By Cathi Unsworth.
DAVID ENRIQUE SPELLMAN’s investigation into the disappearance of a radical theatre director has spawned a book, FAR SOUTH, and a multi-media collaboration that anyone can join. CATHI UNSWORTH finds out more…
Until I picked up David Enrique Spellman’s Far South, I had never heard of Gerardo Fischer, the radical Uruguayan film director who vanished from an artist’s colony in Argentina under mysterious circumstances in 2006. But then, even the author himself, a former lecturer in Latin American Literature and Philosophy at Columbia University, was ignorant of the man who formed the Real and Present Theater Company in 1968, until a chance encounter on a train that would eventually lead to the writing of the book. Along with that, came his involvement in Far South Project, a series of websites that utilise materials from the case along with films and literature, to raise awareness of disappearance, both political and criminal, by governments or terrorists – or the extortionists in the grey areas between.
Far South is based on the casebook of private investigator Juan Manuel Pérez, who was brought in by Fischer’s friends and collaborators at the colony when the director first vanished. For reasons that soon become apparent, they didn’t trust the local police. Fischer’s disappearance seems to be inextricably linked to the darkest shades of Argentina’s past – the disappeared of the Dirty War; the harbouring of Nazi war criminals – almost as if the director, in his absence, becomes a mirror for the country’s crimes.
Far South does not follow the straight narrative of a true crime book, not merely because Spellman’s translation of Pérez’s notes lends the book a lyrical quality that brings to mind the vintage noir of William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel; or because the investigation stretches beyond individual circumstances into complex political and criminal networks with far-reaching tendrils. The book has been structured so that at various chapter endings, you can refer to one of the Far South websites to examine artefacts discussed within that section. It also pans into a graphic novel in one section, a reproduction of the diary of Real and Present’s set designer.
As it says on the cover, this is no ordinary book, and Spellman is no ordinary author, describing himself merely as ‘the voice’ of the Far South collective. Thanks to a few connections of my own at his publisher, Serpent’s Tail, I was granted an exclusive opportunity to speak with him…
3:AM: For the uninitiated, could you give us a bit of background on the Far South project – how it came into being and what are its aims?
DES: I joined The Far South Project when it was already underway, of course. Before I found out about it, it had come into being as response to the disappearance of theatre director Gerardo Fischer in 2006. Gerardo was both director and mentor to the Real and Present Theater Company and all of the people who grew up with it. The company is still a close-knit group of people whose original members formed a performance nucleus as long ago as 1968. Of course, over the years, some people left the company and younger actors joined it. But Gerardo has always been at the heart of it. Clara Luz Weissman, who has been the company’s producer for the last many years, has taken over the role of coordinating the company’s response to Gerardo’s disappearance. She’s turned an incredibly painful and anxiety-ridden situation into a creative response and wants to involve more people in the project. She’s got two main aims, I’d say: one is to find Gerardo; and the second is to continue his and the company’s work even in his absence.
At the heart of the project is the desire to work with both the theatre company and other artists outside it to see what kind of synergies emerge. A central question concerning the disappearance is this: did Gerardo disappear voluntarily or was he kidnapped? Whether one, or the other, the question is why? Because of the nature of his work and his obsessions, he came into contact with people you might consider to be dangerous, so it is possible he was kidnapped. But if he disappeared of his own accord, he must have known it would upset a lot of people who are close to him. We choose to believe that he is still alive. We act as if he is. And we make work that is inspired by him. Clara’s theatrical vision is that through this work we’ll discover where Gerardo is, even if it’s only in a metaphorical sense. That’s her response to this personal loss in her life.
Through the Far South Project, she brings together the work of artists, designers, musicians and filmmakers from Uruguay, Wales, Argentina, Ireland, all over the world. She’s an extraordinary woman. The works blur the line between truth and fiction. Just like the enigma of Gerardo’s disappearance. The people involved grasp that.
3:AM: The book Far South is centred around Fischer’s disappearance, but as well as the central mystery of his vanishing, Fischer himself seems an enigma – I am not a theatre buff, so had never heard of him before. Would if be fair to describe him as having perhaps similar aims to Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, only with added shamanistic qualities?
