Elpida Karaba

20 People and One Lesbian / A Public Opera
The dynamics of 'reversibility'

The ephemeral choir of 21 people put together by artist Chryssa Tsampazi, gave its one and only performance on May 31, 2011, between 5 and 7pm., at the centre of Athens, on the pedestrian walkway between Academias and Panepistimiou streets. The choir sang the text: “20 People and A Lesbian. A Public Opera. This is your relationship. I am everywhere and nowhere. You can find me.” American composer Chris Peck wrote the music to the text. Tsampazi's performance focuses on directing group action – in the form of instructions. The obvious associations elicited by the title/description of the action, intentionally place it within the typology of the artistic performance targeting issues of identity, gender and difference. Tsampazi's self-professed intention is direct: she uses her sexual identity and “specifically the word lesbian, as a political tool against the structures of authority”. The artistic performance reflectively incorporates the questioning of what in the performance is performative, what is the identity which is performatively ascribed to the entitlement of the subjects as people and a lesbian, respectively? Does this entitlement entail a call to the subjects to take up a position in public space? What is, moreover, the role of art – of a public opera in this instance – in forging a relationship between the subject and the public sphere?

On the particular circumstance of May 31st, the artistic performance, in opposition to the intentions one might ascribe to it, by virtue of the questions mentioned above, had an unforeseen effect. It rendered this form of art, at one instant apolitical and in the next potentially political, on account of an unscheduled encounter. On the same date and at the same time, in the area surrounding the University of Athens and at a distance of a few meters, a group of people gathered to protest against the government's new measures re. the educational system, and to join forces with the 'Aganaktismenoi' of Syntagma square. The intensity of the songs of protest and the vibrancy of the rallying crowd – organized, among others, by Mikis Theodorakis, famous music composer of the greek resistance – overshadowed the 'public opera'. The small audience of the public opera's viewers, the 'pretense' of an artistic performance, came face to face with the 'real' political demonstration. In this unexpected circumstance, the 'political' boundaries of each field were placed directly within the line of fire. This coincidence showcased the significance of the accidental and the unforeseeable in intensifying the effects of (artistic) actions in public.
Public actions place their subjects at the center of the public sphere's production, the field within which individuals competitively lay claim to their identity. In this case, the decision to join one or the other of the gathered crowds, brings you face to face with events and phenomena. That is to say, in the case you opt for the 'real' political demonstration, you choose the path of action, by contrast to the case of choosing to watch the artistic performance, since in the latter case, you reserve for yourself the position of passive viewer. In these two activities there seems to be an assumption of an active and a passive position. Yet, there is within the intermediate space of these positions, the option of “reversibility” .In the artistic performance “20 people and a lesbian”, the subjects of the choir recite performatively their identity by means of which they produce, that is to say they create, the necessary point of a fictive origin. In the course of this re-citation, the viewer also receives an invitation to assume a position. The invitation is activated in the juxtaposition of people/lesbian which prompts us to consider the processes themselves via which certain identities and modes of existence are legitimized, at the same time revealing the distorted performances which the established aspects of our existence fail to perceive, and reestablishing those under a new perspective. .
The “reversibility” in this process consists in the following: the position in which the subjects are placed who decide to watch the performance is rendered problematic against the background of the choice between action and theory, between the passive and the active attitude they assume by opting, on the one hand, to watch the artistic performance and, on the other, to temporarily align themselves with the lesbian. By contrast, if participation in the protest rally is understood as eminently active, it is rendered passive by virtue of that very eminence. It is also rendered passive in the eminent aspect of the use of familiar melodies, words and slogans which assert a 'generalized', revolutionary identity and procure a nostalgic sense of familiarity and safety. In other words, the “participation” of the spectators and the actors in the performance – along the spectrum of the incidental encounter – raises a process where an internal commitment is made which presupposes an “intrapersonal dialogue”, all of which is described philosopher Hannah Arrendt as “an extremely active state” .. This concerns the dialectical production of thinking, it is the way an individual prepares for a viewing of truth. The 'intrapersonal dialogue” concerns our identities and actions, it affirms the necessity – especially under the present circumstance- of collectively joining forces. As the outcome of that dialogue the performative act poses 'indecent' challenges in reference to the terms of such collective joining of forces.

The 20 people and lesbian of the performance do not intentionally join forces with the protesters. The homophony or the cacophony of their song together with the other songs 'bespeaks' the boundaries and the terms of collective gatheringns and actions. The performance itself describes the impossibility of conjoining art with life. Simultaneously, it entails the possibility of reversibility, which describes the impetus of 'thought forms' that can potentially turn things 'upside down', without this being the result of specific events or the outcome of historical necessity . The performance with its dynamic of reversibility, describes and assesses the overthrow of set positions, of fixed and inflexible conceptualizations of events and phenomena. In that sense, it may be conceived as an attempt to exit persistent ideological constructs, which allows for the momentary overcoming of the dilemma(s) of action, of passive versus active existence.

Elpida Karaba October 2011

See, Arendt H, 1986 [1958], The Human Condition (Vita Activa,) greek tr., Athens, Gnosi: 396

See Loxley, J. (2007) Performativity, London, New York, Routledge: 124-5.
Problematization refers to the critical process which transforms intuitions and fixed interpretations of phenomena into questions. The work of problematization is to shift those intuitions into practical and manageable questions.
Arendt H, ibid, 394.
Arendt H, ibid.