Christophe Meierhans

Leestijd 12 — 15 minuten

A call to artists to leap off the stage

Christophe Meierhans draws remarkable parallels and contrasts between art and action

The Swiss theatre maker Christophe Meierhans used to care about issues like climate change or social inequality, but he never actually acted. There always seemed to be something more important to do: to create art. Until last year, when the Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement set up a branch in Brussels, where he lives. XR gave him and his work a sense of direction. ‘I perform virtually the same work, but as an individual, I am no longer indispensable.’

There are events which mark a fold in one’s life. The birth of a child, the passing away of a close relative, an accident, the end of a long love story, an epiphany… These moments have the power to profoundly restructure our sense of self, our anchor in reality. After them, life takes on a different meaning.

For some reason, these moments seem to happen mostly as a surprise. They appear as the product of unpredictable circumstances, abrupt strikes of fate – even if in retrospect they often reveal themselves as ineluctable. Caught in the turmoil of the reorganization, it is hard not to fall prey to remorse, an attempt at holding up the hope that things could have been all different. But they can’t: once you are aware, there is no way to unknow it.

Facing the climate crisis and the ecological breakdown was for me such a moment. Staring without blinking into the grim reality outlined by science robbed the ground from under my feet, depriving most other things of any importance. And it didn’t take much: simply reading the wrong book at the wrong place – or the right book at the right place, for that matter.

In November 2018, I was invited to travel to New York City to meet people who participated in THE THING – An Automatic Workshop in Self-Disruption, created in collaboration with German-British artist Ant Hampton. This invitation was in many respects paradoxical. Firstly, because an important characteristic of the piece is that we – the makers of the work – should expressly not be present during the workshop, secondly because the work itself consists solely in a few instructions and materials which are sent over to the hosting venues. In short, we were absolutely not needed there.

© Pieter Geens

Nonetheless, easily seduced by the prospect of a trip to New York City, we flew over the ocean all expenses covered (who would not?). With a lot of time on my hands and much hanging out to do, there was nothing more natural than to just open the next book on my long list of to-be-read books: Pablo Servigne, Comment tout peut s’effondrer, petit manuel de collapsologie.

Today, it is genuinely difficult for me to reconnect with how I felt about the climate and ecological breakdown before this episode. I was aware, informed, just like most people, often terrified at what I read, always very relieved to hear about hypothetical solutions, assumed improvements of the situation, or about more optimistic analyses. Yet, I had other priorities, most prominent of which was my work and career as an artist…

Servigne’s book is often criticized in academic circles, but one thing can be said for sure: it does succeed at confronting you with the dire reality of our present situation without giving you much chance to look away. There is no rounding off the edges, no false hopes suggested: whatever we, humans, do about it, we are headed towards a collapse of our modern thermo-industrial societies in the coming decades. Not taking this into account when imagining the future would be naive and irresponsible. This book is not only a work of scientific vulgarization that makes complex information graspable, it is also a manual accompanying the recipient of the bad news along the different psychological phases triggered by such overwhelming realization. You are not left alone to digest and figure out how to deal with it, and this enables the reader to stick with the information rather than seek to evacuate it by any means available – call it a curse, or a benediction. With this book in the pocket, the great city’s flabbergasting impressions became painful reminders of just how wrong our world actually is. No cynicism to provide any shielding: the higher the building, the harder the fall. I will never be able to enjoy NYC again.

XR rather than Xanax

Almost immediately after coming back from the USA, I heard about the kickoff meeting for a Belgian branch of the British movement Extinction Rebellion (XR). The meeting was taking place exactly 30 meters away from where I live in St. Gilles. I didn’t know much about XR, but I was in the right state of mind and it was too close-by not to attend.

Some 70 people gathered in a music school on a Sunday morning. An eclectic group of all ages and walks of life, and – quite a feat for Belgium – fairly balanced language-wise between French, Flemish and English speakers. As we got to hear during the presentation rounds, besides two people who were also facilitating the meeting, no one had any background in activism.

I had tried to join political or activist groups several times in the past; the Spartakists in Berlin in the post 9/11 upheavals against the war in Iraq, DIEM 25 in Belgium, as it was founded… I never found my place. I could never sufficiently identify with the movement, or put simply, nothing in there triggered my individual ambitions enough for me to give up other aspects of my life. I didn’t feel sufficiently useful. Making good art and getting successful at it just seemed much more important.