DES: That’s a nicely surprising analogy. I wouldn’t have thought of it myself. In the sense that Gerardo’s Real and Present Theater Company has never shied away from edgy social situations, and likes to involve marginalised people, you could say that was true. The interesting thing about Gerardo is that he’s never considered himself to be a political artist in the way that Joan Littlewood did. Despite not being political, Gerardo was considered suspect by the military governments both in Argentina and in Uruguay back when the theatre company was first formed. But so were many artists suspect at that time, overtly political or not. If you try to hold up a mirror to a situation, inevitably it’s in some people’s interests to keep some things in the dark. Gerardo wasn’t a Marxist materialist, which I think Littlewood was. Maybe in that sense, Gerardo is closer to Peter Brook’s aesthetic, with which I believe Joan Littlewood had no sympathy at all.
Gerardo having a shamanistic aspect is an interesting concept: the artist as shaman, like the German artist Joseph Beuys perhaps? Beuys saw that art could be a healing force in society. He was also political. He founded the Green Party in Germany. But as far as Gerardo is concerned, I believe he had the idea that for theatre to reflect life situations accurately, the work needs to acknowledge the mystery that’s always present. Gerardo believed that ultimately what we perceive as reality has a dreamlike quality. And we have to work with that quality. Which is not to say pain or injustice are not important. If someone tortures you in a dream, you feel pain and terror. When you wake up, you’re in a different dream. Gerardo wanted to navigate those spaces between one dream and another, no matter how terrifying or how amazing. He got his actors to do that. Maybe that’s why he made such an impression on them.
3:AM: What is so different about Present Theatre Company is that they seemed to always go to work in trouble spots of the world, inspiring homeless, disaffected and politically radical groups into creating eye-opening theatre for all concerned. But they remained a pretty underground phenomena – almost as if they had to seek you out, rather than the other way around, would you say?
DES: Gerardo has always wanted his work seen. But he’s always wanted to create theatre where his actors and his audiences are completely awake and alive. He’s always tried to include the audience in what he does and he finds it more exciting to work with people who are not necessarily those whom you might usually associate with going to the theatre. He’s never been interested in comfort and security in the theatre, which most people, if we’re honest, would prefer to have. I saw Varga Llosa’s Woman of Tacna once in Buenos Aires: the acting was fantastic, but it was so predictable: the beautiful oppressed Indian mistress gets her clothes off and has sex with the hero, and after all the political turmoil of the plot, everybody lives happily ever after in middle class safety. And the audience went home with a warm and cosy glow. I have to admit I was pissed off at how shallow it all was.
It seems to me that Gerardo has always been an enemy of complacency, which means that people fall asleep in the sense that we become distracted so easily and take refuge in our habitual thought patterns. We stay where we feel emotionally comfortable. That, for Gerardo, is what dulls our perceptions of the real and present, the magic of daily life. From what I’ve seen since meeting Clara, his work has always been to keep himself, his actors and his audience awake in a casual and relaxed state of perceptual awareness. I don’t think he deliberately sets out to perform and make work on the margins of anything. It’s just that he chooses places in which to make his work with the greatest possibility of experiencing wonder and terror – I think that’s the dictionary definition of awe. You mentioned ‘eye-opening theatre’. That’s exactly what the company and Gerardo are interested in. He’s never compromised in that. Maybe that’s why only a few people get to hear about what he does. Those who do are usually people who are willing to take a risk. And they get out of the experience more than they bargained for. Maybe a lot more than they bargained for.
3:AM: Despite being a lecturer on Latin American Literature and Philosophy yourself, you only heard of Fischer after a chance encounter with his associates Clara Luz Weissman and Javier Hernández on a train going from New York to Springfield. You promised to attend the company’s next performance, and I can only assume that was a successful meeting of minds — as you ended up with the casebook of Juan Manuel Pérez, who initiated the search for Fischer when he first disappeared. Can you tell me, what happened next with Clara and Javier?
