What does art mean today? Can the radical still exist?
Alexander Cohen, DST Festivals Secretary, reflects on the artistic and political problems, philosophies and questions behind the programme and theme of DDF 2021, ‘radical voices for radical times’.
Durham Drama Festival begins on 1st February. 

Now is the winter of virtual content – Durham Drama Festival, the weeklong festival of all things student drama, will go ahead in February fully online, with nine student-written shows translated to an online, COVID-19 friendly format. There will be audio dramas, rehearsed readings, and performances fully adapted to be watched virtually. This comes along with a plethora of talks, workshops, and events, all of which can be accessed by anyone anywhere.

The radical and its discontents – The addition of a theme to the festival “radical voices for radical times” was intended to inspire creatives to create stories that help us realise our relationships to others in a world where such relationships have been under strain for biological, economic, and political reasons. It is us, those leaving university, who must soothe and rebuild these relationships. If we don’t, then nobody will. The assumption is that art has the power to make things happen. This idea is increasingly distant in contemporary society where the majority of art is vacuous, created to be binged and streamed ad infinitum, to literally lull us into a daze, to preclude the possibility of thought, to steal out attention and never give it back to us. Whilst DDF may only be a university-wide event, I hope that it will audiences to consider the power of your own voice and the importance of your opinion, as artistic and political conformity become increasing ubiquitous in our lives.

Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires – The greatest part of any show is the moment the theatre fades to black, when the lights turn off to signal that the performance is over. In that instant, we, the audience, wake up and are forced to confront ourselves. Good art penetrates us to our essence and demands a response. “What now?”, we must ask as we leave the theatre. With television, the “what now?” is answered with another episode or season. We consistently procrastinate the moment of confrontation. “What now?” – the question we will ask ourselves when we awake from the lockdown coma, when the streets are filled with life once again,  when decision about life and love will have to be made.

Love your enemies because they bring tout the best in you – The radical defines itself in contrast to the status quo. The radical is always rebellious and reactionary in this sense. Dada is an apt example, rebelling in both form and content to the traditional “academic” art.

A question I do not know the answer to – There is nothing to rebel against today, be that artistically or politically. Protests in the 21st century merely serve to extend the purview of hegemony to those who are not fully integrated within it. We fight for inclusivity in a system that we cannot reject for there is, as theorist Mark Fisher put it, no alternative. Every expression that in its appearance condemns the system only serves to further reify it. Adorno believed that this contradiction is key to authentic art; for him, contained within it a desire for autonomy while at the same time being subject to material forces of capitalism. Mark Fisher: What if we held a protest, and everyone showed up? Where does radical art exist today if it can exist at all?

The end of (art) history – We live in a zombie formalism where historical styles are revived and given equal value in themselves as historical artefacts, where there is no new progress or innovation. Contemporary art, “in the style of Monet” – and who were the impressionists seeking to pay homage to? Fisher calls this “hautology.” We can only repeat what has come before, stitching together past forms and ideas to create aesthetic Frankenstein’s monsters. As a totality they are new; as parts, they are not. Does this hold for theatre?

Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind – When theatres return from their COVID-induced coma, they ought to return with a bang that will exceed anything we have seen before. The question is this: what will we choose to engage in? Will we seek comfort in repetitions from the past? The same old Shakespeare with the same old crowds silently muttering their favourite quotes under their breath? Or will we engage in something new, something that reflects the unique unreality of our time? I hope that we are inspired to progress further and further with time.