Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

Beware of Pied Pipers throughout Europe

The fatal attraction of those ‘white masks’ seeking to alert people to the growing 'dictatorship of health'

Raphaële Javary
17 May 2021, 12.00am
“Fear! Fear!” by Caroline Solievna
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Caroline Solievna. All rights reserved

I’ll admit it: I was among the first to be duped.

Recently, an unnamed collective performed a choreographed work of art in the streets of my city, Forcalquier, in the southeast of France, during a busy Monday market. Dressed in white scrubs and white masks, the performers reproduced a set of mechanical gestures against the backdrop of a distorted soundscape of robotic commands. They were demanding compliance with a caricatured set of governmental rules to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Feeling moved to have witnessed a live performance after more than five months of a near-total cultural vacuum, I initially applauded the effort – and I wasn’t alone in this sentiment. But as the initial thrill passed, I found myself analyzing what I had just experienced.

This choreography of 'white masks' sought to alert people to the growing 'dictatorship of health' and its accompanying regime of fear. Yet, why did it offer nothing more than more of the same: a set of scare tactics? These futuristic uniforms, repetitive rhythms and anxiety-inducing audio offerings could provide only a caricature of a vision of a near-future dystopia – hackneyed codes as stand-ins for real ideas.

We were being offered a simplified, binary choice rather than new ideas, a false dichotomy between full-throated support for the government or an outright rejection of all authority. This is, in fact, just an impoverished version of a sci-fi aesthetic that more closely resembles a piece of propaganda than a work of art.

Originating in Switzerland last November and then spreading to the rest of Europe, these performances do not appear to have as a goal the broadening of political or critical thought around the current crisis. They offer no exploration of new forms of expression, nor any deployment of diversity or individuality of the performers’ bodies and minds. Nor, in fact, any really independent thought on the part of the performers at all: the choreography is intentionally so basic that it can be replicated by any group that has a few hours of time to rehearse and access to the social networks. It is in fact a superficial display designed to prey upon the base sentiments that characterize this current time: being fed up, being angry, and being afraid.

It is… a superficial display designed to prey upon the base sentiments that characterize this current time: being fed up, being angry, and being afraid

In this current state of affairs, when we have been deprived of all public meeting places (concerts, restaurants, bars, galleries, museums, theatres) and also find ourselves exhausted by more than a year of upheaval in our day to day lives, we are more inclined than usual to run towards the first sound of a Pied Piper’s flute, and to fall down the cliff that follows.

As we become less vigilant, and at the same time suffer the loss of our usual forums for public discourse, the opportunity for charlatans to take advantage of our need for moments of collective exchange through the visual arts becomes more acute. It becomes the perfect environment for conspiracy theorists to spread their hodgepodge of cultish misinformation by pandering to our need to reclaim a social and cultural life.

This won’t happen to me again.

Meanwhile, hundreds of venues and theatres are currently being occupied in France and Europe by concerned citizens and cultural professionals with clear and concise political demands: the reopening of cultural sites and the defense of the unemployment insurance system, to protect the most vulnerable.

Between the moments of music and dance, meetings are organized to have the public debate we so desperately need around the creation of new models for society.

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