Fast entering year three, the pandemic continues to forcibly synchronize the world. Lockdowns, limited mobility, restricted gathering, and closed borders repeatedly follow the emergence of an unidentified variant. Nation-states compete over newly developed vaccines, their supply and distribution speed. Economic disparities and inequality are further compounded. We waver between hope and anxiety, muddled in confusion. Submerging the entire world, the pandemic’s endless waves are akin to an omnipotent choreographer with the power to instantly overwrite our behaviors and gestures.
The pandemic’s synchronization also narrows societal control measures from the macro to the micro. To render the management of an invisible virus visible, systems of control are placed at every imaginable border. They are deftly automated and instantaneously uploaded to the cloud. At hospitals, theaters, and airports, we unconditionally relinquish our biomedical information just to receive basic human rights. Upon returning to Japan, we enter a quarantine where a GPS constantly tracks our location, and AI video calls capture our facial recognition data in silence. There is no choice but to consent.
What’s more horrifying is that amid a situation we might dub coronavirus totalitarianism, the narratives of “preventing the spread” and “fighting COVID-19” have unknowingly synchronized, overwritten, and auto-updated our minds. Even if we feel at odds with this state, we cannot opt-out of the operating system that manages us. The system meticulously controls the bodies of humans and animals in the name of virus containment; it is now nearly impossible for us to break free. Before we realize it, we will all be manipulated by this system, made complicit in its management of other people’s bodies, upholding its totalitarianism.
Forced synchronization consolidates our voices and stories into a single narrative –– how do we will them back to their original states? What could a conscious unsynchronized gesture to unfurl the fissures in this tyranny look like? How can the arts care for bodies –– damaged, worn, and broken through forced time –– in radical ways? Beginning with these questions, Theater Commons Tokyo ’22 attempts to use the various unsynchronized voices created by these artists and their works to escape the pandemic’s synchronization –– to face these endlessly challenging times.
Unsynchronized dramaturgies that elude forced synchronicity
Monira Al Qadiri and Raed Yassin, both Berlin-based and from the Middle East, embody the sensation of waiting in an endless limbo through a theatrical installation that serves as an uncanny robot-puppet-theater. Three robots, modeled off the two artists and their pet cat, fragmentally and poetically narrate states of derangement from the long quarantine periods. How will this suspended delirium unsettle us as we continue to remain at the mercy of the pandemic? Kyun-Chome continues to engage in “actions” that deepen questions around gender, countering grand narratives of “the end of the world” written by men with The Apocalypse of Women, which assembles narratives of women forced to survive both in and out of a pandemic. Their stories will invade the audience’s bodies in unexpected ways, likely remaining dormant inside us for some time to come. Continuing from Theater Commons Tokyo ’21, Tomoko Sato confronts Tokyo’s Minato ward, an excessive and elusive metropolitan space. In a fictional story/lecture performance using her body and voice, she intersects Taro Okamoto’s 1957 urban treatise Ghost Tokyo with the perspective of the crows that adorn Tokyo’s sky.
Madama Butterfly, Satoko Ichihara’s first international project, began as a reading performance for Theater Commons Tokyo ’20. The piece was then staged and co-produced by Theater Neumarkt in Zurich, Switzerland, but was canceled due to the rapid spread of the omicron variant. However, TCT will present a last-minute staging of The Question of Faeries (Deluxe Edition), a play produced and shown at ROHM Theater Kyoto, who also co-sponsored Madama Butterfly. A seminal work of her 20s, this powerful piece of music theater positions discrimination and prejudice, the root of eugenics and lookism, as latent struggles in each of us. It attempts to overcome them by affirming all forms of life. Ichihara’s writing destroys the anthropocentric perspective by giving voice to beings such as cockroaches and bacteria in an explicit and realistic manner. How will the voices of the new performers bring her text to light?
