This could be one way to write a history of recent performing arts: By following artists’ attempts to speak on stage, in staged situations, at all. By Tracing the trials and errors of finding a spoken language that is not pretending to be intrinsically motivated, not presumptuous, not fake.

New York’s legendary Wooster Group hiding behind stunning playback virtuosity. The almost-as-legendary British theatre company Forced Entertainment not daring to say word live on stage for almost a decade, only using pre-recorded soundtracks until they came up with the idea of reciting lists and using Q&A games: functional speech instead of feigned psychology. Theatre maker René Pollesch being inspired by the mono-emotional rapid speech of the director and writer John Jesurun. The She She Pop collective rehearsing the quotidian sound of amateurish authenticity that later became mainstream in Reality TV. Rimini Protokoll sending „real people” onto the stage instead of performers. How can one stand in front of an audience and speak without falling into the trap of false representation?

For some years, Zorka Wollny also kept tiptoeing around this problem. When there was voice on stage, there were no bodies. When there were bodies, there was no voice. Silent dancers in galleries; invisible sources of sound. Once they finally appeared together in one space, they still were separated: Some bodies moving, others singing.

It was the form of the choir that finally offered a solution. A solution that had aesthetic and ethical reasons and consequences.

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Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, Portugal, Greece. A little later New York, London, Tel Aviv, and Istanbul, then Brazil, Japan, Korea, Argentina . . . the year 2010 kicked off a decade of demonstrations all around the world. The catalysts igniting each instance of unrest may differ, but artists were and are almost always among the first to take up the call for social justice and strengthened democracy. No matter the site (squares and parks like Tahrir, Zuccotti, Syntagma, Taksim, and Maidan), no matter the backdrop (Tokyo after Fukushima, Niemeyer’s iconic parliamentary architecture in Brasilia, or beneath umbrellas in Hong Kong), the same question arose: how could art – how could artistic strategies and tactics – play a relevant role in these movements? A renewed interest in the concepts of gathering and creating public spheres in which society not only is mirrored but constantly tried out, performed, tested, reimagined, or even reinvented, fundamentally changed the artistic discourse.

And so it is neither by chance, nor without larger context. that Wollny’s trajectory of bringing bodies and voices together began around the same time. Oratorio for Orchestra and Warsaw Citizens’ Choir (2011) mixed professional musicians with activists and engaged citizens, translating the genre of the oratorio into a secularized “form of expression for pluralist society, a polyphony of opinions and postulates”1. From improvisations and numerous conversations, a libretto of political demands emerged. Behind Oratorio stood the deliberate choice to move orchestra and choir out of the safe space of the concert hall and onto the streets of Warsaw.

Songs of Resistance (2014), a one off-performance created in cooperation with students from Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, echoed demonstrations at Taksim Square that were ended violently by the Turkish Government less than a year earlier: Ten people standing on a street, eyes closed. Whispering, screaming, mumbling, making noises of machines; sometimes reminiscences of words or melodies appeared. “We worked with the revolutionary potential of the voice, changing the exclamations, slogans and fragments of songs into abstract sounds and composing a short demonstration.” A demonstration and the absence of a demonstration; a performance of a protest that was a protest. Nothing concrete was said and everything was clearly readable.

But – and this is key for many of Wollny’s projects – Songs or Resistance not only addressed the audience, the invited guests, the passers-by. The real political moment lay in the performers’ own experiences. Unprotected, blind, at the mercy of the reactions of the people around, the vulnerability that mirrored the vulnerability to the authoritarian state grew into a feeling of empowerment and strength. Breaking the silence by obeying it.

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Emotions not only play an important role in life and art, but also in politics. As philosopher Chantal Mouffe says: “Ideas only have force when they meet affects. In order to generate enthusiasm and move people to act, one has to convey affects that resonate with their desires and personal experiences.”2

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Social and political movements of recent years have often been characterized by their search for alternative forms of gathering, of arguing and making decisions, of negotiating community and society. The potential of these assemblies lies in more than just the demands they put forward; many change reality simply by practicing radical models of democracy.

In this context, the concept of the choir is as compelling as it is problematic. On one hand, it has since the ancient Greek tragedies stood for collectivity and is considered a representation of society, a metaphor for democracy. On the other, it embodies the ideas of unison, of exactness, of synchronized harmony aiming for perfection. However, the choir projects an ambivalence that today is reflected in a society of networked individuals that longs for a political discourse of collectivity but fears the levelling effects of en masse assimilation.

This is why Wollny’s choirs avoid both frontal situations and internal hierarchies. Their librettos are – with a few pragmatic exceptions – developed as a collective effort. The participants improvise, adding their own political statements; the text derives from individual and collective questions, doubts and demands. Nobody must use words they don’t agree with.

