bojana mladenović

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The Examined Life

It happens when we go to the doctor’s. Or when we apply for something we want or need: a job, a place on a course, a visa. It happens when we take part in a competition. Or when we are put on trial, or when we are called upon as witnesses. It can happen when we go on a date. Or when we go on stage with a story to tell, with something we are obliged to show or share, even when that something is nothing of ourselves. In such situations we present ourselves for examination. And when we do so we enter a speaking situation, even if it is just my face, my smile, my body, or the sound that my voice makes that ‘speaks’ on my behalf. Which is to say, such speech is not always – or not simply – a matter of will, although one tries to take charge as best one can. A person presents herself as someone who is there to be questioned. I would be happy, she says, as is the form in such situations, to answer any of your questions. This anyway is what Bojana Mladenovic says, the first thing she says, some way into her performance One Piece, as she sits at one end of the space and invites the spectators to speak to her, and to provoke her into speech. She has entered and exited the space two or three times already, walking slowly down the narrow gap between the two rows of spectators, naked at first: a self-exposure that is at once intimate and blatantly matter-of-fact. Nakedness, nothing to it. When, after her second entrance, she dresses on stage in what look like her ordinary clothes, it is like appearance  – whether clothed or unclothed – is something she puts on, like a habit, one of the ways in which she is known to the people who know her, in her life as it were. And one of the ways in which she is unknown to us: her witnesses, her imaginers. Although moment by moment we are getting to know her better; getting to know ourselves better too perhaps. At one point earlier she came on wearing shiny gold gloves up to her elbows, chiming with the glittery gold drapes that frame the performance space. Concessions, I imagine, to the publicness, the formality, the impersonality, of this particular arena of self-exposure. But also cues for our own self-reflection, those of us who have chosen to participate, or who – for whatever reason – find ourselves here. What do we make of this? What is it that occurs to us as we watch and listen? What would we want to ask? What question do we have to ask that would enable her to give the answer she wants to give? Here, in this place where being and appearing coincide, and where there is no appearing that is not an appearing to others, we are dependent on other people for our very existence, to the extent that our existence is of the world. I would be happy, she says, repeating the invitation, to answer any of your questions. In response to the questions that follow, some of which can be anticipated and some not, she gives what answers she can: prepared answers mainly, short, autobiographical texts that she reads from cards that she keeps beside her. This is who I am, if identified in a certain way. This is who I have been, if this particular story is told. This is how I live in the world, this is how I exist, how I survive, between one perspective and another, looking forward, looking back, this is the work I do, these are the things I enjoy, this is what I remember and value, this is what I do look forward to, this is how it really was back then, how I came from Belgrade to Amsterdam, this is a story about my maternal grandmother, this is the first song I learned to play at the piano… In a sense, though, the answer to every question is also deferred: deferred to the prepared answers themselves; or deferred to the audience member who has asked the question to pick an answer from the pack of cards; or deferred to a silence of Bojana’s, a with-held thought, a raised finger; and deferred at other times to a band of street musicians who substitute the verbal exchange, when asked to do so, with a Balkan dance tune. The dancing itself we have to imagine. It does not happen today. Deferred, then, and also partial. Partial in the way that all of our accounts of ourselves are partial, in the sense of being part of some larger story: every answer we give to any question that is asked can only indicate that there is a back-story to everything, that there is always more world to be accounted for than can be brought to bear right here and now. As Mladenovic herself says of her performance, the work is about incompleteness; or say perhaps, a particular sort of incompleteness, given completely. Partiality has another meaning too, though, in the sense of a leaning towards, a liking for. The partiality for instance that is revealed in a smile, the smile of a performer who registers at a particular moment that something amuses her; and, in and around that moment, registers for others something of her singularity. For sure, this is a singularity that is made up of an aggregate of surfaces, of stories, of appearances, and a multiplicity of views. Here in the theatre – if that is where we are – it is a singularity that is also caught up in repetition: in each performance the repeated gesture of entering and exiting the space; the repeating dressing and undressing; the repeated reaching for a card to recite another text, another answer, another story. And then, outside the performance itself, there are the repetitions ‘of’ the performance itself, performed twice a day, looking forward or back each time to another iteration of the ‘same’ event, later this evening or earlier this morning, presented for others – others like ourselves – for whom the repetition will, again, have been something new. It is a newness that is be dispersed amongst the plurality of spectators who, even if we allow that basically everyone does see and hear the same basic things, will not be satisfied – or dissatisfied – in the same ways; and for sure, no individual spectator sees or hears or understands it all. But maybe after all every spectator is a witness to the singularity of the ‘one’ who presents herself amongst us as a piece of the examined life, one amongst many, and as such a candidate for inclusion in the commonwealth of singularities that ‘we’ call ‘ourselves.’ I mentioned a smile, the formalized smile of social graciousness that is not formalized entirely, which exposes – one imagines in spite of the performer’s best efforts not to do so – the singular partiality of an intelligence that can’t help communing with itself. Or else we hear, over the duration of the performance, in the uninflected vocal tone that is not uninflected entirely – one suspects in spite of the performer’s resolute intention not to give this much away – something with-held from impersonality: something to do perhaps with our peculiar human capacity to mean less than we say, to deliver less than we promise, to fall short of ourselves and leave all of our gestures, our tales, our bits and pieces of our answering selves hanging there in the air between us.  Something with-held, that is to say, from the sort of impersonality we tend to bring to any examination; where, if we ‘pass’ the test we pass as ourselves, but then through that same opening – if we are quick enough maybe – we bring a world in with us that alters things, just a little.

Joe Kelleher- Drama, Theatre & Performance. Roehampton University London

for  F.I.S.Co.10 publication (Xing 2010)