With XR, from the outset, things were different. Committing to civil disobedience and accepting the consequences (police violence, arrest, fines, increased surveillance, etc.) was a significant personal challenge, but taking this step offered a graspable and concrete response to the loss of foothold on a world that suddenly appeared to crumble away. On an individual level, direct action represented a way to escape denial and cynicism, while preserving mental health. More generally, the fact that XR had been started elsewhere, that it had been spectacularly successful and that it was offered open-source-like for anyone to grab and to make use of played a very important role. One could directly jump into action without having to go through the difficult process of setting up a movement, defining a collective identity and purpose.

“Designing actions with XR appeared to be very similar to staging artistic performances. Both are a call
to people’s sensitivities.”

In this context, with my past and my skills as an artist, for the first time I felt I could genuinely be useful to something outside of the field of arts itself. Although it went quite fast and represented a quite radical change of environment and priorities, the step was by no means abrupt. Designing actions with XR appeared to be very similar to staging artistic performances. Both are a call to people’s sensitivities; attempts at speaking to more than just a single level of our being. Both work with images, signs, symbols, sound, attitude, timing, relationships, situations, etc. in order to cut through layers of social construction and norms and awake dormant, or trigger new aspects of our existence. Very concretely on a day-to-day level, the work is pretty much the same.

Belief in fiction

Theater goers buy their entrance ticket in the hope that the fiction (understood very broadly as any dispositive which is proposed to the audience, whether it is a story, an interaction device, a collective process, or a choreography) they are presented with will be strong enough for them to believe in, or in other words, to give in to its rules and abandon those of the outside world for the duration of the show. What XR attempts to do with the climate and ecological crisis is pretty much the same operation, but mirrored: it is about making people realize that the upcoming collapse, which many still wish to be fiction, has long been as real as it can possibly get.

For XR, as for the theater, straightforward arguments and rational information are not sufficient. Contemporary institutional politics seem to resort more and more to theatrical means in order to communicate with their constituencies. They do not hesitate to make use of all available means to blur notions such as truth and reality to generate an imaginary alternative version of the world which better fits their parties’ programs – or their individual ambitions. In that regard, Trump is not alone in invoking alternative facts. Flanders minister-president Jan Jambon’s story about asylum seekers buying a house with welfare benefits is just one of many other examples in which hearsay or downright inventions get to play a real part in the political debate. Here as well, the fiction, the tricks – the lies – no longer need to be hidden from the public to have the intended effect. The amplifying factor of the media relaying them to the public sphere is enough to render them effective. Under these circumstances, addressing the urgent reality of climate change and ecological breakdown requires the production of a counter narrative able to meet this multidimensionality. It is as if the whole scope of human expression – emotions, poetry, images, music, empathy – would need to be mobilized in order to reverse-engineer the theatrical work of contemporary politics.

De-ontologised art?

To counter abusive fiction and attempt a landing on the only solid ground which is known to us – as Bruno Latour puts it – it is necessary to break the prevailing contract between actor and spectator by stepping onto the stage and intervening directly in the story that is being told. We artists spend our lives producing fictions of all sorts. Shouldn’t we then logically be the best equipped to rebel against the prevailing suicidal storyline we are all still so fearfully hanging on to?

“According to Stephen Wright, artworks somehow never operate at scale. Whatever their form, they are in a way always scale model representations of reality.”

In his book Towards a Lexicon of Usership (2013), Stephen Wright suggests the possibility of a ‘de-ontologised’ art practice. An art, or art-related practice that does not require to be seen as art, or put differently, does not require any spectatorship to be useful: ‘Art’ as substantive makes space for ‘art’ as an adjective. It is no longer a question of whether something is art or not, but ‘rather a question of the extent to which they are informed by a certain coefficient of art. Informed by artistic self-understanding, not framed as art.’

