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  • Performing the Precarious. Economic Crisis in European and Japanese Theatre (René Pollesch, Toshiki Okada)
  • Prof. Dr. Katharina Pewny (bio)

In the last decade, the “precarious” – meaning the uncertain, unstable – was conceived as a theoretical concept in philosophy, sociology, and art theory. The changing working conditions in the New Economy, the worldwide economic crash in the autumn of 2008 and the increasing poverty are frequently staged in contemporary theatre, performance, and dance. Texts and stagings of Berlin-based author and director René Pollesch and Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner and the Farewell Speech (2009) by Tokyo-based author and director Toshiki Okada are performances of the precarious that stabilize the unstable ground of precariousness, at least temporarily.

1. Academic and Activist Discourses on the Precarious

The word “precarious” can be traced back to the French adjective précaire, which in turn originates from the Latin word precarius, meaning “sensitive, difficult” (Pewny 2009:30–47[? 2011? ein 2009 ist nicht angegeben, DF). In 2004, Judith Butler launched an influential discourse on vulnerability as a human ontology of precariousness (Butler 2004). Her thoughts have been referenced in theatre and dance studies and in performances that deal with war and other traumatic events (Burt 2008). The term “precarious”, as it has been developed in activist and sociological discourses, includes several aspects. It embraces human vulnerability arising from unsecured, precarious working conditions within current economic developments, as well as bodily vulnerability. A person living under precarious conditions is subjected to changes within her working and living conditions that she does not have power over.

Despite all their political, social, and economic differences, the “multiple loci of Europe” (Chakrabarty 2000:17) provide comparatively wealthy and secure contexts of living—at least for those who hold a European passport. However, the economic shift from Fordism to post-Fordism from the 1970 s onwards set a destabilization of living and working conditions in motion. An increasing number of people, also from what was formerly known as the “middle class”, conduct free-lance work and therefore live under precarious conditions (Bologna 2006:97–106). Precarious working and living conditions can mean discontinuities of income, of social security, of legal status, and thus of planning one’s life and future. Unstable working situations, such as part-time employment and free-lance work, are thus being called “precarious” work. For the most part, precarious work is not backed by institutional resources and power mechanisms and it also lacks institutional rites de passages such as celebrations for starting a new job, work anniversaries, and retirement. Changes in precarious working situations have to be experienced and lived through individually rather than collectively.

Precarity is a new norm that has moved from the peripheries of (European) societies to their centres. Many temporary work situations demand skills traditionally important for work in the arts, such as creativity, [End Page 43] excellent self-performativity and flexibility. This is an aspect of the dialectic entanglement that art and work have been engaged in since the early 1990 s: aspects of free time and “play” increasingly enter the working environment of the New Economy (Haunschild 2009:153). The theatre, in particular, has become paradigmatic for precarious working and living conditions. Because “play” differentiates the performing arts from other art forms, “the connection of play and work in the theatre serves as an exemplary standard” (ibid. 154). Simultaneously, there are increasing demands on those working in the arts and especially theatre to conform to the laws of the market. Therefore, the work of theatre makers and performers serves as a model of precarious working life, not only for other freelance academics, cultural workers, and artists in the New Economy, but also far beyond that. Consequently, people living under precarious conditions have started to discuss their living and working situations in publications, in visual media, on the Internet, and at public gatherings.

The French writers Anne and Marine Rambach’s book Les Intellos précaires initiated debates on precariousness in 2001 (Rambach 2001). They spread rapidly from France to other Midand Western European countries such as Germany, Spain, and Italy. In 2003, the German-Swiss theorist and artist collective Kleines postfordistisches Drama released the video Kamera läuft (Camera rolling, in...


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