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FOUCAULT AS OPERA? 

 

 

By Joseph Romero

PARIS, 27 SEPTEMBER 2010 — When a close associate first mentioned to Michel Foucault that a "gay cancer" was brewing in America, the celebrated French philosopher and historian burst into uncontrollable laughter exclaiming, "A cancer that strikes only homosexuals, no, that's too good to be true, that's hilarious!" Little did he know that he would succomb to the as yet unidentified AIDS virus not long thereafter.

One of the most gifted theoriticians of the 20th century and a respected political activist, Michel Foucault (1926 - 1984) was especially admired for his lucidity of thought. His formal critiques on the history of madness, human sexuality, modern clinical medicine and human incarceration were widely read and debated in France and in academies abroad. Foucault's use of modern archaeological methodology as a tool for his enquiries was considered innovative in the structuralist and post-structuralist milieu of his time.

Until shortly before his death from AIDS, Foucault held a chair on the History of Systems and Thought at the prestigious Collège de France in Paris where his free public lectures were often standing-room only for the very French bourgeoisie whose culture, morality and society he so cordially despised. After all, how many had come to stare or with the express desire and hope of being titillated by Foucault's rumoured private interest in S&M, sexual bondage and the exotic world of gay saunas and bathhouses in San Francisco — only to hear the French thinker coolly hold forth on history and the Analytic of Finitude. The effect of the mutual voyeurism was no doubt riveting.

Later, when the American HBO series Oz aired on French television, it triggered further public debate among young people about Foucault's 1975 book Surveiller et punir (Disciplince and Punish). 

Still, aside from the bad science and tabloid tawdriness of the term "gay cancer" (created and disseminated by mainstream American media), the subtext for Foucault's sardonic merriment about the nascent pandemic remains an enigma. Years later, it is perhaps a European rendez-vous from this year's autumn season that will shed some light on the matter.

Next week and for two performances only (1 - 2 October), The Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig (MUMOK) in Vienna will give the premiere of The History Of Sexuality Volume One By Michel Foucault: An Opera  (2010), a new opera by the American visual artists Gregg Bordowitz and Paul Chan.

Odd. Unlike, say, Laurie Anderson, neither Mr. Bordowitz, nor Mr. Chan is particularly associated with the world of music. An opera implies a musical score. So, one wonders, who or where is the composer? Hopefully, there will be more to this than some kind of 1990s New York Sprechgesang or Wiensprache which could make the whole affair excruciating within minutes. Nevertheless, according to an oblique press statement put out by the Viennese museum we learn the following:

The History of Sexuality Volume One by Michel Foucault: An Opera is a work-in-progress adopting the dramatic musical form to stage the major themes and philosophical insights of one of the most influential philosophers of the late twentieth century. In this adaption of Foucault´s great work, the philosopher will encounter one student, two rivals, and a sworn enemy — perhaps all of them are ghosts. Nothing less than a grand opera is required to stage the epochal theory of self-emancipation that is Michel Foucault´s unique legacy. The performance will be set against a backdrop drawn from Foucault´s biographical details; including his activism on behalf of prisoners´ rights, and his death from AIDS.

If biographical operas can successfully tackle such subjects as Richard Nixon and J. Robert Oppenheimer, who’s to say that Foucault might not be equally well rendered thus? By October 3rd, we shall know if the creative team involved rose to the challenge.

 

The History of Sexuality Volume One by Michel Foucault: An Opera
By Gregg Bordowitz and Paul Chan
 
1 - 2 October 2010
Tanzquartier Wien
Vienna, Austria 

Concept: Gregg Bordowitz, Paul Chan
Direction & Libretto: Gregg Bordowitz
Performers: Siegmar Aigner, Alexander Braunsöhr, Didi Bruckmayr, Mara Mattuschka, Moravia Naranjo
Original Costume Design: Paul Chan
Costume Designer: Kristine Woods
Production: Tanzquartier Wien in cooperation with MUMOK. In the framework of Push and Pull – a joint project by Tanzquartier Wien and MUMOK.

Headline image above: Michel Foucault by Paul Chan

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