According to Wright, artworks somehow never operate at scale. Whatever their form, they are in a way always scale model representations of reality, of something other than what they appear to be. Artworks speak about, or reflect on something; they evoke it, refer to it, represent it, but they are (almost) never the thing itself. De-ontologised art practices, on the other hand, are ‘characterized more than anything else by their scale of operations: they operate on the 1:1 scale. They are not scaled-down models – or artworld-assisted prototypes – of potentially useful things or services (the kinds of tasks and devices that might well be useful if ever they were wrested from the neutering frames of artistic autonomy and allowed traction in the real). (…) 1:1 practices are both what they are, and propositions of what they are.’

Shell Must Fall © Pieter Geens

I often find myself comparing what I do in XR with my activity as artist in the theater. As mentioned earlier, in terms of the very bodily and mental activity that I perform, the work is in many respects identical. Yet it clearly plays another role, both for me and for the others who are in contact with that work. As an artist, the question of how meaningful or useful my artistic work actually is, has been a constant party-pooper in my creation processes as well the cause of numerous creative existential crises. For quite a while already, Wright’s sentence has been resonating in my ears: ‘the kinds of tasks and devices that might well be useful if ever they were wrested from the neutering frames of artistic autonomy and allowed traction in the real.’ Doubts and crises are many in my work with XR, but they are much less related to a sense of alienation from reality.

Designing and realizing actions of civil disobedience with XR, is definitely not ‘Art’. In fact, being perceived as such would weaken its very activist purpose which is to directly act on reality in order to transform it. Put differently, even if such an action would be declared, or perceived as being ‘Art’, its artistic autonomy would be very quickly – and brutally – revoked by the police as soon as the action starts to actually meddle with reality. Yet, at the same time, it does share many of its qualities, modes of operation, effects and affects.

In October 2019, a road blockade took place in Brussels, in the framework of a civil disobedience action organized by XR, entitled ‘Royal Rebellion’. The blockade was composed of many small groups of people holding ‘People’s Assemblies’ in the middle of the road: 20 people sitting on chairs in a circle to discuss different aspects of the Climate and Ecological crisis, guided by a trained facilitator. Nothing in their activity or attitude evoked any defiance of the law, only their specific positioning in the middle of the street enacted a genuine blockade. On the one hand, the assemblies were real assemblies serving the real purpose of involving people in new forms of democratic participation and in collectively addressing real urgent matters. On the other hand, since they obviously didn’t need to be in the middle of the street to take place, the assemblies stood there as a kind of ‘performance’. Holding a blockade in the form of people’s assemblies instead of making use of the classic lock-ons, tires, or simply holding each other sitting on the ground provided the action with a poetic, emotional and visual effect of a totally different order.

“I sometimes wonder whether Art itself doesn’t end up acting as one of the many firewalls that prevent connections between imagination and real-world changes.”

During the action, the police removed the blockades very violently and arrested all participants using tear gas, beating sticks and water cannons indiscriminately, including on children, passers-by, elderly people. One picture widely shared in the media shows the Brussels police chief commissioner Pierre Vandersmissen standing right in front of a people’s assembly, with his arm raised in an order to the water cannon truck positioned right behind him to shoot directly over his head at the small group of citizens peacefully sitting on chairs in a circle (see photo).

Royal Rebellion © François Dvorak

This image speaks directly to the senses much better than any press release could ever do: the water hose of the authorities is aimed at those who are attempting to warn that the house is on fire rather than at the fire itself. The scene depicted in the image was not anticipated by anyone in XR, let alone desired. Yet this image is deliberately and carefully staged. The kind of sensitivity, care and experimental keenness invested in putting up such an action is comparable to any artistic process. At the same time, with the ability to integrate the police’s brutal intervention as an unwilling element of its own narrative, the action also definitely gained plenty of ‘traction in the real’.

Collective glow

We artists have unwillingly played a part in a narrative which many of us criticize: that of role models in the deployment of the neoliberal conceptions of society which populate our individual and collective imagination today. Originality, intuition and determination are the key features of both the artist and the self-made entrepreneur. Success comes to those who gather enough courage to follow unexplored paths and to surprise everybody with their findings. As in most mainstream movies, the story revolves around self-sufficient geniuses able to find in themselves the necessary resources to realize their own true selves, against all odds, expectations and prejudices of society. Entrepreneurs and artists are in many respects the product of the same system, which posits the individual as the measure of all things. And I must admit that despite the explicitly progressive and rather leftist agenda I always considered my work to have, my engagement in XR holds up a mirror to my artist self, revealing rather embarrassing contradictions.

