Living in the End Times: An Interview with Adam Donen
Now based in Baden-Baden, Germany, Adam Donen is a director, composer, writer, and inventor of the “holographic drama.” His works range from staged symphonies featuring Sergei Polunin and Ernesto Tomasini to a feature film with Slavoj Zizek and Alenka Zupancic. In the many years I have known Adam Donen, he has had a strong and radical political temperament, endless wit, a fine sense for mountains and good cocktails, and an undying love and fidelity to T.S. Eliot.
—Juliane Mendelsohn for EuropeNow
EuropeNow We met—decades ago—in Cape Town, where you spent your childhood, but also where you’d already put on a theater piece at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in 2002. You then moved to London to study literature, and lived there for more than a decade, and produced more of your works there than anywhere else. You now reside in Baden-Baden where you have just finished an audio drama and are working on a film. What is it that makes you call and root yourself as a European artist?
Adam Donen It can take a long time, if one is brought up in a place foreign to one’s artistic sensibilities—or perhaps just poorly educated, as was my caseto—discover other artists that speak your language. Any artist worthy of the name will remain true to their instincts regardless, of course, but the moment one finds a tradition into which one fits, it turns what might otherwise seem inchoate into something comprehensible, and one is capable of being more rather than less oneself.
The artists who have changed my life – Elfriede Jelinek, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Scott Walker, Frank Castorf, Heiner Müller, Luis Bunuel, Robert Wilson, Thomas Bernhard, Jean-Luc Godard, Anselm Kiefer and David Lynch are the first that come to mind—are not all European by birth any more than I am—but are (with the possible exception of Lynch?) most widely appreciated here. And despite their different languages, they share characteristics. A prioritization of the flow of ideas over plot or character is the most obvious. The identification with this particular mode of speaking, artistically, means that I am “a European artist” and was so before I knew any of these names. It is, descriptively rather than prescriptively, a tradition into which I fit.
EuropeNow So, lots of German “kitsch” and Austrian radicalism – just kidding.
Adam Donen No, German radicalism and Austrian kitsch. Just kidding.
EuropeNow Perhaps Brexit is getting the better of me, but—having spent so much time in London—what is your take on Britain at the moment, quite distinctly not having mentioned any British dramatists or writers as influences?
Adam Donen Britain is a hopeless case. Its left is castrated within the political system, its government is run by an amalgam of fools, cranks and crypto-fascists, its media is mostly venal and untrustworthy, and its proudest creative export is Disneyfied costume drama.
As far as art in Britain goes, Elfriede Jelinek says the English don’t like her work because they don’t regard it as “echt:” this is perhaps true of all the work I like, so this obviously informs my answer.
But approaching it analytically: for the English-speaking world, the starting question for a drama would typically be “what is the story you’re telling?” and the first question asked afterwards would be, “With which character/s did I empathize, and why?” For me, the first and only question is the experience of experiencing the work. I have no interest at all in plot—this is a Dickensian concern, not fit for an age in which we live plotlessly in unnarrativisable panic, distraction and vacillation. My approach is madness to them, as theirs is quaint and anachronistic to me. If one were to go to a performance at the Berliner Ensemble or the Volksbühne or the Münchner Kammerspiele, and a work weren’t to have a “plot” to speak of, it would not be remarkable, and the interest would be in what was done with the time on stage. In European art, the way the open space of a performance is approached can vary from the somewhat childish (e.g., often, Ostermeier) to the truly radical (e.g. Castorf) to the sublime (e.g. Wilson) but in no case would anyone dream of complaining that the plot was occluded, or that there were too many ideas bouncing about: rather what was done would be judged. In short, it is no coincidence that Robert Wilson now creates most of his works in countries where English is not the first language. Realistically, in the UK, theatre is primarily an entertainment, nothing more (other than, of course, at the fringes). If every West End musical theatre were to shut down, I couldn’t pretend I’d be even remotely sad. The smaller theatres are—there’s hope, there, artistically (though, the government is doing its best to crush them)—but still the culture is moribund. This is not a Brexit question, though Brexit is a symptom, of course. With apologies—and genuine apologies – to the great artists working in Britain whose work I’ve never experienced because the system has suppressed it so much more than happens in most of Europe, the problem is that Britain is a country built on the rejection of imagination.
