On the perils of information overload: about the performance WORKSHOP at Bazaar Festival
Taking the audience through the experience of accumulating random and useless knowledge, ‘Workshop’ gets you thinking about the state of our modern everyday life in a thought-provoking – and at times hilarious – way.
Reviewed by May Ngo
May Ngo is a Chinese-Cambodian Australian living in Prague, Czech Republic. A former academic in anthropology, she is now a freelance writer, teacher and editor (mayngo.net) and founder of the Prague Writers Workshop (praguewritersworkshop.cz).
I didn’t know what to expect when we turned up to Divadlo X10 and there was no stage. How to describe the theatre, first of all? Basement level, exposed walls, industrial-looking, it could have been a large space for anything at all. In the middle of the room a substantial table with stools all around it; and the three performers sometimes sitting, sometimes pacing, around the table as they waited for the show to begin.
Eero Epner and Mart Kangro, credits Vojtěch Brtnický
I was here to see a performance titled ‘Workshop’ by Estonian theatre artists Eero Epner, Mart Kangro and Juhan Ulfsak as part of the Bazaar Festival, a showcase for independent theatre by innovative theatre makers from Central and Eastern Europe. The physical set up of the ‘stage’ was, as indicated in the title of the performance, in the form of a workshop. As audience members we also sat around the large table; to the side was a whiteboard, desk lamps and pieces of blank paper littered the table.
The piece began with one of the performers telling us about an Estonian painter in the 1920s, how it was rare in his paintings to have anything outside of nature except maybe occasionally, a lamp post. This was then contrasted with another Estonian painter from the 1970’s, where the frequency of man-made objects increased in their paintings. An intriguing analogy to the theme of modernity encroaching over nature - so began ‘Workshop.’
True to its title, the three performers in a workshop-like fashion showed us how to do many things – how to saw a piece of wood, which then led to showing us how to make a post with the proper way of drilling (in reference to the lamp post in the paintings perhaps?). We learnt how to sunbathe in a prison cell in St Petersburg and importantly how to make our own sunscreen in those very limiting conditions, improbably we learnt from a man how to give birth, but also - how to get rid of a corpse.
Juhan Ulfsak, credits Vojtěch Brtnický
Where you sit determines to an extent how you experience a performance, and even more so in this set up where we sat around a table and the performers moved around the room, sometimes performing nearby on my side of the room, and sometimes on the other side where it was more difficult to hear. In any case, the words kept coming and flowing out of the three performers like a river, or perhaps it was more like diarrhoea – where we learnt about sequoia trees and how they are among the oldest living organisms on Earth, about Aristophane’s comedy Women in the City Square, and about how a significantly higher number of men than women cannot see the colour red. From where I was in the room, I heard words that were repeated again and again like red, red marker, red lens, death, saw, sawing, wood, trees.
But it was not only through words that we were assaulted with information. The performers used their physicality demonstrating how to do things, and at other times donned white togas (we were also shown how to wear this properly in a demonstration), stalking around the room orating like Imperial Romans, or jumping on the table, imparting their knowledge to us.
And this, I think, is what the piece was principally about. Not knowledge, as such – but information – and particularly information overload which is now part of our experience of technology and therefore a part of our everyday lives. This accumulation of useless and random information which is so much a part of being online, which strikes me as particularly masculine (not just because of an accumulation mindset but also the sense of mastery, imperiousness, and certitude, as channelled in this performance through male bodies) and which is actually counter to true knowledge – that is, the ability to discern and parse through information so that what you learn or consume is actually useful and fit for purpose.
This seems especially pertinent in our era of social media and constant scrolling. Which one of us has not fallen into a YouTube or Tik Tok blackhole, where hours can be spent looking at random, useless and sometimes even boring content on our phone? Our concentration has been skewered by algorithms and decreased attention spans, where gaining information no longer has a logic to it but is rather, more often than not, aimless and arbitrary.
Mart Kangro, credits Vojtěch Brtnický
The performance felt like a mimicry and satire of this – despite the mish mash of historical references such as 20th century painters, Ancient Greece, Russian-occupied Estonia, the Pied Piper and many others, as well as references to nature; this performance felt like a very modern and technological piece of theatre. It felt like a live action Wikipedia. And having to experience it through sitting on small, hard stools for the duration of over two hours, rather than lying relaxed on a couch scrolling on the phone, it served as a reminder of just how uncomfortable and pointless our modern consumption of information is.
The final scenes perhaps held the most lasting images. Taking out a recorder, one of the toga-wearing performers began playing it and walking around the room. The rest of the performers encouraged the audience to get up and follow him in a line, pacing around the table. It soon became a vision of the Pied Piper leading his little followers. The Pied Piper is perhaps a symbol of seduction and enticement; in the story he is able to rid the town of a plague of rats, but also later, when the townspeople refuse to pay him, lead their children away with the sound of his flute, never to be seen again.
Crucially, the Pied Piper can gather people together and lead them somewhere. And where are we being led to in this performance? Is it also to death? Well, the performance ends with the performers placing constructed wooden posts onto the table. The main lights are turned off and a few spotlights are turned on, casting shadows on the walls. The posts, of different heights, start to resemble a forest of trees (perhaps Sequoia trees?), and it suddenly feels like we are being led back to something primal – especially when the lights turn red – to something important we may have forgotten about, to something we have neglected to pay attention to in our modern information economy. The lamp post has been transformed back into nature…