DES: I’m a great believer in coincidence as a spark for creation. Clara and Javier had that spark for me. You know sometimes you meet people and it’s like a shock. A shock of recognition. You think, I want to know these people. You can’t explain it. It’s just that they wake something up in you: a moment of wonder and terror, if you like. You find you’re willing to take a step into the unknown with them. A bit like falling in love, maybe. It was like that for me with Clara and Javier. In a minor coincidence, connected with that meeting, while I was on the train, my wife back in New York, had seen the ad in The Village Voice for the production at La Mama, and she had already bought us tickets, knowing that I’d want to see a South American theatre production. So we went. The stage set was based on abstract paintings by Joaquín Torres García. It was a play written by Fischer. That was really the first contact I had with his work. I’ve never met Gerardo, of course, but Clara is sure that the company embodies his spark of genius in some way. That is, they credit him with waking up that spark in them, that we all have. Maybe that’s the shamanistic aspect you asked about.
3:AM: Fischer disappeared from an arts commune near Ciudad Azul in Argentina on 9 January 2006. From the off, we know we are dealing with a Mafia world, where no one in authority can be trusted – which ends up being one of the main themes running through the book. As someone with Argentinian family connections yourself, did you find that the dark history of the country, explored within Far South, holds up a mirror to the rest of us?
DES: What Far South shows, I think, is that a lot of what happens in the world goes on hidden from sight. For example, Wikileaks revealed a lot of what goes on in the dark between governments. That said, some things need to go on in the dark from time to time. One government may cut a deal with another government that actually benefits ordinary people on the ground, but officially neither government will say this publicly in order not to lose face. So it doesn’t make sense that everything is out in the public domain. Sometimes it’s actually dangerous. The problem is that the worse excesses and atrocities are often concealed from the public and the world.
After 9/11, Alan Dershowitz, the celebrity US lawyer, presented a case for the use of torture. (Dershowitz, Alan M. “Want to torture? Get a warrant,” San Francisco Chronicle January 22, 2002) What happened during The Dirty War was that torture, rape and murder were used on tens of thousands of people throughout South America to terrorize the rest of the population. It has been alleged that the torturers were trained by American, and sometimes French, military personnel.
There is no doubt that the United States supported ‘anti-communist’ regimes throughout the world and especially in South America and the Caribbean. The military regimes are quite rightly excoriated for what they did in those years. We need to be aware of what is going on in the name of northern democracies, too. Now, there is a new enemy for northern democracies in Islamic fundamentalist violence. Torture is illegal in democratic countries. But we all know that it’s used. Rendition – a fancy name for kidnapping – has been used to take prisoners to countries where there is less control over the use of torture than in northern democracies. Torture has become acceptable in the minds of many in northern democracies. That acceptation is a change. It’s a chilling one. Furthermore the exaggeration of a threat, and I don’t say we should ignore the basic threat, has been used to put in place surveillance and control of the citizens in democratic countries of which the KGB and the Stasi couldn’t even dream of having. They would have been so envious. While we still have democratic principles in place, citizens of western democracies can still operate in relative freedom. If those principles are eroded, the tools for repression on a massive scale are all in place.
3:AM: Amongst Fischer’s belongings that Pérez moved from the commune were communiques from friends from Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine, which makes the reader think that Fischer could maybe have been on the tail of Erich Priebke, a Nazi war criminal. After reading correspondence with Fischer’s friends from Israel and Lebanon, Pérez realises that: ‘Fischer’s politics… were a little complicated’. Have you personally come to any conclusions about this, that could account for Fischer’s disappearance?
DES: It’s hard to know why Gerardo disappeared. There are all kinds of possibilities that Pérez raises in the book. I think it’s best if people read it and come to their own conclusions.
3:AM: Pérez also has a complicated relationship with his father, who is high up in the police himself. We start to feel that this investigation into Fischer’s disappearance is becoming uncomfortably personal for Pérez – can he trust his own family? Which seems to happen to everyone that becomes involved, however tangentially at first, with Fischer…
DES: Yes, is this a coincidence or is this an example of reality being manipulated by Gerardo? It’s something that vexes me a lot, too. I wonder how much I am being manipulated by the situation. Again, best to read how Pérez deals with the question. He was there when this was going on and I wasn’t.
