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“The drug of capitalism”

INTERVIEW. Max Schumacher, founder and co-artistic director of the international multiplatform Post Theater, discusses his latest muse – coffee. It starts its jittery run on Feb 9 at Dock 11.

Aras Goetken

Max Schumacher, founder and co-artistic director of the international multiplatform Post Theater, discusses his latest muse – coffee.

Post Theater’s multimedia performances are created with the modern audience in mind, often treading the line between installation and theatre.

As the final piece in their trilogy of performances based around globalised natural resources (following oil and fish), Caffee features five female choreographers commissioned to create movements set to sound art and inspired by the beverage most of us consume on a daily basis.

The show runs February 9-12 at Dock 11, and in keeping with the theme, each audience member will receive a free cup of locally roasted Einstein coffee.

How was the premiere of Caffee in Bremen last December?

We performed at a place called [Alte] Stauerei, at the exact historical spot where the coffee was imported. We also had a local roaster next door who sponsored it.

In each city we work with a local roaster in order to have free coffee for the audience: in Berlin we work with Einstein.

It’s important to work with a local roasterie that has created a local identity. Because, as we talk about in the piece, the new tendency is to draw the attention away from exoticism, the longing for ‘the Other’, and instead focus back on your own town, regionalism. So you can’t have regionally grown coffee, but at least you can have it regionally roasted.

What was the path from the subject of coffee to the theme of exoticism?

It comes from this German canon that everybody learned in school, up to a certain generation, called “C-A-F-F-E-E: don’t drink so much coffee. Not for children, it’s the Turkish drink, it weakens your nerves, it makes you pale. Don’t be a Muslim – they can’t refrain from it.”

So, it’s super xenophobic. To defend it, it’s from the late 18th century, and people were still under the oppression of the very powerful Ottoman Empire. So this is actually also about the guilty pleasure of the coffee drug that came from the Muslim world; that’s what made it so exciting and intriguing.

That’s why this song, which was probably ironic in the first place, has been tremendously popular for over 200 years. And also because you sing the letters of ‘caffee’ with the musical notes C-A-F-F-E-E.

So the song serves as the thread tying the dance pieces together?

This is the visual frame as well, because we have the note lines and coffee beans as musical notes on stage and to some degree our performers are coffee beans.

The choreographers also asked themselves: how do you perform coffee? How do you relate your own presence to this material? Some look at how they have been branded as this exotic other as dancers or artists. And some just looked at the drug aspect.

There’s one Turkish-German girl who didn’t want to talk about the Turkish origins of the coffee at all. She talks about the effect of coffee on her: the awakeness, the need to exist in capitalism as an awake person. Because that’s what coffee is, the drug of capitalism.

The rise of coffee is parallel to the rise of industrialization. This is why the countries that consume the most coffee are the ones that are the most successful industrially. Great Britain’s the one exception. They successfully replaced coffee with tea.

Your theatrical techniques often incorporate visual installation and interactive elements. Do you see your work as performance art?

I avoid the term ‘performance art’. I mainly don’t like it because I find the term limiting, and the performances usually devoid of dramaturgy – the organisation of events in time.

A lot don’t consider the time frame: they are either durational or non-climatic, and to my experience it doesn’t really work. Most people tend to be rather bored because there’s not a good time structure.

I believe in dramaturgy as a tool that enhances and focuses an artistic idea. Our perception of time-based art is time-based, so we can’t ignore the time factor. Performance artists sometimes do that, but the audience doesn’t do it. Plus, I don’t necessarily need the ‘authenticity’ of the body involved.

Which makes sense, considering many of your works rely on media elements and less on human performers.

We use media as a metaphor for everything that’s alive but not a human being. We’re interested in an object and how it can be alive, and that’s why I think it’s actually a cheap trick to hurt yourself in public.

Authenticity is a cliché, and a lot of performance art also happens to be a cliché. Plus, because of the authenticity, there is a general understanding that we have to appreciate it.

What are you supposed to say when somebody tells you that he’s from the provincial US, gay and being discriminated against? Of course people admire this person for speaking up, and for me, this is socially very relevant, but artistically rather lame – in most cases.

As an artist who’s been based in Berlin for nearly a decade you’ve watched more and more artists come to the city while the amount of arts funding remains basically the same. How would you like to see the funding system in Berlin improved?

Finding creative ideas in other cities for how budgets can be used more efficiently is probably a more effective solution than just increasing budgets. For example: in Munich you don’t have to rent technical equipment at a high price – the city provides it at a super-low price.

In Stuttgart the city billboards are extremely cheap. Here it’s more expensive to hang the poster than print it. As German-based artists we also have a disadvantage in comparison to Canadian or French artists who have much better international touring support.

If somebody wants to invite our productions they have to pay for it fully. The Goethe-Institut hardly ever pays for any of it: they just don’t have the budget.

The name ‘Post Theater’ suggests that what you create goes beyond traditional theatre. How have you interpreted that over your history?

When we started we really wanted to challenge the concept of western or eastern or ethnically specific theatre, a mission that is less crucial to us now.

Another ongoing goal is to examine how much live-ness is needed. Because electronic media is linear or pre-produced to some degree, it is much more reliable than weak, moody, imprecise human beings.

But if theatre is the art of live-ness, and live-ness requires flaws, then our flaws might be more ‘between’ rather than ‘in’ the individual performers.

I guess this is why a bunch of our performances have turned into installations, or productions where the audience becomes the performer, led by the media.

There will be a piece in which the audience will interact with our musical note coffee beans as a media installation. This ‘instant coffee’ is the next step for us.

CAFFEE Feb 9-12, 20:30 | Dock 11, Kastanienallee 79, Prenzlauer Berg, U-Bhf Senefelderplatz.