ON CONTACT AND CONTAGION

In my daily process of connection with reality, I try to remain fiercely anchored to phenomenological observation : a phenomenon is what is happening and can be observed. I try to pay attention, witnessing figures emerging from the background, gestalts that are searching for their manifestation. In this pandemic, as in all pandemics, the overwhelming figure emerging is the fear of contagion.

Contagion is a Latin word that has the same meaning of contact, cum-tangere: to touch together.

We are in the terrible time in which the contact with another body is potentially the contact with a disease, which is potentially the contact with the ultimate source of fear, Death. It is not surprising that the individual, collective, social and political responses have been dominated by fear. The absence both of a vaccine and an infallible therapy has brought us to an archetypal state of fragility and distress, that challenges the very essence of our social rules of engagement.

Live arts, based on the human need and desire of gathering in assembly in touch with each other, have come to a complete still point. Not even in War-time this has happened. We are in an unprecedented moment for our field of practice: powerful and highly distressing.

The last time a pandemic has been so global and has brought such a scale of disruption was the Spanish Flue of 1918-1921. It’s a century ago. There are extremely few living humans who have experienced that period first hand. None of us has any direct experience of this very peculiar and distinct set of individual and collective feelings. Which, on the other hand, have been often present in the field of existence of our ancestors. I remember vividly my grandmother telling me and my brother stories about that epic flue, while we were in bed with a banal fever.

This fear of contagion imposes a physical distancing between people. I find it very interesting, and rather disturbing, that this process has been named social distancing, which has a very different semantic content. It creates a far more dramatic atmosphere of loss of societal connections and needs. It is also politically very charged. If we cannot touch each other physically, we do not need to be socially distant. This term evokes separation, class systems, status, isolation, and fundamentally fear. Physical distance evokes the protection of each other and reminds us of the physical nature of our bonding. The fact that this social distancing is imposed by law and that, in some countries like Italy, it has been enforced by the Police and even by the Army, has massive political and emotional implications.

I am very critical to the choice of this term. In my communication I have chosen to replace it with physical distancing. The Italian philosopher Umberto Garimberti, suggests the term of viral distancing.

Theatre, as well as any forms of public performance that involves an audience gathering in shared physical proximity, are now not allowed. They are currently illegal, unlawful. The legal regulations are forbidding them and the fear of contagion has become a powerful reason to stay away from any assembly.

Already it was not easy to attract audience to our shows and workshops, but now a completely new level of problems will be looming in our post lock-down scenario. It will provide a great field of creativity for the exploration of locations and performing spaces that will allow the audience to feel safe enough to want to gather to be “entertained”. Intra-tenere: to hold the space in between.

So far, we are experiencing something that has been already experienced by our ancestors in the past, throughout epidemics and pestilences of all kinds. Unlike any of the previous pandemics of humankind, we have the completely new option of remote interaction through technology.

We are in unprecedented and uncharted territories.

THE PANDEMIC PANDAEMONIUM

pandemic (adj.) of diseases, “incident to a whole people or region,” 1660s, from Late Latin pandemus, from Greek pandemos “pertaining to all people; public, common,” from pan “all” + dēmos “people”. Distinguished from epidemic, which may connote limitation to a smaller area.

pandemonium or pandæmonium, in “Paradise Lost (1667) “the name of the palace built in the middle of Hell, “the high capital of Satan and all his peers,” and the abode of all the demons; coined by John Milton (1608-1674) from Greek pan “all”  + Late Latin daemonium “evil spirit,” from Greek daimonion “inferior divine power,” from daimōn “lesser god” as in demon.

It is still snowing. A thick blanket of snow lies on the poetic land where shows, workshops, trainings, schools, performances, festivals and all forms of gatherings used to grow, season after season, night after night. Sometimes in abundance, sometimes in scarcity, always with hard work. A labor of love, technique and dedication, often marginal and fierce, almost always financially fragile. I have loved that field so very much, and I have been blessed with many years of practice and play with so many wonderful human beings who, like me, have loved that field so very much.

We were all busy in our gardens when the snowfall started.

I did not see it coming. Nobody did, except some virologists, some top secret experts in national security and various science fiction writers. The storm came from the East, it hit Europe, Italy first, then Oceania, the Americas, Africa, until the human family found itself in the worst pandemic in living memory and the greatest “lockdown” in human history.

