VOLKSBÜHNE
Berlin

Interview mit Yael Bartana
zu "What if Women Ruled the World?"

How can we best understand the title of your piece, What if Women Ruled the World? Are you proposing that women should rule the world?
First and foremost, the project is an experiment, and it’s important that the title is not making a statement such as “the world would be a better (or worse) place if women ruled it.” It’s also true, however, that changing the sex of the people at the top while keeping the same structures probably isn’t enough. In that sense, the project aims to question everything we know about political structures.

In What if Women... men are present, but more as accessories. To see this on the stage is eye-opening because it goes against our habits of viewing.
The initial idea was indeed to reverse or invert gender relations as we know them. If most positions of political power are occupied by men and women are often a minority or, as you say, “accessories”, in What if Women... the audience is confronted by the opposite situation: an all-female government sitting in a version of the War Room from Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr Strangelove. This is, of course, a space where macho men hold all the power, while the only woman in the film – who is not permitted to enter this room – is presented as powerless, pretty, and not very intelligent.

Isn’t it dangerous to imply that women make decisions differently than men?
It’s true that postmodern feminism rejects the binary structure that characterizes western male thinking, which is why it seeks to undo established opposites such as subjective and objective, material and ideological, emotional and rational, myself and other. A transition from a patriarchal to a matriarchal world – if indeed this is something that we wish to experience – cannot and should not duplicate a binary model. The idea is to build a world of plurality and multiplicity, in which a woman is not “the other” of man and practically defined by the mere fact of not being a man. In that sense, What if Women... is an experimental platform, a forum for ideas about how to break with the existing models. The fictional setup should be regarded less as a utopia than as a concrete alternative to a society in which men rule religion, economy, politics, language and culture.

If we look at the women recently or currently in leadership positions – people like Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel, Theresa May, Marie Le Pen etc. – it’s hard to be optimistic about women being better rulers. Doesn’t power have more of an effect on people’s behaviour than gender?
All the women you mention are acting in a men’s world, according to – and under – men’s rules. That is the actual starting point, before we even get to speak about power. The fact is that women have always been discriminated against and had to adjust themselves to a world dominated by men. The set-up of What if Women... might be a bit didactic but it is effective. It’s not a fantasy of revenge, as in Naomi Alderman’s recent novel Power, where women can give electric shocks with their fingers, but it’s a kind of outcry, instead, about how we have to find an alternative to a world dominated by men.

The scenario is centred around a nuclear threat. What made you choose this particular issue, as opposed to, say, terrorism?
Nuclear weapons are fetish objects designed in a phallic shape and are part of a sexual discourse of domination and power. This is thematised wonderfully in Dr. Strangelove, where a nuclear attack is launched in response to the sexual impotence of one of the generals. But it’s also clear in Trump’s tweets arguing with Kim Jong Un about who has the bigger button. This is so absurd that if we saw such an exchange in a film it would be dismissed as too unlikely, not to mention too banal.
In What if Women... , the nuclear threat offers a scenario that enables a specific debate based on what each of the experts brings with her as well as the fact that they are talking with one another and not just stating a position. Questions such as whether women would pursue alternatives to military force in response to aggression are in that sense only a beginning, a trigger for a more complex discussion that can develop in many possible directions.

Each time the work is staged, you bring together a moderator, four actresses and a changing group of five experts. What are the criteria in selecting these experts?
Since the project deals with world leadership, it was important to include women who are really in positions of power. On the one hand, politicians seemed a natural choice, but since I wanted to question the system instead of representing it, it was important to cast a broader net. So there are lawyers, peace activists, humanitarians, and radical thinkers who are calling for change, but also defense and security advisers, researchers of nuclear energy policies, soldiers and veterans. The idea was not to have a nice pacifist discussion that leads to the conclusion that war is bad. I wanted to have a real debate based on knowledge and experience and not only on ideals: the project is, after all, trying to initiate a thought process about general structural change.

And what do the actresses add to the situation at the conference table?
The actresses are playing the all-female cabinet of a fictional country with a pacifist constitution and a governmental commitment to disarmament. They are the President, Vice-President (who doubles as the moderator), Peace Secretary, Army Chief of Staff, State Secretary, and they all react to the evolving situation along with the real-life experts from various fields who have been invited to participate. The role of the actresses is first and foremost to maintain the fictional setting and the dramatic arc while supporting the moderator in facilitating the conversation.

Last year you presented the work twice – first in Manchester, UK, and then in Aarhus, Denmark. Have you come any closer to a better understanding of what would change if…?
It’s not an easy question. But one thing I’ve been thinking about is that I’ve simply never seen so many women from different backgrounds sitting together in a room exchanging ideas for about two hours without interruption. It is not only very refreshing, but also creates a different kind of discourse. The notion of empathy and the atrocities of war came up multiple times. I’m not sure how present these topics are in parliaments and cabinet meetings. It was also interesting that many of the women insisted that a genuine discussion could only take place with men present, and so would have liked to have men around the table discussing with them. On both occasions, I was mostly struck by the great potential that emerged from such a situation, such an encounter between women.

Your earlier work – and especially the films you are perhaps best known for – demonstrate your long-standing interest in “what-if” scenarios. How would you describe the connection between What if Women... and your previous work?
What if Women... has been created with the same logic as other works of mine – as a fictional scenario about a historical injustice that has been devised in order to enable new ways of thinking about real-world events. Imagining different political realities is central to my artistic practice, and for many years now I’ve been simulating certain situations and combining fiction and reality in different ways. When working on the films in my Polish Trilogy – which starts out from the idea of a political group calling for the return of 3,300,000 Jews to Poland – I was interested in reversing historical narratives and introducing an imaginary, scripted scenario as a way to comment on present reality. The connection between creating a certain setting or event and the documentation of it has also often been an important aspect of my work, and What if Women... is also being documented in order to become a film.

Why did you decide to make it a film, too? What can this film do that is different from the live performance?
In the theatre, What if Women... is exciting partly because we can’t know where it’s going. I’m very interested in the notion of the “active witness”, and a genuine event happening in front of an audience creates the perfect setting for such a thing to emerge. But the set is actually designed to be filmed, so the performance is also happening for the cameras. It allows me to make the project as a whole less linear, less chronological – to add layers of complexity. Besides, a film can be presented to different kinds of publics around the world much more easily than a major theatre project. Not to mention that I felt a strong need to make a female version of Dr. Strangelove!

This interview was conducted by Elodie Evers.

> Further information about What if Women Ruled the World? and tickets here.

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