3:AM: I mentioned ‘shamanism’ in connection with Fischer earlier on, and when Pérez meets up with Irish set designer Damien Kennedy, one of the last people to see Fischer at the commune, this mystical dimension comes into play. Fischer asks Kennedy to design him a stage set that replicates the Porta Magica in Piazzo Vittorio. As Kennedy notes in his diary at the time ‘Were they messing with my head?’ Nonetheless, he makes the required set, replete with ancient magical symbols. What are your feelings on this strange interlude?
DES: If you look at Gerardo’s plays, and how he’s lived, Gerardo has always been interested in what we might call ‘the space between worlds:’ the dream world and the waking world, the imaginary and the solid. This play ‘The Alchemist Bono’, for which Damien designs the set, was a production Gerardo did in Rome. Sometimes Gerardo used to create situations which challenged or mystified or scared everyone in the company as well as the audience. The scene with the Porta Magica was one of these, which is one reason why Damien in particular, is mystified by Gerardo’s disappearance but also appears to be very accepting of it.
3:AM: I should point out at this juncture, that in Far South, Kennedy’s diary of these events appears as an artist’s sketchpad, a graphic art depiction of the action. This is a bold and novel way of presenting the story – and it ties into the other aspects that make Far South ‘no ordinary book’. There are also links from the book to the Far South website – where we can examine various artefacts, like Fischer’s postcards, and watch clips of video relating to the case. You are described on the book jacket as the ‘voice of the Far South collective’ and the book/website is a collaborative venture between a group of artists, writers, actors, filmmakers, musicians and dancers. So how easy or difficult was it to find a publisher willing to get behind such a multi-faceted venture as this in these very difficult times for writers?
DES: Perhaps there has never been a time when it wasn’t difficult for writers. Right now, it seems to be a very difficult time for publishers. Book sales are falling in general. There is a concern that e-books will replace print books, which I think is a little exaggerated. I think publishers who embrace new formats will have cutting edge products that reach a lot of people. Serpent’s Tail has always been a cutting edge, and edgy publisher and we were all really delighted that Far South found a home with them. They are so enthusiastic about the multiplatform nature of the book so we can’t thank them enough for their support.
3:AM: Do you personally feel more comfortable acting as part of a collective like this? Obviously, collectives are not a new idea, but, in the Age of Individualism that has been so dominant in Western society over the past three decades, it does actually feel like a novel and radical ideal again…
DES: The beauty of being part of a collective – even if a very loose and open one – is that we are constantly working off each other and just by meeting in the street or in a café or doing a project together it sparks new work, takes work in other directions. The web designer Esko Tikanmaki Portogales – who is of mixed Finnish and Uruguayan descent – has been a major collaborator on this and other projects. We recently put on an exhibition at the Montevideo Biennale: an installation that was a collaboration among five people. On a broader front, the only hope of reforming the financial system that continues to impoverish middle class people in western democracies, as well as in developing countries, is by democratic pressure from the people affected. It has to be united in some way. It has to be collective. The Occupy movement for example is a very loose collaboration of people all over the world. The media claims that the aims are inchoate but the aims are very clear. It’s not about destroying capitalism but about a fairer economic system where one per cent of the population doesn’t own 80 per cent or more of the wealth. It’s encouraging that this movement is spreading across the world. Its aims are supported by millions, even if not all of those supporters are sleeping in tents in Zucotti Park in New York or at St Paul’s in London.
3:AM: You are keen to involve participation in the Far South venture, which again marks the book/website out as a far from passive entertainment venture. On the back of the book in large typeface it says TRUST NO-ONE, QUESTION EVERYTHING, BE PART OF THE MYSTERY. How much interest have you managed to stir up this way?
DES: So far I’d say that about forty people have actually been involved in making films, music, photographs, short stories, and graphic work which has gone into the free websites. I anticipate that more people will join in as people get to hear about the project and see how they can write a story, make a film, or an animation, or a draw a graphic story, as they discover the websites especially http://farsouthproject.tumblr.com and www.far-south.org People can also follow the Twitter account @FarSouthProject.