I was in Australia working at a Bouffon show when the storm started and the Corona tricksters sank our thespian ship. Within days, we moved from the ecstasy of daily rehearsals and devising in the wondrous intimate embodiment of a chorus of Bouffons, to saying goodbye to each other on Zoom. That was my first zoom meeting: I remember vividly the joy attack in seeing the crew, hearing their voices and their laughter irradiating from their beautiful faces. And, at the same time, the pain of not being with them. A craving distress, a skin unbalance, a hole in my guts and in my chest. The intense sensation of a lack, a longing, a loss. A state that has become very familiar over the following weeks and months of lockdown.

I started writing these notes because I do not want to turn this loss into normality, and accept an unacceptable transition into a world of disembodied social interactions. I do not want this “new normal”. It’s an exceptional time, and I want to consider it completely ab-normal. An emergency. If this becomes normal it will be a collective move into a dystopian insanity.

It is now April 2020. I have started writing these notes during my days of quarantine in my theatre studio in Padova, Italy, my hometown where I managed to return after an epic trip through continents and airports already transformed by the virus into the set of a science fiction B-movie.

These notes have emerged from an overdose of perception and reflection about this astounding scenario, as well as from multiple conversations with friends, colleagues and former students who have looked for each others in the attempt to make sense of an unprecedented collective event. I feel that this conversation is crucial not only artistically and poetically for us as theatre practitioners. It is also extremely relevant politically, for us as citizens. We are in one of those historical thresholds when an entire society, and in this case an entire civilization, is deciding to adopt a particular new technological landscape that will significantly change the collective behaviour and the very nature of the daily social and economical interactions. Ultimately, our culture will change, and our collective conscious and unconscious mind will be trans-formed.

I think this transition is comparable to the arrival of the printing process, or the Industrial Revolution or the arrival of the Internet. We are at the cusp of something crucial and, unlike the other major transitions, this one has happened extremely fast. This collective migration into a remote mode, has not happened within centuries, decades, years, or even months, but within weeks.

And it’s here to stay.

MY FIRST QUARANTINE

This is my first Quarantine. I am staying in the loft of Helikos theatre studio. I am legally required to not leave the building, in case I have caught the virus during my 40 hours travel from Australia to Italy. I am in a state of shock and awe witnessing something that feels like the end of the worlds that I knew.

Time is a series of days all identical to themselves.
I listen, I watch, I read. I listen again. News, websites, text messages, video calls. I listen to words, their context, their meaning, their etymology. I listen to the tone of those who are speaking, the emphasis and the motions that appear in their timing, the mood emerging from the silence in between the words.

A new vocabulary is emerging: the words for this crisis have been very carefully chosen and they are defining our experience and designing a new world.
Social distancing, remote work, smart work, remote learning, webinar
Now in Italy working from home is called Smart work. As opposed to what? Is this an implicit confession that the live work that we had before, with its locations and schedules and real interactions with other human beings was stupid work? Dumb work? Un-smart work?

Actually, that is true: the contact with another person is always stupefying, because it’s unpredictable. Stupid is Latin, stupidus, to be stupefied. An actual real direct contact with another human being will make us more stupid because there will be surprises, there will be conflicts, we may have to change our mind, or even our identity. Emotions might happen, and feelings, and liking and disliking and attraction or affection. It is risky, it is exciting, it contains the potential for mutual transformation: it has always been like this, it is embedded in the social nature of the human species. To enter in a relationship is to become stupid together.

Now that that we’re all hopping to work from remote, the narrative is that we will become smarter. We will eliminate all the stupid aspects of a day at work. The wandering, the travel, the breaks, the errors.
Errare is the Latin for wandering, to follow the randomness of the path.

The illusion of control will grow further. And the design of the software will edit the shapes of our interactions. The same has happened with the smart phones: before, we head just phones, dumb phones that were only good for talking. Now my phone is so smart that it does all sorts of work for me. Memory, orientation, contacts, advises… It can talk back to me, will it soon be my counselor?

We are outsourcing our smartness to the phones and our intelligence to the machines.
Are we going to become dumb or numb? Or both?

