The Planinšak Phantom

Being Continuously Dirty /Kulturpunkt/
By Una Bauer

Every other Monday morning, mathematician Alex Bellos publishes a video puzzle on the Guardian web pages. One of the puzzles published in June 2015 showed three switches and a lamp in the attic. To solve the puzzle, one needs to deduce which one of the three switches is actually connected to the lamp and a condition is that one can visit the attic only once. The solution to the puzzle, as it is often the case, lies “outside of the box”, meaning that one needs to presume that the solution is not purely logical but requires the application of physics. The key is in the heat of the light bulb or the fact that a switched on light bulb leaves a thermal trace palpable some time after switching it off. The Planinšak Phantom shares some elements of this inclination towards enigmatic (of course, without a final solution), and its hermeneutics depends on this living and warm body/machine on stage and the initial presumption of the basic contingency of existence that is in opposition with certainty arising from a correct logical deduction.

Namely, The Planinšak Phantom enhances a robust element of contemporary theatre and both on the level of form and content. This theatrical work constructs a kind of offbeat dynamics of a criminal investigation using an unexpected choice of the text– a high school logic textbook written by Gajo Petrović, or, to be more precise, a fragment dedicated to the mystery of lost ashtray in a burning apartment, used to explain the purpose and meaning of a scientific research: “Therefore, we are confronted with a problem (or a puzzle); where and how has the ashtray disappeared from a locked apartment inside of which, at least at the first glance, nothing else seemed to be different? This question is very confusing, it is intriguing, disturbing and it inspires further analysis. We feel the need to find a solution. But, how?” This text, articulated by Vilim Matula, is written in a very tense and dynamic way and it is juxtaposed to various other textual paradigms with the aim to revive one particular historical situation but also to deconstruct “the scientific approach” to that situation: what could have happened at the St Marc’s Square on 30 October 1912 at 9.00 PM? This story has already been formulated as a puzzle in the book by Josip Horvat titled The Rebellion of the Youth Between 1911 and 1914 (Pobuna omladine 1911-1914) and published by Gordogan Publishing House almost forty years after it was written. Horvat gives a critical account of whispers and unconfirmed announcements published in Sloboda and Riječki novi list and the official press release in Narodne novine together with the version by Stjepan Dojčić. Was this an assassination attempt directed at Slavko Cuvaj, Ban and royal commissioner, where gun shots from the window of his palace while Planinšak hanged from the lamp almost impossible to climb, towards a vehicle transporting Cuvaj from the theatre to his home, which is less likely, or was this a suicide attempt “well-thought”, prior to which Planinšak fired three shots in the air just to try out his weapon?

A well-known Croatian author in his memoires mistakenly stated where railway tracks used to pass at the time of his childhood. His editor warned him about that but the author refused to accept his suggestion. Railway tracks actually did not pass at the place the author stated and that was objectively easy to check. However, the author’s unwillingness to accept the modification of his memory prevailed. For him, his memory served as an objective reality, which is undisputable and may not be put in question. The case of Planinšak, however, is not a question of mistaken remembrance but of unavailable information and an attempt to deduce something from the available information. As opposed to the situation with the ashtray, where the process of logical thinking replaces preliminary presumptions with more specific ones, Planinšak’s assassination attempt, if that was the case at all, cannot be broken down in a similarly simplified manner, because the range of possibilities is much more diversified than in the case of the locked apartment and there are less clues. “Since whispering has begun, the most curious and bravest ones, seemingly by accident,  started going to the St Marc's Square in Zagreb. Nothing special. As it has always been the case, day and night, a soldier was marching in front of the main entrance and a police officer on duty was strolling around the square. Passers-by noted that there was a small hole on the wall bellow the window on the first floor. Nobody knew whether it was there before the incident. People said that it was probably a mark from the bullet” (Pobuna omladine 1911-1914, p 216). After narrowing down the list of presumptions, Petrović encounters a situation where it is easy to check the hypothesis (the ashtray has been taken by our friend, a well-know prankster, who used the occasion to play a joke on us), and if that hypothesis proves to be incorrect, Petrović advises to call the police. However, in the case of Stjepan Planinšak, the police who was to learn about the incident, as opposed to the crystal clear example given by Gajo Petrović, it a variable category of its own, conditioned by political pressures and other strategies used to write history. Scientific research, thus, figures as a considerably dirtier category than educational processes used to carry out and examine various hypotheses.

It is hard to compose only a few known facts in a way they result in a comprehensive description of an event. However, other information on Stjepan Planinšak do not seem reliable either; family documents differ from personal information that Planinšak stated when he enrolled in the Law School at the University of Zagreb. It is not know whether his mother was Marija Planinšak or Anastazija Planinšak, and even the newspapers write his last name incorrectly on several occasions. These kinds of puzzles make an excellent setting for different kinds of conspiracy theories and sensational texts, however, Indoš and Vrvilo manage to find a context for them by using deductions on free will, disarranging historical guesswork, speculation and inaccurate information in the domain of profound, fundamental doubt. Unreliability and impossibility to confirm information have been elevated from the level of triviality of a specific event (which is, however, from each individual position at the same time also the most important one since it concerns a concrete issue of someone’s death or life) to the level of possibility to comprehend the existential conditions in general and to question the methodology used to obtain them. And, this is the fundamental difference between Horvat’s position as a journalist – he is a historian focusing on the accurate and verifiable, and the position of theatre artists who reach across or from the other side in relation to clear, empirical or theoretical categories.