EuropeNow Given that your intention is never really to write plot or classical character, what is your response to the critique in the Guardian of your recent work (the binaural audio drama “Nixon in Agony”): “a soundscape made up of a melange of thoughts and feelings with virtually no narrative and repeating loops of anguish?”
Adam Donen Well, no critic has ever described so wonderfully everything I wished to achieve in one of my works. The work was set in the head of a man being destroyed, irredeemably and publicly. There is no story. None. Inside of a person’s head, there never is—or to the extent that there is, it circles round, repeats, rambles, as Nixon does.
EuropeNow Can you give us a more detailed look into that work?
Adam Donen It’s a pressure headache. The starting point of the work was the experience of having people talking at or about me from three sides in a crowded, noisy room. It was torture.
More concretely, the piece is an expressionist audio drama set inside Nixon’s head on his last night at the White House. It’s a man collapsing, trying to dream his way out, and getting stuck. The first half makes a lot of use of Nixon’s ability on the piano, which takes a journey through Galina Ustvolskaya-style blocks of sound as he really collapses. The second half of it, a 27-minute monologue that circles, circles and slows down, is not something I could have conceived without having seen Jürgen Holtz’s exceptional performance in Castorf’s Galileo last year. Steven Berkoff, who plays Nixon, is one of the few serious English dramatists, directors and actors of the present day schooled in and dedicated to non-realist work. He brought out a sense of decay and collapse that’s central to the work, and with which I’m delighted.
Sonically, which is the most important aspect, it being an aural work, the work is made to be heard on stereo headphones, and I’ve used binaural sound to put one inside the claustrophobic inner world of a man about to be eviscerated; inside in the sense that when Nixon paces, he does so across the inside of your skull, and when there’s a knocking at the door, you may well turn round to see if it’s happening in real life or in the work. When Nixon enjoys a rare happy moment, and gets to, one last time, “be Presidential” (a conversation with Brezhnev in which he concedes, “this would never happen in Russia”), we begin to float, with Nixon, above the body of Nixon that is speaking.
EuropeNow As per public pronouncement, Nixon in Agony is intended to be heard in isolation. But it also shares this common fate with so many works made or appreciated during the COVID-19 crisis. I think lack of material grasp and material experience has been devastating for the classical arts—music in particular—and that the effect will be felt long after. Does working in holograms and other mediums mean you have managed to find a format for such dystopian times in art?
Adam Donen First of all, this is, to me, the most important question anyone can be asking (and, with affection, trust you to ask it.) We are in a period where everything—everything—will look different on the other side of it. That which is most similar to how it was before, will be that which can afford to be most similar: not a judgment of quality but of wealth. Needless to say, I’m opposed to this rubric, so the answer for me is difficult.
Philosophically—and therefore, what I practice in my daily actions—my belief is that we live in an ever more alienated, digitized, atomized age, and that much of what I need to express (living, as I am, in this age as much as any of us) needs to reflect this. To reflect this demands new forms. An organic, human actor running about a stage yelling “I am atomized, so very atomized.” doesn’t do it for me when the alternative, equally possible, is to have a character that looks perfectly human, but evaporates when he comes into contact with the actual earth (a hologram technique I use in Symphony to a Lost Generation). I’m interested in how we expropriate—or export—ourselves to online selves, now that ever more of what would be “us” is presented digitally rather than via a human body that speaks. But I also believe that what is most beautiful and most exciting on this planet is precisely those funny fleshy things that speak, with all their frailty, awkwardness, and occasional sublime grace. So, I feel an urge to defend both the need to create works in an alienated form as well as to protect works in a human form—and indeed to create works with humans, in the flesh, at the center of them. These are both valid impulses. Having to deal with the separation between digitally alienated and non-alienated life is something unique to our age. Therefore, addressing it is at least part of our unique and particular task.
