Prague Quadrennial offers bold mix of culture and politics

Simulated airplane crash at Karlovo náměstí, photo: CTK

The Prague Quadrennial, the largest exhibition of performance design and theatre architecture in the world, gets under way in Prague on Wednesday. Hundreds of exhibitions from all over the world, exploring the latest trends in the field of scenography, will take place all around the city over the course of ten days, hosting performers from all around the world.

Sodja Lotker,  photo: archive of PQ
I spoke to Sodja Lotker, the artistic director of the 13th Prague Quadrennial, and I first asked her how the festival has changed since it was established back in 1967.

“During Communism Prague Quadrennial was a very important place where East and West would meet. It was one of the rare places where artists from the two sides could see each other’s work, one of the rare places where Westerners would come in Eastern Europe. So that was a very crucial thing until the Velvet Revolution.

“After the Velvet Revolution we struggled a little bit about the purpose of this event. We were exhibiting designs that were taken out of context of the performance. We were just showing models and pictures.

“Until we realised that the theatre has really changed so that we cannot only show theatre for stage anymore. We realised that we have to show scenography as art in itself, as installations and scenography projects themselves and to show that theatre stages can be found anywhere.

“So today quadrennial is more of a meeting place and we are very proud that it’s not a place of products but a place of process. So everybody is invited to see the thoughts, the ideas, the questions and the problems behind the creative process, rather than finished work where the quality is guaranteed.

“The guarantee of quality is not our priority. The priority is the trying, the making but mainly the dialogue.”

So what’s new at this year’s quadrennial?

During Communism Prague Quadrennial was a very important place where East and West would meet.

“For this year’s quadrennial we invited the national curators who are making expositions of the individual countries to join the theme Shared Space: music weather and politics.

“The main idea behind this was to provoke them to think about how only how you do theatre and what you do in the theatre but why you do it. To think about the society they are making the theatre for.

“The world is in a certain crisis, economic, political, immigration crisis. So I thought we cannot ignore the situation because theatre is part of society. Visual art can be done by individuals for their own poetic purposes but theatre is always done with others and for others.

“So in a way it always has this social aspect. So that’s why we chose the theme Shared Space, because it is one of the few places where people physically and mentally share something.

“I was worried about the subject because it’s a little bit serious. But I was very excited when we got the proposal from the curators of the national expositions because I could see that people really are worried about this world.”

So how is the main theme Shared Space: Music, Weather, Politics reflected in the main expositions?

“Different national curators are taking it differently. Some of them take it literally and really work with political theatre, for instance or do weather situations. We are going to have wind and fog and rain which are really beautiful scenography environments, obviously.

Spanish exposition,  photo: David Pastor / archive of PQ
“Some of them are combining these themes, for example the Finnish exposition is working with music and weather and how the weather influences musical instruments and how the sounds change under the influence of the weather.

“What I see from the way they are working with these subjects is that we always think about the world as globalised but the world is not globalised. Different nations really have different souls and mentalities. Everybody is interested in these important subjects but everyone is taking it very differently.

“One of my favourite one is the Spanish expositions. It is a big tomb, in which they decided to bury all the values that were valid until now. Everything that was good in design and theatre is dead and we have to find new ways. And I think it is really brave to exhibit the nothingness, the question.”

Can you mention at least some of the main events?

“We have around 620 events. My favourite is probably going to be a Skype talk s with Jerzy Gurawski, who co-operated with the Jerzy Grotowski, important Polish director from the 1960s and 70s.

“Mr Gurawski is over 80 years old and he couldn’t come here, but I think he is one of the freshest minds in the theatre and arts today. He works will all the newest technologies and with young people. He is also the creator of the Polish exposition. So that’s one of my favourite things.”

Lots of the events are actually taking place outside, in the public space. Would you say that interactivity is the main denominator for many of these events?

Visual art can be done by individuals for their own poetic purposes but theatre is always done with others and for others.

“Interactivity is a problematic word. But I think that in today’s world, where we are all so used to our smartphones and internet everything has to be interactive, people don’t like to be disconnected and not to have some kind of influence over things. So yes, things are interactive, at least mentally.

“We will have at least two boats on the river Vltava. The Mexican and Australian exhibitions will take place on the river. We also have a few exhibitions in vans, the Dutch and the Spanish expositions. So we have a lot of moving exhibitions around the centre, too.”

One of the new things about this year’s PQ is that you have decided to move to the centre of Prague. The main venues are located in the centre.

“The venues are all between the Old Town Square, Charles Bridge and the National Theatre and we moved there out of necessity. We used to be at the Industrial palace at Výstaviště, which partially burned down and it’s not possible to use it anymore. Then we used the National Gallery, where there is the Mucha exhibition now.

“So there was no space big enough for us in the centre. So we decided to fragment the exhibition and put it into a series of different spaces. Technically it’s very hard to get things into these Baroque palaces through these tiny streets in Prague.

“But I think it’s going to be very beautiful and to have a possibility to walk between the palaces and to see the insides of some of the buildings which are not normally accessible to the public.”

Denmark,  Through Different Eyes,  photo: Ana Andrea Malzer / archive of PQ
“One thing I am a little bit worried about is that this area is really full of tourists but I am proud that we are going for it and I feel like we are regaining the centre for ourselves, for the artists.”

As far as I know, every year you also invite students and schools to participate. Is that the case this year?

“Yes, we have a big section where theatre schools, visual art schools, architecture schools exhibit. But the students also present their performances in the streets and indoors and they have a lot of workshops. We are providing possibilities to really hang around with professionals, to really mix.

“We also have special programmes for children, such as walks, and also a place for them to exhibit. The starting point for children is at Kafka’s house right off of Old Town Square and the students’ place is at Prague Academy of Performing Arts.”

Prague Quadrennial kicks off on Wednesday but one event, a simulated airplane crash, has already taken place in Prague. Can you tell me more about the event?

“It happened last Friday and I must admit I am extremely proud of that event. VOSTO5, the Czech theatre company, did a simulation an air crash. What we saw were actually the firemen, policemen and the medical groups exercising the way they normally do, along with actors who were acting the wounded and the dead.

“It took place at Karlovo náměstí, in the park, so the space was huge and there were a lot of people. But I think that what is important about this piece is that it was theatre without theatre, in a way. The exercise itself was the theatre.

Simulated airplane crash at Karlovo náměstí,  photo: CTK
“The way policemen and all these people behaved they weren't acting, they were really creating a presence. It was really emotionally for all of us to see how focused they are, how they are going for their work, how they are really precise and fast and on top of things.

“When I was going there I was really worried that once there is audience they are going to start acting and it was going to become a clowny thing, but it wasn't. It was this very fast and very precise event. I think it kind of questioned what performing is and what theatre is; what's acting and what's exercising, what's real and what's not real.”