Working with XR is essentially a collective practice. The movement explicitly tries to develop and implement horizontal methods of decision making and of working together. Inclusivity and mitigation of power count among the principles and values which constitutes XR’s DNA. In this context, the relationship to authorship is as far from the art world as can possibly be. Any idea for an action, however original, is never considered as ‘belonging’ to the person who emits it. However, it is much more a matter of pragmatism than a matter of ethics or ideology: in practice, if the right methods are employed, many different people contributing their diverse ideas, points of view and skills will always deliver better and faster results than a person alone.
With XR, ownership of, or rather, authority over a creative process is related to the time and energy invested in it, not to the origin, or uniqueness of an intuition. In this context, in strong contrast with the art world, plagiarism is perfectly welcome and originality has much less of an intrinsic value.

And indeed, over the past year, being in XR required me to actively resist reflexes of defending intuitions as being ‘my’ ideas and I am still in constant struggle to limit the extent to which I identify with what I produce. This challenges the system of rewards I have grown used to as an artist. I perform virtually the same work, but my name no longer appears in programs, or on posters, and there is much less applause or bowing. As an individual, I am no longer indispensable. A reward for what I do still exists, but it is no longer counted for in praise or criticism, peer recognition, social capital, or new work opportunities. Good ideas and originality are still valued, but the measure of their success is essentially collectivized. The positive fallout on the movement exists only in as much as it advances the cause.

Art after corona

In the times we live in, if we want to have a chance to survive and preserve the possibility for a viable and just cohabitation between humans as well as with all other forms of life in the future, it seems evident that we need to entirely rewrite the narratives which weave our western modernist understanding of our position in this world. I believe art practices and art practitioners should play an important role in this as they are likely to be the best skilled to reconnect our stories with the greater complexity of the world we are a part of. To move ourselves out of paralysis, cynicism, denial, depression or delusional hope, we need experiences that activate all the dimensions of our being, senses, emotions, instinct, rationality but probably also other dimensions which we have lost or not yet accessed. We need experiences that are strong enough to leap off the stage set by the toxic, individualist, human- and male-centric, colonial and extractive system which we have built and caught ourselves in.
For as long as the art worlds we operate in keep fostering a logic of hyper individualism, I doubt our practices will ever be up for that task, however progressive, experimental, far-thinking, socially engaged, or politically radical they might be. In fact, I sometimes even wonder whether Art itself doesn’t end up acting as one of the many firewalls that prevent connections between imagination and real-world changes, as a pernicious gatekeeper capable of redirecting the most elaborate collective endeavors back to the central processor of individual atomization…

“I’ve been always very convinced that if artists would just massively join XR and offer their skills it could make a real difference.”

I will end this text with two calls. The first call is to all fellow artists to try to imagine what kind of art practice would still exist in a world that would have finally undergone all the radical transformations that are necessary for its survival. Which place would this practice have and which kind of relationships would it entertain with the other dimensions of life? Would something art-like still exist at all? What would it take for us to start practicing it already now?

The second call is one I have often been thinking of making during the past year and which at present, with all art institutions under lock-down in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, seems more relevant than ever. I’ve been always very convinced that if artists would just massively join XR and offer their skills it could make a real difference, but for some reason I never delivered any recruitment talk. Well, there, maybe I actually did that just now.

Perhaps I am afraid of coming across as moralizing. I do not feel at all entitled to emit any judgment about the way people spend their time and energies. Engaging in XR is by no means the only sensible thing to do. But still, it does make sense. So if you have any imagination to spare, please get in touch.

Je leest onze artikels gratis omdat we geloven in vrije, kwalitatieve, inclusieve kunstkritiek. Als we dat willen blijven bieden in de toekomst, hebben we ook jouw steun nodig! Steun Etcetera.

essay
Leestijd 12 — 15 minuten

#161

15.09.2020

14.12.2020

Christophe Meierhans

Christophe Meierhans makes theatrical performances. Since 2019, he has placed his artistic practice at the service of the biosphere.