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  • Low-End Resilience Theory
  • Johannes Birringer (bio)

After Hurricane Harvey had struck Houston a couple of years ago, homes were partly destroyed, neighborhoods damaged and livelihoods affected, the edifices of the theatre district flooded, and for some time, performance operations had to be outsourced. When I returned there in December 2017, the Houston Grand Opera stage crew had just completed building two mobile sets for their repertoire, to be rolled out into the temporary "Resilience Theatre" constructed at Brown Convention Center, a vast Pompidou-like structure commonly used for commercial expositions. The story of the resilient theatre resonated around this city, as a number of arts organizations and cultural venues opened their doors to give refuge to others more afflicted by the natural disaster.

But when the roof leaks, disenchantment sets in. Many damaged homes, just as in New Orleans after Katrina, have not been repaired. So here comes my lowend theory on sanctuaries and resilience, driven by an urge to understand where performance as art and survival kit has drifted during turbulence. Sharing a few observations about the impact of migration and the refugee crisis in Europe, I point also to an absurdist political climate that may not have fully subsumed or choked the arts and performance disciplines. But sanctuaries are scarce, and the ground everywhere I walk seems to be treacherous, as if moving on thin ice. I had already left London, before the Brexit drama went into further convulsions in March 2019, staging a parliamentary crisis of unprecedented, ugly dimensions, at least as long as I can remember England as a safe, relatively sane democratic haven, never mind its forever unresolved class (or racial) divisions and resentments.

One must mind them though. All lives matter, and class resentment (just observe the gilet jaunes in France, the AfD and Neo-Nazis in Germany, the Anders Breivik admirers, the nationalist-populist movements in Eastern Europe or, actually, across all of Europe) is deeply entangled in the racialized religious or secular dark ecology: our era of denials. John Akomfrah, British artist and founding member of the influential Black Audio Film Collective (1982–1998), put his finger into the wound, with film installations such as The Unfinished Conversation (drawing on diaries of the cultural theorist Stuart Hall to explore issues of [End Page 28] race and ethnicity), Vertigo Sea (about the experience of migrants in the UK, the trans-Atlantic trade and the beginnings of globalization) or his recent six-channel video Purple (2017) at the Barbican Centre. Purple resonated deeply with me due to its enthralling visual and sonic impact, as I watched young and old people, with their backs to us, gazing at landscapes, stretching from the equator to the polar regions, shots of migrating flamingoes and eerie ocean shores dotted with human detritus intermixed with archive material—documentary footage of belching chemical factories, steel workers pouring molten iron or farmers spraying crops. The montage of nature/culture is shocking and heart-rending; we see places that European industrial empires exploited for centuries and the richest nations on earth can ignore. They are also the very places already feeling the deeper effects of climate change.


On the continent, the European attachment to Schengen was surely an economic one, but also a welcome hallucination, a sweet romance of freedom to move across, carved out after two devastating world wars and a bitter ideological divide of cold war conflict, which after the disappearing Wall seemed laid to rest. The former East meeting the former West. It's hard to believe the Wall fell thirty years ago, and that the Soviet bloc vanished. The EastWest is now united by what Slovene philosopher Marina Gržinić scathingly describes as the new necropolitics, a redlining of the expendables, those with bare lives. Recent migration in Europe has led to a crisis about determent politics, disembarkation and management strategies: how to receive both economic migrants and asylum seekers who flee war and human rights abuses (Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan are the top three countries of origin for asylum seekers in the EU), how to "process" them, how to deal with the social fallout, the increasingly contentious debates on cultural integration, national identity, and...


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pp. 28-43
Launched on MUSE
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