Jan De Smet
On 8 October 2018, the following appeared in The Guardian: ‘The world’s leading climate scientists have warned there is only a dozen years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5°C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.’1
The part that keeps going
There can be no internationalization of the performing arts (in its current form) without Ryanair. Unease is growing about the impact of cheap fl ights on the climate. In December last year, choreographer Alma Söderberg started a Facebook discussion among her European colleagues: ‘It’s draining to be part of the disease. I feel like humanity is like an old man that has lung cancer and can’t stop smoking. Some parts of him want to stop, probably most actually, but the part that keeps going is the most powerful. I feel the responsibility to be part of the part that fights the dependency.’ In order to be able to conduct that ‘fight’, it is necessary to take a closer look at ‘the part that keeps going’. Travelling by plane is an economic necessity for performing artists who (think they) are unable to line up enough performance dates closer to home and who, in addition, do not have the time for long train rides. Certain desires also come first – for cultural exchanges, exchanges in terms of artistic form-content, for easily accessible adventures, new life experiences, the exploration of new horizons.
“There can be no internationalization of the performing arts (in its current form) without Ryanair.”
With dramaturge-essayist Jeroen Peeters, we can ask ourselves: ‘How far do you actually have to go in order to explore new horizons?’2 The social and cultural distance between two areas of the same city can be a lot greater than that between artist communities on two different continents. In the international performing arts world, rootless cosmopolitanism and provincialism do overlap on occasion.
In addition, the rapidity of the voyage and the interchangeability of the airports, hotels, residencies and art centres that the travellers move through sometimes limit the quality of their concrete experiences. Peeters remarks that the placing of a work in the world can paradoxically lead to ‘a loss of world’.3
7.7 billion individuals
Anti-smoking guru Allen Carr attributed the perfidious nature of a nicotine addiction in part to the small doses in which you ingest the poisonous substance.4 You don’t really choose to smoke – most smokers are against smoking, and certainly those who are dying from it; you always choose for that one next cigarette, reassuring yourself by telling yourself that ‘after all, it won’t come down to that one cigarette’.
“The Anthropocene exposes the autonomous individual as that which it always was: a modern illusion.”
It is also particularly sobering to ponder both your own individual life and the exceptional natural-historical era in which it is embedded. Yet that is what a report like that in The Guardian compels you to do. You ask yourself: ‘How old will I be in 2030?’ Choices that are meaningful, appealing or even necessary at the scale of your personal life can – assuming that you were to multiply them by 7.7 billion – raise fundamental issues on a large scale. The pertinent argument that we should not be fixated on purely individual responsibilities because that will soon make us lose sight of the responsibilities of politicians and industrial bulk consumers has a detrimental side-effect: under the pretext of ‘critical systemic thinking’, changes in personal behaviour and the accompanying existential self-examinations are postponed indefinitely. The Anthropocene exposes the autonomous individual as that which it always was: a modern illusion. The Western artist finds it all the more difficult to let go of that illusion, since he served as a model for it.
The globe as horizon
The prestige that is associated with the international visibility of a performing arts practice expresses the ideal of globalization. In a lot of artistic circles, the Globe continues to be seen as a moral horizon that promises ‘wealth, freedom, knowledge, and (…) a certain definition of humanity.’5 In modernity’s narrative of progress, the vector that moves from the Local to the Global is intricately entwined with the arrow that points from the past to the future and departs from the countryside and arrives in the city. The extreme Modern voices often downplay attachment to a local context, to a soil, as dated, anti-Global, removed from a more universally esteemed definition of humanity.
One of the most compelling points of contention in the debate surrounding the appointment of former Tate director Chris Dercon as the head of the Volksbühne in Berlin was the internationalization he envisioned of the artistic programme. Opponents argued that the theatre institute risked squandering its solid tradition of German-language theatre, which related concretely to municipal and national politics, for an uprooted collection of dance, performance and English-language shows – work that generally circulates internationally a lot more easily.6 The Volksbühne under Dercon seemed like an expression of what Bruno Latour calls ‘globalization-minus’, a broad cultural homogenization in which limited, mostly white-Western visions and practices are imposed on specific places with specific histories. Given the unequal access to mobility – see the recent visa problems of African performing artists who were invited by Belgian festivals – there is a chance that this type of globalization will reproduce colonial relations – the difference between the expat and the migrant is a matter of money and skin colour. The philosopher Donna Haraway writes: ‘It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.’7 Pursuing that thought, we could say that a ‘loss of world’ leads to a ‘loss of story’, and a ‘loss of story’ to a ‘loss of world’.