The Planinšak Phantom  is the fourth performance by D.B. Indoš and Tanja Vrvilo dedicated to young revolutionaries – assassins on the eve of the First World War. Planinšak was the last in a row after the trilogy titled “Every Revolution Implies Throwing a Dice” that is Luka Jukić (Cefas), Stjepan Dojčić (American) and Jakob Schäffer (Tosca 914). Inclination to biographic elements from Planinšak’s life and various anachronistic psychologization of his appearance and handwriting (“a handwriting of a soft-hearted man”, “methodical”, “of meticulous work”, ”ambitionless”, ”introvert”) in The Planinšak Phantom allows us to put in question the conditions for the possibility of the political. The official press release explaining what had happened shifted the potential politicality of the assassionation as an act in the domain of a certain personal metaphysics, neutralizing the problem which needed to be tackled (discontent with an unfavourable position Croatia had inside of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy) by turning it into an individual problem which was nonetheless impossible to resolve in the political domain (Planinšak’s personal dissatisfaction with life and lack of meaning). “From the police records and especially from the transcripts of interviews with his friends, which are available to everyone upon request, it is evident that the person who committed the suicide had decided to end his life long time ago. After the matriculation Planinšak intended to end his life and at the time and afterwards he was frequently saying that he saw no purpose in life.”

Several cases of nationalist youth at the beginning of the 20th century and ferocious assassination attempts over a short period of time, i.e. the attempts to kill baron Skerlecz (Dojčić, Schäffer) and Ban and royal commissioner Slavko Cuvaj (Planinšak, Jukić), raise some serious questions concerning politicality of the biographic on the one hand and the individual on the other. The assassination attempts were done at symbolical places and they were directly primarily at persons (“What has his highness Skerlecz done to be shot at?” – On the question asked by the president of the Senate during the hearing against Stjepan Dojčić,  Dojčić responds– “I have not committed the assassination against him as a person, but as the royal commissioner.” Horvat also wrote that “In 1919 he accidentally came across Skerlecz at the Gyékénes station. He recognized, approached and introduced himself to him Pand then they shook hands. […] that is a rather bizarre ending to an assassination.” ) However, for an assassination attempt to function as a symbolical act, there must be a possibility to really take away someone’s life because only that possibility can give the proper amount of meaning at a symbolic level.

Nataša Govedić has correctly identified a certain inclination towards mythologization of an individual act of resistance, which is apparent not only in the performance titled Cefas but also in the entire performance cycle based on Horvat’s book. As she says, “I do not see a reason why terrorist are turned into mythical icons of resistance, as well as I do not see any reasons why they need to be stigmatized in a moralising way and then persecuted by the police.” (Nataša Govedić, Zarez, XII/293, 14 October 2010). However, I would say that Indoš, Vrvilo and their collaborators rather incline original amazement about being alive and the mystery of making a decision to fight in order not to take part in the political arena and try to guarantee a political change with your own death. The fact that someone’s death can actually result in a political change absolutely does not contribute anything to many attempts to create legitimate, effective and meaningful political procedures. The assassination, even it resolves everything (which is, of course, impossible) resolves nothing because it is very hard to generalize and use it as the improved procedure. In other words, there is no way to capitalize it, preserve it as a method to be used in the future and mobilize murder as a mean of political struggle. Fundamentally, a terrorist act during which a perpetrator dies is a concept just as confusing as, for example, dying on stage. His “efficiency” is often counter-proportional to the opportunity to learn something from it in terms of methods that might be systematized and further applied for the common good. Yet, if we take a look through a historical lens, there is no serious political struggle without human casualties. How to explain this in general terms?

In The Planinšak Phantom, which premiered on 25 June 2015 at the Perforations Festival, Vilim Matula, Tanja Vrvilo, Damir Bartol Indoš, but also Ivan Bilosnić Bic and Nino Prišuta function as a sort of theatrical human machines. While maintaining their characteristic stage appearances - stern and solemnly dedicated Vilim Matula who seems to examine every word before he shapes it inside his mouth, Indoš, as a wizard of the performance/ritual transformation and Tanja Vrvilo, as a voice made of shells and percussions – these performers simultaneously deconstruct their stage personae and create monstrous bodies made of sound, text, tin and iron that surpass the limits of what we conventionally comprehend as their bodies. In the same way that entirely unique theatre devices might function very well as installations (I am wondering if one day they might put up a play performed only by different forms of schachtophons playing the main parts), the performers also transform into wondrous, re-invented constructions only with the lower parts of their bodies or with a head separated from the body or in half-profiles. Voices articulated in horizontally arranged tin and bottomless barrels at head height– yet another variation of a schachtophon – start living their own acoustic lives, at the same time separately from the body producing the voice but twice as present and affirming the body as a resonance chamber. Handwritten texts hang around like paper tongues swirling in the space of performance. This construction made of “monstrous” leather, metal and paper bodies is additionally supported by a non-linear time relation. The Planinšak Phantom, as often is the case with Indoš’s performances, happens all at once in some kind of supra-temporal duration without a beginning and an end, with a single exception. Some elements of crime story genre clearly establish a procedural line as a counter-point to the basic dramaturgical simultaneousness– the tension they develop depends on carefully and gradually given doses of information.

I believe that the strength of Planinšak the Phantom lies in enduring the problem and actively nourishing this categorical impurity, which is very theatrical and even essential for the theatre. This categorical impurity can be found in a number of examples – from combining analogue and digital technologies, humans and machines, surpassing the limits of the human and personal in the domain of supra-individual and metaphysical, mechanically induced voices with the ones of organic origin, to polluting the political with the biographical and historically logical. Such intense and continuous dirtiness remains unknown in any other form of art.