Political Unconscious Theatre - developed over 24 hours at the Unlocking Ideas Hackathon
Background and Research: Our ‘hack’ is directly inspired by agitprop and the posters and pamphlets of leftist theatre groups in the People’s History Museum and Working Class Movement Library archives, including the concept of ‘Living Newspapers’. Agitprop is a form of theatre whereby political ideas are played out, often using crude oversized props, with a specific message to be gleaned by the audience, and ‘Living Newspapers’ are a development of this, using relevant news stories of the day to urge social action through theatre. the term ‘agitprop’ was coined in Russia in the 1920s and the form spread in Worker’s Theatre groups through Europe, with ‘The Red Megaphones’ forming in Manchester and Salford in the 1930s. We have also drawn from the work of ‘Magician for Socialism’ Ian Saville, who explains and expounds socialist theory through storytelling and magic, with scripts and diagrams published online for anyone to use, as well as Noah Wardrip-Frain’s work around the value of storytelling in games, and how ideas can be expressed through play.
We reflected on the ways that the mainstream media fails to accurately and fairly report on politics and protest, and the ways that online ‘clicktivism’ fails to fully engage people with, or give them an understanding of the struggles that they are trying to support or lend solidarity to. However, that’s not to suppose that the general public are uninterested or don’t have opinions, even when voter turn-out is drastically low, and traditional forms of protest, like marches, are ignored.
One method of everyday engagement with politics and social problems that many people take part in is ‘commenting’, whether at the end of articles or on forums, offering a gargantuan archive of responses to current events. We have focussed on this rather than eg.twitter because these comments can be longer and are often considered and impassioned, as well as being specific to where they are made, and are also often anonymous - or at least not attached to a profile or identity the way twitter and facebook comments would be. This anonymity also means that the ‘comments’ which are found ‘below the line’ on Magazines’ and Newspapers’ websites are often taken as an opportunity to ‘say the unsayable’, that is, to put across extreme or ‘unacceptable’ views that are actually held by many, but remain unacknowledged and therefore unchallenged.
We also wanted to question our, and wider society’s conception of ‘making sense’, which it has been argued amounts to infantilisation, in that advertisers and city planners appeal to our most fearful and backward-looking impulses in order to convince us to buy things, or to behave desirably in public, all wrapped up as ‘common sense’ and the right kind of lifestyle. In order to break free of this kind of sense, and to delve ‘below the line’ into the chaotic and often unpleasant sea of online comment, we have used surrealist games and techniques originally designed to draw out unconscious desires and the uncanny, basing our ‘hack’ on the game ‘Exquisite Corpse’, whereby an absurd, funny and usually ugly picture is created collaboratively and anonymously. In line with this, we were also inspired by Herman Hesse’s ‘Steppenwolf’, a book in which the main character struggles to reconcile his desire for freedom, with his inability to detach himself from bourgeois comforts, eventually arriving at a ‘Magic Theatre’ where he discovers a treatise that seems to be about himself, and explains his difficulties.
How it works: Political Unconscious Theatre scans through the comments on articles, picking out one-sentence-long phrases depending on filters that the user can input, generating infinite short political play scripts on any topic which can then be edited and performed. For this example the comments have been selected based on the use of ubiquitous punctuation such as exclamation marks, questions marks and three full stops, as these are used regardless of the writer’s spelling or grammar ability. If desired a scene can also be set using descriptions taken from either gardening or urban exploration forums. The resulting play works to draw out an underlying political unconscious, historicizing the now and countering the notion of post-politics and post-history, by forcing the viewer and performer to inhabit and reflect upon voices from the mass of opinion to be found online. We chose to use an article about fracking law, and one from a regular beauty column as our source material, juxtaposing environmental anxiety and cynical eye-rolling with advice on long-term birth control and choosing wedding makeup, which may at first seem pointless, but in the performing construes ideas around identity, environment and the uncertainty in our futures.
“FREEDOMBELL: Sorry, that scares me.
BTW, do you have a photo of his damaged home. Or is that too "science"?
JamTartDissident: Maybe this is too late to add, but I have a Implanon implant which I'm thinking of having taken out
FREEDOMBELL: So a call to violence then?
JamTartDissident: Longevity. Choose a look that doesn't date (red lips is a good one, so it a soft, smoky eye - though not together) because you'll be looking at albums for the rest of your life and probably won't want your wedding look to be defined by the fact you were into coral for three months ten years ago.”