Kristof van Baarle
Disclaimer: This text comes from a privileged position. It is written by people who had the chance to be part of a strong and ambitious development plan for the performing arts, throughout the last 25 years. It is written from a place where structural funding makes it possible to work on supporting, producing and presenting arts on a regular basis in conditions conducive to such work. These thoughts and proposals, products of circumstances, set out to question the current and future state of our field, as we are experiencing it. We acknowledge this reality is not shared by many.
You might remember what Jello is. This gelatinous translucent dessert, that comes in various flavors and colors. Well,… this is probably how you might have experienced the past year and a half if you happened to work in a theatre: trapped in a giant, global Jello.
At first, we didn’t see it coming. Then on 13 March 2020, it was everywhere. But, since we don’t wake up in a wobbly dessert every day, we couldn’t at first understand what it really was. Seeing the gelatin around us, then trying to see through it, processing, then accepting the fact that we were trapped inside of it, took us what felt like a lifetime and a delirious amount of energy.
In the Jello, the only thing we could do, as a theater, was un-do. And so, we did. We cancelled contracts with artists, erased performances from our website, reimbursed tickets and found systems to pay the artists anyway. We came back to a blank calendar, an un-written program, a zero state of our reason for being as an institution. And it is in this forced emptiness that the maddening labor of trying to move the pieces that were on our program from inside the Jello to outside the Jello started. And all this without even knowing exactly how far it would spread, and how long it would last.
Remember what it is like to move a Jello dessert from one plate to another? It never goes in the right direction. It’s hazardously wobbling, then rolling. Halfway through, it breaks into a thousand pieces, then lands on the floor, if not on your laps. Now, imagine you are trapped in it, with a team of 40 people and around 100 performance artists who are losing more income with every passing day. Being in the Jello is so, oh so stressful.
Some projects we had to abandon. We watched them sink into the gelatin, feeling powerless. Others were saved. We dragged them along for months and put them in a place we thought was safe, until the second layer of Jello arrived and we had to move them again. How long can you hold your breath? Inside of how many desserts can you actually survive?
But we survived. As everybody else. More or less. And this meant we had to radically change a whole bunch of things. From the kind of projects we would support to the ticket price policy, from the calendar and the season folder to the communication within the team, with the artists, etc.
Literally nothing of what was a habit remained untouched. We found ourselves doing things we had never done before. And one could say that’s maybe not so bad – in general, for an institution – to dare to try out things that some months ago seemed impossible. Except that none of these reinventions were the result of a well-considered, tempered analysis of our needs, as an institution or as a field. All of them were “solutions” we found, in a long-lasting state of deep panic, to plug, as quickly as possible, the holes through which the jam was leaking into the organization. Probably not the best way to reinvent organizations, in the long run.
“Remember what it is like to move a Jello dessert from one plate to another? It never goes in the right direction. It’s hazardously wobbling, then rolling. Now, imagine you are trapped in it, with a team of 40 people and around 100 performance artists.”
When the second lockdown arrived in October 2021 – and the second wave of giant Jello was in sight – an emergency alarm howled in our heads. No way we would ask our team to pretend they could swim in a jar full of jam again. No one can. And why would we? Jam is not made to swim in.
We wrote some scenarios that would potentially allow us to stay alive and breathe and maybe even learn something. One of those many scenarios was inspired by a project Anne Breure had developed in Veem Theater, in Amsterdam, some years ago. After their funding was cut by a third, Anne and her team had decided to open the theatre for only 100 days a year. We thought we could maybe turn their idea upside down and close the Kaaitheater for 100 days. Not 100 days of something. But 100 days of nothing.
Most probably, as it was already in Veem, the action would have been rather performative. More a statement than a reality. As a matter of fact, the team of Veem never really did nothing. On the 265 days they were “closed”, they worked an infinite number of hours to prepare for the 100 days they would be “open”.
Our proposal for Kaaitheater was to pay the fees to the artists for the pieces we had to cancel, keep the full team under contract and spend this time, 100 days, without holding any public activity. We would have taken this time to work together on a better Kaaitheater for the future. This idea lived among our team for more or less two days. Then was quickly forgotten. Nothing isn’t a good enough project. It’s a provocation, nothing more.
But was it, really? In a world governed by an ideology of growth and efficiency, in a sector where self-exploitation is a norm and productivity the standard – a moment of pure nothingness could have been a true gift. A moment literally offered to us all. To stop. To look around. To reassess what we were doing and how we were doing what we were doing. A moment to reinvent ourselves. To take stock, get out of the panic state, look at our city, at our field and at our organization, see what would be needed, implement change and come back wiser, maybe even better if not stronger or softer. This time was there, unexpected. Probably too big and surely scary. In any case, no one, no Flemish Institution, took it. Neither did we – as an institution. Maybe because we do not know how to do it.
