20-12-2013 [• sitting with the body • bureau annex • shop shop • exemplary practices • transition
ALTERNATIVE / COLLECTIVEGuy Gypens is the Artistic Director of the Brussels Kaaitheater, which
was established in 1977. In addition, Gypens was involved in the
founding of P.A.R.T.S., the dance school of choreographer Anne Teresa
Your programmations are characterized by a constant call for questioning the actual course of society and reflecting on alternatives. One of your main questions currently is to what extent we can really think and act in alternative ways. For individuals and smaller (peer to peer) groups there are many inspiring new ways of organizing life, but how can these ‘small changes’ affect the ways politics and economics are functioning on a larger, systemic scale? And thinking and practicing ‘the alternative’ always means taking distance from certain ideas, beliefs and desires that are fixed and patterned in us. We thus first need to alter ourselves, from within… The relation between the individual and the collective is an important thread running through the programmation of the Kaaitheater this season. Under the heading of ‘Me, Myself & We’ you present a series of performances, lectures and debates focussing on this complex issue.
It is also a concern within my current artistic trajectory called ‘OTÇOE’. The main question underlying the three different practices of ‘OTÇOE’ is: ‘To what extent can we relate?’ All three departed from me coming up with a well-prepared ground for discussion and practice, but they need to be developed in collaboration with ‘more bodies’. All three are characterized by a paradoxical ambition: ‘sitting with the body’ is a collective retreat in public space; ‘Bureau Annex’ is a theatre collective consisting of people brought together arbitrarily; and for the commercial-artistic experiment ‘Shop Shop’ a group of 10 artists gathers to run a shop. The paradoxical ambition of these practices prevents us from realizing our work following the ways we already know – economically (in the case of ‘Shop Shop’), socially (‘Bureau Annex’) and personally (‘sitting with the body’). We need to distance ourselves from our own routines and search for alternatives.
‘sitting with the body’ started as a personal meditation practice, then became the basis for a research on movement principles and is now practiced by a group of people. In the final stage it will be a performance lasting 168 hours, a 24/7 retreat in public space. Only as a group of practitioners can we realize this ambitious production. It’s impossible to develop and deepen the material as well perform the piece through paid rehearsals and stage presentations. Instead, each of us does his or her ‘homework’, exercising the material, building up skill, integrating it in his or her personal life. The most important thing is making time – time to practice something new as well as to look closely at the questions it produces. In our case: how to expose meditative states? How to restrain from performing when we are visible for an audience? How to invite for participation instead of instructing it? How to work on a piece when the agendas of the collaborators are completely incompatible? How to practice individually while striving for something collectively?1) How would you define the notion of ‘the alternative’?Guy
: I relate the alternative to the notion of systemic change. We live, more than ever, in a time where the current system is thoroughly questioned. The economic and ecological crisisses make clear that we can’t go on doing things as we do them now. It’s just impossible. That’s why systemic change is necessary. There are two ways to reach it: through revolution or transition. For the moment, I choose the second option. Transition means we go from one system to the other and we take our time doing it. We go step by step. The moment of the alternative is always an experimental moment, a moment of trying things out. Within the current system we can introduce these pocket moments of a possible new system. That’s how I see the alternative. In our current economical system we call it ‘projects’. Heike
: It’s almost a method, a way to reach something…Guy
: Yes. I think the alternative is a word that I have in a way connected to my youth. Back then you had to be alternative, which meant you had to challenge the normal, be different. The culture of being against something is the one in which I grew up. But most of the time, people only looked different. This has now changed: being against something has been replaced by trying to create something really different.Sébastien
: An evolution from the alternative as something destructive to something constructive…Guy
: Yes. It’s important to connect the alternative to the notion of the political. Born in the early sixties I was brought up in a sphere of strong ideological oppositions. You were either left or right. That conflict was the core of the political. Also on a global level we lived in a bipolar world. After 1989 ‘the conflict’ seemed to be resolved. It was the end of history. What followed was what I would call twenty years of frivolous consumerism. A time of deep de-politicization. The political ability or craftsmanship that was built on ‘the conflict’ disappeared. What was left was a supermarket of opinions. Re-politicizing society is not just about re-introducing conflict but most of all about re-developing an individual political craftsmanship so that we can start working on collective goals again.
2) Can paradoxical ambitions produce alternatives?
