In mid-November of last year, Professor Teresa Kovacs was able to bring a piece of German experimental theater to Bloomington’s campus with the conference Diffractive World-Making: Theatre & Science Beyond the Capitalocene.
You are most likely to see the term “diffraction” in a scientific context: it is the way that particles bend, interact with, and are shaped by moving around obstacles. When applied to light, diffraction can be thought of as the way that the particles and waves warp and pass through lenses. However, theoretical physicist and feminist theorist Karen Barad does not take such a straightforward approach: in their writing, diffraction makes everything both old and new, here and there, individual in isolation and constantly in conversation with everything else. These types of seemingly contradictory notions appear all over quantum physics, but what happens when you take these concepts out of science and bring them into art?
For Teresa Kovacs this question is at the core of her academic research as assistant professor of Germanic Studies and adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance. Her focus is on how theatre makers push this artform beyond the “traditional notion of drama” and into our technoscientific age. With experimental German theatre as the backdrop, Kovacs explores how by turning convention on its head and questioning what the fabric of theatre—performance—really is, playwrights actively converse with the most pressing political, social, and scientific concepts of our time.
“It really started with this idea of bringing just one playwright together with one theorist… what happens if the two of them meet?” Kovacs muses. This simple premise led her to move the theoretical into the practical, working with Berlin-based playwright Kevin Rittberger to create an in-person conference to answer just that. As one of Barad’s texts spoke of meeting the universe halfway, Kovacs cultivated a joining of minds: “Let’s do this meeting halfway between theatre and quantum physics.”
With the support of short-term visitor grants from the Office of the Vice President for International Affairs, Kovacs and Rittberger brought performers, playwrights, theorists, critics, and artists from around the world to Bloomington’s campus for a dialogue on art in our time. Over the course of three days, students, faculty, staff, and community members explored just how, as Kovacs says, “science is a form of philosophy,” and what role theatre plays in that conversation.
“I cannot believe we were able to bring such an exquisite group people to IU Bloomington,” Kovacs said in a recent interview. In addition to the aforementioned playwright Kevin Rittberger and University of Santa Cruz Professor of Feminist Studies, Philosophy, and History of Consciousness Karen Barad, the conference brought transdisciplinary Brazilian artist Luiza Prado, French-Senegalese playwright Penda Diouf, media theorist McKenzie Wark, and theatre scholars like Rebecca Schneider, Tavia Nyong’o, and Ulf Otto, and more together to respond to Rittberger and Barad’s work. While the sheer volume of talent and critical thought alone is noteworthy, this conference marked a momentous occasion not only for Rittberger himself, but a unique opportunity for the IU campus.
“Kevin Rittberger is one of the leading playwrights in Germany… but Kevin is not yet translated into English. So, there was not a single play available by Kevin Rittberger in English. And what we did for this conference was translate five plays,” Kovacs explained. Those plays were analyzed by her classes, read by students live as a part of the conference, and reacted to by the other artists. This included a brand-new work, inspired by one of the newly translated plays, entitled Prometheus. Beginnings. by choreographer and dancer Tzveta Kassabova. For the first time, Kovacs students were not only able to experience the work of one of the most influential German playwrights of modern time, they also had a front-row seat for a never-before-seen performance.
For Austrian-born Kovacs, who joined IU’s faculty in 2019 just before the pandemic and has spent the majority of her time teaching without the benefit of global mobility, this was an unparalleled opportunity for her students. “I cannot bring you to Germany, but we will have a world premiere of a dance piece based on one of his plays right here in Bloomington… what more can you wish for?”
Diffractive World-Making: Theatre & Science Beyond the Capitalocene took place November 10-12, 2022 at the Cook Center and FAR Arts Center in Bloomington, Indiana and was supported by the following Indiana University departments and programs: Germanic Studies, Presidential Arts and Humanities Program, The Office of the Vice President for International Affairs, the Cultural Studies Program, Art History, French and Italian, Theatre & Dance, Comparative Literature, Cinema and Media Studies.
If you are an IU Faculty member interested in bringing a distinguished visitor to an Indiana University campus for conferences, workshops, lectures, or performances that explore international topics, we encourage you to apply for an international short-term visitor grant.