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AGITATE, EDUCATE, ORGANIZE

Av: Konstanze Schmitt

Notes for a Performative Research on the Workers’ Theatre

Workers’ theatre emerged in the 19th century in amateur theatre groups and workers’ clubs. It went on to be ideologized, formalized and broadly organized at the beginning of the twentieth century through its contact with the avant-garde. In the Soviet Union the Constructivists developed discussion pieces, and Proletkult (proletarian culture) emerged as a mass movement. Agitprop groups performed throughout the Weimar Republic for the workers’ cause. In particular, the methods of self-empowerment that were central to workers’ theatre stand in contrast to contemporary forms of theatre, which are shaped by the continuous search for (self-) expression. In the following I would like to present a few examples of this diverse tradition, in particular the beginnings of the agitprop and workers’ theatres of 1920s Germany. The text can be seen as an extension of a series of notes I created for Stephan Dillemuth’s project at Konsthall C earlier this year. Similarly to his project I hope this text will show the various relations workers’ theatre had to other art forms, particularly evident in 1920s Germany. But ttoday as well there are artists and theatre makers trying to reflect or update this by referring to the practice of the workers’ theatre.

1. Workers’ clubs

Let’s set the scene: in 1860s Germany, several educational clubs for workers emerged, some calling themselves “co-operatives for the acquisition and increase of intellectual capital”. It was the hope of various leaders of the workers’ movement that once workers educated themselves, the capitalists would no longer dare to offer them such exploitative wages. The workers’ theatre eschewed upper-class amateur theatre and its audiences, and instead shifted the emphasis entirely to the lower classes of society.

However, in the beginning this effort wasn’t consciously pursued, but developed organically as a mode in which to translate and communicate. For example when the first volume of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital was published in 1867, J.B.v. Schweitzer studied it thoroughly and published the results in the newspaper “Social-Demokrat”. In order to make the text’s difficult parts more accessible, he rewrote Marx’s theory into a dialogue between two people. The dialogue was not intended for the stage or live performance, but soon began to be performed here and there as a play in German workers’ clubs and soon Schweitzer published a version adapted for the stage: Ein Schlingel. Eine nationalökonomisch-soziale Humoreske in einem Akt. Perhaps more workers and functionaries were introduced to Marx’s ideas through these performances than through the book itself. At first Das Kapital sold badly, in 1867, a year after it was published, it had only sold 100 copies, although by 1871, most of the first edition had been sold. By that time, Ein Schlingel had been performed at least 15 times, and consequently about 1500 to 3000 people had learnt about the important theories of Das Kapital for the first time through the performance.

Imagine a scene: two workers after their shift, meet in a club. There they perform Das Kapital’s chapter “The Working Day” finding ways to openly explain how the working day is comprised of necessary and surplus labour, They discuss the instrumentalisation of their own bodies in the process of value creation, and of the struggle in their own interests, of law, force and class struggle. Everyone in the club, the performers and the audience, come to understand collectively what is at stake.

Moving on; in Germany in the 1880’s, socialism was banned through by state anti socialist law and political groups had to reform themselves. These law changes led to a great deal of cover-up activities. One example of cover up activity was the formation of clubs that advertised themselves as promoting culture and sports. Here workers could meet informally and develop forms of collectivity, free of the demands of party politics hence liberated from political or cultural top-down agendas. The workers could also organis events such as “Bunte Abend” (colourful evenings) similar to a variety show where all participants contributed with their specific interest or skills, giving space for all sorts of performances. The evenings consisted of singing, dancing, acting, tableaux vivants1, recitals, proclamations. Between 1880 and 1900 this type of participatory theatre “by workers for workers” had grown popular among the working class and was an important tool for self-education. However, at this point, the state authorities began to regard these performances as a form of highly dangerous agitation and therefore censored them. Yet, the soon-to-be official socialist parties also prohibited them, as they considered the activity as a waste of time, advising the participants to rather engage in straightforward political work and/or the reading of the German “classics” — thereby promoting a bourgeois and canonized idea of culture.

From 1890 onwards, the movement of the German system of “Volksbühne” (People’s Theatre) became a competitor to the self-made theatres of the workers. In Volksbühne, it was more “professional” writers and actors that were illustrating workers’ topics. Originally intended to attract an audience of workers, their aim was rather to entertain a new class of low-wage white collar workers with more-or-less populist and socially oriented productions. Instead of making an independent theatre, with the idea of entertaining and educating themselves and others (“education and agitation”), the workers were to be attracted by entertainment alone in the framework of bourgeois sentiment. Nonetheless, smaller groups maintained the earlier, more left-wing approaches of the first workers’ clubs. They became important models for the development of the “agitprop troupes” in the 1920s. One of the first “professional agitation troupes” was Boreslav Strzelewicz’s “Gesellschaft Vorwärts”, a group of three people who toured different workers’ clubs, theatres and festivals. Their programme included songs and poetry recitals, but also short farces and comedies. The group could react quickly to local events in the places they visited, and incorporate current political developments immediately into their programme. In order to address their audience more directly, names and locations were left open in their scripts. Their songs, poems and farces were not primarily instructive and informative but tended rather to be emotional and full of pathos; nevertheless, their idea of a revue with a variety of different acts provided an entertaining structure for propagating socialist issues. Such a “Nummernprogramm” (or varied programme) could free itself from the “unity of action, time, and place” demanded by classical theatre. News and other printed matter of political relevance just needed to be put into the form of a dialogue or worked into a montage. Thus the troupe paved the way to the political revue and agitprop which developed in the years following the First World War.

