Saturday, October 17, 2015

How I Came To Be in The Venice Biennale (or, Of Capital Importance?, Part 2)

Two readers of Das Kapital Oratorio rehearse in the unfinished Arena performance area of the Central Pavilion in May

Paradoxically, the fact that I've been at the Biennale so frequently since its opening is precisely what has prevented me from having anything to say about it. Or at least, any inclination to write it down.

When I first got the job of reading Das Kapital in English, I believed the entrance pass that came along with it would give me the chance to repeatedly take in pieces in a way most other people could not. I did one post on the Vernissage back in early May, but otherwise I was so entirely absorbed by preparing for what I was supposed to do on stage that I couldn't really think about anything else at the Biennale.

And how does one get such a gig? you may wonder. In my case, I was contacted by a member of the Biennale staff with the unenviable job of rounding up as many fluent speakers of English as possible who might not only be interested in reading Marx in public but also be available for a seven month stretch. Initially, they had only trained actors in mind, but in order to get a large enough pool of applicants they were willing to take video auditions from anyone.

Over 400 people sent in such auditions; the majority of them polyglot actors in their 20s from all around Italy. But being fluent in a language--no matter how fluent you are--doesn't necessarily equip you to deal with Marx in English. Native English speakers struggle with it--and especially with reading it out loud--so imagine how extraordinary are the language skills of those who can manage it whose mother tongue is not English (and who, in most cases, seem to speak at least a couple of other languages besides English).

Based upon the video auditions, the directors of the piece, Isaac Julien and Mark Nash, invited more than two dozen people to audition live in the Teatro Piccolo located within the Arsenale.

I hadn't dared or even thought of auditioning for anything since the fourth grade, when, after my bumbling attempt to secure a very minor role in some small classroom production, the teacher had decided the role could be better filled by a straight-back chair.

More recently, I had done more than 25 public readings after my novel was published in America. But before each and every one of those I'd taken one half of a little pill intended to ease back spasms, which served to blot out the upper register of panic I felt standing in front of even a small audience.

Those pills, however, were long gone, and, moreover, it didn't seem either practical or wise to depend upon them when I might have to read nearly every day--and more than once a day--for seven months. 

I've long loved empty theaters and empty stages, and that's what I reminded myself of when it was time to stand alone on an empty stage in front of an actual professional director--rather than a 4th grade teaching nun--two of whose films I'd seen and liked years ago (http://FRANTZ-FANON, https:///Looking_for_Langston). Even as my heart threw itself around my thoracic cage like a lunatic against the padded walls of a cell, I told myself what a marvelous place to be, up on that stage, beneath the peaked, wood-beamed ceiling of the old Arsenale. There was no place I'd rather be, I told myself. And, besides, I had nothing to lose.

There were three rounds of auditions on that stage--though the directors were so kind about the process that it seemed like you'd already been accepted as part of the project, even as you were still trying out. I was called back a second time, then a third, kind of thinking I'd already gotten the job. This was actually a helpful delusion.

I also benefited from not only being a Native English speaker, but from having some graduate school experience with Marx, and texts even more complicated than Marx. Though the energy we were asked to bring to the reading of the text was different than anything I'd ever had to do with such writings in grad school, and different, in fact, from the way I'd read my own fiction in public.

One day, after I'd finished reading and waited onstage for comments, Mark Nash said, "Well, you clearly seem to understand what you're reading, and that's good. But you give the impression that the prospect of all those pages lying ahead still to be read weighs very heavily upon you."

I thought I'd been reading with an entirely unaccustomed and almost indecorous amount of vigor!

I went home and, though I hate hearing my own voice, recorded myself reading and forced myself to listen. He was right! I became drowsy listening to myself.

By this time in April I'd made the final cut of a dozen readers--four of us Native English speakers. The directors had to return to London and we had a week off before resuming rehearsals. Every day during that break I forced myself to read--basically shout--Marx out loud in the closed bedroom of our apartment into an audio recorder, then played it back for myself. 

My six-year-old son, Sandro, began to mimic me. "AND THE COMMODITY...!" he would bellow. "...USE VALUE AND EXCHANGE VALUE...! LABOR POWER...! THAT IS TO SAY...!"

When I went to his first grade classroom for a meeting with his teachers, at a certain point one of them leaned toward me and asked, dubiously, if it was really true that I was going to be reading Das Kapital by Karl Marx at the Biennale.