: Yes, because I think a paradox can be a good pedagogical tool. You can only deal with a paradox when you are able to accept differences. The big challenge in society is to learn how to deal with different positions, and not simply merging them into one, not integrating them, not forcing sameness. The city is the best environment to develop this skill as it is the place where many different cultures co-exist. For many years we tried to integrate them. Simply saying, like so many politicians do, that it didn’t work, makes no sense. We have to learn what we can do with the differences without trying to erase them. Paradoxes teach us to be humble and inventive. Within ‘Otçoe’ you seem to create paradoxical circumstances that force you to deal with them.Heike
: I think we have to be forced to change. Many of us are in a defense mode. The ‘ShopShop’ proposal for example was critized as a provocative compromise: working in a commercial context would surely compromise our art. I prefer to see the two elements apart from each other and then try to find out how we can work with them without compromising.Guy
: The paradox goes against the paradigm of modernity, which is progress. Modern progress is based on ‘knowing where to go’. The paradox is something that stops you and forces you to accept the not-knowing. You are in a situation and you don’t know which effects your actions here will generate there. According to me this is the major political change of today: we go from a politics of knowing for sure to a politics of not-knowing.
3) What would you wish to alter in the relationship between art institutions and other fields of society?
: I consider an art institution being active in three spaces: a public-political space, an educational space and an experimental-imaginative one. Everything an art institution does is somehow related to these three spaces. To look at art from this perspective opens possibilities to collaborate with other fields of society. Most of the time art looks at itself as an ‘experimental imagination lab’, a bit remote from society. This division between art and the rest of the world is a paradox. If you claim to be an isolated lab or if society gives this ‘lab’ to artists just to get rid of them, then what is the lab for exactly?
If you look at an art institution in a different way then it’s easier to make connections with organizations active in other parts of society. You accept to move on each other’s ground and influence each other. We did this kind of exercise within Pulse, a network of very different organizations from the artistic, social and socio-cultural sector working on the transition towards a fair and sustainable society. We found ourselves in a situation where we had to look for ways to communicate, first of all with each other and then afterwards with more fields of society. In these contexts it’s not always easy to define the different roles each actor can play, to go beyond the ‘cliché role’. Often the other sectors regard the arts sector as the one that can communicate their concerns to a wider audience for example: ‘ We analyzed the situation, you have to provide us with stories and images that can convince people.’ To avoid this classical opposition between independent and instrumental art the approach of the three spaces helps.
: It’s better to break the clear expectations, so you can actually meet through being confused…
: Yes, in WOWMEN for example, a festival that my colleague at Kaaitheater, Katleen Van Langendonck, organizes and which is focusing on gender issues, she often combines a debate with an experimental performance. The ‘debate people’ might be confused when watching the show but they don’t automatically reject it. They do some effort because they know there is a link, a common concern, namely these gender issues. That makes reactions and discussions afterwards always more interesting.
: This kind of encounters can sometimes enrich the vocabularies on both sides.
: What we are actually looking for is a sort of ‘demilitarized zone’, as the American theatre director Peter Sellars recently called it in an interview with the magazine Rekto:Verso. A zone where different players can put down their weapons and try to find other ways of being together. And this place shouldn’t to be too pure or too efficient… I think the art institution has to create the circumstances for these encounters, not necessarily the artist. Well, if he wants, he can create them too of course. An artist is always, in some way, also an art institution at some point…
The difficulty is then to institutionalize the connections you generate through these momentary and local collaborations. If you really want to move in the direction of a systemic change, you cannot always restart from zero. You need to institutionalize it so you can build on it. Otherwise you spend all your energy on reactivating it over and over again. The frustration in the city about intercultural exchange has very much to do with that. Everyone is enthusiastic when something happens, then it stops and you have to start all over again. It’s difficult to stabilize something because you need a bit of power to do it and it’s difficult to find that power. So you keep on activating and reactivating, and that is in the end very populistic. Destabilization or hyper-activation is the essence of populism.
: We come back to where we started this conversation: stabilizing the connections you make is part of a constructive way to deal with the alternative.
: You can apply it very easily to your own life. If you never stabilize something, then at a certain moment you realize you constantly have new ideas but it doesn’t make any difference anymore. It’s also connected to the fact that we have a global collectivity now. It’s a completely different ball game to stabilize something on a small or on a global scale. One of the big challenges of today is how to institutionalize something in what Zygmunt Bauman called a ‘liquid society’.
Guy Gypens, Heike Langsdorf & Sébastien Hendrickx @ Kaaitheater Brussels, 20-12-2013