Revolution, where its principles and ideologies are still needed today. To enter into this inquiry you construct a false premise: the story of the daughter of Alexandra Kollontai (the Soviet revolutionary and feminist who wrote extensively on freedom, the body, sexuality, and how capitalist society shapes female identity), who runs away from Stalinist Russia after her mother’s death and takes refuge in Misiones, Argentina. This story becomes the thread uniting all three characters in the play. Why did you come up with this premise and why did you need it?

Mariano Pensotti: From the beginning it was clear for me that I didn’t want to work with the Russian Revolution just as an historical event, but rather to see how its ideas and principles are still relevant now. And at the same time, I wanted to trace the implications of the Revolution in my own Argentinian context, to move it out of Europe. The Russian Revolution as a whole is extremely difficult to fictionalize: it has actually been done so many times before that I wanted to go in a different direction. That was when I started to get deeper into the story of Alexandra Kollontai and her writings and actions during the Revolution.

“Contemporary feminism, especially in Latin America, is quite closely linked to some of the key ideas of the Russian Revolution.”

At a certain point I started to feel that contemporary feminism, especially in Latin America, is quite closely linked to some of the key ideas of the Russian Revolution, even if it doesn’t lay in classical Marxism at all. But of course I’m a theater director, not a theoretician, and I work with fiction, with some sort of “expanded-fiction” if you like. I don’t do documentary theater either. So I started to imagine stories related to all these topics and I discovered that there was a small community of Russians living in Misiones more or less at the same time of the Revolution and that was the moment where I imagined a fake Kollontai daughter going to live there, trying to create an utopian socialist commune in the crazy Argentinian jungle in the first decades of the twentieth century.

OS: Some of your previous titles come from music or quotes. Where does the title of this play come from?

MP: It’s a very free translation of a William Blake verse from his poem “The Tyger.” The original verse says “burning bright in the forest of the night” which has been translated into Spanish in many ways. It’s a poem that I like a lot and somehow I think the verse is a nice metaphor of the whole idea of the revolution, the utopia that, like a wild animal in a forest, shines even in the darkest moments.

 

Kunsten Festival des Arts, Brussels: Mariano Pensotti & Grupo Marea, Arde brillante en las bosques de la noche

 

OS: The play presents the story of three independent women who nevertheless still suffer from the violence of this male-dominated society, but in different ways. Tell us about the relationship between each character and the type of violence you assign to her.

MP: I think what the main characters experience through the stories is a mixture of violence and frustration. The first one, Estela, is a university professor who teaches the Russian Revolution in contemporary Buenos Aires and she’s in conflict with herself because she feels her life is much more conventional and bourgeois than what she teaches. She is at a difficult moment in her relationship with her teenage daughter, who has no qualms to take her place in a male-dominated society and sees no contradiction in becoming a sort of doll-sex-object. And at the same time her husband is leaving her for a younger woman, which eventually alienates Estela and leads her to use violence against herself.

“Puppets are struggling all the time to say what they want, to be free while they’re being manipulated.”

The second character, Sonja, is a young European middle-class woman who decides to join a revolutionary guerrilla movement in Colombia after watching a violent event against a woman. Then, after some experiences of real violence during combat, she went back to Europe and finds how much her family has changed during her absence. Behind an image of tolerance and support she finds out that her relatives “sold” her. They try to make money by selling her story and forcing her to work by giving workshops for Apple CEOs who had discovered that studying revolutionary techniques helps them improve sales.

And the third character is a journalist who works on a political TV show, and to celebrate a promotion decides to do sexual tourism in Misiones with some friends.  There, young and poor descendants of Russians sell themselves to middle class ladies from Buenos Aires. At the beginning it looks like a form of violence against the male prostitutes’ bodies, but when she gets deeper into that world, it is ultimately revealed to be something different, and much more violent.

 

Theater Spektakel: Mariano Pensotti & Grupo Marea, Arde brillante en las bosques de la noche

 

OS: Arde brillante en los bosques de la noche is a film within a play within a puppet theater. You call it a marioshka of “fictions within fictions.” How are these fictions related and how does the form of each story correspond to its representation of reality? Specifically, the first layer of reality was expressed through a puppet play, with the characters manipulating puppets that are exact replicas of themselves. Puppets are usually recognized as less “real,” while cinema, which we perceive as the most closely connected to reality, is in fact the most removed in this play—the third layer, the furthest away from reality. So in fact you used the inverse of expectation.

MP: I wanted to use the inverse of expectations in terms of reality and its representations. And I also wanted the puppets to be the main point of view, the one of the audience. As you mention, this is a film within a play within a puppet theater and the beginning and the end are the puppets. There’s a lot of theory about the body and its representations inside the piece. I wanted to have the body of the same actors transformed into small puppets that work as doubles, then in the second story, to have them live as people, and then in the third, to appear in a bigger format through the medium of film. It really has to do with the idea of being a spectator or protagonist of History, but also to address the question of whether witnessing somebody else’s story might transform your own. And somehow it is also related to the transition from manual labor, the puppets, to a more elaborated form of work, the film.

But speaking about theory, I wanted to use a lot of discussions about freedom, the body, social control and biopolitics, which in the mouth of puppets feels less solemn than in a living body’s, and also much more contradictory and bittersweet, since they’re struggling all the time to say what they want, to be free while they’re being manipulated in such a concrete way.