(Side note: if no institution did nothing (as an institution), what most of them did (and Kaaitheater also) was to use the possibility to put part of our teams in temporary unemployment status meaning that, on an individual level, many people found themselves with nothing to do).
In the end we didn’t do nothing. Because we didn’t know how “doing nothing” could be truly generative for an institution, or how we would handle this with our team, the artists and the audience. In the end, well, after a couple of days – which now seems a superfast decision – we did something. Something planned, orchestrated, set up. Something less open, something rather directed towards an expected outcome. Something small. Something that would not be called nothing but in which we would be able to more or less realize the same outcome as when we claimed we wanted to do nothing. Meaning to reflect.
We decided to spend the time and the money we had in our hands to actively, publicly, question the way we work, today – in the Jello but also outside of it. We turned our own need for reflection into A Big Question: “How to Live and Work Now?” We launched open calls for residencies and work groups, we sent them to artists and organizations, we told stories, and we invited the field to respond. In other words, we did not exactly invite the field to do nothing either.
And yes, we received a lot of answers and proposals to our calls. It was a pleasure to encounter artists we did not know yet, through reading their entries. The residencies were aimed at artists with a need to nurture their practice incorporating or responding to the Jello circumstances: not necessarily focused on a result or a project in a theatre for a live audience. The work groups were meant to allow a constellation of people in the field to gather and tackle questions that the Jello had brought up or magnified. Questions about the way we organize our field.
There were proposals for publishing projects. Then quite a lot revolving around touch, distance, gathering. And those where public space and the internet were approached as platforms for experimentation and presentation. Many responses were focused on researching new, fairer kinds of distribution of resources and spaces.
We made our selection. Only one artist responded to the open call with a proposal to do more or less nothing. Or more exactly, she proposed to ponder on the difficulty to combine motherhood and an artistic career while rolling on the carpet with her newborn child. The letter was beautiful, bold, honest. We didn’t select it. Nothing wasn’t an option anymore.
It felt good to pay fees for something that would actually really happen, despite the Jello conditions. It felt good to answer to specific and vivid needs from artists and culture workers. The calls seemed to have opened a fracture into the longstanding emptiness of their days, it offered the possibility to take this time we had anyway to work on something (instead of doing nothing) – and many of the researches they conducted have led to meaningful results for them and sometimes for the field as well. We published the results of the researches, if there were any.
And suddenly, on our website, there was something again. Something meaningful. Something that was not saying “sorry, there is nothing so see here” and, it actually felt very good. So, at the end, while we originally wanted to do nothing, we ended up doing a lot.
So, let’s sum things up. In this story, we had the intuition that doing nothing would do us good. Only we didn’t know how to do nothing – and we had no frame to do so. So, finally, we did what we know how to do: a lot of things. And yet, there is this regret. This feeling that it could have been in the space left empty by the disappearing of our habits, that the necessary space for something truly new could have appeared.
When performance artist Alma Söderberg is starting a new project, she first spends days lying on the floor, doing, in appearance, nothing. And because doing nothing is not easy, she’s not doing nothing at home. No, she’s applying for residencies, in well-equipped studios, to do, as well as she can, what looks like nothing. Then, one day, she stands up and makes a new stunning piece. Doing nothing, but in an excellent way, is for Söderberg the first necessary step towards something new. Something else. She knows it. She organizes it.
“If you receive public funding you cannot spend the money doing invisible things. You keep working. You respond to expectations. You keep on displaying the institution. You pretend you can swim.”
How come we, the well-organized organizations, can’t get this done – doing nothing? Can’t we see that, by refusing to see nothing as something valuable, we are dooming ourselves to the endless repetition of the same? While what we actually need is something radically different. Not to obey the endless demand for yet another new thing in this world, but because the world itself has changed in such manner that it demands from our field to react in a new, reinvented way – and this might demand some proper reflection. Jello or not.
Later, we learned that many other organizations toyed with similar ideas – evolving around nothing. Other theatres. Some people, in some arts schools. But as we did, they all came to the same conclusion and kept on working – in one way or another. Even if working in the Jello was insane. Even if just trying to work in such a gelatinous environment was leading us all to ill situations where the very core of our work (presenting theater) was becoming absurd. And even if everything around us was screaming that we should stop doing what we were doing, we didn’t close the institution. We didn’t have the tools to contemplate that possibility. We told ourselves we couldn’t afford to.
In Veem, the money was lacking to realize a program, but the team, the building and all the rest was still there. Only to do what? In the Jello, the context was radically different: it was not the money that was lacking, but the possibility to do something, to bring people together. But in both cases, in Amsterdam or in the Jello, the pressure to realize something was huge and theatres have been expected to come up with “creative solutions” to deliver something, regardless of the conditions in which they were placed. Veem refused to respond to this pressure – and faced a massive critique from their subsidizers. We accepted it. As many others did. Because if you receive public funding you cannot spend the money doing invisible things. You keep working. You respond to expectations. You keep on displaying the institution. You pretend you can swim.