It seems Sandro had told them all about it, and, I suspect, had been entertaining his friends with the Marxian phrases he'd picked up through the bedroom wall, delivering them in full comical windbag mode.

I could imagine how a six-year-old spouting Marx might have struck most first grade teachers in America, where the word "socialist" alarms people (and to be merely accused of being one is considered more damning than to be both a proven thief and pathological liar). Child Protective Services would have been summoned. Here, where the Communist party still has public demonstrations--even in the center of conservative Campo Santo Stefano--they seemed more amused than worried.

I thus fulfilled what I suspect is one of the essential duties of a father: providing one's son with a comic subject. But the practice really did help. Any time panic threatened during those opening days of the Biennale (before the general public could enter), when the gulf between the economic equality Marx espoused and extraordinary privilege of the audience (made up of art world insiders: collectors and gallerists and curators and artists and journalists: owners of yachts and palazzi and those who'd been their guests) was at its most extreme and absurd, I'd remind myself of the time I'd spent shouting alone at home, struggling to make sense of and enunciate the text. It always came back to this one-on-one struggle. Yes, I had to look up at times, make some effort to connect with the audience (or at least acknowledge their presence), but it wasn't like I was speaking extemporaneously. I had a path to follow, and had already put in far more time making sense of it than the 30-minutes my co-reader and I would be spending on stage.

But what was the point of it all? some people in the audience would ask after readings. It's a question I never thought I could actually answer for them, on their behalf, as it were. And though I have my own ideas about the piece, I'm not sure, after all, that they're worth going into. At least not here, not now.

NOTE: Part One on the subject of the Das Kapital Oratorio is here:


  1. Wow, this is - well, are - most interesting blogs. Thank you. I have a Biennale Pass and each time I'm passing the Arena I take a seat to listen concentrated for some minutes and connecting with the time of "Kapital-Arbeitsgruppen" at university in the 70ies. In Western Germany.The idea was that reading aloud in groups of 4-6 and discussing along would help understanding the text and create something like common sense about what Karl Marx was teaching us.

    I always aks myself how the readers manage to keep up their powerful spirit for 30 minutes and don't get slower, thoughtfuller, doubtfuller, or more agited at times... keeping their level of concentration while presenting, performing and understanding such a demanding text. And I think, well, they're professionals, they STUDIED to do this. Obviously it's more than this I understand now.

    Thanks a lot to you and your colleagues, applause, congratulations, respect!

    1. Thanks so much, Brigitte, for this very kind comment. It's interesting to get a perspective from the viewer's side, the perspective I always wonder about, and that you've had the chance to revisit this piece and others over the long run of the Biennale. One work in the Arena I have revisited a lot is "Work Song" (sometimes called "Work Songs") that is performed at 4:40 every Thurs, Frid, Sat & Sunday. I think it--and its performers--are fantastic. Have you seen it? I think I'll have a post on it soon.

      But it must have been very loaded to be reading Marx in the 1970s in WEST Germany. I imagine it could make you very unpopular, shall we say, with certain people (and the authorities). It's quite an undertaking to grapple with Marx and his big Victorian work no matter how or where or when you do it.

    2. In the 70ies Marx (and his followers) wasn't unpopular at West German universities. According to the 68-movement his philosophy was essential. And of course it was also sometimes boring (very) and sometimes a good deal of showing off and image cultivation (male). But basicly Marx was the teacher of class consciousness and I personally consider Enwesors filter "Reading 'Das Kapital'" as a memento of being conscious of where you stand in the contemporary globalized world, which side or class you are supporting and which you stand up against. I don't think Enwesor's idea is everybody to read "Das Kapital" but by having it read (and listened to only some minutes) to remind us there are opinions to be taken and defended.

      I happened to listen to the "Diary of a Photographer" twice, but I had no chance yet to hear the "Work Songs" yet, this week or next I''ll manage to go and I'm really looking forward. And I'm looking forward to you post about them too.

    3. I think that's a very good take on what Enwezor is trying to do, Brigitte. In a world in which neo-liberalism keeps trying to proclaim itself triumphant and as being the only answer, just to have the words of Marx given voice is rather bracing. He models the kind of critical thinking that is in far too short supply these days.

      I've seen parts of the "Diary of a Photographer" and found it quite interesting--though am amazed it runs for 2 hours! Next Thurs, Fri, Sat and Sunday only there may again be two singers doing "Work songs". It has just been one for the last few weeks. But either of the singers, whether solo or in a duo, are amazing.