You have done research in various places such as in Germany as well as in the UK, and currently you are a professor of British Cultural and Literary Studies in Vienna. What do you particularly like about that city?
You are right in that I have lived and worked in a number of places from Poland to France, various stations in Germany, the UK, Australia, South Africa and the USA. Although such nomad life has many drawbacks, one of its advantages is that you get to know many places, systems, people – you also learn navigation in unknown waters – and this makes adaptation easier. Each of those places of course leaves a mark and transforms your viewpoint, your chemical, neurological, and even your microbiome structure so that you become a walking amalgam of all the places you’ve been to and the people you’ve met. And so, I would not want to miss the moments of beauty, quirkiness, but also the struggles, problems, silences, disappointments, etc., that I associate with them.
Let me give you some examples of the things that have stayed with me: I love Krakow for its walkability, architecture, cultural richness, and the international horizons it introduced me to. I cherish Avignon and Mainz for the new daily rhythms and rituals they imposed on me. London is my city. New York is the ‘affair’ I have when London becomes too mundane. The North of Germany – especially the nature there, which many find boring, – is my space of reflection and healing.
As for Vienna – for me, it’s still difficult to tell. I moved there just before the pandemic so, in fact, I have only begun to get to know it. From the start, it reminded me of Krakow and my studies, so it has felt strangely familiar, but also old-fashioned, like the Krakow of the early 2000s and not 2020s (e.g., when it comes to the shop-window aesthetics). With my predilection for the long nineteenth century, intermediality, adaptation, transmediality, and history of medicine, I have got so much to explore in the city, I do not know where to start. It’s the beginning of my journey here, let’s see where it takes me. I’ve got a great, very versatile team in Vienna and am happy to explore the possibilities the city offers with them and through their projects. I also have many colleagues whose work is fascinating and – since I thrive on interdisciplinary exchange – I am very much looking forward to seeing where those synergies take me.
What are your plans or projects for your time here in New York, is there anything you are looking forward to? And what can you tell us about it?
My stay in New York is already ending, I’m afraid. I have enjoyed archival research, which often makes me feel like a detective – I am excited when I discover new stories, and when I can make connections. Especially, when I don’t expect them. Like this time. Although I was actually researching on ecological health, I have gained new insights into the art of Aubrey Beardsley, a controversial nineteenth-century figure, whose fascinating drawings still astound my students. I have found additional material on his collaborative efforts, which I can, hopefully, turn into a paper on adaptation and intermediality – my other research interests. And then, there are, of course, myriad everyday practices that I – as a cultural studies scholar – have observed and am interested in.
Having a look on your current project on pandemic theater, what piqued your interest in pursuing this topic? What would you say what is the most striking change in the rapid pandemic-related shift from enjoying culture (e.g., in the theater) in person to digital? Have you watched a lot of digitals plays? What did you like about them, maybe you even have a favorite play?
I am interested in ‘digital theatre’ not only from the ‘post’-pandemic perspective. Theatre has always been a very adaptive medium, experimenting with space, bodies, media, and spectators’ perspectives. It has also transformed so much throughout the centuries – think of amphitheaters in classical times, medieval wagons, Renaissance apron stages – until it turned into what we today regard as the ‘traditional’ form of proscenium theatre. Still, with performance, happenings (and NYC has been very influential here), immersive theatre or today’s VR plays, theatre does not cease to search for new forms and ways of engaging and interacting with audiences.
In view of all this, what I have been interested in have been the ways in which such technologies as Zoom have been used in this context, most particularly, to connect spectators in challenging times. While I do think that the concomitant discourse of ‘community’ was important and necessary in times like these. I also think we should – as scholars, audience members, and citizens – talk more about the problems that plague theatre (and other cultural institutions): economic exploitation of theatre makers in times of crisis, fallible financial infrastructures and systemic inequalities, lack of access, the – apparently – ever-dwindling value that those institutions hold in public eye.