 

Kunsten Festival des Arts, Brussels: Mariano Pensotti & Grupo Marea, Arde brillante en las bosques de la noche

 

OS: Your work, which spans theater, cinema, performance art, and installation, is influenced by Prolekult Theater and Sergei Eisenstein’s theories.  In Arde brillante en los bosques de la noche, the film is an autonomous work of art but also an inherent part of the play. Similarly, in Eisenstein’s 1923 theatrical mise-en-scene of Alexander Ostrovsky’s 1868 Enough Stupidity in Every Wise Man, he not only adapts the characters to reflect that day’s societal realities, but also makes his first film called Glumov’s Diary, which is an inherent part of the play yet also a stand-alone work.

MP: Eisenstein’s mise-en-scene of the Ostrovsky’s piece, which I have to admit I didn’t know about before starting the research for Arde brillante… was really the starting point and the trigger of the idea of using a film for the third part. I was reading a book about that experience and when I went to bed that night, I had a strange dream where a group of puppets went to see a theater piece… I’ve always been interested in Eisenstein’s ideas about montage and his basic notion that two images form a third one in the mind of the audience.

 

Kunsten Festival des Arts, Brussels: Mariano Pensotti & Grupo Marea, Arde brillante en las bosques de la noche

 

OS: You created Grupo Marea, a collective with whom you work on the production of your plays. When we spoke about political theater and how the production of the play is equally important to its content and form, you mentioned that you tried to reflect your politics in the way you relate to your colleagues and co-workers. Please tell us about this further and how you function in Grupo Marea. How do you treat authorship, hierarchy, and collaboration in the group?

MP: We were interested in forming a collective of artists from different backgrounds and disciplines working together in theater to explore the limits of fiction. We discuss ideas together from the beginning of each project, not defining the format that we’re going to use, keeping that open as much as possible—afterward it can become a theater piece, an installation, a collaboration with other artists, etc.

After some time of discussion, I’m the one who writes the stories and the text but I keep on talking with the other members of the group about the concept, independently of their role in the final piece. Even though it’s not exactly a classic example of “collective creation,” it certainly implies a strong amount of ideas coming from all of us. We try to collaborate as much as possible in the general production of everything, and we form a cooperative where we all earn almost the same amount of money at those moments where there’s some money involved, which is not always the case.

 

 

OS: What I loved about Arde brillante en los bosques de la noche is that you treat revolutionaries and radical ideologies in a very human way—you show their hypocrisies, duplicities, and absurdities while highlighting the many important positive and relevant contributions. 

Do you think political theater needs to be propaganda, as Eisenstein and many others since believed? How do you see political theater and art today in the context of the long tradition of radical Argentine thinkers who have written on the topic?

MP: Well, I have to say that I don’t consider my theater to be exactly “political theater,” but more a theater that likes to discuss political ideas inside the context of fictions and the life of some specific characters. In that sense sometimes I feel closer to a certain literary tradition from the nineteenth century, especially novelists such as Tolstoy, Balzac, or Stendhal that—making a huge reduction of their goals—were struggling to create art pieces that were bigger than life, including fictions, but also their lived experiences, discussions of political events of their time, and philosophical ideas…

I don’t think political theater needs to be propaganda, but I don’t like theater that hides its political ideas too much either. I think I prefer works of art where ideas are quite clear and exposed, and then sometimes contradicted within the same piece.

“I don’t think political theater needs to be propaganda, but I don’t like theater that hides its political ideas too much either.”

In some way I think political art in Argentina, as politics in general, is quite alienated right now. After 10–12 years of center-left governments in Latin America, with a rebirth of political involvement in every aspect of life, we’re now facing a huge reaction from the right. In just two years most of the Latin American countries had turned right, supported by mass media propaganda, dirty tactics, and a lot of opportunism. What is more striking for us is that now there’s no military involved in right wing governments, as was the case in the 70s and 80s, but rather CEOs. A new neoliberal experiment is taking place here again and the future looks extremely uncertain. In the best scenario it might create, as a sort of reaction, a political art movement opposing this at some point, but so far I’m seeing more apathy and depression than action. As we’re now not facing a dictatorship but a right wing government elected by a surprisingly large number of people, the question of “for whom” we’re making art is also in the air. That creates an atmosphere of isolation and the need to find new ways of organization.

 

Kunsten Festival des Arts, Brussels: Mariano Pensotti & Grupo Marea, Arde brillante en las bosques de la noche

 

OS: In most of your work the theme of broken utopias seems to be a constant subtext. Dreams that have not materialized. Missed opportunities. What could have been. Disillusionment. Tell us where this preoccupation comes from.

MP: It probably has to do with the position of my generation in relation to Argentina. We’re the sons and daughter of the revolutionaries who, during the 70s and 80s, were trying to transform the country into some sort of Socialism and were exterminated by the dictatorship. We grew up surrounded by the idea of “loss.” Not just a physical loss of people [murdered and disappeared by the regime] but also of a lost world, more ideal than real. The contrast between the world our parents fought for and the one we were living in was so huge that it left a permanent mark on many of us.

But then there’s also something that I consider more universal: no matter where you were born or raised, the feeling that we all have is that we could have been better or happier had we done or experienced things differently. The tragedy of being one and not many. The difference between our expectations of life, of ourselves, and our true reality is for me a wonderful source of fiction.

 

Olga Stefan

Olga Stefan is an arts writer, curator, and researcher based in Zürich.

 

(Image at top: Theater Spektakel: Mariano Pensotti & Grupo Marea, Arde brillante en las bosques de la noche. All images © Grupo Marea)

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2017-10-12T03:05:13+00:00