Some thoughts on Heiner Goebbels’s Everything that happened and would happen, which I saw in Manchester back in October. The piece was co-commissioned by 14–18 NOW and Artangel, as well as New York’s Park Avenue Armory and the Ruhrtriennale, and the performance was co-presented by Artangel and the Manchester International Festival, in the colossal space of the former Mayfield station. The circumstances of the 14–18 NOW commission proved crucial to my experience of the performance, which explored the collective forging of historical narratives. In the run-up to the annual Armistice Day festivities — which has become without doubt the UK’s ‘livest’, most ritually fecund holy day — Goebbels’s piece felt like a soothing intervention and a reminder of Germany’s refreshingly nuanced approach to the discourse of memorialisation.
The erection of monuments is one of the closest things that Western cultures still have to real, old-fashioned magic. A mysterious object is sculpted with a form that is purposefully arcane or sublime, designed to bring the physical and spiritual realms into close proximity and to mediate in communion with the dead. This object is then invested with power through a ritual, often calling upon the spiritual authority of some religious leader. As a result of this, it is loaded with powerful taboos. It becomes immortal/indestructible: even when society sees it as a negative symbol, it still demands preservation. It has the power to cause real and disproportionate harm to those who treat it with anything less than the utmost respect. It commands fanatical devotion and can summon groups of devotees to do its bidding. The power of the monument transcends time itself: it can rewrite the past and shape the future. Monuments remind us of the enduring magical force that ‘iconic’ or ‘auratic’ sculptural forms and ritual performance can still possess, even in our ‘secular’ society. Monuments constitute many of our most sacred sites, giving evidence that our state religion is really a rather rudimentary form of ancestor worship.
Everything that happened and would happened is ‘monumental’ in an obvious way, in terms of its sheer scale: the extraordinary height, depth and length of the work. Yet, for me, the figure of the monument also provides the most immediately rewarding route into this non-linear and somewhat elusive show. Indeed, it actively invites this interpretative approach, by discussing (in one of its early text-based sections) the circumstances surrounding the planning and construction of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. “The best possible monument would express the inexpressibility of the Holocaust”: Everything that happened… appears to attempt just such a venture: not so much an expression of the inexpressible (i.e., ‘getting at’ the Holocaust via a self-consciously circuitous route), but rather an expression of inexpressibility itself.
The mode of the performance is one of ‘show and tell’, with all the earnestness and arbitrariness of the primary-school classroom. As the audience arrive, a team of boiler-suited performers (actors? stagehands?) are engaged in filling the cavernous space with huge pieces of set, flats, oversized props, laid out in rows or in plots, with no evident guiding logic: a vast unruly garden of unparsable signs and symbols. The audience might assume they are watching the mapping out of a sceneographic landscape, excessively rich in detail — the ‘Everything’ of the title — through which we will be guided over the course of the performance, gradually spinning out an Adam Curtis-style narrative thread that will show us a clear path through the chaos. But this is not to be. Almost immediately, a projection screen descends far downstage, and when it lifts again, the space is completely bare.
The clearing of the space initiates a pattern of alternating ‘showing’ and ‘telling’ sections, which continues with audacious regularity throughout the piece. The showing sections constitute a series of sceneographic ‘numbers’: a kind of choreographic set construction, which takes the dramaturgical form of group tasks. These dovetail with text-based sections, read out in different languages by performers roaming through the temporary set, or else directly projected onto the scenery, before or as it is deconstructed. These sections register as disparate fragments of a larger meta-historical text — a report on the reporting of history — which moves further and further away from a single historical narrative to bring into focus the cacophony of voices competing for the authority to tell that narrative.
In retrospect, the initial emptying of the performance area could be seen as a ‘clearing out’ of historical ‘clutter’ to make a space in which to stage a clear, unified narrative. Mayfield became a kind of massive vitrine, in which artefacts can be taken out one-by-one, ‘held up to the light’, and presented to the audience outside of their original context. Such spaces — like the pages of the textbook or a wing of a museum — must be produced and maintained by force; the relics and debris of history are always threatening to collapse back in. Indeed, after several hours, the props and set begin to reaccumulate, overtaking the space once more: the rewilding of history. The final image is of a landscape just as chaotic as that of the opening, resembling a steaming jungle or the aftermath of a terrible conflict.
