How Bandit and Churchill became Just Bandit – De-coding a conversation with Arts Council England

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This paper has been read by Mihai Florea at the Dialogues of Power Conference hosted by St Andrews University, Scotland, in October 2016.

 

When Michel Foucault – in 1975, in Discipline and Punish – brought again to attention the concept of the Panopticon, he most probably did not have Romania in mind. Otherwise, he would have noted that – by that time – the entire country had already been transformed into a colossal architecture of terror, surveillance and self-surveillance: a country-become-prison-become-Panopticon.

 

And when Foucault also was remarking that ‘Panopticism has received little attention. [And that] it is regarded as not much more than a bizarre little utopia, a perverse dream’, he very probably was not aware that somewhere in Europe, very close to him, panopticism had reached heights unforeseen even by its inventor, architect Jeremy Bentham.

As a modality of power that uses ‘no instrument other than architecture and geometry’ [to] act directly on individuals [thus] giving ‘power of mind over mind’, the Panopticon is conceived as a series of spatial algorithms and arrangements, permitting someone to ‘see constantly and recognize immediately’.

 

In Romania though, spatial arrangement was being used only as theatrical decor. Geometry and architecture had become only the echo of a very particular psychological and moral spatial organisation, emergent in-between citizens, within and in-between communities and families. Hidden behind the panoptical architecture, the Communist regime achieved the SPIRIT of the Panopticon in Romania: it managed to entrap the minds of the majority into a wall-less prison which stretched far behind architecture and into people’s conscience.

 

According to historian Marius Oprea, it is estimated that in 1989 the Secret Services (Securitate) had over 400 000 active informers, a large part underage: they were informing about their colleagues, parents, teachers… Very few were therefore able or lucky to elude the mental Panopticon constructed by the ruling party: there were eyes watching you from everywhere, there were ears listening everywhere. No one could be trusted; anyone could turn into your denouncer. As such, one’s inner reality appeared organized like this: ‘I am constantly seen and can be immediately recognised.’ By 1989, the panoptical paranoia had totally gripped the country.

 

Foucault observes that ‘generally speaking, all authorities exercising individual control function according to a double mode; that of binary division and branding (mad/sane; dangerous/harmless; normal/abnormal)’. The Communist regime, fully empowered by the fall of the Iron Curtain, started its work in earnest after 1945, seeking to replace an existent political and intellectual elite with a new one, patented and controlled by the Party. The course of action was in line with the overall politico-moral ambition of giving birth to the ‘new man’ – the monad of a new era of universal Communism.

 

The party proceeded therefore in identifying two opposite ‘species’: the new man aka party activist aka ‘honest worker’ aka proletarian aka non-bourgeois aka citizen with a ‘clean’ working-class origin on the one hand and the BANDIT on the other. BANDIT became the term that defined (and I draw on Foucault’s terminology again) both the leprous and the plagued nature of the enemy of the newly established State (of things).

 

BANDIT was a leprous who had to be extracted from the midst of the community and thrown to the margins. BANDIT was a plagued because there were only two outcomes envisaged for her: total elimination or brainwashing into absolute servitude towards the regime (which translated in personal annihilation too). As an immediate effect of this doctrine, the inter-war political elite (almost entirely exterminated in prisons after 1946), intellectuals (the members of the Romanian Academy for example – most of them also exterminated in prison), students, or peasants who opposed the confiscation of their lands in the great agricultural reform – all were deemed BANDITS and enemies of the State.

 

The foundations of the hunt for BANDITS (hunt which was later to spread like a cannibalistic malady into the entire societal tissue) were laid during the terrible time of the late 40’s and early 50’s. In the context of this hunt, Experiment Pitesti represented the absolute climax of the State’s brutal repression of those who would not wholeheartedly believe in the religion of the ‘new man’.