REQUIEM FOR THE RED NOSE INTENSIVE

Once upon a time
there was a clown intensive training
a month of poetic laughter
in the warm Spring
of the fair Padua, nursery of arts

Twelve poetic knights
were ready to fly here
from North South East and West
from Norway Italy Turkey and Germany
from Finland Denmark Canada Mexico and the USA

All was ready when a thirteenth host stepped in
uninvited
they had a crown of spikes
 they were many
and they were everywhere

 Tiny tricksters who put the world upside down
and turned all shows into silence
 throughout our sweet planet Earth

They brought fear and isolation
struggle death and desperation
they triggered care and courage
support resiliance and cooperation

and they taught us to ask the good questions
on how to make our world a better place
and how to love more the miracle of being alive
with Nature and with each other

We did not move the training online
we moved it into the dreamworld
and we had a beautiful memorable time
longing for each other
and cultivating fierce presence
and untamed desire

We will try again to embody this training
in the Fall of 2020
always in the fair Padova
and we will be so happy to be together again
in social closeness
and collective joy

Be well
be safe
be brilliant

we will all be back

Giovanni Fusetti

MARCH 28, 2020

March 28, Melbourne Airport
Bye Beth, thank you so much, I’ll call you when I am through
The best hug
I wonder when will be the next one
in this curse of social distancing

I have the leather briefcase with me
all of them are in
We received the Exodus from our ancestors
here is a new theme for The Work
The Journey of the Neutral Masks in the pandemic

I look for the departures
Melbourne-Doha
that’s my flight, that’s the only flight
The airport is empty, the check in is packed
Social distancing is a joke announced through the speakers
Where are the masks? Who wears the mask? Why they don’t wear the mask?

Social distancing looks like the exercise of the bubble
dramatic projection treated with paranoia

There is a problem sir, your booking is not confirmed
the system doesn’t recognize it
Wait, phone calls, consulting, overbooking, heartbeats
someone did not show up
I did
Here is your boarding card sir, Doha and then Rome
Are you sure the flight to Rome is confirmed?
As far as we are concerned yes
As far as I am concerned, I am concerned

Bye Beth, I am in, thank you so very much
From what’s app to who’s in
the huge empty terminal

Why the ground staff wears no masks?

This face mask ordeal
the feeling is familiar
I relax imagining it is a Neutral Mask with a Red Nose on.

My nose is scratchy, oh shit I touched my nose, where is the hand sanitizer?
oh no I left it in the tray at the security
call the security
oh no I touched the phone!
oh no I am breathing on the phone!
They found it
will I owe my life to a security person?
Am I totally paranoid or this is a risky trip?

The deserted airport
people sitting in empty gates to keep distance
A kind voice announces the flight
people are now cramming in the boarding area
primates eager to escape
social distancing is a sweet memory
this is a virus greenhouse
what was I thinking in daring this travel?

We board
the huge plane is packed
mostly Europeans flying home
my neighbors on the planes look healthy, are they? Am I?

Fourteen hours with the mask inside a flying aluminum can
with three hundred and fifty human beings in uncertain health conditions
fourteen
that’s a veeeery long show
I have practiced at home for half an hour but this is another story

Then I think about the doctors and nurses with blisters on their faces
sharing massages crying on their phone after their shift
please stay at home
they plea
Ok, I can make it, this is nothing

Dinner time
I need to wash my hands, is the toilette clean?
Touch don’t touch what to touch how to touch
Sanitize sanitize sanitize
Shall I eat with the mask on?
Of course not, you idiot

I am sure the droplets don’t like the wind
It is written in all medical books
I put the air stream on, dinner in the wind
I’ll catch a cold but not the Corona
Food, a shift in my brain waves
eating feels so good
Chardonnay never tasted better
will the pandemic make me an alcoholic?

Fourteen hours
14
seven of them watching Richard Attenborough seven episodes
Seven worlds one planet
Beauty after beauty after beauty
We are the only species worried about the virus
all other living beings are thriving
There are dolphins in the harbors
boars in the streets
ducks on the airport runs
wild goats in the squares
penguins visiting the aquarium
The air has never been cleaner
Are bats bouffons?
Is this a huge bouffon piece called
Now you go to you room and you figure out your shit?