As these artists survive the in-between time of the pandemic, the words they paint disrupt simple binaries such as man and woman, human and animal, artificial and natural, inside and outside, justice and evil; they throw a wrench into narratives and histories compiled from an anthropocentric view. Through our Commons Forum, we hope to engage in cross-disciplinary discussions on how to create unsynchronized dramaturgies to defend against coronavirus totalitarianism and its systematic annihilation of all differences and individualities.
Additionally, TCT ’22 launches two mid-length research projects. Boogaerdt/VanderSchoot, based in Holland and known for their interdisciplinary creations, will develop a large-scale research project on “incubation,” found in feminist reinterpretations of healing practices past and present, east and west, from ancient civilizations to contemporary TikTok youth culture. Through dialogues and discussions with Japan and other parts of Asia, the work will present possibilities for ritualistic healing theater in the pandemic era. Taiwanese artist Hsu Che-Yu represents the upcoming generation with his pioneering videos that utilize multimedia technology. His research will focus on his artwork’s motifs, including the relationship between humans and animals and the relationship between media and memory, both individual and collective. Through the history of modernity and colonialism, which included the domestication of people and animals, we begin a journey towards creation that eschews anthropocentrism. Each of these projects aims to present at Theater der Welt 2023 (scheduled to be held from the end of June to mid-July 2023 in Frankfurt and Offenbach, Germany) –– where I have been appointed as Program Director –– building on questions from TCT ’21 “Bodies in Incubation” and brewing artistic answers within the pandemic era.
This year, we will also co-develop a workshop to create “nameless games” with Reframe Lab, a platform that brings together art, education, medical care, and social welfare. The workshop brings out the power of body-transforming narratives and the joy of sharing them in structured games to help us learn how to accept each other’s inner abstract worlds. This process offers a form of play utilizing metamorphosis –– one of theater’s primordial forms of wisdom –– and encompasses great potential to further develop into a theater commons, a shared understanding.
Amid “Wait Time”
The coronavirus crisis has gone on for more than two years. We find that time, once thought to progress linearly from past to future, has formed a circle, repeatedly returning to its starting point. For over two years, we have been continually postponed, living in suspended time as we wait, unable to realize our goals in a future deferred. As I write this text between the end of 2021 and the beginning of 2022, Japan has, once again, banned foreign entries. Travel between Japan and abroad, which had momentarily resumed, has reverted to its state at the beginning of the pandemic due to the spread of the omicron variant. As a result, in early December, we were forced to hastily cancel our plans to invite Madama Butterfly, co-produced by Satoko Ichihara (Q) and Theater Neumarkt, and I am 60 by Chinese choreographer Wen Hui. We had also planned to fly out Boogaerdt/VanderSchoot and Hsu Che-Yu, but instead, we had to move everything online, including their research processes. Unless I make sure to write them down here, our attempted plans will disappear as things that never happened; for now, we can only accept the fact that attempts like ours will continue to accumulate.
Are we still stuck in a “wait time” loop? Or was time in fact cyclical to begin with? Our understanding blurs as the clock continues to chime at the wrong hour, forcing the whole world to synchronize. All we can do now is explore strategies to evade and survive its coerciveness through theatrical knowledge and ideas. TCT is a temporary commons site in Tokyo for engaging in art practices to help us overcome this trying era. As with the past two years, we will host the festival during the pandemic –– we hope you will join us in whichever way possible, in body or online.
Before establishing Arts Commons Tokyo in 2014, Soma was the inaugural Program Director of Festival/Tokyo, where she served from spring 2009 to 2013. She has produced or curated global projects that transect categories of theater, contemporary art, and community-engaged art. She was the recipient of the Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from France’s Minister of Culture in 2015. Since 2017, she has served as the Chairperson of the Theater Commons Tokyo Executive Committee, as well as its Director. She was the Curator for the Aichi Triennale 2019. She is the recipient of Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs’ 71st Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science & Technology’s Art Encouragement Prize in 2021. Since 2021, she has been the General Producer of Toyooka Theater Festival 2021, and the Curator of Aichi Triennale 2022. She was appointed as the Program Director of Theater der Welt 2023 in Germany.