The sheer weight of this endeavour — the curation and reconstruction of historical debris — is apparent throughout the show, and seems to have determined the number of performers required. These performers are never really differentiated or assigned character types; although we hear various voices speaking various languages at various times in the piece, we aren’t able to link these to particular faces or bodies, which remain only dimly discernible in the vastness of the space. This can be frustrating. Indeed, one of my favourite moments in the show involved the whole troupe riding a wheeled flight case around the space like a bobsleigh, coming near enough to the audience to give us a tantalising glimpse of the performers’ faces before spinning around and sailing back into the gloom.
This isn’t to say that the performers are de-individualised or homogenised. They remain a team of individuals collaborating on tasks, rather than a chorus or collective entity, and their indistinct but very evident diversity (of race, gender, nationality, size, age) adds to the overall excess of meaning and detail with which the piece confronts its audience. Similarly, distinct group identities are central to the text of the piece, which presents its wry meta-narrative through the frame of collective speech: ‘contemporary historians said…’, ‘postcolonial theorists said…’, ‘communists said…’, ‘feminists said…’, ‘the French said…’, etc. Thus, the performance foregrounds the dialectic between the monolithic and the multitudinous: the necessary singularity and universality that gives the historical discourse its real-world authority, and the unmanageable plurality that it contains.
The group tasks that constitute the action of Everything that happened… involve the handling of massive pieces of scenery. To an extent, the nature of these tasks are determined by the nature of the objects and materials themselves, oversized and cumbersome, which have to be ‘grappled with’, ‘wielded’ or otherwise ‘managed’. However, these sections also invariably fail as the staging of ‘tasks’, since any ultimate aim or purpose refuses to materialise. Rather than working towards the completion of an image or pattern, the group’s actions are drawn out or repeated until they take on the arbitrariness of ritual action. The performers move with a purposeless purposefulness: they are transformed from technical crew to dance company.
To add to this process of ‘abstraction’, each choreographic episode is enclosed within its own space-time. Spectacular lighting transfigures and animates the architecture, ensuring that each new sequence of stage images occupies the full volume of the space. Meanwhile, self-enclosed pockets of time are produced by four musicians positioned on the corners of the playing space, equipped with large arsenals of noise-making devices. They are not an ensemble per se, but the custodians and consecrators of the stage, weaving together the sheets, blankets or briars of noise (twisted through with free-jazz filigree) that seal off each ritual space-time container.
The reframing of these group tasks as non-functional, ritual performance within sealed-off ‘vitrines’ of heightened/transfigured time and space has the effect of transforming Mayfield into a monumental construction site: a construction site of monuments. Iconic sculptural forms of sublime scale are manufactured through ritual action, woven through with epic narratives. Some of these monuments resemble the massive concrete edifices, bronze profiles and fields of stone that constitute our visual language of collective memory, while others are more organic and mobile, like parades or vigils. Yet these monuments are all temporary, ephemeral; the various processes involved in the production of such magical edifices are separated out and given a certain autonomy. They interweave in a haphazard way, challenging us to perceive the monumental in the ephemeral, the aleatory and the meaningless.
However, despite the piece’s interest in the contingency of meaning (and the references in the programme notes to Cage’s Europeras), it would be wrong to view it as a sequence of spectacular Rorschach blots. Instead, it seems to be saying something quite specific. While the publicity materials claimed that Everything that happened… would attempt to ‘tell the story of Europe since World War I’, the piece is far more concerned with historiography than history: the act of showing and telling, as opposed to what is being shown or told. It makes the argument that, while the physical form of a monument may be detachable from the specific meaning or memories contained within it — and thus, while a monument’s magical powers can be wielded by different groups at different times for different purposes — the magic itself is real. This magic can be instilled through the repeated incantations of a particular collectivity, if they are able to adopt (or ventriloquize) the singular, resonant voice of history.
Monuments speak first of their efficacy — their magical force — and only second of what they can do or who they remember. This is equally true of the stage as a cultural site: onstage events attest first to their own efficacy. Only by believing in this efficacy can an audience be expected to seek actively (and thus recognise) the ‘effects’ of a performance. Hence, the authority conferred on Everything that happened and would happen through its 14–18 NOW commission is significant. It is an official part of a commemoration programme funded by the state, which is the official (if not the actual) repository of the authority by which monuments and memorials maintain their sacredness. While Goebbels’s work successfully pushes back against this authority (helped, certainly, by his nationality, which renders him somewhat immune from initiation in the British remembrance cult), we only have to look at the fervour whipped up by another of the 14–18 NOW commissions — Paul Cummins and Tom Piper’s Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red: the ceramic poppies in the moat of the Tower of London (and the website that represents its permanent form) — to see the frightening endurance of this authority.