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House on Fire - Winterwerft
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House on Fire

The house is burning. The air is thick with smoke, cracking, rumbling sounds can be heard from the roof structure. The swelling heat is becoming more and more unbearable as the flames are coming closer and things are falling from the ceiling. Around the kitchen table, there is murmuring: ‘The firefighters should arrive any moment, shouldn’t they? Shouldn’t they?’

In the past few years, we have seen how what we long knew only from the news has also reached our habitats here in Europe: We have seen how one summer of drought follows the next, how wildfires are destroying the few remaining forests in our latitudes, how floods are causing unimagined destruction, how tons of dead fish are floating in the rivers – the list is long. All these catastrophes still affect us in a much less existential way than the people in Pakistan or Brazil – but they are there, they are tangible, and they can be pushed aside less and less.

At the same time, we experience how war is again raging in Europe, how this war has a greater impact on the price of a loaf of bread in Cairo or Accra than on us, who are much closer to it, and how, amid all the talk of arms deliveries and gas prices, the climate crisis suddenly fades into oblivion.

Yet, the greatest certainty we can currently pass on to our children is that the coming summer will be even drier, the one after that even dustier, the one after that even stormier. That there will be more fires, fewer forests, more floods, inundations, refugees. What this means for our own lives, for our environment, we cannot (or do not want to?) grasp yet.

This is fine.

Here is a meme that speaks to our contemporary moment. A dog sits in a burning room, wearing a jaunty little hat. He says, ‘This is fine’ and everything around him burns. (…)The planet is facing a climate catastrophe. And by facing, we mean ‘staring down the barrel of’. Growing numbers of people are panicking, organising, fighting. But most of us are the dog – feeling the heat but using it to toast marshmallows. This is fine.

With all the successive catastrophes, there is one thing we do not see: a deep change of heart, a broad societal debate about truly sustainable redirection in our ecological, economic and, above all, cultural orientation. Instead, we are still sitting on the dinner table stuffing ourselves, while the smoke thickens, while our planet is bleeding from the veins that we have opened with our drilling, digging, cutting, spilling, killing.

It is almost ironic: Finally, the ever advancing, ever moving, ever growing shopping mall of colonialism and capitalism is burning – but not because some desperate activists managed to set it on fire. It is burning because the fires, the furnaces that are needed to keep it alive, to supply it with ressources are getting out of control. The heat and smoke are now reaching also the upper storeys of the building (us!).

In other parts, people have been feeling the heat for a long time, have been suffering and fighting  so that we can- and while we continue our business as usual. It is important to remember this fact, as it gives us humility – but it also gives us a hint of where we can look to for all what we have to (un)learn in the coming years.

“What you people call collapse means living in the same conditions as the people who grow your coffee” –Vinay Gupta

So what will be our next steps, through the smoke, the grime and darkness? And what is the role of art, of theatre in this process of navigating an unfolding catastrophe?

 

WHAT USE IS ART?

If, as Audre Lorde says “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”, then this fire can also not be extinguished with the tools that our societies have relied on in the last centuries – more technology, more development, more growth. And neither can the house be rebuilt from the same materials, in the same way. Maybe what we need to build is less like a skyscraper, and more like a yurt, or a clay house. Like a garden. One thing is clear: In this unfolding catastrophe, we need new tools, new knowledges. Or, perhaps, we just need to remember, to open our view to new and old perspectives away from the metropolitan cultural centers.

In Winterwerft, we take the time to deal with the questions that are calling on us with more and more urgency:

What can and should theater provide, what can the performing arts contribute in such a time, a time of fire, a time of drought, of violent conflicts over resources? What can a theater in the Anthropocene look like, which questions need to be formulated, which languages found, which ways of walking tried out, which spaces opened up, which networks want to be woven? How can the climate catastrophe, with all its floods, storms and droughts, its displaced, exiled, extinct people, be brought to the stage? What songs and dances, languages and chants do we need to carry out of our hearts, from the theaters, from the windows onto the streets and squares, into the plenary halls?

How can we give voice and agenda back to all those who have been deprived of it during the rise of the Western idea of civilization, modernism and progress? To the forests, mountains, rivers, insects, bacteria, animals, plants and ecosystems? To the countless tribes, languages and cultures that were converted, colonized and wiped out in the unchecked obsession with growth?

We believe that in light of what is coming, we need art, and we need theatre perhaps more than ever. We believe that art can be “fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost“(Lorde). This is why we want to come together in the beginning of the year. Are you with us?