DRAWINGS SLIDE

 

Pitesti was a prison used by Communists in 1951/1952 as the scene of a macabre experiment of brainwashing-through-torture, an experiment that Alexandr Soljenitan has singled out as being ‘the most terrible act of barbarism in the 20th century’. The working method of the experiment consisted of round-the-clock beatings, horrific tortures and ceaseless interrogatories, which would culminate with the ‘un-masking’ of BANDITS: a procedure of denouncing the ‘old self’ and telling on all friends, family, neighbours, collaborators, colleagues, etc. Once ‘re-educated’ in this way, the BANDITS would be forced to become themselves the torturers of other inmates.

 

In 2006, when working on a documentary film about Nicolae Purcarea and therefore meeting the survivor of Pitesti Experiment in flesh and bones, I knew absolutely nothing about that part of Romania’s history. Nicolae Purcarea and his hi/story seemed to come from another country, from another history.  The dialogue with Purcarea shed the first ever light on the Panopticon that I had been born into. It was only then that I started to become aware of my condition. The condition of being born within the realms of a Panopticon, which translated into a permanent state of suspicion towards everything and everybody.

 

And that was my ‘dowry’ when I moved to Britain, in 2008. The suspiciousness had not vanished in 2015 when our theatre company (Nu Nu) applied for funding for the project Bandit and Churchill.

 

 

Arts Council England is a powerful funding body: it is an institution that imparts money from the public purse to chosen artists/arts institutions. The issue of giving/receiving money automatically comes to play the decisive part in the relationship between artists and the Council. That is particularly true given the Arts Council’s explicit commitment to ensure money is well spent, with the expectation that the artist proves that the funded work is accessible to as many as possible, from as diverse as possible backgrounds. Is it justifiable for me then to wonder if the issue of giving/receiving money can become an instrument of power used by Arts Council to control and censor the artists? Or is that just the phantom of the Communist Panopticon coming back to haunt me, an independent theatre-maker, in 2015, in Britain?

 

The image of the institution Arts Council England appears particularly evanescent and tentacular.  Funded by the government in London, with offices in Manchester, Bristol, South West, North West and seemingly everywhere else in England, Arts Council has a heightened and elusive presence. The contact that one can entertain with the Council is almost exclusively online and is particularly formal. There are limited opportunities to speak to an advisor over the phone or in person, prior to applying, and the information given is carefully censored and tailored around the ‘official’ guidelines provided on the Arts Council website. Nowadays, the application process is conducted entirely online. The outcome of the application is also communicated online, in the form of a decision letter PDF attachment. The relation applicant – Arts Council develops therefore in the obscure, semi-dark space of the exchange of online forms. Such situation, which could very probably be attributed to Arts Council’s strategy for fairness, produces a (perhaps) unexpected side-effect: it encourages the growth of an un-real, fictional relationship applicant-funding institution, very similar to that on which Foucault commented: ‘A real subjection is born mechanically from a fictitious relation.’

 

Can’t I therefore suppose that the construction of the online-ness of Arts Council’s presence (a presence shielded and ritualized by a myriad of guidelines, documents, attachments, useful links, advice over the phone, references to impact studies, online contact forms, etc.) is very similar to that of the un-observed observer of the Panopticon? Could this manner of producing and asserting presence be read as a strategy for dissociating the dyad of see/being seen in the relationship applicant-funder? Foucault warns:

 

‘In order to make the presence or absence of the inspector unverifiable, so that the prisoners, in their cells, cannot even see a shadow, Bentham envisaged not only venetian blinds on the windows of the central observation hall, but, partitions that intersected the hall at right angles, and in order to pass from one quarter to the other, not doors but zig-zag openings; for the slightest noise, a gleam of light, a brightness in a half-opened door would betray the presence of the guardian.’

 

One capital factor taken into consideration by the Council (please note the choice of calling Arts Council the Council) when funding a project is that project’s capacity to generate ‘activities that are of high quality and engage people strongly.’ Keeping in line with the Panopticon metaphor though, could we interpret this demand of the Council as the first installment of an act of entrapment? The Council’s formulation appears to sarcastically invite the fund-seeker into that particular mind/imagination trap where undefined possibilities are emerging from within the fluid sphere of the generalness of ‘strong engagement of people’. The trap is set in motion in earnest when the applicant resonates to such undefined, or as Foucault describes them, ‘unverifiable’ requirements, whilst the non-visible eyes of the Council, from within its hidden offices are ready to scrutinize and censor the applicant’s choice.

