Celebrating Kafka: A toast, to old Franz and new - Hindustan Times
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Celebrating Kafka: A toast, to old Franz and new

Feb 23, 2024 04:49 PM IST

A Kafka-themed orchestra, an AI experiment, and a game that takes players through The Trial. It’s a year of metamorphosis in the age of the metaverse.

What does it look like when three countries join forces to celebrate a unique mind and legacy?

At the Kafkaesque exhibition, the life-sized, animatronic Stag In Silico by British artist Mat Collishaw slips, slides, and falls on its platform, in response to the intensity of abuse directed at selected individuals on X. PREMIUM
At the Kafkaesque exhibition, the life-sized, animatronic Stag In Silico by British artist Mat Collishaw slips, slides, and falls on its platform, in response to the intensity of abuse directed at selected individuals on X.

A century after the Jewish German-Czech writer Franz Kafka died, aged 40, in Vienna, Austria, tribute events include gigs by bands named The Metamorphosis and The Process; a videogame that confronts players with the impossibility of choice; a fable-like production for children; and a futuristic experiment that seeks to explore the meaning of Kafka in the age of AI.

Perhaps the most extensive of the celebrations planned is Kafka 2024, initiated by the Adalbert Stifter Association in Munich and the Prague City Library, and supported by the governments of Germany, the Czech Republic and Austria, with a calendar of events unfolding across all three countries. Highlights from this event and others.

Kafka 2024

Franz and the Jackdaw: This is a fairytale production for children aged four and above. Directed by Jiri Jelinek, it depicts an encounter between Kafka and a little girl who has lost her doll. In order to assuage her, he tells her the doll isn’t lost, but has moved away. He then starts writing the girl letters about the doll’s many adventures, signing them “Your doll”. While urban legend has it that this really happened, any such letters have long eluded Kafkaologists. In the play, however, it all comes to life. (February 1 to April 13; Prague)

The Transformation: A concert: The Hamburg trio The Metamorphosis, made up of actress and director Olga Seehafer, musician and dramaturge Jakob Fischer, and multi-instrumentalist Lorenz Schmidt, come together to celebrate Kafka’s ability to make his readers reflect and laugh at the same time.

“We understand his writing not as Absurdist but as a highly sensitive description of our society,” says Fischer. “He described ‘normal’ working life as a force that alienates people from themselves. He described societal and parental expectations as an oppressive burden, under which you quickly turn into a bug, or at least feel like one. We don’t find Kafka’s work ‘nightmarish’, we find it real.” (March 19; Prague)

A performance by The Process: This Czech band, composed of writer Jaroslav Rudiš and comic artist and singer Jaromír Švejdík, is slated to present a musical-literary concert based on The Trial. The evening will be hosted by author and Kafka biographer Reiner Stach. (June 7; Cottbus, Germany)

Kafka: Doors, Death and Texts: Doors, a recurring theme in Kafka’s work, become a device through which visitors may discover new facets of his work. Behind each portal are walls covered in curated selections of snippets from his books, letters he wrote, journal entries and biographical information. Also beamed onto the walls: video testimonies about what keeps Kafka relevant among writers today. Curated by Rémi Jaccard and Philip Sippel. (February 8 to May 12; Zurich)

Kafka-esque

This is an expansive exhibition of works by 30 painters, sculptors and installation artists, whose oeuvre reflects a personal relationship with Kafka’s writing and who have attempted to reinterpret his ideas over years.

Organised by the Dox Centre for Contemporary Art, the works are rooted in the contemporary. The installation by British artist Mat Collishaw, for instance, is the life-sized, animatronic Stag In Silico. The animal slips, slides, and falls on its platform, depending on the intensity of abuse directed at selected individuals on X. (In silico, incidentally, is the term for biological experiments performed via computer simulation.) A monitor at the back of the artwork displays the live X feed and the code engaged in determining the results.

“If he were he alive today, Kafka might view social media as… a modern-day Metamorphosis” that causes users to lose their link with being human, Collishaw has said, speaking of this work online. (February 9 to September 22; Prague)

In the Age of Artificial Intelligence

A special issue of the research journal Humanities is calling for entries that examine Kafka’s work and worldview in the age of artificial intelligence. At the crux of the endeavour is the question: What indeed is “Kafkaesque” in the modern context?

“Our current AI conundrum could clearly be termed Kafkaesque. So, when I was asked to edit an issue in commemoration of the 100th year anniversary of his death, I thought of considering his works afresh in light of the confusion and anxiety brought on by the proliferation of artificial intelligence,” says issue editor Ruth Gross, emeritus professor with the department of world languages and cultures at North Carolina State University.

Franz Kafka (1980), a pop art work by Andy Warhol, will feature in the Kafka: Making of an Icon exhibition at Oxford University from May 30. (Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art)
Franz Kafka (1980), a pop art work by Andy Warhol, will feature in the Kafka: Making of an Icon exhibition at Oxford University from May 30. (Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art)

Among the pitches Gross has received so far, one seeks to link “cybernetic modernism” with Kafka’s story worlds, exploring the ways in which reality is altered without warning in both. Another submission explores the troubling nature of “personhood” and the human struggle with attributing it to artificial intelligence and other nonhuman entities.

The issue will be released later this year.

Playing Kafka

Goethe-Institut Prague and the Czech gaming studio Charles Games are developing a videogame that asks players what choices they would make, if they were Josef K in The Trial.

This is a man who wakes on his 30th birthday to find two men in dark suits at his door, telling him he is being arrested but not telling him why. Through the game, the protagonist also meets the inspector, the flogger, the jury. Expect to feel the frustration of being trapped in a battle and knowing none of the rules; and the fear of knowing there is no way no way to win.

How much of choice is an illusion? How much of one’s predicament can be altered?

The first module of the game is available free for Windows, on the Goethe-Institut website. The full version, which will include sections inspired by Kafka’s Letter to His Father and The Castle, is due for release for PC and mobile, in May.

Kafka: Making of an Icon

This exhibition curated by the Oxford Kafka Research Centre tells the writer’s story through original manuscripts, a rare Andy Warhol portrait, and a few of Kafka’s drawings, which shed new light on his creative imagination, among other artefacts.

(May 30 to October 27 at Oxford University, and then at the Morgan Library in New York)

Being Kafka

Explore how much of Kafka has seeped into your world, by trawling through a microsite called Being Kafka, created by Goethe Institut-Max Mueller Bhavan. Articles include Kafka in the Realm of Comics, Kafka in Everyday Language, and Kafka, the Cinephile, among other unlikely tangents.

The institute is also helping theatre director and writer Anmol Vellani stage a retelling of The Trial as a dark comedy titled Innocence. Look out for that in Bengaluru, in May.

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