2. Party and Protagonism

Agitprop (agitation and propaganda) emerged in the Soviet Union after the Bolsheviks took power in 1917 as a way to politically agitate the masses and to convey the new political and social form of communism. At the forefront was the call to contribute to the construction of the new society. For the agitprop troupes it was about flexible, rapid, on-site deployment; productions were made with little to no scenery or stage, and costumes were replaced by overalls or similar uniform work-wear. The mostly short pieces alternated between the various scenes of the piece and a speaking choir. Songs were also always used; while the audience was being presented with recognizable situations during the scenes, the choir would commentate and appeal to the workers as a class. The pieces were adapted to current political realities and locations with the intention of criticizing, propagating and agitating.

Caption: On March 28, 2010, domestic workers demonstrated in downtown Madrid for labor rights and rights of residence. The women of Territorio Doméstico, a platform of organized domestic workers, individuals, and activists, wheeled this collectively painted wagon through the streets. It was a stage set for several scenes of an agitprop performance within the frame of the demonstration in which domestic workers give an account of oppression and resistance in their daily lives.
Konstanze Schmitt, Territorio Doméstico, Stephan Dillemuth: Triumph of the Domestic Workers (2010). Performance in public space, video, installation.

While in the Soviet Union agitation and propaganda were important political tools from the start, and the
avant-garde took advantage of the “organizing function of art” (Sergei Tretyakov), it took the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands) until the mid-1920s to discover that culture and art were important in the struggle for hegemony of the state. A tour by the famous “Blue Blouse” agitprop troupe from Moscow in 1927 sparked an agitprop theatre boom in the Weimar Republic. In 1929, there were about 300 agitprop troupes in Germany. The “Rote Sprachrohr” troupe from Berlin was one of the most influential groups; it was also the mouthpiece (Sprachrohr) of the German Communist Party. The mass organization of workers in education, sports and music clubs, which had existed since the 1860s (and which, especially at the time of the Anti-Socialist Laws, were popular political meeting places), was empowered and politicized through those associations: in 1928 about half a million workers were organized in the Arbeitersängerbund (Workers’ Singers’ Union) in Germany. That is around ten times more than in in 1908; moreover, the movement was no longer dominated by men, as many women had joined the formerly all-male choirs. The communist sports and leisure movement is portrayed in the film “Kuhle Wampe”, 1932, directed by Slatan Dudow and written by Bertolt Brecht.

The image, of the Rote Sprachrohr’s performance practice, is from their film appearance in Brecht/Dudow’s “Kuhle Wampe” (1932).

The Rote Sprachrohr also wrote about their practice, e.g. in “How to build a scene?”, published in 1929 in the newspaper Rote Fahne (Red Flag), they described their approach, the main characteristics of which are:

1. Agitprop is not a spectacle because the performer (“worker player”) expresses her/his own opinions.
2. Making artistic propaganda means: collective writing, i.e. each member of the group participates in the collection of material (mainly from the latest news stories and everyday observations) and in the writing of the text.
3. It is good to use rhymes and songs in the text as these can be memorized more easily. If the group works quickly and efficiently, current events are sometimes communicated even “faster across the stage than they are in the press.”
4. All performers have the task, besides working on texts and scenes, to educate themselves politically.

The Rote Sprachrohr circulated its plays and songs under what today would be referred to as a Creative Commons licence. To make their texts and their practice accessible to as many people as possible the group published the magazine Das Rote Sprachrohr, in which they also gave advice on how to produce their plays: “We have intentionally not provided precise performance instructions for individual scenes. The type and form of the performance must be based on the troupe’s joint discussions during rehearsal. The short directorial remarks should not be viewed dogmatically, but rather as proposals or suggestions for your own, intensive process of working through the material. We want no schematics, no rigidity, we want liveliness. The measure can only be the level of training of the respective group. Scenes that have been written in Berlin dialect must be transferred into a local dialect. Likewise, it is necessary to extend the storyline by using theatrical approaches to local events. It is good to put banners on stage with slogans taken from corresponding scenes.”2

In 1932, Rote Sprachrohr had more than 50 members and 4 brigades: children’s, touring, active and reserve (the latter for courses and new productions).

In the scene “Proletarian Self-criticism”, the private is made political: a female and male worker who live together and always argue when he, of an evening, goes to the party meeting and leaves her alone with the housework. She tries to persuade him, with the prospect of food, cinema and sex, to leave politics be and “spend more time on things that matter to both of them”. There follows a “Stop”, in order to shift the scene: both then wash the dishes and go to the meeting together.