© Jan Simon De Lille
© Jonas Maes
Many organizations have been extensively thematizing the political impact of restlessness, sleep deprivation and the impossibility of down moments in our neo-liberal world. Exhibitions about laziness, sleep-in projects, or impressive theoretical discourses about the urgent need for non-productivity in the arts and beyond have been quite often on the program of arts institutions these past 10 years.
But how many of those organizations have really walked the walk? Rest might appear every now and then in their topical public programs, but most of the time, not in their internal organization. Sleep-cells are for the exhibition space. Not for the offices.
Yet, some artists have proposed concrete alternatives. They thought of other options, they came up with proposals. We believe there is, in the few examples hereunder and surely also in many other projects, interesting material and ideas by which we might be inspired, as an institution and as a field.
Some animals have their skeleton outside of their body. It is called exoskeleton. Like for some insects or mollusks, the structure that protects the soft parts of their body is located outside of it. In the lecture he gave in 2017 in art centre BUDA, visual artist Vladimir Miller proposed the image of the institution as an exoskeleton, a structure meant to provide support for the soft and constantly evolving body of the arts. He said: “For animals with exoskeleton, the growing process is marked by periods of cracking open and renewal that is driven by the soft body.” At a certain point in their development, the shell of the animal becomes too small and it should abide until the exoskeleton has adapted to the new size or needs of the soft body. What he proposes, using this image as a metaphor for the institution, is that, as those animals are doing, institutions could take time to adapt so to better support their “soft body”. They could also temporarily refrain from all activities and only come back when their structure would again fit what they are meant to protect. And this would not be seen as lack of strength, but as part of the natural life cycle of the institution.
Alix Eynaudi is currently working on a new project that she calls The Institute of Rests, a (shady) study. Rest as in “resting” but also as in “what is left”, the rests. She explains that this institute would make collective and consolidated practices of refusal, of resistance. In this institute we would rest ourselves from what is being asked of us. We would stop feeding false narratives or identities. We would stop performing external expectations. We would take holidays from ourselves. We would take care of what is then left and finally rest. Rest in friendship, in joy and in performance. A project that would talk about art and life. An institution also made for other people to inhabit it. A training place. A space in time in which to learn how to make new proposals.
As a matter of fact, Foam in Amsterdam is the only organization so far that implements rest, on a structural level – and doesn’t just display the theme on their program. They have an already long-existing and well-documented practice of Lying Fallow. In “Thriving in Uncertainty” by Maja Kuzmanovic and Nik Gaffney, they write: “This field has the potential to serve as a neutral zone where ideas can be prototyped, first as artistic or speculative designs, then as real-life labs implemented and evaluated in the wild, where the ultimate creative act becomes the radical redesign of everyday life. Aimless wandering, meandering, pondering, meditating and other contemplative practices are conducive to mental states in which the creative and unexpected tend to emerge. In a world riven with paradoxical tensions and crises, the need for such creative detours is not a luxury but a necessity.”
“The Rest Year is not seen as an unforgivable catastrophe. It is a desired and absolutely needed period of invisibility. A year “off” that is part of the normal life of every institution.”
A proposal (to rest)
Each art institution that is receiving public funding has to take at least one “Rest Year” in a period of 7 years. This Rest Year is not to be confused with an unexpected Jello Year.
The Rest Year is a suspension in the working of an organization, it is a time out to open up, rethink its fundament, learn new knowledge, re-connect to the city and the current development of the arts field. It is aiming at reinventing anew the organization, what it does and how it does what it does in the light of this changed environment in which it operates.
The Rest Year is not seen as an unforgivable catastrophe. It is a desired and absolutely needed period of invisibility. A year “off” that is part of the normal life of every institution. The Rest Year is something very much planned and considered by everybody as the natural and necessary condition to evolve in a well thought manner, so to be able to invent an organization that would be relevant for the city, the field and the artists the institution is hosting.
During this Rest Year, the team stays under contract, paid, the public activities are reduced to its minimum or fully cancelled. People of the organization can freely choose to work together to slowly reinvent the institution, educate themselves further, volunteer in other domains or communities in need, or do nothing, if that’s what they need the most. Other people can be invited to think and work along. Artists, audience members, citizens. All of them are paid.
After a year, the team comes back together and each of the team members, with the knowledge they acquired during this year, are working together on a new version of the institution. Each of the team members can then freely decide if they want to be part of this new organization or not. Eventually some of them would decide to step down, do something else somewhere else, or – why not – do nothing.