Arena at Bauhaus Dessau Festival Stage Total: Performing institutional critique

A highlight of the Bauhaus Centenary celebrations has been the three festivals of experimental design, architecture and performance at the Bauhaus Dessau. With the opening of the Bauhaus Museum framing these events anew, the final festival Stage Total offered new ways to restore the Bauhaus legacy from rarefied objects to embodied forms, constructive methodologies, and also, of course, joyful play.

Drawing you in as you first enter the ground floor open space of the new Bauhaus Museum is Arena, Rita McBride’s modular public assembly. It will remain in place for one year, nurturing the Museum’s public engagement as it comes into its own as a brand new institution already carrying a weighty legacy.

The nine-level structure is at once a seating bank, a stage, a tribune, a senate, an amphitheatre, a playground and a performance space, ready to anticipate or respond to any situation. 

Already Arena has travelled the world for more than twenty years on a project of activation, working largely within institutions to perform the crucial role of institutional critique.

The structure has also performed – somewhat accidentally – the role of framing backdrop to Angela Merkel, broadcast internationally as part of the Museum’s opening formalities.

Speaking later with the artist, I learn that she’d never experienced Arena rendered as an object before – albeit, in this instance, the monumental object providing what history will record as the iconic moment when the German Chancellor marked the culmination of the Bauhaus Centenary commemoration.

During my week in Dessau I experienced Arena in various iterations, and each time I delighted in the way the structure surprised and engaged people.

I spent a good many hours watching people engage with the new building – the architect in me is nourished in this way! – and the tentativeness with which people approached Arena delighted me deeply. Was it really for me? Would it support my weight? How would the Twaron feel to my touch? How high can I really climb?

It took the Germans some coaxing not to treat Arena as something too austere to touch, climb, sit on and play with; their children, however, took to it with glee, readily climbing well above what the institution had judged to be a safe height.

A sensible gentleman had been employed specifically for that purpose, politely excusing himself to ask could people please step down to a lower level. The Bauhaus had undertaken its own specific risk and stress assessment on the structure to set their own safety parameters, as though after Arena’s 22 years of global public service the laws of physics might perhaps operate differently here.

By that point I’d already seen many people confused by access to the building. Designed as an open, transparent structure of clear glass with a suspended second storey, in realisation its mirrored exterior caused great confusion to visitors, whose clumsy attempts to find the door were rather amusing from the inside as I watched people offer helpful gestures in the right direction.

However, it was as a performance space that Arena most generously offered its potential.

The opening week’s program was curated by the artist as essential to the activation afforded by Arena, and I enjoyed these performances every day. On my last day in Dessau, I witnessed a beautiful moment of deep respect and admiration between performing artist and facilitating artist, as Harry Koushos approached McBride in deep gratitude immediately after his solo performance in Alexandra Waierstall’s Bodies and Structure

Koushos had just performed a spatial exploration – partly clothed, partly nude – of Arena and of the space it activated. There was a particular moment, as the artist removed his clothes, that I became aware of a group of teenage boys smirking to one another, approaching Arena with self-conscious detachment as Koushos wove his body among ours. They remained at the periphery and never climbed the tribune, and yet their bodies oriented to the performer’s – and to one another – with more and more sincerity as the work developed.

When, at the conclusion of the performance, Koushos returned for his accolades, he seized the moment to offer the boys a deep bow – and the crowd cheered. By that point, the postures of each of the boys’ bodies had been transformed by the performance in ways they likely hadn’t perceived. They weren’t merely engaged; they were enthralled.

Koushos later remarked how he’d drawn on our responses in guiding his performance, approaching people who were physically uncomfortable with nudity, and holding his body in place near theirs and with deep focus.

Arena held a range of performances curated and supported by McBride– iconic Bauhaus reinterpretations, talks, experiments – and each time, the structure was also performing something of its own.

The performance of institutional critique is constitutive to Arena. McBride’s practice has long been preoccupied with objects as  artefacts and determinants of public space. Arena sits elegantly, indeed majestically, in the space afforded it, offering the institution the opportunity to enhance its public programming. But what happens when a structure is both performance and audience? 

Frameworks that perform institutional critique are urgently needed today. What does it mean for an institution to engage a public? How can it ensure that that engagement is both genuine and generative, rather than merely coopting diverse publics for its own purposes? What is the institution’s purpose?

The Bauhaus Museum is a showcase of the key objects telling the story of the institution’s heyday, but it’s also an institution itself – an institution that’s yet to define its purpose and its potential.

Hopefully the Bauhaus will seize the opportunity to employ a museum director charged with the purpose to become a leader in institutional practice, elaborating the Bauhaus legacy as a set of methodologies for creating and engaging with new futures.

After all, the role of the cultural institution is critical in today’s post-mainstream, post-truth world. As public trust in democracy declines, governments take advantage of the cover offered by disengagement, and the public good suffers.

Public cultural institutions – galleries, museums, theatres, orchestras, ensembles – have a public responsibility to consider the impact of their programming, partnership and audience development choices. Because each of these, in engaging and indeed creating publics, has a cultural impact. Does the institution wish to replicate an inherited canon, rendering the political dimensions of its program inert? Or does the institution wish instead to be a leader in delineating new parameters for cultural engagement, centring the voices that are engaging honestly and authentically with the futures we need to build together?

In the era of Indigenisation, climate emergency and gender equality, no institution can avoid these questions. Especially the publicly-funded institution, which owes the taxpayer the responsibility to advance the public good on their behalf.

McBride has been asking these question for decades – and she’s seen a lot. Now it’s our turn.

What kind of public would you like to see create our future?

 

 

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HEADER IMAGE: Determining today’s use of Arena on the Bauhaus Museum’s first morning of operations. SLIDESHOW: Stage Total highlights. All photographs by Esther Anatolitis.