- Avant-Garde Performance and Material Exchange: Vectors of the Radical ed. by Mike Sell
It may seem odd that editor Mike Sell concludes this collection of essays by calling it a “mess,” but he does so with the explicit understanding that a mess can provoke critical perspective and innovative thinking (218). The particular house that Sell intends to clean through the introduction of a little messiness is the received notion of the avant-garde as a monolithic and linear historical category. On one level, as some of the essays here demonstrate, this is simply a superficial and inaccurate reading of the historical record; but the real rub is political, and if there is a specter haunting this book, it is capitalism and its proven ability to turn avant-gardes into commodity fetishes. Sell’s agenda, then, is twofold: to complicate the historical narrative of the avant-garde, and, more importantly, to promote a theory of the avant-garde as transnational and geopolitically mobile while at the same time local and situated. The latter of these conditions—that avant-gardes engage local situations—is a matter of realpolitik and follows Sell’s definition of the avant-garde as challenging the power of existing political or cultural institutions in “subversive, illegal, or alternative ways” (5; emphasis in original). From this comes the book’s focus, as the title indicates, on performance that entails “material exchange.” In fact, for Sell, performativity writ large in the context of the avant-garde is inextricably bound up with the politics of material inequality. To enact a meaningful challenge to structures of power requires both presence and agency, for, to paraphrase Sell, rebelliousness must be enacted, authority announced, and solidarity with the masses demonstrated. In short, “[t]o be avant-garde is to perform” (6; emphasis in original). And to enact theatrical performance without marshaling the critical, material performativity described above is to cease to be avant-garde.
There are nine essays in all, evenly distributed between three sections: “Intersections,” “Translations,” and “Divergences.” The essays are generally informative and interesting, and although they span a gamut of topics and approaches, they each manage to find an identifiable niche in a very broad subject. The majority are historiographic, and two in particular challenge long-held narratives about seminal avant-garde or modernist figures. Patricia Gaborik and Andrea Harris are exemplary in this regard, making a compelling case that George Balanchine’s uniquely “American” ballet had some of its aesthetic roots in Italian Futurism. Equally important is Cindy Rosenthal’s essay on the Living Theatre’s 1970 sojourn in Brazil, undertaken in an attempt to break free from the “trap” of bourgeois theatre (60). Rosenthal’s recounting of the guerilla theatre they made there, as well as their subsequent arrest and imprisonment, is useful as it stands, but more compelling is her documentation of Judith Malina’s attempt to ameliorate the conditions of jailed Brazilian collaborators through the publication of her prison diary, a semi-fictionalized “performance” that ultimately proved a tragic failure.
A transnational trajectory is also central to Siyuan Liu’s treatment of the 1907 play On the Eve by Polish playwright Leopold Kampf. The historical importance of this anarchist melodrama is made abundantly clear as Liu charts its path from Berlin to New York to Paris and finally to China, where it became a “harbinger of theatrical and political revolution” (86). Similarly, Praise Zenenga examines the importation of Western avant-garde forms into the political theatre of Zimbabwe, paying particular attention to how these forms were made palatable to local communities by hybridizing them with indigenous performance traditions.
Two essays focus on more recent avant-garde performance. Laura Edmondson offers a firsthand account of her “theatre activism” in Uganda and Rwanda, which in retrospect she characterizes as “failed” because of its indulgence in a “compassionate colonialism” that, however well-intentioned, reinscribed traditional hegemonies (43). Although she almost derails the essay with an overabundance of theoretical speculation, she nicely distills a set of ethical principles intended to guide activist...