Lest any doubt, that’s not an argument for why everything should be digital. If the Berliner Ensemble were to shut down, I would cry for months. . . but what I am saying is that form is the most serious part of what an artist is. Any artist that hides from this by adopting some pattern that worked for Austen or Tchaikovsky or Hitchcock (all of whom were great and innovative), simply because it worked for Austen or Tchaikovsky or Hitchcock or whomever, rather than for any other carefully considered reason, is hiding from their duty and reason for being an artist (and yes, I really, really mean this). Separately, so much of the digital/live debate is presented as a debate about economics, which is obscene, and an odious by-product of a system that regards actors as human capital working jobs that need to be protected rather than gods and goddesses bringing the sublime into existence in a world ever more determined to forget it. I have no time for this argument.
EuropeNow So when writing academies or art schools teach certain rules and the adherence to an accepted and anticipated form, are they doing no one a favor, or, in the least, not producing artists? In Germany, for example, it is good tradition to be someone’s “Meisterschüler,” but then to completely break with his/her form.
Adam Donen I don’t think anyone has ever suffered from learning how other people do things. And at writing schools, or music schools, you generally know what you’re signing up for. I’m certainly not suggesting that the best way to learn to create art, in whatever form, is to dangle upside down from a tree and contemplate infinity backwards. But what you learn, and how you learn, in formal education is a separate question to what you do once you’re finished learning. Once you’re actually making works, “but teacher said” is no defense of a work, though if one can, in one’s Meister’s voice, fulfil one’s ideas, then there’s no problem. In short, I certainly don’t regard “I am a novelist,” “I am a composer” or anything like that as an excuse for anything. One is the servant of the ideas that appear, and that’s all. And to whatever form it leads one, previously existent or otherwise, when an idea is experienced through one (because the idea, not the artist, is the subject), one must serve it.
EuropeNow You are also very rigorous in your statement that any artwork that does not push the boundaries of its form is decorative rather than meaningful? Can we really expect any artform to be able to live up to this?
Adam Donen Firstly, there’s nothing wrong with something being decorative. But secondly, yes, we can, and that’s what any healthily developing world of arts does. Eliot was strong on this in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” where he talks of how any new work necessarily alters the works of the past, but also how old works themselves wither and die from not being watered by present day works.
In the same sense, it’s not possible to hear Beethoven as his contemporaries heard him, but listening as a person, rather than a historian, Beethoven’s work still does something for many of us. That’s partially a function of the work itself, but partially also a function of how the work that came after Beethoven made his language comprehensible to us. In the plainest English, there are large parts of the present to which Beethoven is not the best spiritual guide. Our job is, through art, to explain the present to ourselves, and therefore to Beethoven. We won’t be able to do this in the borrowed language of something Beethoven wrote. Therefore, we must create a language in which we can.
EuropeNow How do you and your demands on form relate to the classical forms in which you work and contextualize the use of new mediums such as Holograms—are they a form in and of themselves or a necessary development or prior forms?
Adam Donen We live in the present. While I can’t speak with any conviction about changes to the human soul, I can certainly say that our experience of the world is necessarily different from ages prior—a fact that is no doubt true of every age, but the speed of our increasing atomization and mediation through digital media exacerbates this greatly (Franzen, unusually, analyses this wonderfully in his footnotes to his translation of Karl Kraus).
There aren’t new emotions, but there are new ways we experience the world. If one takes as a starting point that one has all the tools of the present at one’s disposal to create a work, rather than just those that have been used before, and that the work one produces must be the best possible expression of the sense that underpins it—one inevitably ends up creating forms that are new, because one is speaking in one’s native language, i.e. the language of one’s experience of the present.
