In an interview you gave in 2011, you said that after 9/11 the world changed completely and so did your theatre. How does political situation today influence your work?
Jan Lauwers: The world always influences your work. But the discussion about the difference between political art and art as an autonomous product is less interesting. Art is not politics. It's beyond politics. At Needcompany, we talk a lot about this. When I said seven years ago that the world has changed, I meant it in a bigger frame. If you compare what happened from 1900 until 1914 with what is happening the last 15 years, you'll see that it's almost exactly the same. Geert Mak, a well-known Dutch philosopher, studied the newspapers which came out a month before the First World War. It turned out that nobody had predicted it. A day before the war started, the government in Vienna even went on holiday. Then within the next 24 hours the world was destroyed. Or look at the Second World War and the Holocaust. Everybody repeated then: 'Wir haben das nicht gewusst'.
Today we ignore to recognize that in Libya there are black slaves who are skinned. We keep saying: 'We don't know.' The world doesn't change, it always repeats itself. We ignore that Europe is kaput. Right-wing governments take over power in more and more countries. Nobody understands why there is no Left anymore. Why is the Right so popular? We don't know. So did the world change? Let us not be naive.
Does this situation force any commitment on artists?
Grace Ellen Barkey: On the day of the terrorist attack in Brussels in 2016, the whole Needcompany was in China, except me. I started walking throughout Brussels. I needed contact with reality. Violence has immediately taken you out of the everyday situation. On that day, people were looking differently at each other. I noticed they were gathering to eat French fries. I also bought some because I was very interested in what people were saying. I come from a refugee family; half of my relatives are Muslims. Since the attacks, I'm much more actively looking for contact with newcomers. That is what we're trying to do at MILL - our new Needcompany venue that opened one year ago. We invite people who are not theatregoers and share things together, like watching movies or cooking.
Do you include this within your productions, too, as a topic, for instance?
GEB: Not directly, but it is present in my work. Everything that is happening in life comes in a very concentrated form into my work. But I don't make political gestures out of it. On the day of the terrorist attacks, I went out in the street with my iPad. I didn't film people, but a flower that was moving in the wind. That's the way to look at the world as an artist.
JL: But it is a political gesture. You shot a plastic bag flapping in the wind on a tree just after the attack. That bag looks the same before and after the explosion. What matters is not that the world changed because of this explosion, but your point of view as a spectator changed. You can see it as a metaphor. We performed The Blind Poet in France just after the attack that happened in Nice. All newspapers declared that the terrorist was Tunisian. In the The Blind Poet, Mohamed goes on stage saying in Arabic: 'I'm happy that I'm Tunisian'. At that moment, you read it differently. Another example: in Barcelona we performed Begin the Beguine written by John Cassavetes while the #MeToo debate dominated the public discussion. Begin the Beguine is a show about two guys fucking themselves to death, based on a text from the 1980s. It's a very dark play, and you can say it's very misogynistic, too. All the journalists were framing the work in that context. Their interpretation was determined by the current discourse.
Yet, I don't believe that art has to change according to the sociopolitical situation. I believe that a poet is a visionary, always before his or her time. Good art is one step ahead and at the same time is historical. An artist doesn't invent anything in the end….
GEB: My personal story is more recognised in these times. My father sees the same things happening: People leaving everything behind to start a new life. As a child I was happy. I didn't always realise what my parents had to go through. Now, with everything that's going on in the world, I feel more grateful, more privileged that I can make art. I feel a necessity, I'm more focused. No bullshit anymore. What we do has to be good or necessary for ourselves. No fooling around.
JL: I don't think so, Grace. You have always been focused in your work. The times may make your reflection on the work different. Recently I saw a film about refugees made by Ai Weiwei, Human Flow. There was a standing ovation. But I didn't see a refugee there. I saw Ai Weiwei. He made himself the center of the movie.
GEB: Maybe he wants to make art.
JL: Exactly. That's my point. He didn't give voice to the refugees, he gave voice to himself, and then we say: 'Ai Weiwei is a real political artist'. And I think it's not true. Because there are many journalists who do better work. This is not a judgement about him as an artist but about art in its political connotation.
Maarten Seghers: This journalistic aspect of the commitment is really a trap of the moment. I've observed it often in art over recent years. I see artists' confusion about whether they should show reality instead of some abstract alternatives to reality. Art is more and more about a concrete reality. Sometimes it is a very understandable and good gesture. But in their form, a lot of projects approach documentary. But we shouldn't forget that we are still working within the field of art, within the form and the context. Not only with the content.
JL: I think there is a huge difference between the idea of political art and ideological art. These ideas are confused all the time. Whenever you say 'political' you talk about an 'ideological' engagement. When a fascist paints a swastika, it's an ideological gesture, not a political one. We don't like the symbol, even if it's well painted. Because we don't like its content. When an artist would become ideological, I think he or she makes very bad art.
And the director Leni Riefenstahl? Is her work ideological or political for you?
JL: If her movies were badly made, we would never talk about her as an artist. She was a genius of cinema, but ideological, unfortunately. So therefore a bad artist. Interesting, no? What if she would have been a left-wing artist?
What does 'political art' mean for you?