In “So oder so?” (“Like this or like that?”) the basic principle of Forum Theatre by Augusto Boal has already been created. Forum Theatre is a form of agitation theatre and is the central method of the Theatre of the Oppressed. Augusto Boal developed it in the 1950s and 1960s in Brazil. Unlike agitprop theatre, Forum Theatre often takes place with groups who know each other because they work, study or live together. Through conversations the group develops a scene around a particular problem. This is often performed by actors and uses all available theatrical means; characters are often stereotyped (the entrepreneur, the landlord, etc.). At the end of the scene, the performers ask the audience whether they agree with the depicted reality or with the solution to the problem. Those who do not agree take on the roles that they want to change, the others continue as before. The original cast remain in an advisory capacity on stage. One of them takes on the directorial role, explains, moderates, makes sure something is happening. It should become clear to people that it is up to them to change the reality and that it is not simple, but also not impossible. Discussions take place at intervals throughout and at the end.

Agitprop theatre is somewhat more authoritarian; the audience remains in its role. Nevertheless, the chosen
form — playing a scene twice with different outcomes — makes the same statement as a scene in Forum Theatre: reality can be changed. (And the private is political.)

3. Collaborations

The development of the Epic Theatre – the not illusionary, not dramatic theatre – in Germany can be traced from the early proletarian festivals and the “Bunte Abende” of the “workers’ self-help” through to the variety-programming of the “Gesellschaft Vorwärts” and chorus chants, right up to the more widely known theatre of the 1920s: the agitprop troupes and Political Revues, as well as the revolutionaries of the bourgeois theatre and music, Erwin Piscator, Bertolt Brecht, and Hanns Eisler, who developed new forms of theatre in collaboration with the workers’ movement.

Hanns Eisler for example developed songs for Rote Sprachrohr, as well as theory and pieces of music for the workers’ singers’ movement (Arbeitersängerbewegung). For Eisler the “Neue Musik” was a coherent tool in the struggle of a new movement: ”The revolutionary sections of the working class always took a progressive attitude towards musical matters because the workers knew very well that the struggle of the working class, led by new ways of thinking and organizing, is also in need of a new style of music.”3

It is in this sense that Brecht further developed the Epic Theatre: in order to achieve the active participation of workers in the realization of art/theatre and in political discussions, he produced, together with the composers Paul Dessau, Hanns Eisler and Kurt Weill, the avant-garde concept of Lehrstücke.

In 1930, Brecht and Eisler created the Lehrstück “Die Maßnahme” (“The Measures Taken”). It was the first great work made in collaboration with the workers’ singers’ movement. For the premiere three Berlin workers’ choirs rehearsed the piece (for the most part untrained singers without knowledge of musical notation). Fittingly, the rehearsals took place in the evening, the premiere beginning only at 11.30 p.m. Hanns Eisler wanted “to write a piece for those it is intended for, and for those who can make use of it: for workers’ choirs, amateur theatre groups and student orchestras, so for those who neither pay for art, nor get paid by art, but rather those who want to make art”. This definition corresponds with one of the definitions of the Lehrstück: That above all it is those on stage, developing and discussing the piece, who learn. Like all forms of workers’ theatre, the Lehrstück is about the dissolution of the boundary between producers and consumers, towards a form of art in which all participants are active.

“Die Maßnahme” was banned because of its “incitement to class struggle”; the Communist Party on the other hand found it too idealistic. At the time, the realism debate was in full swing, the experimental art forms and ambiguous “queer” forms of representation were dismissed. The doctrine of the Communist Party praised Stalin’s “socialist realism”, which suppressed the aesthetic (and political) experiments of the coming decades. The music, however, was praised by all sides.

In the workers’ theatre of the 1920s and 1930s there emerged a new image of humanity, one that was not only discursive, but one that was also characterized by industrialization and the rational(ized) approach to the body. In the Soviet Union, Vsevolod E. Meyerhold developed “Biomechanics” as a system of movement for actors. In New York, a dance scene emerged that was largely shaped by migrant women. Both movements are fundamental to our current understanding of the body on stage.

4. A New Learning Play
There has been several contemporary attempts to re-use workers theatre methods. Two examples:
In Stephan Dillemuths work at Konsthall C in Stockholm, workers theatre techniques were re-implied and performed by a group of 16 members who rehearsed, re-performed and discussed their working conditions throughout the making of the project. Workers theatre in Sweden has a different history: It began in 19th century as folk theatre festivals in the countryside, where the factories were. Workers performed in the forests on stages with scenes made of bushes which later led to the development of slapstick or “Buskis” Theatre. Stephan Dillemuth’s final installation consisted of a stage with a built forest. The trunks and branches of the trees consisted of plaster casted body parts the theatre member’s use when they work, forming some sort of ”human-forest machine”, yet the political subtext to Dillemuth’s work also appeared when standing and looking at forest from a particular point in the gallery, as the trees, branches and limbs of the workers merged together and formed the word ‘STRIKE’.

