Baghdad/Osijek Friendship Society

Residents of war-ravaged Eastern Slavonia share
their expertise at living under prolonged bombing,
with FiNGO team from TV Iraq.

March 25th, 2003.

Minimal Theatre supporting People’s Movements

A Listening Station : Creating Human Rites
The situation is familiar, one meeting flows benignly into the next meeting. A mere week after landing in Eastern Slavonia, my short guided tour through the concerns of the Coalition for Human Rights in Croatia, cross-faded into the inaugural gathering of the Citizens’ Initiative ‘Enough War’. ( The previous week the Anglo-American military machine had ploughed northward out of Kuwait.) Two days earlier a frustratingly sparse and toothless demonstration had been held in a neighbouring town (Three quarters of the four of us at this meeting comprised over 20% of the participants). We discussed the pull to passivity. If only in defiance of this pull, it seemed important that the citizens of Osijek, a society that some twelve years previous had itself been besieged and bombarded while the world watched, did not leave it up to others in the nation’s capital or around the world to react. A demonstration was necessary, but we feared gathering a similarly tiny proportion of citizens. How would we raise the masses with limited resources, and with so short a time?

Orchestrating demonstrations is obviously well within the natural habitat of the ‘poetically correct’. At this initial planning meeting, the familiar local recipe for a standard demo was trotted out. There was a fear that a small group of people on the main square would drown in the Saturday crowds. As one third of the central committee, I was invited to comment. Several ideas were bashed around as how to make much out of little. I sketched two people standing in an oil drum both as an instant crowd and as an ‘attention gatherer’. I suggested that, instead of endless, internal discussions about predictable slogans, we meet participants empty-handed, holding an active slogan clinic where blank placards would be publicly painted as part of a ritualised pre-march preparation. Some of my better ideas were kept until further into the process.

As a linguistic anti-imperialist I chose to keep quiet at subsequent meetings. Relying upon summations at the end of the day to keep me abreast of the proceedings, I watched as the dynamics of the demonstration became adapted and adjusted by committee deliberations. By the time we hit the streets, five days and three meetings later, we weren’t going anywhere fast (nor was the military coalition). The demonstration was to remain stationary for a week. The oil-drum, dramatically painted black and red, now functioned as both a writing desk and a postbox to collect personalised messages from passers-by. The demo-placard clinic became a wall hanging became a pristine 10m2 banner of fresh cloth wrapped around our stand for each of the seven days…

In practice this ‘Listening Station’ rapidly became almost self-sustainable. Unburdening oneself is compelling; contributing to a collective effort confirms one’s humanity; graffiti writing before witnesses is uniquely gratifying. The act of writing out your personal feelings about modern warfare practices and depositing them in a bottomless pit of anonymity, despite literally being a drop in the bucket, gave a strange satisfaction; it echoed the secret ballot and the confessional. (The genuine scent of oil merely added to the poignancy.) All ages got involved. People returned twenty minutes later because they had yet another concern on their minds. Even on the sparsely trafficked Sunday afternoon, we got a full and colourful tapestry.

Fictive NGOs
Meanwhile, before our station hit the streets, I prepared an additional interactive element. At the PRONI Centre for Social Education, I launched on short notice an “Emergency Workshop in Happy Mobilisation Techniques”. I offered an exploration into the use of Fictive NGOs under the auspices of the Institute for Non-toxic Propaganda and recycled for the occasion Future Protection Agency. Such ‘FiNGOs’ invoke a strategy whereby participants can quickly define their contribution and thereby free impressive amounts of energy to fighting for a cause. The operating question for our mini-workshop, with three brave participants, was “Is there a need for the Osijek-Baghdad Friendship Society ?” For the purposes of our workshop we declared that there was, although if our organisation could not verify its legitimacy, we felt duty bound to dismantle our FiNGO at the end of our three hours.

Several working elements needed to be established at the outset of the workshop. We would work bilingually in bad English and better Serbo-Croatian. War was an ultra serious topic; we needed to enjoy our freedom to think, but we could not abandon the deeper reality. We established a ‘serious zone’, a specific geographical location in the room for addressing innermost thoughts. Each individual was listened to, and everyone was encouraged to allow their personal concerns and histories to shape their role in the culturally familiar hierarchy of our NGO: one of us was to attend to the needs of the chronically naïve; one would maintain access to intelligence; a third’s concern was to catalog scandals. Moving fluidly from theme to activity to theme to strategic consideration in an organic and sensitive way, we composed the aims and objectives of our organisation into a common mythology. (Since, as youth leaders, the participants might later wish to apply a FiNGO approach at their clubs, we stopped now and then to make procedural observations).

