8372/iv: IN CONVERSATION WITH BENJAMIN ZAJC
8372/iv: IN CONVERSATION WITH BENJAMIN ZAJC
Premiering in 2022 at the Academy of Theatre, Radio, Film and Television (AGRFT) in Ljubljana, the production was first taken abroad in 2023, as part at the Lutkokaz festival in Croatia. The message engraved in the everyday domestic action of coffee grinding is verbalised in a brilliantly artistic way; its powerful monologue telling a story that speaks to all in the room, breaking down language barriers and voicing a history that should not be forgotten, especially in today’s war-torn world.
How and when did you start creating this piece? What was the inspiration behind it?
The idea for this performance came to me in 2019, more like a glimpse rather than a well thought-through blueprint. Its development was then halted by the pandemic and the lockdown. As part of the MA in Dramaturgy and Performance Art at The Academy of Theatre, Radio, Film and Television in Ljubljana, I had the opportunity to develop my own performance so I revisited this idea in 2022 and under the mentorship of Zala Dobovšek developed it further into a durational commemorative piece.
Drinking coffee is a very important part of Balkan social life and a carrier of both beautiful and unpleasant memories, traumas and other experiences. It is a powerful performance tool that can evoke many associations, especially through smell. Many artists question social issues through the medium of coffee – I have even already had a performance where I invited people to my house for coffee (Manifesto, 2019). So, in terms of its significance in our local space and psyche, it seemed to me the most appropriate medium for a commemorative performance.
What is the meaning behind the production’s title?
8372 is the number of victims of the Srebrenica genocide and at the same time the number of grams of coffee that is ground during my performance. The idea was to dedicate a gram of coffee to each victim. The original performance lasted 24 hours (8 hours a day over 3 days). Then I developed a shorter version of the production lasting two hours, separating each performance by adding the number of editions to the original title. I came to Osijek with the third iteration of the shorter version, i.e. the fourth edition in its entirety, titled 8372/iv.
8372 premiered in Slovenia in 2022 and lasted for 3 days. What adjustments were made for its run at Croatia’s Lutkokaz festival?
The original piece that premiered in Slovenia focused only on the central element of the coffee table with me being the constant active participant in grinding the coffee, and people coming in and out of the space instead of remaining there for the duration of the performance. In the shortened version I brought to Lutkokaz festival, we are all in the same room for two hours and people move from being spectators to active contributors and vice versa. This meant inviting more people into the space than originally intended. Of course, the amount of coffee is also smaller.
During the performance you touched on something personal: revealing a family trauma and your views on society’s responsibility in what happened in Srebrenica. Can you tell me a little bit more about how these events came to be important to you, and why you have decided to develop your experiences into a performance?
I truly believe that we all have a responsibility for the events that happen around us but also for those that happened before us. The Balkan wars took place largely before I was born, with some when I was too young to understand them (I was born in 1997). Nevertheless, this trauma is still very deeply embedded in our society’s psyche. The Second World War, for example, inflicted a big wound in our political space, too. I believe in the inheritance of collective guilt but above all in the duty to do everything possible to ensure what happened once is not repeated today or tomorrow.
My immediate family is not the most educated about the history of their own country and the peninsula, nor are they too aware that we come from the two lines of oppressors. I think it is my duty to be aware of my roots, to accept them and to question them, not only in a social sense but also on an individual level: this is currently the main inspiration for my performative art.
Where does your passion for object manipulation and puppetry come from, and what do you find attractive about this genre? What role does object manipulation play within this performance?
I think this passion developed on a professional level at the same time as my involvement in theatre, which was and still is focused on puppetry. But in retrospect, I have always been more fascinated by objects than the living environment: as a child I collected various objects and I still gather granite cubes, and associate stories with them. When I think of an art project, an object often comes to mind and is often the trigger for the project’s realisation. For example, my first performance The Baptism on the Savica was inspired by my fascination with chess pieces, the aforementioned Manifesto – by the letterbox and so on. Objects always have a primary purpose, a first level of meaning to which you can then attach a secondary, tertiary level and in a way I find this extremely intriguing and also productive for performance arts. The object requires us to reflect on the significance of its presence on stage and at the same time ascribe a life to it, which can be considerably stronger on the symbolic level than the presence of a human actor.