Also the Russian collective Chto Delat has updated and re-implemented the idea of Brecht’s Lehrstücke in recent years with their Learning Plays (Lehrstücke), that have taken place in various (mostly art) contexts and with changing participants. In the introduction to their learning play: Where has Communism gone? (2013), they write:
“The ghost of communism still wanders around, and to transform it into a commodity form seems a good way to finally get rid of it. Conferences and artistic events dedicated to the idea of communism are going on one after another, speakers are paid or non-paid, advertisement production machines function well, and the sphere turns round as before. But beyond this exhausting machinery of actualization and commodification, we still have as a potentiality this totally new desire of communism, the desire which cannot but be shared, since it keeps in itself a “common” of communism, a claim for togetherness, so ambiguous and problematic among the human species. This claim cannot be privatized, calculated, and capitalized since it exists not inside individuals, but between them, between us, and can be experienced in our attempts to construct this space between, to expose ourselves inside this “common” and to teach ourselves to produce it out of what we have as social beings.”4

In the attempt to update workers’ theatre, it is clear that its form and content are inseparable. Walter Benjamin’s call for the necessary connection between tendency and quality5 is proved — in the amateur theatre of the workers’ clubs in the nineteenth century, in the revues and agitprop performances of the Weimar Republic, in the Lehrstücke, but also with those who, like Chto Delat and Stephan Dillemuth, pick these methods up and take them further. It is not simply a call for something common: the class, the spirit of communism, the emancipation of people. Aesthetics too are concerned with this issue — the question of producing something in common, a ”commonism”6 among all participants.

Konstanze Schmitt is an artist and theatre director. She lives and works in Berlin.

FOTNOTER:

1. Tableaux vivants which means ”living pictures” is a form of theatre in which participants depict an image through a freeze-frame method whilst a narrator describes the presented situation.
2. Published in: Rote Fahne, 1929. Quoted after Hoffmann/Pfützner: Theater der Kollektive. Proletarisch-revolutionäres Berufstheater in Deutschland 1928-1933. Stücke, Dokumente, Studien. Berlin 1980.
3. Hanns Eisler, Werke, Leipzig 1982, p. 257
4. http://chtodelat.org/category/b9-theater-and-performances/where-has-communism-gone/
5. See Walter Benjamin, The Author as Producer (1934)
6. Political scientist and economist Friederike Habermann developed this term to describe a society based on common-based peer production.

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For Women Who Are Difficult to Love

Av: Warsan Shire

you are a horse running alone
and he tries to tame you
compares you to an impossible highway
to a burning house
says you are blinding him
that he could never leave you
forget you
want anything but you
you dizzy him, you are unbearable
every woman before or after you
is doused in your name
you fill his mouth
his teeth ache with memory of taste
his body just a long shadow seeking yours
but you are always too intense
frightening in the way you want him
unashamed and sacrificial
he tells you that no man can live up to the one
who
lives in your head
and you tried to change didn’t you?
closed your mouth more
tried to be softer
prettier
less volatile, less awake
but even when sleeping you could feel
him travelling away from you in his dreams
so what did you want to do, love
split his head open?
you can’t make homes out of human beings
someone should have already told you that
and if he wants to leave
then let him leave
you are terrifying
and strange and beautiful
something not everyone knows how to love.

 

