An Essay on Activism, Performance and Georgian Faceboook
"There is Drama"
“We understand that food safety is just food safety, and people also need food for the soul, but we must ensure there are no risks. Theater is a specific genre, there is drama ... there are different scenes and we have to be extra-careful, it’s not a sport.”
That was Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia’s rather vague explanation of the government’s post-pandemic strategies to revive the cultural sector, especially opening the theaters. His answer left people who worked in this industry feeling anxious about their future and day-to-day survival.
In response, a young theatre director named Data Tavadze, famous for his documentary-driven, post-dramatic performances, set up an acting marathon. The first fully improvised, online video-performance lasted for nine hours and illustrated the ups and downs and absurd existence of the pandemic lock-down. Tavadze named the performance “There is Drama,” in a tongue-in-cheek reference to Gakharia’s statement.
“There is Drama” by Royal District Theatre, recorded live and published on the RDT Youtube channel.
Set up in a window of the theater building, it mimicked the homey atmosphere of lock-down selfies, videos and Instagram stories. The performance reached most people through YouTube and Facebook and was a loud, desperate manifesto of social insecurity. “I was thinking of how theater should adapt in the face of the future that politics have created for us. It will be entirely communal, participatory and live-action, but digital, virtual and remote--all at the same time,” he said.
As memorable pieces of art often do, Tavadze's performance underlined and exaggerated the key factors of our lives, and brought them to our attention: this period in Georgia is dramatic; dramatic times are handled by those in power; to reclaim this power we “act out;” and the future promises that our acts will take place virtually.
Here, acting was not just being a part of performance that adopted its format to a digital era, it was “acting” as a member of society, a commentary on politics and on our everyday lives in front of an audience that is nearly immediate, via the Internet.
In some respects, Tavadze’s performance was just another Facebook status, made attractive in order to be heard.
But couldn’t the same be said about election campaigns? The media? Are not advertisements and pieces of art equally a performance?
At the dawn of social networking, the interactive web and participatory internet was called Web 2.0, meaning an upgraded internet.
By the end of the 2010s, the dreams of interactive web and creative connections had long turned into frustration and distrust, bred by unprotected privacy, status anxiety and post-truth.
But for Georgia, a nation still torn between pro-Russian and pro-Western ideologies, the internet’s influence—especially social media platforms like Facebook-- has only grown over the years. According to Internetworldstats.com, Georgia is the top social media user in the South Caucasus, with 2,524,000 users registered on Facebook alone, compared to 1,252,000 in Armenia and 1,854,000 in Azerbaijan. In 2019, 96 percent of Georgians online used the internet only to access social media, according to GeoStat, the official state statistics body.
Facebook and other social media platforms are incredibly influential in Georgia, in part due to the way society is structured: big families and a very small population mean even without “mutual friends online,” information passes quickly between groups.
For example, two of the most prominent political movements in the latest history of protest were entirely mobilized and organized online. In 2019-2020, Sirtskhvilia (The shame movement), mobilized demonstrations and helped keep pressure on politicians to change the election law. The White Noise Movement, a latest culmination of international rave culture, managed to raise awareness about draconic drug policies and decriminalize the use of marijuana from 2016 to 2018.
A sculpture of Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia, then head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, will “apologize” at the push of a button. It was made and installed by activists after the famous police club raid in May 2018.
Georgia’s influential political groups on Facebook have even garnered international attention. In 2020, Facebook removed 39 accounts, 344 pages, 13 groups and 22 Instagram accounts that were engaged in political propaganda. The volume of “inauthentic” users pushing political agendas is a loud demonstration of the power Facebook has to influence Georgian society today.
The social media platform’s popularity is, in part, a logical reflection of Georgian traditions of charity and social interaction. And, in many cases, the power of Facebook to amplify causes has helped: there have been immediate responses to crowdfund for emergency surgeries for children, express solidarity for victims of violence or sexism, and support for many vulnerable groups—all good causes that could have been ignored or missed otherwise.
On the other hand, the same dynamics have made communication more vicious and aggressive. Click-bait media groups are motivated to boost dramatic content, and the constant online interaction gives lobbyists access to push their own agendas, even through what seems to be a simple personal conversation online. The more negative the information, the more rapidly it spreads, generating reactionary and impulsive social behavior.
