Entertaining Marx in the Machine of Capital: Skirball Center’s On Your Marx Festival

Ivo Dimchev's P Project. Photo by Paul McGee.

“There is too much civilization, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce.”

— Karl Marx & Freidrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto

Within days of the On Your Marx Festival’s press release going public, the internet was abuzz and The Skirball Center’s twitter account had garnered multiple responses from individuals coloring the institution, housed at NYU, as a propagator of brainwashing communism into the student body.

But this is 2018, and this is where we are, this is what happens.

And on the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx birthday (on May 5th, actually) we might bemuse the thought, “What would Marx think about all this?”

Jay Wegman, Senior Director of the Skirball Center and curator for the festival, isn’t leading with that particular curiosity. Instead, he sees this festival as an opportunity to embrace the plurality of Marx’s often misunderstood thoughts and writings, and the tricky, sticky space between idealism and action.

“It’s a total experiment,” says Wegman, who is now entering his third year as director of the Skirball Center. “We’ll see what happens.”

The festival, running October 17 - 28, will feature dance, theater, music work, and lectures inspired by or responding to Marxist thought. True to this ethos, every event is free and open to the public, with the opportunity to place your own value upon the work, paying “what-you-think-it’s-worth.” Accompanying each program will be a budget, to promote transparency and to demystify the means of production behind artistic practice.

There is a rich, provocative array of offerings here in the festival, but as I talked with the artists involved, what stuck out as most significant is an embrace of queer and non-white bodies and narratives. The festival is remarkably poised to contemplate and embrace queerness in a political space and dialogue that has often excluded it, even within the realms of promoting all workers. 

Composer Ethan Philbrick’s choral interpretation of The Communist Manifesto (Choral Marx, October 28) intends to democratize the chorus through an assemblage of diverse bodies and voices. By bringing trained and untrained voices together as the chorus, Philbrick looks to critique the constraints upon historic and narrow-minded Marxist traditions, ones that are not actually rooted in Karl Marx’s writings. When representation matters, it also matters to the history of political movements and aspirations.

In Philbrick’s dramaturgical material, a particular quote from Mario Mieli’s Towards a Gay Communism: Elements of a Homosexual critique stood out to me: 

Within what has been silenced by our history, in the terrible and sublime secrets of public toilets, under the weight of the chains with which the heterosexual society has bound and subdued us, there lies concealed the uniqueness of our (potential) contribution to revolution and to the creation of communism.

This is most valuable, and Meili’s searing assertion provokes the potential for communism right now. At this moment, what the festival can offer to the complexity of Karl Marx’s legacy, finally, is a true celebration of the political movement’s capacity for inclusion.

luciana achugar. Photo by Nathaniel Phillips.

“There is an image of the Leftist in America as a stodgy anti-capitalist older white guy who can talk about labor organizing and can talk about property but can't talk about how gender and race and sexuality are a part of all those conversations about property and labor,” Philbrick says. “So, the bodies singing are going to sing and will speak back to Marx in this way.”

Premiering a work commissioned specifically for the festival, choreographer luciana achugar, a Brooklyn-based Uruguayan artist, will present her piece Brujx (Oct. 19 - 20) which will directly address value and treatment of the dancer as laborer, in both process and eventual product.

“What I'm doing in the process is instead of using the dancer as an employee or worker, or laborer that has its body as the mode of production, not unlike a factory worker, I'm trying to use them not to make a product but rather make the product and the work be about the emancipation of the work through the practice we make,” achugar says. She is looking for a “liberation of ourselves” in the ritualistic and shared space of dance.

“Instead of time in this linear sense and movement in an assembly line Fordist choreography of order, we will have the repetition and choreography take us into a more transcendent state where we become goddesses and witches,” achugar asserts.

This place of transcendence for achugar seemingly arrives at striving in manifesting another kind of destiny for the body. The overriding question for achugar, in both Brujx and her ongoing investigation of the dancer/laborer, is can you work really hard without abusing yourself?

A group performs a piece by luciana achugar, CANADA Gallery (NYC). Photo by Phil Grauer.

The power of Marx and his writings is the revolutionary way of seeing, giving individuals an alternate lens through which to view and dissect the seemingly inevitable progression of capitalism.  His ideology became a tool—a weapon—and as with all such items, its usage depends on the hand that wields it. Wegman weighs in on this.

“We’ve got 150 years of interpretation,” he says. “And so, some of the comments on our webpage from the Alt-Right were like, "What are you going to do next, a Polpot festival? Marx killed hundreds of thousands of people!" And I'm like, well actually he didn't kill anyone and his theories were misapplied or misappropriated so, you know, it's . . .”

Wegman trails off, leaving the thought open-ended.

Which feels very much on point for the thrust of the festival—just as Marx has been interpreted and heavily misinterpreted, the offerings promote all the varietals of popular Marxism.

Less as an education opportunity, the festival carries the mission of a stunt, which seems to be as far as we can go with Karl Marx within the machinations of capitalism.

A critique of the festival’s purpose is valuable, for if not sustainable, is this not another exploitative act of capitalism allowing us to dream in the halls of art and academia, to satisfy, albeit briefly, before returning us to the deadly trudge of late capitalism? However, I’m not the one to carry that particular critique forward; instead, I’ll leave that to renowned philosopher/agitator Slavoj Žižek, who will grace the festival with a talk on October 22nd (The Fate of the Commons: A Trotskyite View).

In any case, a chance to for art and politics to actively take the stage together is always necessary, but what comes next?

For Philbrick it is that indefinite space that is worth plumbing. 

“I'm wanting to set the Manifesto in a way that it doesn't assume it knows what political action should look like,” he says, “but instead dwells within these political calls that are still resonating and ask a question about how to act.”




Tickets for all Marx Festival events are free but must be reserved in advance. Reservations can be made online at www.nyuskirball.org/events/karl-marx-festival, by phone at 212.998.4941, or in person at the Box Office, 566 LaGuardia Place at Washington Square: Tuesday-Saturday, 12:00 - 6:00 P.M. NYU Skirball is located at 566 LaGuardia Place at Washington Square, New York, New York 10012. www.nyuskirball.org

Contributor

Adam R. Burnett

ADAM R. BURNETT is a playwright. In April, he will facilitate The Ecstatic Unknown, an environmental workshop for writers and performance-makers. adamrburnett.com

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