 

The Council encourages you to throw/expose/un-censor YOURSELF (via the ideas proposed) into the ‘unverifiable’ sea of general directives, requirements, standards and expectations. What the applicant often fails to understand or even notice is that the Council reserves the unique right to penalize you at any later stage (therefore exercise control over your application) with again ‘unverifiable’ criticism or rejection. Criticism and rejection that you could never have anticipated, since – apart from the general ‘geometry’ of the guidelines – you did not gain access to ‘true’, detailed, case-based assessment criteria.

 

Such subsequent form of surveillance is possible only because the Council always reserves for itself the upper hand: we imagine that the Council (as the Castle in Kafka) might possess a more detailed set of criteria or indeed a certain machinery/mechanism, well hidden from the eyes of the applicant and which is implacably at work behind the curtains of magical formulations like ‘engage people strongly’ and so forth. The Council therefore exercises its mysteriousness, generalness and obscurity – through online-ness – as forms of power and surveillance.  The applicant has to willy-nilly become captive in the Council’s panoptical narrative: a narrative whose backstage movements one can never fully know, nor can gain access to but can only imagine or anticipate (which is truly the most dangerous phase of control in the Panopticon).

 

When we first applied with Bandit and Churchill, we became preoccupied with the issue of how a story from faraway lands could be made relevant and engaging for audiences from another century and from another corner, as the Council had instructed.

 

 

As I mentioned before, the story of Bandits in Romania started with the inauspicious fall of the Iron Curtain. We found a striking irony there, which would link (in our view) the story of BANDIT to audiences in England, therefore helping us to fulfill the main requirement of the Council: public engagement.

 

 

Churchill retells, in his six-volume-strong memoirs The Second World War: one particular discussion he had with Stalin (Quote) ”Let us settle about our affairs in the Balkans. Your armies are in Rumania and Bulgaria. We have interests, missions, and agents there. Don’t let us get at cross-purposes in small ways. So far as Britain and Russia are concerned, how would it do for you to have ninety per cent dominance in Rumania, for us to have ninety per cent of the say in Greece, and go fifty-fifty about Yugoslavia?” While this was being translated, I wrote out on a half-sheet of paper. I pushed this across to Stalin, who by then heard the translation. There was a slight pause. Then he took his blue pencil and made a large tick upon it, and passed back to us. It was all settled in no more time than it takes to set down.’

 

The Council’s requirement for public engagement had led us therefore to make the Churchill connection, in the hope of engaging the English-speaking audience. The Council was therefore de facto starting to gain ownership of our project. If it hadn’t been for the issue of funding, we would probably have disregarded the Churchill link.

 

 

One other argument that we invoked was that, at the time of our application, in late 2015, the media had become oversaturated with negative stories about immigrants and how bad they were for society. Newspapers like The Daily Express and Daily Mail were attacking migrants practically on a daily basis. We wanted our project to show (this was our argument in the funding application) that migrants might be coming to Britain for reasons beyond the immediate economic pull factors. Immigration is driven (so we argued) by much deeper causes, which are to be found in episodes like the one between Stalin and Churchill. Our project – Bandit and Churchill – would have therefore signaled to audiences that we all needed to look deeper into the implications of historic decisions taken by national leaders on the international stage.

 

The responses from Arts Council are always incredibly succinct: not more than two (medium-length) sentences, which always attain an axiomatic/hieratic air about them: in line with the guidance that specifies: (quote): ‘If we decide not to fund your activity, your online account will show a letter explaining our decision and outlining your next steps. This contains the full level of feedback that we are able to provide.’