Innehållsförteckning #130-131: Tid

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Maidan Square

By: Oleksiy Radynski ‬‬

On December 8, 2013, an angry crowd of Maidan protesters toppled a Lenin monument in central Kyiv. This act was absurdly greeted by liberals in Ukraine and abroad as a final cutting-of-ties with communism—almost a quarter century after it had already fallen. At the same time, skeptical voices claimed that this outburst of mass frustration directed at a historical statue revealed the total impotency of the movement. Soon, monuments to Lenin fell in many other Ukrainian cities. Anti-communist iconoclasm became an important feature of the first movement in twenty-first century Europe whose outcome at least vaguely resembled a revolution.
The site of the Maidan movement in Kyiv is intimately linked to revolutionary ideas and practices, and not only by the old Soviet name for Maidan square—“the Square of the October Revolution”. The urban structure of central Kyiv itself, as envisaged by the Stalin-era city planners, was meant both to commemorate the event of the revolution, and to prevent its repetition by rendering expressions of dissent on the part of Soviet Ukrainians impossible. Maidan square and nearby Khreschatyk Street were designed to accommodate mass communist rallies and demonstrations—as long as these celebrated state policies. The Haussmannian proportions of the central squares and avenues were designed to make it easy for police forces to contain any public unrest.
The monument to the October Revolution, erected in the late 1970s at what later came to be known as Maidan square, was an astute commentary on the relationship between the revolutionary masses and their revolutionary leaders. In this monument, the figure of Vladimir Lenin was surrounded by the four pillars of the October Revolution—the male worker, the female worker, the peasant, and the sailor, all represented in bronze. The figure of Lenin stood apart from the masses not only in size—it effectively dominated the composition—but also in medium: his likeness was made of red granite, suggesting that he belonged to a different, transcendent mode of being. More than twenty years after the October Revolution monument was removed during the Soviet Union’s collapse, this spatial relationship between masses and leaders was re-projected, or reenacted on a different level, during the Maidan uprising. Although the Maidan movement did not have clear leaders or did not accept those who claimed their role, the representatives of the movement were clearly visible and constantly appealed to the assembled public via the large, mounted screens that broadcast the revolution in real time from the square. In this way, the relationship between the screen and the televised demonstrations actually reenacted a familiar, monumental representation of the revolution.
During the Soviet years, October Revolution Square was the site of so many pseudo- or counterrevolutionary rituals that it is hard to imagine it as a site for a genuine uprising. This cynical use of fake demonstrations led to the discrediting of the very idea of public assembly. In 1986, the square was the site of perhaps one of the most cynical uses of public assembly in history. Thousands of Kyivites marched through the square during the official Labor Day parade without knowing that five days earlier, a disaster had taken place in Chernobyl, about one hundred kilometers away. Soviet workers were made to march through the radiation-exposed streets for the sake of communist ritual. While the Labor Day ritual was not cancelled by atomic disaster, little could be done to prevent the Soviet society from its subsequent atomization. Very soon, the Thatcherite formula “there is no such thing as society” was realized in Ukraine and other post-Soviet states in its most radical form.
The 1992 documentary Levels of Democracy (directed by Georgiy Shkliarevsky), which portrays various political assemblies that took place in and around Maidan square in the late 1980s and early 1990s, grasps the ultimate transformation of Ukrainian (and, more broadly, late-Soviet) society into a post-social assemblage of individuals overwhelmed by the need for personal survival. The film’s opening scenes are filled with the joyous exultations of the masses, who for the first time had been granted the right to celebrate their national identity. In 1991, however, the situation changes drastically: the protesters stop caring about national identity, since they are suddenly faced with a collapsing economy and the urgency of physical survival. People still assemble—but instead of listening to performances of Ukrainian national anthem, they now listen to a teenager singing Yegor Letov’s songs on a guitar, or to a speech by a paranoid anti-Semite preacher. When freedom of assembly finally becomes a real constitutional right, practicing it is very difficult due to a sudden lack of basic goods.8
In the early 2000s, when the effects of economic collapse and social degradation started to wane, the Ukrainian people started to reclaim Maidan as a place for assembly and dissent. In the winter of 2000–2001, protesters set up an encampment in the square and called for the resignation of Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, who was accused of ordering the murder of the opposition journalist Georgiy Gongadze. The encampment was dispersed, and in order to prevent any further use of Maidan square for public dissent, President Kuchma ordered that it be redeveloped as a consumer space—a shopping mall combined with a para-historical sculpture park. The new surface of Maidan, dotted with kitschy sculptures and glass domes linking it with the promising shopping mall underworld, was supposed to prevent large crowds of protesters from gathering there. Instead, the public was supposed to assemble in the shopping mall underneath for the sake of pure consumption. On the spot where the October Revolution monument previously stood, a notoriously ugly monument to the independence of Ukraine was erected in its place, its use of imperial Corinthian order absurdly reverting Ukraine’s post-colonial imaginary. But Kuchma’s plan for doing away with Maidan as a public space failed— probably because his corrupt tendencies led him to award the project to a group of wealthy businessmen who had no prior experience in the construction business. Kuchma’s stated reason for redeveloping Maidan was the tenth anniversary of Ukrainian independence. Instead, the second decade of Ukraine’s alleged “independence” saw a tremendous proliferation of protest activity at Maidan square.

 

Innehållsförteckning #123-124 På torget

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THE RED FLAG TO THE RESCUE!

By: Olav Westphalen

Here’s the scenario: I am on my way to some release party with DJ-battle at Taverna Brillo. It’s the night before the Swedish national elections and I get into a heated argument with a group of young nationalists waving flags on Stureplan. I shout something along the – admittedly idiotic – lines of: “I am a fucking immigrant and I pay more taxes than you!” And I go on: “Why are you so scared of immigrants? Because they have bigger dicks than you? Because they get to fuck your mothers and you don’t?” I am a bit surprised that they don’t just beat me up. I credit that, both, to the police watching us from a distance and, maybe more importantly, to the fact that I look like a Type-A Aryan myself. There’s something in the heart of young fascists that makes it hard for them to pummel the face of someone who looks like the father they always wanted to have, I guess. 

Once I run out of insults, I end up having sort of a conversation with the kid who seems to be the brains of the operation. Not nuclear scientist type brains, but more than you need to wave a flag and not fall over backwards, which is what the rest of the crew is fully occupied with. (Here’s a really basic problem I have with fascism and militarism: It requires a number of rather intelligent individuals to spend most of their time with a lot of really stupid people. Who has the patience? Fascists, I guess). Anyhow, Brainy Nazi asks me with disgust in his voice how I can possibly deny that there is a Swedish Culture worth defending. I tell him that I have no idea what a culture is, and how come everybody else seems to know so much more about it? I also say that I find it impossible to determine what is properly Swedish about Swedish culture. Where do you draw the line between Swedish culture and German culture, Samie culture, Finnish culture, Russian culture, American culture, Greek culture, Turkish culture, Kurdish culture, Ethiopian culture and many others? It’s all gradients of overlapping, interlaced cultural expressions. I mean, what’s really Swedish? Matjessill? Talk to the Poles, the Dutch, the Russians, the Ashkenazi Jews, because they all think it’s theirs. It seems to me that those types of demarcations are always arbitrary and most often faith-based. 