According to Latour, a politics that continues to pursue the ideal of globalization is literally placeless. Three or four Planet Earths are necessary for the modernization plans counted up worldwide. The movement of withdrawal to the Local, which brought us Brexit, Trump’s election and a number of pyrrhic victories for rightist nationalists, also plots an unfeasible, dead-end course. Not only does it disregard the existence of the internet, the space-time compressions generated by mobile communication technologies, the increasing entanglement of ‘heres’ and ‘theres’ in majority-minority cities, etc.8 On top of that, complex, large-scale phenomena such as global warming, the Sixth Extinction, the capitalist economy, the migration flows caused by wars, inequalities and climate mutations, etc., care little about national borders.
The internationalization of the arts contrasts with a localizing trend, which explicitly pursues the small scale. While the first trend more frequently reflects (consciously and unconsciously) the rightist globalization of neo-liberalism than the old Marxist International, ‘short-chain art’ tries to distinguish itself precisely from the nationalist version of the Right. That artistic practice expresses a leftist-ecological desire for the Local, which political philosophers Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams criticize sharply: its limited radius and its nostalgic longing for what is authentic, concrete, simple and analogue, for neo-Luddite low-tech and a stable ‘nature’ mean that it is not ready for the complex, multi-scale socio-economic systems it wants to resist. Jodi Dean summarizes the problem neatly: ‘Goldman Sachs doesn’t care if you raise chickens.’9
Documentary theatre makers such as Silke Huysmans & Hannes Dereere, Thomas Bellinck and Milo Rau need their reflective-international art practice precisely in order to be able to hold this globalized world up to a critical light. The journey constitutes their workplace, generates their polyphonic material, turns their research questions into genuine experiences. Rau describes his work as ‘global realism’. If he wants to make a show about Europe, he says he has to look beyond its borders, because: ‘The true Europe lies in Central Africa, the Ukraine, Syria.’10 For the audience of, say, NTGent, such a production can bring about the shock of the systemic connectivity between the comfortable heres and the staged theres. The question is really whether every connection is equally meaningful. Rau is active all over the world, most recently in Iraq and Brazil. There seems to be no limit to his eld of vision: ‘The children in Ghent or the disabled actors from Hora in Zurich worry me as much as the civil war in Aleppo.’11 Is it not necessary to always more or less situate yourself and your work in a specific hierarchical network of relations of dependency, even if you embark on an interrogation of globalized phenomena? To tell a ‘big-enough-story’?12 Some more wise words from Haraway: ‘Nobody lives everywhere; everybody lives somewhere. Nothing is connected to anything; everything is connected to something.’13
Today, children must educate their parents. The mother of climate truant Greta Thunberg is a renowned Swedish opera singer who, not long ago, performed around the world – until her daughter convinced her to stop doing so. Does turning away from the Globe coincide then with a flight towards the Local and a categorical rejection of every international perspective? No. Opposite ‘globalization-minus’, Latour posits ‘globalization-plus’, which includes: ‘multiplying viewpoints, registering a greater number of varieties, taking into account a larger number of beings, cultures, phenomena, organisms and people.’14 We don’t always need an airport for this – libraries and the internet already contain countless potential travel destinations in space and time. And indeed: looking more carefully around us at where we are, where we live, the urban or rural fabric we are part of, which influences us and which we in turn influence, can reveal the culturally and ecologically glocal entanglements of heres and theres.