In this performance, the objects (coffee beans, a pestle and mortar) have a symbolic meaning and their existence is the most significant element, while the action itself has more to do with the physical work than with the animation of the object. The actual animation here takes place, in my opinion, in the associative field of all those present. We should not forget that another important element is the sounds and smells that are at play here. I wanted to create a sensory experience offering each viewer different associations, which are, of course, connected to the idea of the performance and as such – to the genocides in the Balkans.
You use the grinding of the coffee beans both as a storytelling tool and a medium for contemplation. What kind of message are you trying to relay through your work?
My main goal with this performance was to do something with other people, something symbolic, offering a chance to invest a few moments of the day in an action that honours and commemorates past tragedies, perhaps as a reminder to think about our actions in the present. I wanted to create a meditative space, opening a world of thought in each individual where they can reflect in their own way while doing or observing a repetitive motion of grinding coffee beans. Their internal reactions are unknown to me and I do not ask to share them, only to grind the beans while joining me in contemplating the collective guilt. The rest is up to them.
Let’s talk about the role of the audience in the production. They become both spectator and active participant. What is the intention behind this?
The audience is an important part of this performance. Without their participation, the event collapses – I would never have been able to grind this amount of coffee alone. In the original version of the performance, there could only be five people in the room at a time, sitting at a table, and only a few of them just watched without grinding the coffee themselves. This means that we always turn into a collective, we do something together, and for that I need a certain willingness from the audience. What I am asking from the people is to spend some time together, and to think about the theme I have established.
As a creator, you position yourself not as coming to lead the audience but as creating with them, featuring a level of improvisation. What is improvisation to you?
I believe that a true performance only happens when there is a degree of unpredictability for both the audience and the performer. This is why I did not rehearse for the first performance, nor did I prepare the set-up or other elements until I was on site on the day. All that was fixed was the objects we had to buy in advance. Until the very start of the show, I did not know if the event would actually be possible, if there would be enough attendance and I was not certain if we could grind all the coffee beans. During the initial production, even the way it was carried out changed during those 24 hours. The initial concept in which I was talking fell away after two hours of performance and continued in silence. It all depends on the audience, of course: some people are silent while others chat with each other, some even sing with others joining in. Some stay for hours, others only a few minutes. When we shortened the performance, the context fell away, so I decided to say something at the beginning, but mainly to give instructions. Again, I do not prepare, I just say what I think is important at the moment. In the repetition in Maribor, for example, I also spoke at the end and in Osijek I just gave the grounded coffee beans to a professor in the audience.
The setting and props are very minimalistic in this production. The performance takes place in complete darkness except for a desk lamp illuminating the movements of those sitting at the table, and their faces. Is there any particular reason for the design of such scenography elements?
I wanted to create an intimacy, a space where we are together and yet somehow alone. At the same time, a dark room can quickly have allusions to a bunker, a cave, a cellar. Through the intimacy of the space and the action itself, I wanted above all to stop time for a moment, to force the participants to just exist for a few moments, minutes, hours with a specific thought, without the hustle and bustle of the outside world.
I found your performance authentic in terms of portraying the intense internal conflict through both physical and non-verbal expressions while grinding the coffee beans for the entire two hours. What kind of reactions has the work received from audiences so far? Are there any particular comments you remember? Any difference between audience responses in the two countries?
So far the responses seem to be extremely positive. Perhaps it’s my most positive work to date. When I perform in Ljubljana I know most of the people attending. We are a small country and you get to know the audience very quickly when you are in the theatre world. In Croatia, on the other hand, it was the first time I had an audience most of whom I did not know. Interestingly, the Slovenian audience focused mainly on the message and the physical action while the students in Osijek surprised me with questions about the visual charge of the performance.
Probably one of the most intriguing questions on everyone’s mind: what happened to all those grounded coffee beans?
Most of it is currently in my flat waiting for its next artistic project. I drank some of the coffee during the second performance in February this year, called The Stories of Coffee Sediment/8372. The audience and I brewed coffee during the epilogue, drank it and told each other stories in a similar setting to the first performance. At the Lutkokaz puppetry festival, I gave the grounded coffee beans to the Academy of Arts and Culture in Osijek, where the performance took place. An impulsive decision on the spot.
Are there any upcoming projects you are working on? What are your plans for the near future?
I am a full-time employee of the Lutkovno gledališče Ljubljana, so at the moment I am concentrating on my dramaturgical duties in my home company. But I already have ideas for my next performative adventures.