As I enter the bar at Taverna Brillo, where they usually hold their performances and art events, I am still quite worked up over the ruckus outside. Behind the DJ-set, the artist Klas Eriksson is jumping up and down like a panda bear on speed. It’s the Release Party for his fanzine. Klas is playing his usual mix of Britpop, eighties electro and soccer chants. There’s humor at play here, but it still makes for a pretty testosterony atmosphere and I am not up for it right now. I am not really up for anything. I kind of slink away to some dark corner having “the thought”. You know, the thought scientifically proven to be the thought most frequently thought at art events around the world? It goes like this: “What the fuck am I doing here?”

A friend introduces me to Macarena Dusant, an art historian, who tells me about this magazine, the one you are holding in your hand. Although at the time there is no magazine yet. She is going to be the guest editor for the upcoming issue. And she wants to produce an entire issue on menstruation. I haven’t met her before. She hasn’t read anything I have written. Hell, I am not even a writer. And yet, after a couple of minutes, she suggests that I contribute a text. Somehow I get the feeling that I’m not the first man she has asked. I am right. She’s happy to confirm that she has asked many and that so far only Andreas Gedin has agreed to contribute a text. (Andreas holds one of the first PhDs ever awarded in artistic research. Maybe that makes him fearless.) But the guest editor is still in a tight spot, because gender balance cuts both ways and for some reason gender balance seems to be a concern here. It’s not my concern. I mean, how many magazines, anthologies, encyclopedias have there been without a single word written by a woman? So, why not an issue of Hjärnstorm without men? But instead of just telling her that I have nothing relevant to say about menstruation, as I bet the other male writers have done, I say: sure, why not? 

The next day I tell my wife that I agreed to write about menstruation for very little money. She has to laugh out loud, and I don’t think about the money. I leave the house for a walk. On Nytorget I bump into a friend coming out of Urban Deli. She just bought some luxury chocolate bar for 60 Crowns and when she unwraps it, it has that white, crystalline deposit all over it. I don’t know what it’s called. It’s like psoriasis for chocolate. She is really upset. I tell her about my writing gig to make her feel better. I don’t mention the fee, but she still laughs out loud. She is kind of a big-deal linguist at one of the universities. She researches gender and language, gender performativity and such things. She seems surprised that there is a new magazine on menstruation coming out. She says, she thought that that was all pretty much worked through by now. Cool. I am going use that line on my daughters when they reach puberty: “Hey! What are you so upset about? That’s all been figured out decades ago.” Anyhow, before the linguist heads back into Urban Deli to give them a ticking off about her expired chocolate bar, she asks me for my thoughts about menstruation. 

When I think about menstruation I think about a comfortably left-leaning couple at a party I went to recently in Midsommarkransen, who were making snarky comments about the fact that the liquids featured in commercials for tampons or sanitary pads are never red, but rather some sterile blue. Come on! Really? If you were the art director, would you use actual blood in your tampon commercial? No you wouldn’t. You’ve got merchandize to move and a job to lose. I don’t think blood sells, unless you’re advertising hamburgers or war. By and large people are squeamish when it comes to blood, perhaps especially squeamish when it comes to menstrual blood. Why would an adagency that’s selling people a product to maintain their phobic habits try to cure them at the same time? It’s their job to dig their fingernails into your weak spots and pry them open so they can shove products into them. If you don’t like that, you don’t like Capitalism. So, maybe start making snarky comments about that.

I think it’s amazing that the term “douche” (or “douche-bag”) has become such a broadly used pejorative for someone useless, boring, self-satisfied, usually a man. It doesn’t really carry an obvious, sexual connotation anymore and it is used by liberals, rather than by conservatives. John Stewart loves to say it on TV, because it doesn’t get bleeped. If the vaginal douche is used to sanitize and deodorize the vagina, I’ve got to wonder, could menstruation-suppressing drugs like “Seasonique” or “Librel” make equally good curse words? “Seasonique” might be better. It retains that phony tone of French refinement, which makes “douche” so ripe for ridicule. Try it! “Come on, don’t be such a Seasonique!” 

The Swedish railway services used to provide very nice and sturdy plastic bags for sanitary pads in their on-board bathrooms. They were light blue in color with some white and darker blues in it. Across the front they showed a realistic depiction of a massive monster-wave, a big-wave surfer’s dream, just at the moment of cresting. Across that image of awesome force it had in white, rather elegant letters the word “Madame.” There’s something about the French language. 

Is it just a coincidence that so many volcanoes have women’s names? Hekla, Katla, Etna, Mount St.Helens, Iztaccíhuatl or The Woman in White, Santa Ana, Santa Clara, Santa Isabel, and Kick’em Jenny (an actual volcano in the Caribbean). Or is it because a menstruating vulva looks like an upside down volcano? But then, if you think about it, nobody has ever seen an upside down volcano. 