The third cultural-political attractor that the philosopher distinguishes, in addition to the Global and the Local, promises an emancipation through a process of plowing, no emancipation through weightlessness: ‘the Terrestrial is bound to the earth and to land, but it is also a way of worlding, in that it aligns with no borders, transcends all identities.’15 A Terrestrial politics focuses on inventorying, maintaining and constantly recreating a ‘territory’ or a ‘dwelling place’ – the collection of all that on which Earthlings, humans and non-humans, are dependent for their survival. ‘It is unlikely that this territory will coincide with a classic legal, spatial, administrative, or geographic entity. On the contrary, the configurations will traverse all scales of space and time.’16
How can the idea of the Terrestrial recalibrate our view on the connection between the performing arts and their geographic context? Site-specificity is of crucial importance. Paying closer attention to the diverse artistic manifestations of globalization-plus in our immediate environment is one point. Another is to ask ourselves, with every physical journey (whether to make work elsewhere, to invite, to tour, etc.), whether it generates a meaningful constellation culturally, politically and/or in terms of artistic research. The internationalization of the performing arts is something we must try to detach from the old-Global prestige; rather, we must move in the direction of an exclusiveness-that-is-rooted-in-a-specific-territory: not every international connection, not every international exchange is equally meaningful for the enrichment of the specific life area we belong to. Artistic internationalization too often resembles tourism (another old-Global cultural phenomenon): without dependency relations, without any real concerns, it leads to cultural exoticism, voyeurism and, in the worst case, ‘misery porn’.
“To create and take care of habitable territories together — that is a task for all migrants. Can the (performing) arts play a role in this?”
The issue that fundamentally distinguishes the Terrestrial from the Local is the perspective on migration. Latour describes it as a generalized human condition, the wicked universality of our time: ‘the new universality consists in feeling that the ground is in the process of giving way.’17 Beside the ‘migrants from outside’, he also detects the ‘migrants from inside’. Many among us have been forced to leave their native country for various reasons; at the same time we are all being abandoned by our native country, now that it is clear that there is literally no place for all the modernization plans that have been counted up and that the once trusted soil on which we live is behaving in a strange and unpredictable manner, is talking to us loudly in a language we do not understand. To create and take care of habitable territories together – that is a task for all migrants. Can the (performing) arts play a role in this?
If you think about it for a moment, the situation is becoming increasingly absurd: every day the Western world facilitates countless short, fleeting journeys (mainly for purposes of diversion and unsustainable economic gain), while it constrains genuine, long-term, sustainable reterritorializations-out-of-necessity – more than that, it criminalizes them. On 9 February 2018, the police forced its way into Globe Aroma, an artistic work and meeting place for newcomers in Brussels.
The violent raid was part of the anti-terrorist plan of the then Belgian Minister of the Interior, Jan Jambon. During this same period, scenographer Jozef Wouters began working with the Globe Aroma team. Irretrievably violated by the raid, their safe space was replaced by another one, a new one, one that Wouters & co. built together during their weekly sessions over the course of a whole year. It turned out that behind the Decoratelier, Wouters’ workplace in an old factory in Molenbeek, there was a vast, high-ceilinged, windowless warehouse. The group made a hole in the wall to create a secret entrance for itself.
About a year later, at the end of March 2019, the group welcomed the public to Underneath Which Rivers Flow, a mysterious, misty, noisy, warm-cold, awkward, incomplete, pleasantly messy and moving performance without protagonists that revealed the secret garden. During the first part you could look from the stand at a landscape that consisted of various celestial bodies to scale, a giant espresso machine, a walkway, a fountain, a homemade bicycle, a rotating wheel, a raised bed, a replica on a 1:1 scale of the desolate room where one of the newcomers was staying or once stayed, a miniature version of a planetarium, a miniature version of a park, and a few more elements that I have since forgotten. Members of Globe Aroma inhabited or operated the landscape, accompanied by textual fragments about the cosmos recited by a young girl. During the second part you could walk freely around the space. Almost all the elements were made of recycled wood, a choice of materials that ensured that money was not an overly decisive power factor in the group. Everyone’s desires had equal weight.
The cosmos that surrounds us, its indifference, are also part of the universal condition of all Earthlings, including humans. During descriptions of solar systems and other cosmic phenomena, the girl repeated a few times the rhetorical question: ‘what does that have to do with us?’ Not much, indeed. The place of our concerns is here on Earth. Underneath Which Rivers Flow was a palimpsest of physical and imagined, past and future spaces: the cosmos, old and new safe spaces, a wooden (amusement) park, an abandoned warehouse that will soon be converted into a real city park, the rivers ‘flowing underneath’ (probably the old Zenne river?). An audience of the concerned – mainly inhabitants of Brussels, since soil and stage coincide in this immovable project – was invited to join the reflection on potential, future shared territories. Prefiguration is only one of the ways for the performing arts to belong meaningfully to the Earth. Art that does so, meaningfully belonging to a specific dwelling place, is on the side of the migrant, not that of the expat or the tourist.
Brussels, 18 April 2019.
Translation: Patrick Lennon