Theatre, Performance and Activism as Ways of Imagining the Future in Buenos Aires
Written by Sophie Stevens
Whenever I arrive in Buenos Aires I feel like I’ve travelled to the past and the future at the same time. There is something about the city filled with monuments and great plazas that remind us of its past that simultaneously gives the impression that it is constantly reinventing itself. Perhaps it’s also part of the experience of inhabiting any city: cities are constantly remaking and representing themselves by selecting how they commemorate past events (and what they choose to commemorate); what they want to prioritise and celebrate in the present; and their ambitions, ideas and projects for the future. On this visit, I returned to the Plaza de Mayo, as I always do, from where the Casa Rosada government house can be seen and in which the Madres de la Plaza have met weekly since the period of dictatorship to peacefully protest against the forced disappearance of their children and grandchildren; on this occasion I was struck by a memorial to those who died during the Covid-19 pandemic, a reminder that we are still feeling its effects. The different ways of representing a city are interlinked and have an impact upon how we experience the city – and the challenges and opportunities that we face – as well as how we tell and share our experiences. One way of sharing and narrating these experiences is through artistic practice and artivism (activism through art). During my time in Buenos Aires in September and October 2023, I was working on my research project which explores links between theatre, performance and activism created by Latin American women dramatists and collectives. My research involves working with theatre-makers, artists and activists who constantly seek inventive and creative ways of appropriating public spaces throughout the city as a way to raise awareness of issues affecting society, demand justice, and create alternative narratives to dominant discourses. The plays, performances and interventions that I saw go beyond representation and re-enactment in order to reimagine society for the future and to invite their audiences to participate in creating change.
The focus on the future felt particularly acute during my time there because Argentina was building up to the election of a new president and vice-president. At the time of editing this piece (23rd November 2023), we know that Javier Milei representing La Libertad Avanza has been elected as the new president and will be sworn in on 10th December 2023 with Victoria Villarruel as vice-president. Milei’s campaign was full of promises of change, which may be one of the reasons it was successful, but some of those changes could be harmful. He has proposed revoking women’s rights to abortion, following legislation introduced in 2021, paving the way for the privatization of public institutions, and replacing the Argentine peso with the US dollar as a way to stabilize the economy. Argentina’s rising inflation has had an enormous impact on people’s quality of life, and further extended the gap between rich and poor in the country, particularly between those who can afford to invest and save in dollars and those who cannot. During my time there I noticed the prices of everyday items increasing and Argentines have been experiencing this for a long time. An increase in poverty leads to an increase in the number of people in vulnerable and precarious situations. Many people wanted to talk to me about safety and security and how this affected their everyday lives and altered their experiences of the city. Many people also wanted to take action: at a march organised by the NiUnaMenos feminist collective on 28th September, the main chant that I heard was about not taking steps backwards on women’s rights, and as a consequence women’s safety, independence and choices.
The theme of women’s choices was prominent in the plays that I saw in Buenos Aires as was the desire to imagine a safe and secure future with greater equality. Whilst those in power seek to create the narratives about a city, it is the people who inhabit it who can modify those narratives through their everyday interactions. In a similar way, the plays that I saw raised questions about who gets to speak for, about, and on behalf of women’s bodies. These plays and issues will form the basis of the next stages of my research project. Paisaje Km 31 by Lucila Garay directly addresses the issue of the types of manipulation, abuse and isolation women face when their right to choose and to access information is taken away, particularly if they are already living and working in precarious situations. Un tiro cada uno created by Mariana De La Mata, Consuelo Iturraspe and Laura Sbdar and Yo me quería morir antes que vos by Magalí Meliá employ artistic techniques in staging and casting to actively disrupt the idea of a sole perpetrator of violence and instead communicate the pervasiveness, banality and systemic nature of violence against women and its consequences for society. This is significant because Argentina has a high rate of feminicide; a woman is murdered on average every 39 hours.
As well as drawing on theories on theatre and performance to analyse these forms of art and activism, I use translation as part of a critical research methodology to understand them. A highlight of my trip was coordinating an event to mark International Translation Day at language institute Lenguas Vivas and in partnership with the Asociación Argentina de Traductores e Intérpretes. Working with Antonella Querzoli who is based at the institution, I created a multilingual reading of the play Bailando sola cada noche [Dancing Alone Every Night] by Uruguayan dramatist Raquel Diana using my English translation, the Italian translation by Monica Menosse Hutton and the original Spanish. It had always fascinated me that the word intérprete in Spanish can mean an interpreter and/or a performer so it seemed fitting that for the rehearsed reading, students of translation and interpreting were the actors. We actively sought to play with the interactions between the three languages whilst celebrating the diversity of languages studied and spoken at Lenguas Vivas and beyond in Buenos Aires. Lenguas Vivas as a hub for multilingual teachers, researchers and practitioners was the perfect place to host this event and the reading demonstrated the type of creative academic and artistic work that can be achieved through collaborations. After the reading, I asked the playwright Raquel Diana, who came from Montevideo to join the event, to reflect on how translation had had an impact upon her creative work as a writer. She responded that both writing and translation are ways of creating and connecting worlds.