With more time, our OBFS Annual General Meeting would have had a wider, more participatory agenda. Operating with one hour less than budgeted for, I chose to carry forth two proposals from the central committee into the activity phase. The first was an effective antidote to long-winded diatribe. I found a perfect flat cardboard box in the corridor, it gave us a moderately raised platform 30 X 30 X 8cm. From which, in our democratic tradition every member of the OBFS was required to give a spontaneous speech. In fact, since all speeches were to be limited in length to ten seconds, by forming a perpetual queue each of us could manage to give 15 such speeches within 10 minutes. There were two rules; no sentence was to be finished, and it was mandatory to breathe. The first rule relieved members from the shackles of finite logic, the second helped locate emotional truths. Thus, in an extremely short period of time, everyone felt free to think out loud, and some important central themes in our concerns had risen to the surface.

The second proposal before the Friendship Society was to sponsor a visit by the Iraqi Television Network to our city. Participants rapidly turned another cardboard box into a television set complete with antennae and remote control. A skipping rope from the toyshop round the corner provided a convincing looking microphone, complete with cable. A bottle wrapped in more cardboard became a camera. Lacking time to probe into the art of interviewing, our initial interviews of each other and around the busy office did not really get deep enough into the fiction as to release fresh insight. However, we had built an effective consultative organ. It would soon be put to work out on the streets…


TVBaghdad Day One: a little miracle
On the third day of our Listening Station, two students happened by our outpost. They first posted messages in the oil drum, then spent some time writing upon the cloth column. One of them helped me translate a caption to go over my depiction of the Baghdad skyline – “We are thinking of you.” I asked them : If they would like to be on TV? and showed them the impressive TV set. Having been warmed up through the Oil Drum and the wall, they did not really need coaxing. We fumbled forth the appropriate roles: me as technician/camera, Student A as deep-digging journalist eager to know if people felt they were getting a sophisticated level of analysis in the media, her friend as local informant launching upon long heartfelt ‘advices’ to the people of Baghdad. After we signed off, I cursed my luck aloud; both agreed that the other was the utter best we could ever expect in their respective roles; but should we try to recruit another interviewee ? Several prospects ran by in fright, one was too cool; then a ten-year old who had been drawing on the wall, willingly pulled our TV set over her head and launched into a 10-12 minute monologue about her thoughts about war. While her gaggle of friends tuned in, one young person was given the emotional support and attention from her elders who were interested in her opinion. In a society where the peace professionals wail on about chronic passivity, our dramatised demonstration may have positively scarred at least one youngster for life.

Our three-way Listening Station created still other mildly theatrical possibilities. Over 1400 ‘personal messages to the world’ were written out and posted deep into the bottom of two realistically scented oil drums. Each day a fresh wall of 10 square metres of cloth wrapped around a column was quickly covered with colourful, spontaneous graffiti and drawings expressing both peace wishes and anti-war anger. Forty felt pens and seven boxes of crayons and pastels were exhausted in the process. Linguistic ineptitude on my part left me one step behind; our daily ritualised dismantling of our tower of messages, and the meticulous folding of the cloth, readily supported a ceremonial reading aloud of personal favorites. After seven days the banners were sewn together over night into a 70 m2 collective shroud, our collection of illuminated slogans was paraded through the streets to hang over the weekend from the pedestrian ‘Peace Bridge’ that now spans the former battle lines on either side of the Drava River. The parade was accompanied by a rolling oil barrel and at least one TV camera crew with their head in a paper TV. We threatened to send the oil drum up the rail line to the U.S. embassy in Zagreb, cash-on-delivery.

We know we did not ease the war in Iraq and Kurdistan. We know that life for millions of people in the cradle of civilisation will bear the curse of this war for generations. For Osijek it was important to say what is in our hearts.

Asked if they were satisfied, organisers admitted that they had designed their hanging installation so that the many people who direct their Sunday walk over the bridge would pause to reflect upon the sentiments expressed, and that others would deliberately come to locate their contributions, and to point them out to family and friends. The Central Committee apologised for the cold wind that descended from Siberia over that weekend.

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About bembodavies

Theatre worker who long ago abandoned theatres, I remain adept at fabricating projects out of thin air. All proposals welcome.
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