The performance/installation draws inspiration from the 1904 poem “Waiting for the Barbarians” by the Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy.
„What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
The barbarians are due here today.
Why isn’t anything going on in the Senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?
Because the barbarians are coming today.
What’s the point of senators making laws now?
Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating…“
All day, anticipation and anxiety build as the locals wait for the barbarians, who are coming to take over the city. The emperor in his crown, the consuls in their scarlet togas, the silent senate, and the voiceless orators wait with the assembled masses to accept their arrival. And then, as evening falls, and they do not appear what is left is only disappointment. We never see the barbarians. We never learn what they are actually like. But we do see the power of our imagination of the stranger.
In Cavafy’s poem, it is the civilized members of the state who are the barbarians. The barbarian is the natural body the citizen disavows. If violence is the necessary origin of the Empire State and how it perpetuates itself, the creation of an enemy-other and the destruction of that enemy in torture, war, and delegitimization locate the founding violence of the state across its borders, what is foreclosed in the Symbolic returns in the Real. The barbarian-other then can relieve the citizen of the need for ethics by representing all that the citizen disavows: “Those people were a kind of solution,” Cavafy’s poem ends. Simply put, why solve our problems when we can blame others for them?
(A side note, it is ironic that in Cavafy’s poem, since it takes place in The Roman Empire, the barbarians are the white people of the North.)
The so-called barbarians stand in for that other, lesser person, coded as a foreign, threatening, criminal who can be used to scare the populace and justify any authoritarian measures. This person doesn’t exist but needs to be invented. It’s easy to create an enemy at home or abroad, but not so easy to control the consequences.
Inaction, of course, can be as destructive as ill-advised action. This is why the aimless standing around and waiting that Cavafy so brilliantly evokes in “Waiting for the Barbarians” is so contemptible. The vigor of the leaders, the effectiveness of their oratory, and the political will of the citizens have been so wasted away by indolence luxury, and complacency that they can only hope for disaster as a means of renewing the state.
The bunker/shelter of the Volkskundemuseum will serve as the command center for the reactionary forces. It is a training camp for fear. It is a secret teaching school for contempt. It is a propaganda space instructing interested citizens on the danger of the barbarians.
The public/interested citizens will go through a series of presentation rooms educating themselves while waiting for the barbarians. The space will be divided into two sections. The first section will be the Ideology Department. The second section will be the Practice Arm. A third section, an after-show meeting will take place in the museum’s yard.
Performance: Barca Baxant, Isabella Händler, Anna Mendelssohn, Anat Stainberg, Florian Tröbinger, Markus Zett; Filmcast: Thomas Crawley, Onur Poyraz, Peter Stamer, Charlotte Zorell
Video: Michael Strohmann
Set design: Paul Horn
Costumes: Lena Kvadrat/art point
Written and directed by Yosi Wanunu
Produced by Kornelia Kilga, Charlotte Zorell
Co-produced by Theater am Werk, Nov 28 – Dec 9, 2023, 7:30 pm (Tue – Sat)