While the librettos produced by this process seem to come from one mould, the soundscape makes the performers’ diversity clearly graspable. “We listen to each other, but we work rather like an organism than a strong machine.” It is a living, changing, imperfect harmony, allowing weaker voices, as well. Everybody in their own rhythm. There is no mistake even an apparently false tone, a missed beat, becomes part of the work.
Wollny’s choirs are temporary collectives. Social aspects, ethics and aesthetics cannot be separated. These choirs work best when they relate directly to an existing conflict, when the people involved feel an urge to express themselves. Then, they are not only artworks but also tools in a struggle.

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Another politically charged situation, again under an open sky: Polyphonic Manifesto (2019) gathered – in collaboration with the Warsaw Polin Choir – the biggest group of performers so far, stating the desire for “a temporary utopian community where one could freely express their opinions, creating a musical event – a communion of voices. Rather than searching for harmony we looked for intentions and emotions which bought us together.”

The performance was created in the context of the Sunday demonstrations in Warsaw, a series of protests against the right-wing government, elected in four years earlier, and its illiberal agenda that took aim at curtailing women rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and the presence of foreigners in the country.: “There was a lot of frustration, fear, and anger. I had the feeling we can give people a tool to deal with it…” and show solidarity with those “whose voices are weak or inaudible in the general noise.”

This is especially evident in the work’s third action – Now! – which accompanied the Polish Social Forum, comes close to the forms and also the effects of activist movements taking to the street: a call for rebellion, a musical demonstration that culminated not only in demands but in overarching questions, echoing thinkers like American thinker Henry David Thoreau, the German philosopher Erich Fromm, and French social psychologist Gustave Le Bon: “Is there no alternative to the capitalist and communist industrialism? Is it impossible to build a society where an individual can retain his or her role as an active and responsible person?”

Once again, space took part in defining the choir and the content of Wollny’s action. Not only does she prefer public venues for these overtly political works, it is the publicity of the space itself that makes the work more political. “A composed demonstration”; “a social forum run by the means of music.”

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Wollny’s choirs often aim for both: They want to establish safer spaces for the participants while at the same time creating agonistic confrontation with the outside. This seemingly contradictory aim is quite common in contemporary performing arts – and not easy to fulfill.
The concept of safe spaces (today rather called “safer spaces”) has its origins in the USA in the 1960s, where it first appeared in the context of the feminist movement and was later taken up by civil rights activists: a protected space in which a group of people who already had the short end of the stick could come together to define their own goals and strategies without being constantly challenged. It was a matter of having a say in the first place; of formulating common goals, but also discussing how these could be achieved without shying away from disagreement.

As put forward by theoreticians like Mouffe – this agonistic pluralism emphasizes the need for democracy as a battlefield, giving room to act out our differences as opponents without resolving them.

In this regard, the safety attempted within the rehearsals and as much as possible during the performances does not necessarily apply to audience, whose supposedly stable ground of normality begins to sway for some viewers, confronted as they are with demands, fears and questions that are at times not easy to digest. “A safer space is necessary, so that the participants can focus, can be present, can identify with the work.”

Works like Things I Don’t Tell You (2022) are only possible on a foundation of mutual understanding and a general trust that carries the performance. Bringing together victims of domestic violence in England gives the work a therapeutic overtone, with its libretto a vehicle for finding a voice. Within the choir, participants can expose themselves. But they also are protected; not alone.

In this case, the work had to provide even more protection: the choir stayed invisible. Its only performance took place in front of members’ friends and supporters; the recording afterwards being turned into a karaoke-style video that invited viewers to identify with emotional and political trajectory of the performers by singing, shouting, whispering along. Their accusation come in a series of questions, questions the women ask themselves, questions both very personal and yet questions that many victims can relate to. Self-doubts, self-accusations, a stream of consciousness of a restless mind trying to get out:

How will I get out?
Is it my fault?
Is it going to be like this forever?”
Why do you allow this?
Aren’t you too sensitive?
Do you want to get him into trouble?
Why didn’t you leave?
Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?

Finally, the possibility of self-empowerment takes shape; more as an evocation than an achieved goal:

I’m not afraid anymore.
I’m not afraid anymore.
I live by my rules.
I live by my rules.

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Things I Don’t Tell You ends in a flow of free improvisation. A step into independence that is both individual and embedded in the choir, in the group. Bodies are hidden, but not to make them disappear. Their absence makes them even more present: The lack of a world where these bodies do not dare to show themselves. But their voice already is here. A demand, an accusation, an offer.

“What is more political than a human voice?”