Doha, Quatar
crowds from all over the world with masks and without
Humanity in transit with hand-luggage of fear hope and sanitizing liquid
Children play
Children always play
and clowns too
Bless them all
There is an Indian family filming their dance choreography on the phone
My feet dance a little
It’s never too scary to have a dance
we share smiles
the airport fills with sunshine
that’s it
I need to remember to smile to strangers during this colossal event

The word ROME on the screen makes my dawn

I am on my second flight
It feels like a rescue flight for Italian nationals stranded abroad
tourists, travelers, workers, visitors
all caught by the Corona on their way
to the life that we had before
now heading to home lockdown
and the life that we will have after
Everyone wears masks
the Italians were hit earlier and harder
they got the point

Roma Fiumicino Airport, welcome to Italia
Welcome to the show
The virtuosity of pandemic dysfunctional bureaucracy
Forms, no forms, which form, not that form, fill the form, here is another form, throw away that form, fill this other form, not like that, but your colleague told me something different, can I have a new form, here is another form, do you have a copy, no I don’t, make two copies, but the back page has no name, what? you need to take a picture, I take a picture, six pictures you never know…

Fuck these fucking forms!
I spent my entire life as Italian citizen filling forms
Not even the pandemic will save us from this curse
And the spaces are too narrow, there are typos all over
who the fuck designed these forms !?
I am a clown and a slapstick administrator
but my Helikos enrollment forms are far better than that
The country of Leonardo is doomed by forms

Welcome to Italia
Carabinieri, Polizia, Guardia di Finanza, airport staff, airline personnel
all improvising on different canovacci
Welcome to the Pandemia dell’Arte

I am through, I am allowed to return home to quarantine myself
I have the form in my phone!
I walk through the deserted airport
where are the rental cars?
Are you alone sir, yes, please go ahead

At the Europcar desk
a kind man in a pale green mask works inside a plexiglass box
I wait in line, nobody speaks
at a counter nearby there is a loud argument
The attendant is refusing to give a car to a man with an international license
he doesn’t have the original Italian one
the man shouts
the rules sir these are the rules
despair is in the air
another man is charged 600 euros for a one way rental
he has no reservations
the market has no pity

It’s my turn
I have a voucher
this is not a good day to improvise reservations
I actually have two
and a plane reservation for tomorrow
the only flight to Venice
Which stone is the good one to throw?
The first one you see
and then the next one and the next one

There is a scanner on a stand outside the plexiglass box
I scan my papers and credit card
I have to use my own pen to sign
the man in the pale green mask is visibly tense
thanks for your work good luck, thank you we need it

I am out, it’s almost sunny, I have a red car
I sit inside I want to laugh and shout and cry
I look around
A woman in the nearby rental car is sanitizing the steering wheel
What the hell I’ll do it too
We smile, sunshine

I am off
driving on the deserted Rome Ring Road
exhausted, relieved, worried, will they control me? will there be road blocks?
the news online spread terror about controls and fines
But I am ok, I am going home right? I have the right to go home, have I?

From Rome to Padova. Through the heart of Italy.
Virtually no cars, just a few lorries and long stretches of deserted motorway.
Ghostly gas stations. Lorry drivers taking a pause.
A clown texting I made it, so far so good.

I have driven from Florence to Padova so many times
But never during a dystopian movie
Drive drive drive
Focus focus focus
This is a 40 hours sleepless day

Padova
I came from here
I am back

I drive by my house
my partner has prepared some groceries for my quarantine
we greet with the corona in the space between us
loving from three meters away
the world is upside down

I drop the car at the deposit
a taxi brings me to the Helikos Studio
I made it
What a joy to be back here
What an unmitigated relief
surrounded by masks, costumes, books and spirals
the hand-made furniture of the Florence studio
and countless memories of poetic joy
and the students everywhere
in the memory of forms and feelings

My poetic body and my physical body are delighted in this quarantine
I am immersed in the poetic field
the best antiviral ever

The poetic body is collective
now I know it
Every person I have worked and played with is here with me
Thank you so much for all the beauty and the laughter and the poetry

Missing is creation
I miss you
I create

Longing is devising
I devise the present

Let’s devise a heartwarming present
and a future of new and ancient forms of collective joy
and delightful social proximity

I wish you well
Be safe
With your loved ones
On this beautiful planet

What a treat to be alive