Via Intolleranza II – Christoph Schlingensief’s last play

Christoph Schlingensief’s last play (which premiered in Brussels in May 2010) was invited to the Berliner Festspiele Theater Treffen festival this year. Schlingensief, famous for his provocative, politically-activist performances, films, theatre productions, documentaries, installations and happenings, passed away in August 2010 after battling lung cancer for two years. During those last two years, Schlingensief was extremely active producing self-reflective plays, publishing a book, and building an opera village project in Africa.

The opera village project in Burkina Faso, entitled Remdoogo, is a global arts project that brings different worlds together and removes the dividing line between art and life. Work started in January 2010 to create the opera village on around 14 hectares of land close to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, comprising schools, film and music classrooms, rehearsal rooms, a hotel, a stage, a hall, a café, a restaurant, offices, workshops, housing, a football pitch, agricultural land and an infirmary.

Via Intolleranza II is inspired by Luigi Nono’s Intolleranza 1960, which premiered at the 1961 Venice Biennale, and is a key work in 20th century European opera and a political statement against racism, intolerance and state power. Nono wanted to create socially engaged music that is not limited to aesthetic-artistic forms, but has a direct impact on the audience. He called his opera “scenic action”, where seeing is just as important as hearing.

Schlingensief’s play analysis precisely what happens to Nono’s work when it is shifted to an African context. His interest lies not in using European culture to teach Africa, but rather in asking relevant questions: why do we always want to help the African continent while being unable for quite a while now to help ourselves, and do things like intolerance and indifference to ourselves lie at the heart of this constantly inappropriate behaviour? Is it even possible to help without manipulating?

Schlingensief always focused on social conflicts in his work. With racist jokes (which the Berlin audience found amusing), multi-media information overload (with screen projections of text and video footage, computer sounds, live and recorded music and performances, multiple languages and subtitles), the avant-garde play is often hard to watch and bombards us with sensory stimuli, amidst difficult questions of cultural differences.

In the final projected video footage, Schlingensief addresses the audience personally, in a climactic call-out to the “Gesellschaft der Selbstbeschädigten” (society of self-damaged), asking how can a broken, sick person do anything to help others? We see footage from Schlingensief’s trip to Africa and his work in Burkina Faso. His final words leave us in a state of self-reflexivity: “All the images we know of Africa have been produced my while people. Stay away from Africa!” (“Bleibt da weg!”)

In an interview mit Katrin Bauerfeind shortly before his death, in a discussion about life, cancer, fear, art, work, and love, Christoph Schlingensief was asked what he finds positive in fear. He replied: “Fear asks us to examine who we are. That’s why I think it’s a productive force because it forces us towards reactions that are foreign to us. It asks the essential question: what are you afraid of now? If you knew yourself, you wouldn’t be afraid.”

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