My sister is about a year older than myself and she got her period early, while I was a late bloomer (whatever “bloomer” is supposed to euphemize when you’re talking body hair, sweat glands and vocal register). For some years we inhabited opposite ends of the universe. She had become an alien being, two heads taller than me with bushy, black hair in new places and a mystifying need for bathroom privacy. I remember that I wasn’t repulsed by her body, or by the smell of it, which had changed as well, but that I found her own discomfort with her body extremely hard to take. It wasn’t that her exploding sexuality seemed shameful to me, but that her shame was painful to witness. And at that age, when projecting a minimum of confidence was a question of social survival, requiring constant vigilance and shifting alliances, my sister’s pubescent gloominess and physical awkwardness were something to stay the hell away from. As if it was something I could catch and which would wipe out my precarious social standing[1]. In high school, dominated by the entitled offspring of successful lawyers, businessmen and tennis-playing doctors, small boys had to be ruthless not to be trampled on. 

Love is red, and so is Communism. They have each been described as all-consuming floods, tearing down order, mores and laws. During the Weimar Republic one of the literary images most commonly mobilized by nationalist writers to characterize the international Communist movement was that of rising, red floodwaters (“die Roten Fluten”). The Red Flood would dissolve in a bloody soup all that was solid, manly, civilized. Later, during the war, the same metaphor was applied to the Soviet Union’s Red Army.

Klaus Theweleit devoted some 75 pages of his analysis of the culture of White Terror in pre-war Germany[2] to documenting the collective literary construction of the image of the Red Flood. Through an impressive accumulation of historical sources he gives evidence of the systematic, rhetorical splicing of the notions of “woman”, “communism”, “fluids” (floods, streams, tidal waves) and “blood” (spilled in battle, birth and menstruation). When writers described the looming cataclysm of the Bolshevist revolution they also, implicitly, gave voice to their fear of an unfettered, female sexuality. In the right-wing imagination, the revolution was a violent, seductive woman. Theweleit elaborates the emotional amalgam of fear and attraction, disgust and desiring anticipation, proto-fascist writers displayed when they fantasized about the onslaught of the Red Flood. The powerful desire to disappear into that maelstrom of revolutionary upheaval (to unite with that murderous woman) was so laden with fear and shame that it required the construction of a formidable, male armor (i.e. military discipline, physical exercise, paramilitary corps etc.) as well as preemptive, murderous aggression against the threats of communism and female sexuality[3]. 

In 7th grade biology, we were told by a teacher, speaking to us through an empty toilet paper roll held in front of his mouth to better project his voice, that having pubic hair and underarm hair constituted an evolutionary advantage, because they trapped smells and pheromones which played an important role in attracting mating partners. For me this was difficult to hear, not acoustically difficult, he was good with the toilet paper roll, but emotionally, as I was still waiting for my pubic hair to come into its own. There is an entry in an old diary of mine from around that time which reads “some thicker black hairs, but mostly just thin blond.” 

In contemporary, industrialized societies, shaved genitals are so prevalent that pubic lice are becoming an endangered species[4]. If I were in 7th grade today, I would be psyched. I’d be parading my hairless Justin Bieber body around the locker room, pitying my more evolved classmates who would be covering their swarthy flesh in oversized towels, constantly waxing and epilating everywhere just to fit in. 

But seriously, what does it mean that we are giving up the competitive edge of our pungent bushes and armpits? Are we done with evolution and mating? Or has the olfactory completely lost out to the visual as an effective stimulus, so that it is no longer of any advantage to shower your love object in your personal perfumes? But even if the visual has indeed become the main mode of sexual attraction, it doesn’t really explain our changed attitude towards pubic hair. A completely shaved set of genitals is not a simple thing to behold. It’s ambiguous to say the least. If you’re high-minded and are willing to look past the razor bumps and rashes, you can perhaps think about smoothness, purity, idealized beauty. You may see the connection to the perfectly even, marble bodies of antique statuary, an ideal you would be sharing with neoclassicists and fascists alike. But you have to admit that shaved genitals also always look like kid-parts, like inflated, stubbly coochies and wee-wees. I think it’s worth asking how it can be that this seems to attract us so much more than the old-time pheromone cocktail. Or is it olfactory, sexual attraction itself, being lured in, fogged in by intimate gases, which doesn’t appeal to us anymore? But then again, maybe my biology teacher was just wrong and the smelly approach never worked.

One more thought: what does menstrual blood look like coming from a hairless, shiny vulva? The image of blood on childlike genitals brings up a set of disturbing associations. Is that why menstruation- suppressing drugs and douches have the markets they have, because menstrual blood doesn’t work with our new, infantilized sex organs? 

In that same biology class, through the same toilet paper roll, we were informed that intercourse leads to “a pleasant tingling sensation” and that women who get their period bleed for about seven days. (It’s amazing what a simple thing the human body was in the late 70’s: Human Sexuality, week 28. Week 29 through Week 35, the Fruit Fly). Kai Sturck, a boy from my neighborhood who later grew up to become a star-photographer for tabloids and yet later ran a successful law firm and then died of cancer in his forties, couldn’t control his alarm at that thought and burst out: “What do you mean, they have to sit on the toilet for seven days?[5]” I still wonder how his thinking went. He lived with his parents, two houses down from us. If his mother had spent a week per month on the toilet, he should have noticed that by then. So, he either assumed that his mother would just never do such a thing as menstruate, or maybe she was really gone for extended periods of time and he thought he finally understood where she was going and why. 

