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Multi-discipline Performing Arts

Existential Swiss work at the Virtual National Arts Festival


Installation of Death and Birth in My Life by Mats Staub

Monument Gallery, Makhanda, South Africa

25-26.11.2020 & 2.12.2020
Two showings daily at 14h00 & 18h00

Attendance is free, but limited in compliance with Covid-19 health regulations

Virtual National Arts Festival

25 June - 5 July 2020

Find out more

Both Swiss projects are included in the Curated Programme, which has been formulated around daily themes. The programme consists of pre-recorded performances (theatre, music, dance), films, live broadcasts, visual art ‘walkabouts’, workshops, and more.

Access to watch the screenings and live-streams is via a Daily Programme Pass, which gives the buyer access to all the events in the curated programme for that day.

Against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, the National Arts Festival in Makhanda (previously Grahamstown) made the decision to neither cancel nor postpone, but rather go ahead this year in a wholly online format using the Festival’s website as a virtual stage. This year’s programme will include work that speaks to these unique times, and feature the results of many new collaborations, experimental forms and new ways to engage with the arts and audiences. Rucera Seethal, the Artistic Director of the Virtual National Arts Festival, says, “We have in this year’s programme a collection of strong artistic voices, rising in confusing and challenging times. Artists from across generations have found ways to comment, question, explore, reminisce, make jest, and scream out.  It is a festival with both weight and wings.”

This year we’re supporting the inclusion of two Swiss productions in the Virtual National Arts Festival. Attempt on Dying by Boris Nikitin and Death and Birth in My Life by Mats Staub, while distinct in presentation format, share an introspective, existential theme that resonates with these uncertain times. Using autobiography as a starting point, both works expand outwards from deeply personal moments of reflection to quietly engage in universal questions about what it means to live, and conversely, die.

ATTEMPT ON DYING by Boris Nikitin 

© Donata Ettlin

Boris Nikitin is a Basel-based theatre director, author and the artistic director of the Swiss festival It’s the real thing – Basel Documentary Platform. He directs in the international independent scene and at German-speaking municipal theatres and is regarded as one of the important contemporary theatre creators of contemporary German speaking theatre. Boris’ theatre works deal with the representation and production of identity and reality. The plays and performances seek to cross the border between illusionary theatre and performance, between documentary and fake. Boris’ work is raw, confrontational, direct, always precisely composed and staged, always searching for the limits and fractures of the aesthetic. Recently, Boris has become interested in the link between art and illness and has created several works dealing with the relationship between mortality, vulnerability and reality.

Boris began working on Attempt on Dying  one year after the death of his father from ALS disease. The disease had made short work: it took almost a year from diagnosis to death. Very early on, the father opened the idea of considering assisted suicide, which is a legal way of dying in Switzerland. It’s a statement that changes everything. In Attempt on Dying, Boris combines the story of this outing with the story of his own coming-out as a gay man 20 years ago and develops a radical and at the same time intimate theatrical evening about what it means to take the step into the public eye, making oneself vulnerable and open to attack. Boris’ play thereby fundamentally reinterprets vulnerability from something that we normally prefer to hide from each other to an ability that arises in the act of its exposure.


Performances take place on 25 June, 29 June, 30 June and 1 July at 18:30. These performances will take place through the Zoom platform. Registrations will open on Monday 22 June and will be accepted on a first-come-first-served basis. Numbers are strictly limited so please ensure that you are able to attend if you register.



© Benno Seidel

Berlin-based multimedia artist Mats Staub describes himself as “a traveller through the realms of memory.” His long-term projects grow incrementally from place to place and are always directly related to his own life. The death of his brother in December 2014 was a key factor in the development of this long-term project about experiencing the passage and boundaries of existence associated with birth and death, the beginning and end of life. As in all his participatory projects, he offers a protected space in which he provides a clear starting point and simple rules: both participants start by telling the story of their own birth as it has been told to them, then one of them will narrate one of their experiences while the other listens and then has the chance to respond with a story of their own, starting wherever they have been led by listening to the previous account. This unadorned dramaturgy relieves the fragile act of talking about intimate moments and the limits of one’s own existence from the pressures of conventional, everyday conversation.

Which deaths and which births have influenced and changed my life so far? Who have I welcomed, who have I lost and said farewell to – and what has happened to me in the process?  This is the framing question Mats invites participants of this project to discuss. Initiated while on a Pro Helvetia residency in South Africa in 2018, Death & Birth engages with universal themes through individual experiences and in relation to local contexts. In this project Mats once again brings two people together in a clearly defined space and invites them to engage each other in conversation while he is present as an invisible companion. The participants are filmed both speaking and listening, which is then shown side-by-side on two screens so that viewers are able to watch the double portrait of the person speaking and listening simultaneously.

Death & Birth in My Life – Trailer mit deutschen Untertiteln from mats staub on Vimeo.


Screenings will take place daily from 25 June to 5 July at various times. Six conversations have been selected and will alternate at each screenings slot. Additionally, Mats will give a one hour webinar discussion about the project as part of the Critical Thought programme on 29 June at 12:00.



Mats is inviting viewers to share their response to the participants and conversations in a letter. Mats will pass these on the the speakers, and with the senders’ permission, will be published in the Letter Gallery on festival website and added to the project archive.