I do not want to repeat truisms, nor do I want to sound moralistic or too committed to an idea of engaged theatre. Still, I think it is worth repeating that in order to make sense of our existence, to find receptacles for our experience, and to change the perspective from which we see the world, we need the arts. I think theatre does a great deal to adopt new forms and adapt to ever-changing circumstances and I think we’d do well if we kept this in mind. I have recently realized that many of my students (of British Culture and Literature) have never watched a theatre play – and we are talking here about students who live in Vienna/Austria, and who have amazing opportunities when it comes to seeing world-theatre. I would not like to turn that into any argument about the relevance of this form/genre. Rather, I’d want to urge all to invite young people to try and see whether this may be something that speaks to them.
As far as my favorites are concerned, let me just mention three projects that I have been alerted to by my colleagues Otto Wulf and Anna Burzynska, who participated in the conference I co-organized last year. These projects pick up some of the issues I have talked about earlier. Do see for yourselves: If you are interested in hearing more about these, do contact me – we have a special issue with Theatre Research International (Presence, Politics, Resistance:Tendencies in (Post-)Pandemic Performance and Theatre), which will come out early next year. You can follow us for updates here.
You have been to New York many times by now. What has changed here over the years - perhaps also due to the pandemic? And what is still fascinating for you here?
The last time I have been here was five years ago. Considering that I mostly spent time in the archives, I would not like to make general comparisons, especially that the New York that I experience now is a city that begins to wake from a long lockdown-sleep and only slowly returns to some of its routines. I sense certain continuity. Take, for instance, the art on Governor’s Island – while not as abundant (subjectively seen) as five years ago, the projects enliven the space and open new dialogues with the island’s architecture and its past, or a brewery on Staten Island – still there, still serving, even if I’d probably not go for a pumpkin-spice stout again, but it was worth trying; Polish pierogi, pastries, and books in Greenpoint – still there.
There’s also another type of continuity (though not unproblematic) – the space that permanent collections of ‘great masters’ afford. Those paintings exude a certain type of permanence, longevity, and contemplative quiet that cocoons you even in such turbulent times like these. This said, I have noticed, though I cannot possibly put my finger on when this began to change, that such collections like the Met or National Gallery in London have finally begun to change the painterly ‘canon’ to include the ‘non-existent’ great women painters (with a bow to Lynda Nochlin) and representations of ethnic minorities (which has just started happening). While I am a bit worried about the tokenization of these perspectives, I strongly believe that they are indispensable to our perception of our histories and cultures and am grateful that they are beginning to appear.
Clearly, how I see the city also of course depends on how I’ve changed. This time, to my astonishment, I have suddenly begun to inspect NY from a Viennese perspective – looking for connections. I have found ‘new’ artists whose work I have yet to explore in Vienna, became aware of another immersive Klimt experience (apparently new adaptive tendency), spotted the Neue Galerie (which serves a ‘Klimttorte’, which, I am sure, few Austrians have heard about). While looking at Klimt’s Serena Pulitzer Lederer (1899), I am reminded – again – that I almost rented one of his apartments and that my office is in the building complex where he died – in the tract that apparently housed the offices of Ignaz Semmelweis – one of the pioneers of antiseptic surgery who, unlike John Lister, died embittered, confined to a mental institution.
Evidently, as far as inspiration, research, and exchanges with colleagues are concerned, New York never fails to deliver. At times I feel like on a sentimental journey where I pick up dusty ‘old’ objects of interest that the city enlivens. Take fashion: it seems like Lyotard’s words on history as a simultaneous procession of past styles rings true as far as clothing is concerned – New York’s streets as sites that give past fashions a new simultaneity that twists temporality.