3:AM: Have you had any leads emanating from the website? There is a clip on there that suggests that Fischer has passed through Cardiff fairly recently – how did this come into your hands and have there been investigations further to what’s in the book as a result of it?
DES: Actually, Fischer’s connection with Cardiff is not so recent, but Paul Morgan, a filmmaker from Wales, has so far made three films as a response to the disappearance with people who have been connected to Gerardo in the past. One of the people is the writer Des Barry. Fischer was in Wales around 2003. The Real and Present Theatre Company was connected with a production at Chapter Arts Centre there. It was through Gerardo’s influence that Barry wrote the play Jet Lag which was part of the a production called Three Cities. Three Cities had three writers and three theatre companies putting on a loosely connected series of plays, each one set in the companies’ places of origin: Theatr Stwdio from Cardiff, Ranters Theatre from Melbourne, and El Patron Vasquez from Buenos Aires. Barry hooked with Paul Morgan to do the three films: The Red Hotel, The God Realm and Book People. All of them are about connections with Fischer whether in dream, through his book Los Delincuentes, or in the flesh.
3:AM: Going back to the book, without wanting to give anything away – Pérez’s investigation into Fischer is also an investigation into himself. Have you found your own life changing in such a radical way since you became involved in this mystery?
DES: This search and the work it has inspired has become an obsession for me since I met Clara and Javier on that train out of New York. They eventually offered me the chance of translating, editing and presenting the investigative casebook into the disappearance of Gerardo Fischer. I wanted to find a way to present it that would do justice to Gerardo’s work, too, after I read his book of essays Los Delincuentes, his collected plays and his other writings, which Clara made available to me. I thought that the best way to tell the story would be as a multi-platform narrative. And I thought how the print medium might dovetail with new technology. I’m very excited by these possibilities. It’s my creative response to Gerardo Fischer’s enigmatic disappearance, so I’ve gone from being an academic on the one hand to a committed creative artist on the other. I guess that’s how Gerardo’s work and inspiration and connecting with his company have affected me. You can read the book as it is, or you can take the further step of engaging with the web-based materials, and even more than that, I’d prefer, and so would Clara and the company, if readers became part of the project and create work of their own that we can publish on our free web-sites of which there are now three. It would help if people read the book first of course.
3:AM: Do you see shades of Fischer in the multiple uprisings we have seen in the Arab world throughout this year?
DES: You ask some very surprising and interesting questions. This one makes me think a lot. Gerardo and the company have always been concerned with justice and freedom. I can’t see a specific connection. The conditions in the Middle East are quite different to South America, except that people everywhere right now, in the Americas, in Europe in the Middle East are perhaps responding to financial and political exploitation and looking for more just solutions to the conditions to which we are subjected in everyday life. Something has to change in the political and financial set up in the world – the so-called global economy. I hope it all goes in the right direction and we don’t have more of the same after all the protests and pressure. I can’t foretell the future. None of us has that kind of crystal ball.
3:AM: Where do you see this project taking you next?
DES: It’s still evolving. We’ll keep working. The connections we make take the project in new directions all the time. We make links with people all over the world who get interested, participate, write to us through the various websites. Esko and I have begun another collaborative project that will probably take us up the Parana and Parguay rivers into the Mato Grosso in Brazil. It’s connected with Gerardo, of course. We heard a rumour that he was in Nueva Londres in Paraguay for short time. One of the collective’s filmmakers was shooting a documentary on The New Australia colony that had been founded in the nineteenth century. It seems that this theatre director had been there and left for the river after only a couple of days. Our filmmaker thought it sounded so much like Gerardo. Esko and I are going to do our own exploration. It’s possible that Clara and Javier will come with us too. Right now we’re trying to expand the Far South network and involve people in creating work with us. If people read the book, Far South, and then explore the sites, they’re welcome to play their own part in the mystery.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cathi Unsworth is the author of three pop-cultural crime novels, The Not Knowing, The Singer and Bad Penny Blues, and the editor of the compendium London Noir (all Serpent’s Tail). Since meeting with David Enrique Spellman, she has also collaborated with the Far South project – see.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, November 30th, 2011.