Our reality, heavily dependent on Facebook, has turned into a big comedy of errors. Pathos has become a major drive behind the tone of discussion, while their “self-exhibitory” character supports this lifestyle and status anxiety. Georgian activists like Giorgi Kikonishvili are raising concern about the impact on society. “This digital life has reached a point of being overwhelming,” Kikonishvili, who also works as a music promoter, said.
“The quantity of likes HERE (online) has an immediate effect on your place in society THERE (offline). The legitimation of your political positions are entirely dependent on the way your acting is received…Your words must be more accessible, have character and be convincing and shareable all the time.”
Since everyone has heard about or experienced online bullying over an unpopular viewpoint, the pressure to comply with accepted social positions is intense, Kikonishvili said, adding that it is like being in a “rat-race” where everyone has to be “likable, up to date and competent, just to be able to speak your mind.”
“If you are a sensitive person, you are enormously affected by this. It seems as if everyone feels endangered, insecure and unable to operate socially because the examples of collective online shaming and bullying appear every day. Very aggressive conflicts arise, and people are misunderstood. Be it just a new film or a criminal case, the level of drama is the same. I don’t think anyone has a clear picture of the problem due to its complexity, but maybe that is just our problematic history? “
A Caucasian Chalk Circle
It is true that people everywhere want to be accepted, be seen in social media and be heard, but “there definitely is a vast difference in the scale, status and influence, when it comes to Georgia due to the fact that there is no alternative yet for Facebook as a political space,” notes sociologist Keti Sartania.
“Special Briefing of Nationalists,” a political caricature by an unrecognised author and performer, imitating a formal political speech while sheep bleat in the background. (2013)
Whatever context it may carry--social, political, or cultural--there are many examples of how people use the social media platform to get their message across. Activist Barbara Barliani, for example, uses selfies and social media posts as political acts.
A motorcycle accident in 2018 left her unable to walk; subsequent operations included inserting metal rods to support her bones to help her recuperate. In response, Barliani decided to embrace her “cyborg” lifestyle. Together with several of her friends, she produces Instagram selfie filters that are very descriptive of women’s lives in Georgia. This act is one of many examples how an observer becomes an audience, receiving a carefully chosen content.
Critics online have labelled her a radical feminist for her loud Facebook posts and raw, natural selfies that deconstructed her model-like appearance.
Barliani welcomes the feminist title. “I think bodiless communication, and using selfies as a tool of action, is very feminist,” she said.
“I have decided to create my faces and my reality as I want people to see me - to take control. I chose to learn how to make Instagram filters and turned my immobility into a chance to create new identities.”
Indeed, Facebook has created plenty of room to act in the context of identity politics.
A transsexual woman named Londa Fox changes her costumes in Facebook live broadcasts, and gives monologues on her sexual freedom in rebuke of Georgian conservatism. Her attitude is haughty and arrogant.
While many Facebook users laugh, either with her or at her, LGBTQ activist Beka Gabadadze sees Londa’s performance as an act that honors the history of drag. “Drag returns to its original meaning when you make a comedy out of existing reality, its economic and cultural codes,” Gabadadze said.
“If drag is an art, it is not a primitive attempt of make-up and imitation. First and foremost, it is a mockery of the accepted order through sarcasm and role-play.”
The professional, formal performance remains as the least popular genre in the realm of contemporary Georgian art scene, however. “It mostly lacks genuineness, we do not have the access to theoretical and practical education on this art form and therefore the quality suffers,” noted Nina Pataridze, a young curator of contemporary art.
In contrast, dramatic role-imitation, play and performance has practically become a core cultural character of Georgian society, according to Culturology Professor Lela Piralishvili.
“Sirtskhvilia’s (Shame Movement’s) Missions in San Andreas” by Nika Kutsniashvili. A commentary on activism in 2020 in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.” (2020)
In her book “Letters on Georgian Identity,” one of the most important aspects of identities is the identity of creative formation--an artistic process of creating new forms and trying them on.
“Rather than being fixed, this identity plays roles,” she writes.
“It is an eternal skill of performing, the ability to abandon certain structures and play within different ones. Performativity and playfulness here, does not indicate immorality, but the ability of adapting oneself to many morals and being serious in none.”
An overall highlight of this essay is a reoccurring quote from an old Georgian folk song: “…This boy plays well, standing on his toes.”