For all its fascinations, the city has been gnawing at me, too. What has been striking is how the inequalities that the pandemic has exacerbated have become embodied through the number of people living in the streets. That’s not unique to New York, but, because of its size and population density, the fallible infrastructures, systemic inequalities, and provisional support become incarnated, most visibly, by the many people without a roof over their heads. Some of the encounters have reminded me of the housing problems in the Victorian era, which made me angry. Without necessarily wanting to sound paternalistic I wonder how it can be that our societies – as advanced as we wish to think them to be – are unable to learn from past crises? With the technological, scientific, etc. advancements that we have at our disposal, how can it be that in New York alone over 50.000 (registered) unhouse people have to live like that? Have we (and I mean policy-makers, governments, officials, etc.; but I am also not taking myself out of the equation) not learned anything at all in those 150 years? Do we have the right to call ourselves human when we pass by a person prostrated in the middle of a pavement, unsure whether they still breathe, and do nothing? While I do understand the – shall we call it – instinct to shield ourselves to ‘survive’, does this not signal a profound humanitarian crisis?
Part of your research is on the human body and diseases/the medical history in the Victorian era, now we have gone through a pandemic ourselves. Having in mind your own studies, what is particularly interesting for you to observe in these times?
This question brings be back to what I’ve just said about my inability to grasp our jadedness vis-à-vis those of us whom life (as a synecdoche for the malfunctioning systems we have created) has treated less benignly. You are right that I have done research on the (historical and contemporary) interrelations between illness, body, and media representations, be it e.g. the way certain diseases gain high cultural visibility (like breast cancer), while others remain at the margins of public interest. What I have been interested in are the ways in which we have learned to talk about (and narrate) stories of illness – our own, those of others around us – but also collective narratives about how we conceptualize health and illness. I have also been interested in what other means of expression (drawings, photography, blogs, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) we have and use to ‘translate’ our experience of what it means to be ill. Both narratives and representations influence our identities, the way we act within society but also such mundane things as our attitude towards doctors and whether we decide to take up any healthcare at all.
I’ve seen various ways in which art has been used to draw attention to the significance of these narratives and representations, find novel – less stigmatizing – ways of talking about illness, and develop new forms that would hold the experience of being ill, e.g. Margaret Edson’s Wit (1999) or Peter Friedman and Tom Joslin’s Silverlake Life (1993).
Still, what continues to astound but also frustrate me is the difficulty (or our inability) to develop new narratives about illness that would, perhaps, make it easier for us to grasp the experience without simultaneously forcing us to take up blame or put blame on somebody.
In this context, what makes me angry is the way illnesses are talked (or not talked) about in the media. Many of these narratives continue to ostracize particular groups: bluntly stated, if you are a migrant, woman or not white, chances are that some information channel or other will target you as a disease carrier. It has been the case with such illness as syphilis (famously every nation had named it after their long-term enemies), it is the case with Covid-19.
What we are also oblivious to is the constructedness and affective power of images. Somehow the naïve trust in the representational ‘truth’ of photography persists and, with it, the idea that the medium gives us access to some sort of unmediated ‘reality’. Of course, this is not the case. Because of this belief though and the affective power that images have, we are very often manipulated by images and seldom reflect on that. This is dangerous. We’ve been talking about an ‘infodemic’ – I also think we should talk about a ‘visiodemic’ (https://angl.winter-verlag.de/article/angl/2021/3/15) – the way that visual information impacts our processes of cognition and knowledge creation.
What I am saying is that we continue to tell old stories about illness and that the way we represent it often leads to ostracism and discrimination. Illness is somehow still often seen as some sort of punishment as well as a shameful subject – as though we ourselves were responsible for bringing it onto ourselves. This must stop. Our society has sanitized death and illness – it is difficult to come to terms with them if we do not have any frames that would help us make sense of such experience. Illness is relational – it changes our positioning vis-à-vis ourselves, our bodies, others, and the world – it is high time that we begin to rethink the way we (do not) talk about, show, and see it in order to help ourselves and our planet. Since perennial times people have believed in the interconnectedness of people, nature, objects, and the universe – while the scalability of various ecological behaviors may be questioned, I do believe in the one health model and that, if we took this model seriously, we could perhaps make better political decisions that would bring a long-term bettering of our situation. I am adopting a preachy tone somehow, but I do strongly believe that we need united action to change the political and social systems and to imagine a better trajectory for this world. I also believe that a broader understanding of health may prove helpful here.