 

If the applicant wants further explanations, there is the exceptional possibility of phoning, but the guidance clearly specifies that you might not be able to speak to the Council officer who made the actual case decision. A phone call might also be taken as a sign of harassment coming from a ‘sour grapes’/disappointed applicant’ (or so the applicants’ folklore has it). In the Bandit and Churchill case, the decision letter said: ‘We decided that the artistic and/or public engagement outcomes of your activity were less strong than other applications we received.’ The wording is evidently insufficient: first of all, one can imagine anything about who was the ‘we’ in ‘we decided’. Secondly, was it the ‘artistic outcomes’ only or both Artistic and public engagement outcomes’ that did not convince the Council?

 

The option of looking deeper into the online guidance might also augment the trap: (quote) ‘after completing the risk check, we will consider the strength of the artistic and public engagement aspects of your activity. We will consider your activity alongside other applications and will look at the range of projects we support. We want the projects we fund to cover a broad range of activity types, artforms and geographical areas. We also review a range of reports on our spending so far and future demand, and refer to our Corporate Plan. This influences the choice we make.’

 

Was it then because we did not fit well with the aims of the Corporate Plan that we didn’t get the funding? No one – literally no one – can actually respond to that question. We did not know, in terms of the assessment of our funding application who was watching and assessing us, when, why or if they were paying any attention at all. Was it that we were just watching and assessing ourselves in the Foucauldian mechanicity of the fictional relationship with the Council?

 

The rejection made us become stubborn and we applied again (retrospectively, we think that was a mistake). The second time, the answer was along the same lines. As in a Kafkaesque situation (again particularly evocative of ‘The Castle’), we started using our previous experience of dealing with Arts Council to interpret the exchange of messages we entertained with the council from ‘above’ – the Council was already conquering our memories!

 

We had been previously awarded funding for another project (Billie Killer), on our second attempt. The first letter of response contained almost the same message as the one we received for Bandit and Churchill. With a significant little difference: a note, which we very rightly translated as the Council’s signal that if we correct what was indicated to us, we might then get the money. That note said: ‘we have noted the fact that this is an ambitious and imaginative project, but there is insufficient proof of how you will reach your audience. ‘ Please pay close attention to the first part of the phrase: ‘we have noted the fact that this is an ambitious and imaginative project’. It meant that the Council liked our Billie Killer and they were willing to fund it if we made the reccommended corrections.

 

 

For Bandit and Churchill there has never been such a note. We finally had to concede, that if there was no note, it meant that our project would simply not get the funding.

 

Conclusion:

 

 

After such a long funding application adventure, we believe we have been lucky not to be awarded the money. I have been intrigued by how atoms realise covalent bonds: the two nuclei, with their electrons gravitating around them.  When atoms combine to work together in molecules they never melt their nuclei one into the other. Instead, they put to common use a number of electrons: some from one atom, some from the other.

 

Panopticons never mix their control towers one into the other – instead they build bridges (like atoms do with their electrons). These bridges between Panopticons can run in all directions, up and down through history and histories, back and forth through time, people or geographies, arranging the networks of our lives.

 

Bandit has emerged from one Panopticon (Romania, in post-Communism) and we very naively wanted to transfer it into the Arts Council’s and England’s Panopticon in the form of Bandit and Churchill.

 

The combined forces of the two powerful Panopticons have kept us though on the ‘covalent’ bridge between them: we have returned to the initial project title of Bandit but not without having our minds shaped by the Arts Council’s panoptical forces.

 

The problem of national heroes who make deals to save their country’s interests whilst sowing terror in the countries they leave behind – that theme has became part of Bandit, grace to the Council!

 

The theme of immigrants, refugees, the displaced, those who carry in them and with them the echoes of long histories of destruction and abandonment – that theme has also become part of Bandit, thanks to the Council!

 

Bandit has been awarded the Biggest Punch in the Face award at Gothenburg Theatre Festival; it has received emotional responses from audiences and created vivid discussions. It has truly engaged people. It has made them pause and think. BANDIT lives on. We have fulfilled the Council’s requirements of public engagement and yet we have remained on the bridge between Panopticons (ironically, there is more freedom there): we have been lucky!