JL: Art is always political. Political means the organization of society. Art is a part of that. A poem is as important as an economics decision. In our society this isn't tangible, but if you take art away, society stops. Because even a teacup needs to be designed in a form invented and made by somebody. Art is present in our daily life, which means that art is a part of society and of politics. Ideological art is something else. The ideological artist says: 'Now I want to be an extreme leftist thinker and make an extreme leftist painting'. That's ridiculous.
In this light, political art would be a kind of tautological structure, because whatever you do it is like you are taking a stance towards the world.
JL: Exactly. That's why we make theatre. A collective thinking process as well as an individual thinking process is provoked, at the same time. That's why it is necessary to come to Poznań to say: Look, what's happening here is alive. Today that's maybe the most important aim to me: 'Everything we don't want to share, is completely worthless'. Because religion doesn't connect us anymore. I'm very idealistic about it. I really feel that the best tool you can use as an artist today is theatre and working with people. Theatre stands against the capitalistic idea of art. You can't sell it; you have to play it. I love theatre more and more.
What do you mean about art bringing people together? They can have very different relations to things they look at. You can provoke affirmative relations, or contention and even conflict.
JL: Yes, but the fact that people can communicate about it is very interesting. You don't have to agree, you don't have to answer. When we go to China, Japan or Chile, we talk about the same thing, about art.
MS: With art, you will not reach people who don't want to hear you, because they can easily choose to ignore you. Art sets an affirmative relation right from the start, and you may disagree only within this frame. If you think art has to make an efficient statement about the reality, you will do it in an area where there are the right spectators to make it effective, in the streets or whatever. That's the difference between public space and the art space.
JL: The art space can bring people together. Newcomers arrive in Brussels and nobody takes them seriously as human beings. The good guys say 'Okay, we have to shelter them, we have to give them food'; the bad guys say 'We have to kick them out'.
And then some organisations like Cinemaximilaan [a pop-up cinema for and with newcomers in Belgium] or Needcompany take them seriously and organise events to watch avant-garde films. The newcomers cried, because they felt human again, because we talked on the same level. That's the power of art. Trump says he never read a book. He doesn't want to know what art is. It was never important in his live. And that makes him so dangerous.
You said that art creates an affirmative relation from the start. What about provocation? Can art be still provocative?
MS: One of the most shocking things I saw last year was the work of the Austrian artist Thomas Hirschhorn exhibited at WIELS [Centre for Contemporary Art] in Brussels. He brought, as a piece of art, pictures of exploded bodies. Hirschhorn's images were pixelated, but some parts were not - those harsh bodies were larger than life-size. As a spectator, you couldn't choose whether to notice them or not. It was very shocking, but I don't know whether as reality or as an art form. There is a formality of art that tries to be shocking for the audience, to get them out from their usual point of view. But there is also another layer of being shocking, which connects with what the content of the world does nowadays, the violence.
I don't think I feel more responsible after seeing those images and being shocked, but I question it more than I would if I hadn't seen it, if I hadn't felt that state of shock. Partly because of the specific piece of work, and partly because of what happens in the world, the violence that is really in our faces. The circumstances force me to question it. I don't think this has to eventually end up in your work, but it generates a thinking process. In a creation, it really influences me.
JL: In the example of these pictures by Hirschhorn, my reaction is 'I know this'. It doesn't change my point of view because it's what you are confronted with in the newspapers. Take the example of Hirschhorn, then go to the Prado and see Rogier van der Weyden. He is one of the best artists ever. The Descending of the Cross at the Prado changes my life every time I see it. The way he painted the clothing, the expression of the faces, the tenderness of it.… I'm confused by seeing this and I'm not confused by Hirschhorn, because there is nothing new there. It is about what the eyes do with the matter, with the essential matter. Hirschhorn provokes. Once I entered the room, only the effect was there. And the effect is not interesting.
Does 'being shocked' and 'being touched' mean the same thing?
MS: I think it's something different.
JL: Art is good when it shocks you, like a butterfly can shock you. All of a sudden, a piece of art can become shocking to me. Provocation is something else.
GEB: Listening to all this as an artist, I find these kinds of conversations very distracting. What is still most important is a certain concentration. That's why art exists. There must be a certain concentration that is almost about something that is unreal. The concentration which trespasses on everyday life. Today, artists are been held responsible for diversity, for correctness, for feminism, for colour, for everything. I'm in a panic about losing my concentration under all these conditions, and at the same time I'm in a panic about losing connection with the world. That's why when that bomb exploded, I had to go out to see if the sun was still shining, if the people were still in the streets.
JL: For me, what is interesting in your story, Grace, is a how fiction may be more 'efficient' or more powerful, than so-called 'reality'. You went out on the streets, after this attack, and you sought reality, like for real encounters, for real French fries and people just being together. This is real, while political life is getting unreal, surreal, because it's getting more and more post-political. We observe that everybody plays a game, and then we find ourselves in a theatre encountered with fiction, looking at people playing. And then, suddenly, this fiction becomes real to us. I'm interested in this shift, this switch. You go to the place purely dedicated to display fiction, and you experience a grain of realness.
Brussels, 27 January 2018