The quote describes the impressions of a cheering audience, enjoying an entertaining performance of a young, flexible boy. Indeed, entertainment has long been a vital part of Georgia’s “brand.”
The country was widely seen as the USSR’s colonized destination for vacations; a “decorative nation”--a place of good food, wine, artists and sun. Even today, to a tourist, the characteristic attributes of Georgia are again the elements of spectacle, including poetic art of feasts with toasts for every occasion; dancing in all its forms--ancient pagan rituals, national ballet or the recent clubbing craze, the grand and ceremonious gestures between neighbors and relatives or reputation oriented lifestyle.
There would also be emotionally charged prayers in churches, heroic sportsmanship but most of all, the turbulent drama of rallies and wars, never leaving the pages of Georgian history.
Maybe this is why there seems to be no place for a Georgian performance piece in the domain of contemporary art, which belongs to the language of the Western world. Maybe this medium is so deeply rooted into the intangible realm of historical memory and human communication in Georgia that separation from it as a performance seems unnatural and unauthentic. It is as though our ontological ways are forcing us backward, back to being “a decorative nation” or worse, an “undeveloped society” that misunderstands the images and expressions of progress and expansion.
“Toilet Grand-opening” by residents of Lagodekhi, Kakheti Region, imitating the optimistic and development-oriented speeches of then president Mikheil Saakashvili. (2011)
Totus mundus agit histrionem
All the Worlds a Stage
“Not everyone had this opportunity in the past, but now we have the Internet, and it is possible to declare your opinions (competent or not) on an international scale,” a news presenter on Imedi TV channel said in the January 10, 2020 broadcast.
The report was about a flood of Georgian comments under a live stream of U.S. President Donald Trump addressing Iran after the missile strikes on January 8. The stream was watched by the whole world, waiting for the verdict in fear of war, but the quantity of comments written in Georgian was truly unprecedented. From icons of the Georgian flag to comments in support of the US—and even some people trying to sell property online—the volume and overall aura of boldness was inescapable.
There were similar instances with the famously controversial case of “NBA vote Zaza Pachulia” and the angry storm of English-language comments under the image posted by Russian model, Irina Shayk, opening the 2014 Olympics in Sochi (a sensitive area for “Abkhaz-Georgian” relations). Apparently, what we are really looking at here is, a geopolitical spectacle, where Georgia seeks its own role on an enormous stage, its costumes supplied by the past and its actions dictated by the future.
Comment by the Georgian Publisher and Booksellers Association, broadcast live from the 2017 Frankfurt Bookfair, “We are trying to fit their interests while offering our product at the same time. The main interests here are who are the contemporary, modern Georgian writers and what are they creating. Of course Georgia is perceived here as an exotic country, and the books they choose to publish here seek to demonstrate this exoticism, so to speak. But at the same time the books also have to be accessible to international society, so we have to fit certain standards. We will try to note this and work with our writers on this matter, if it is possible to interfere in the creative process. I guess we have the responsibility to consider these trends; if we want to prepare for a successful fair in 2018, there are some criteria we will have to meet.”
“Performance,” is often the main tool of narration in political commentaries by Georgian artist and activist Giorgi Khasaia. Co-founder of a collective named The Cyber Theatre of Indirect Action, is notably absent from social media—he does not even have an account on Facebook—but his thoughts are frequently shared on the platform.
In one of his texts, “An Invitation to a Total Installation,” he brings the relationship of art and politics in Georgia forward: “A total installation is an artistic concept in which the space is not controlled by the audience… those who think they are observing are themselves objects observed by others, and these observers are also being observed by others, and so on.”
At times, Web 2.0, an intangible culmination of globalization, seems to resemble the “totality” he speaks of. It might soon be replaced by other virtual realities. It may also happen that the post-pandemic world, nostalgic for intimacy, may slow the process. But today, as always, Georgia remains on its toes, performing under the surveillance of interconnectivity: a constant tug-of-war between its imitation of global sophistication and its inherent flair for the dramatic. Defining itself in expectation of feedback, it manipulates its cultural dynamics and seeks reassurances from important international political actors. As Professor Piralishvili observed in the collective archetype of the young boy, it is always performing: “The ones who can play well are the ones eternally tip-toeing...It is a very hard type of existence.” It is remarkable that this oldest song ends with a line that is so relevant for the future, an open question: "What if the boy hurts himself, who’s fault would it be?”