Of course whatever forms are created will also be based on what came before; ballet wouldn’t have occurred without the music forms available at that time. Similarly, a holographic drama is neither a work of theatre, nor film, nor dance, nor (in the case of Symphony to a Lost Generation) purely symphonic music, but it bases itself on all of these things: it’s definitely fundamentally a different artform. It’s a live form that nonetheless achieves alienation, and is, obviously, very effective at transforming the entire world (on stage) at a split second’s notice. My next work in the form, an adaptation of Mark Kanak’s novel Tractatus Illogica-Insanus, with Blixa Bargeld as the lead, uses holograms to have Blixa’s characters “flickering” in and out of actual existence on three sides of the audience. It is thus a form for de-anchoring an audience visually. This is not something that would ever have been possible before—but it’s also probably not something earlier ages would have needed to describe their existence. And this, perhaps, is the point.
EuropeNow There seems to be a strong sense of expression and commitment to certain ideas rather than statements in work. Where do these ideas come from, what is your relationship to them?
Adam Donen I have no idea where ideas come from, I’m afraid. If I could answer that, we could both ensure we had more of them. It would be equally contingent to contend that—as in my case—walking up the mountain provides a disproportionate amount of them, as do watching and reading and listening to other works. The philosopher Alain Badiou (with whom I agree on most things) writes about there being four modes of Truth: art, politics, science and love. In this context, Truth is a process, not a synonym for fact. One has fidelity to something within one of those forms, and Truth is the name for the process of enacting that fidelity. My fidelity is to a world to which Eliot introduced me with “The Waste Land,” which takes the whole of art and thought prior to that time as building blocks that might be of use, and which is associative rather than linear in its form.
I have an analogous approach when it comes to individual works. My starting point is never a subject, always a sense. For Nixon, as I said, the starting idea was the experience of hearing people talking at or about one, in different conversations, all around one, and the pressure headache that develops. For Symphony to a Lost Generation, it was a man dissolving into dust as the earth crashes into the earth. For Alice, Through the Looking (the film I’m working on at the moment), the starting idea was a young French woman returning home to her London flat, and discovering with horror that her key no longer worked in her front door. The three works, it should be noted, are respectively about Richard Nixon, the First World War and a story of young love set the day of the Brexit vote. But those aren’t the starting ideas; they aren’t the thing to which one has to, irrevocably, remain true.
This also means that, in practice rather than theory, my being an artist precludes my capacity to be a propagandist. I follow ideas where they lead—in the form in which they lead there. And since ideas, in this sense, are not things that can be put in an opinion column but rather senses that need art for their expression, “what is the artist saying about X?” is always the wrong question. I’m basically a Barthesian here: unless the work is Bret Easton Ellis’ Lunar Park—which justifies it—the author is rarely the point.
EuropeNow This means you would forgive an artists’ character flaws—I think you know which artists I am talking about—in light of the great work they have produced.
Adam Donen I think you know the answer to that question. I don’t think one forgives or doesn’t forgive. I simply don’t think one weighs a rape against a great work and tries to find a balance; the idea is obscene. Once the work is created, it should be taken seriously in its own right, and accorded the respect, or lack of respect, it deserves. And imprison rapists. Nonsenses like knighthoods and lifetime achievement awards can have whatever moral component society deems appropriate: they are social things, not artistic things. One would struggle to defend a painting by saying a morally righteous person painted it; the reverse is also true.
EuropeNow Though very prevalent… (in our times). I often think of something you once quote—from either Krasznahorkai or Béla Tarr—“there are things in the world that will end well, but this is not one of those things.” When you think about art, ideas and the human experience, are you hopeful about the times we are living in?
Adam Donen No. I still think we’re living in the end times.
Adam Donen is a director, writer and composer, and inventor of the “holographic drama” artform. His Symphony to a Lost Generation was the world’s first fully holographic dramatic work, with music performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Choir and Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra. His binaural audio drama Nixon in Agony, starring Steven Berkoff, premiered last month at the South African virtual National Arts Festival. His first poetry performance was delivered at age six to freedom fighters in Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison, South Africa. He now lives in Baden-Baden, Germany.
Juliane Mendelsohn also grew up in South Africa and is a writer and academic (law) who lives in Berlin. She serves as research editor for EuropeNow.