As I watched Crispin Gurholt’s film The Sirens for the first time, it struck me how fast the role play of political theatre may change.

Silencing the sirens

(see the film)

Now the sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence. And though admittedly such a thing has never happened, still it is conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence certainly never. Against the feeling of having triumphed over them by one’s own strength, and the consequent exaltation that bears down everything before it, no earthly powers can resist.

Excerpt taken from Franz Kafka: The Silence of the Sirens, in The Complete Stories, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer, Schocken Books, New York, 1971

The film was shot in Athens in March 2016, as Greece was – and remains – in a financial crisis. EU and the World Bank had put their feet down, because Greece for a long time did not follow rules set by capitalism. Today, the EU and Europe urge to stand up as a counterweight to a similar capitalism and divisive protectionism, which, for the time being, is democratically elected to govern the United States.

What separates sincere emotional involvement and propaganda?

Music is central to the film The Sirens. The film builds on Gurholt’s ‘foyer opera’ of the same title, created for the project Monsters of Reality: The Mimesis Machine. This took place in Oslo’s National Theatre last September during the International Ibsen Festival. When I asked Crispin Gurholt why he chose to create an opera, he spoke about a need to engage, to elicit emotions, to revive political presence in an era of pixels and virtual reality. But, what separates sincere emotional involvement and propaganda? Following the Second World War, most European composers made great efforts to avoid writing music that could be assigned to benefit propaganda of any kind. However, as the British Parliament clubbed Brexit through last week, Scottish opposition parties hummed Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, also the EU anthem, as a final protest.

Monsters of Reality: The Mimesis Machine was the result of dramaturge and curator Siri Forberg’s invitation to a group of artists to join her to Athens – the cradle of theatre – to investigate the concept of mimesis. This principle of imitation, or counterfeit, contains a fundamental duality. In theatre, mimesis simultaneously evokes reality and staging, truth and falsehood, presentation and representation. But, this could also describe what we refer to as reality. It has been said that the most unreasonable parts of President Donald Trump’s travel ban might have been deliberately calculated and staged to make sufficient noise in public so that chief strategist Steve Bannon could install himself in the US National Security Council, with a minimum of attention. If this is true – is it theatre or reality? Late January, political philosopher David Ernst published an article on The Federalist.com where he argued that Donald Trump is one of the first politicians who has turned postmodernism against itself.

What role has art played in the emergence of a post-factual world of relativity and subjectivity? Opera is definitely artificial – and simultaneously also real: it is physics, bodies, muscles, breath and space. Crispin Gurholt’s opera is inspired by the sirens: singing mythological creatures attempting to lure and seduce sailors with their song. In the myth of Ulysses, sirens constitute an opposite of progress and reason, a temptation that put Ulysses on probation, trying to prevent him from fulfilling his mission. However, the sirens may also be understood as a resistance that is logically necessary to constitute Ulysses’ choices as free. Ulysses ties himself to the mast and covers the ears of his rowers, which allows him to listen to the sirens, still experiencing temptation, but unable to act.

– If she dies, we die, sings Europe. – We need to lure her back. – I am dying, you are dying, we are dying, sings Greece.

In their book Dialektik der Aufklärung (first published in 1944), authors Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer actually compare this situation to a concert: The entwined Ulysses is compared to a modern concert audience listening to music at a distance, physically prevented from performing it themselves. The two authors see this as an example of arts splitting up from crafts. In Gurholt’s opera, the sirens have become nations. The siren Greece is separated from her community, away from a chorus of sirens called Europe. – If she dies, we die, sings Europe. – We need to lure her back. – I am dying, you are dying, we are dying, sings Greece.

Europe needs democracy. But, what is the relationship between today’s European concept of democracy and that which historically emerged in Greece? What is the relationship between the everyday things – boats, birds, benches, trash cans, graffiti – filmed by Gurholt with a handheld camera and a tourist’s gaze, and the temples resting at the same spot through thousands of years? How does the film’s dramatic music relate to its pictures? The soundtrack of The Sirens is partly created using little quotes of existing music and text – which could as well be seen as a mimetic or representational strategy. – With drooping wings ye Cupids come, sings Europe, from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. – I am poisoned, I die, they die, I die, we die, democracy, sings Greece. To say that democracy is poisoned, is a serious allegation. What does it mean? What is democracy? The immediate response we learn to give is that democracy is constituted by the popular vote. But, democracy is also the division of power that allows US judges to counter Trump’s travel restrictions – and that enables the lawsuit coming up in Norway during 2017, in which Greenpeace and the national NGO Nature and Youth has filed a claim arguing that the permit given by the Norwegian Parliament to search for oil in the Barents Sea, violates the Constitution’s § 112 whose first sentence goes «Every person has a right to an environment that is conducive to health and to a natural environment whose productivity and diversity are maintained.” Is a sustainable climate such a fundamental right that the courts may invoke the Constitution and override a democratic, parliamentary resolution? Or is democracy threatened if Parliament’s decisions are not respected?

In Kafka’s short story, which also inspired the opera film The Sirens, the categorical either-or of the myth opens into a more speculative and playful change of perspectives, rendering suspect Ulysses’ intentions, exposing potential blind spots of consciousness and how statements about the world always imply belief. Kafka puts wax in Ulysses’ ears – just to subsequently affirm that wax could not possibly stop the voice of a siren. What if the sirens did not actually sing, writes Kafka, what if Ulysses just believed that his wax plugs worked? Or –another turn of the screw – what if Ulysses was so cunning that he well knew that the sirens had lost their voices – but that he still pretended or performed that his wax plugs worked? How can fictional spaces of probability be kept open, how do we defend the right to play with ambiguity, while simultaneously preventing divisive abuse of the same?

Ulysses, it is said, was so guile, such a fox, that not even the goddess of fate could penetrate his armour. Perhaps he did notice, although there human understanding is beyond its depths, that the sirens were silent, and held up to them and to the gods the aforementioned pretence merely as a kind of shield.

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