I once spent a weekend with a woman at a fancy spa-hotel on the coast of Maine. I fell in love then and I guess she did too. We became a couple and stayed together for some years. But when we first met and had sex at that hotel we didn’t really know much about each other. She had just gotten her period, full-force. For two days we would basically commute between the bed and a huge bubble-bathtub in the corner of the room to wash her blood off ourselves. There was a private patio outside the room. This was one of its selling points that you could take a hot tub in the room and then sit out on the patio and cool off in the fresh air and look out over some rugged landscape. We didn’t get to do that, because as soon as we sat outside there was this gang of raccoons that went totally crazy about the smell of her blood. They were like kids on a sugar rush. We could barely chase them off and they kept coming back. So in the end we had to stay inside with the doors and windows locked. Her grandfather had been an American pilot during the war, while my grandfather had been a more or less convinced Nazi officer on a small naval vessel in the North Sea. Sitting up to our bellies in red, bubbling water we tried to recall what we had been told about where our grandfathers had fought. At some point she laughed and said: “My grandfather bombed your grandfather.” And the raccoons were banging their heads against the glass door.[6] 

There’s a video being projected, onto the tiled wall of Taverna Brillo. I am looking at it over the shoulder of Macarena, the guest editor, who’s telling me that I probably have very interesting thoughts on menstruation. I recognize the video and get distracted. It has no apparent connection to the music or any other aspect of the event. It’s Jean Painlevé’s 1934 underwater film “The Seahorse,” which documents in stunning underwater sequences the conception, gestation and birth of seahorses; the seahorse being an unusual fish not just because of its shape and upright posture, but because its embryos are carried to maturity in the belly of the males, who eventually give birth to them under great pain.

I am not surprised that male writers aren’t lining up to write menstruation pieces. The topic is a tricky one. Any male writer risks to come across as either an ignorant douche or as an over-eager teachers’ pet, reading up extra thoroughly on menstruation just to end up mansplaining it later. He risks inadvertently offending women, and he risks the consequences thereof. But I wonder if those fears (which aren’t really that scary when you come to think of it) aren’t further buttressed by a more general fear of the phenomenon of menstruation itself. Either way, it’s safer to respectfully state that, as a male writer, one doesn’t have anything to say about this. But then, how could that be? Generally, male writers don’t have problems writing about issues they haven’t experienced first hand. They love writing about politics in faraway places, about all kinds of received ideas and about other peoples’ money, fame or fate. And think about this: without menstrual cycles there wouldn’t be any male writers. But apparently menstruation belongs to a different category of topics. The topics you don’t speak about if you haven’t experienced them yourself. Or, as the Swedish electro-band Chu Mulu puts it: 

Don’t joke about the holocaust, unless you’re Jewish 

Don’t joke about gangsters, unless you’re black 

Don’t joke about Aids unless you have it 

Don’t joke about Ebola, unless you’re dead 

Don’t joke about hamsters. Period. 

But then, what about women who don’t menstruate? Do they, by the same logic, feel they lack the entitlement to discuss menstruation? What about transgender men or women, who aren’t menstruating? Do they have nothing to say? 

The video program segueways into Painlevé’s hilarious “The Love Life of the Octopus,” from 1964, a grotesque, knotty entanglement of rubbery, unidentifiable parts; a silly, alien underwater orgy of a film, which I love. And I think to myself: Look, here’s Painlevé, an old, white, privileged, malegazer, a dead one, who nevertheless somehow through the use of esthetic tools, visual techniques and narrative makes immediately sensible to us some profoundly other types of bodies and sexualities. And that is something. Modest as it may seem, it is one of the few things that art can do. It can go beyond critiquing reality and reiterating subject positions to afford us a glimpse of a world profoundly reshuffled, where we are not just what we think we know we are, or what we are told we are supposed to be. A space where our cultures, our bodies, our politics become reorganized in new ways, assume shapes and form arrangements that we could not ever have predicted, where drawing a line between this and that, between right and wrong and putting a flag on it would be arbitrary, faith-based and… I don’t want to say fascist, so I say… criminally boring and bigoted and unnecessary and, most of all, fundamentally against life, which a great, bloody mess.

FOOTNOTES: 

1. Note that the text establishes an associative connection between menstruation and infectious disease. 

2. Klaus Theweleit, “Männerphantasien,“ Frankfurt/M, Volume 1, Frauen, Fluten, Körper, Geschichte (1978) pp. 235–310. 

3. Incidentally, the flood could also appear in the form of a volcanic eruption. And these tropes were not exclusively coined by the right, but employed by the left as well. See the lyrics to The International: “La raison tonne en son cratère, C’est l’éruption de la fin,” or in the Swedish version: “Det dånar ut i rättens krater, snart skall utbrottets timma slå!”. 

4. Attention has been called to this phenomenon by Swedish artist Frida Klingberg in her project Bevara Flatlusen/Save the Crab Louse (2013). 5. Note how, expressed through an innocent child, an association between menstruation and defecation is established. 

6. Note how this episode connects menstruation to animals and nature, but also how images of war and menstruation become linked in the bathtub motive.

 

Innehållsförteckning #120-121: Mens