Interview with Bureau d’Espoir (Elke Van Campenhout)
Co-curator of the Residency “LaZone”, October 2010
Coralie Stalberg: How do you envision LaZone?
Elke van Campenhout: LaZone is a long-term project I am working on that is related to the topic of ‘critical hope’. In this collaboration with Bains Connective we worked with the invited artists of the Thematics, and we organized collective discussions and practices, reflecting on LaZone: as a space, as an intellectual environment, as a practice, etc… When at the end of the process every member of the group tried to formulate a definition for LaZone, the ideas that came out were very different, depending on everyone’s personal point of view, which fits the concept of LaZone somehow perfectly. The basic concept of LaZone is to propose an environment that is open, not yet specified, where the rules of behavior, speech and movement are not yet negotiated and recognizable for all the inhabitants. There is no common understanding yet for what you can think and say, for the way you relate to the other, the rules for using the space. Which makes of LaZone a kind of in-between space that is devoid of any function.
It doesn’t fit the over-defined grid that governs our understanding of public, semi-public and private spaces, or the way we adapt our thinking and behavior to our understanding of the society we live in. In LaZone we try to experience the (impossiblity) of a free zone, of a playground where people can rethink the rules of being together, of hospitality and of communication.
CS: The concept of the artwork as a gift was a central theme during your reflection sessions. Can you tell me more about this?
EV: One of the important aspects of LaZone is the issue of generosity and hospitality, and how these concepts are both culturally and personally embedded. These rules relate of course to our sense of belonging to a certain group, and in most cases, to different groups. But as we are not restricted to one cultural paradigm, since we live with complex, constructed identities, these rules can be quite volatile, and in that sense, personal. The gift in my view is a concretization or a symbolization of these semi-personal rules of hospitality. What do you give and what does it mean to give something to someone? Are you expecting reciprocity? And what do you understand by that? Do you assume that the other will respond to you in the same degree? What is the value of a gift? Is a gift something you always give consciously? We read up on different theories concerning the gift, and out of the thinking of reciprocity on the one hand and the wild, unproductive Bataillan gesture on the other, we encountered a third understanding of the gift that we borrowed from Derrida. He says that the act of giving is unconscious as it is accomplished without the subject becoming aware of giving or receiving. You can not ever actually respond to it because the moment it becomes something you can reciprocate it is not a gift any more. There are a lot of very different notions of the gift that are related to divergent ideological perspectives on society, on human contact and on the politics of being together. But this one maybe responded most to our sense of LaZone because it talked to the gift as a kind of event, as something not so much produced by the players, but by the environment itself, as a kind of potential opening up which you can only recognize as a gift in retrospect, in the aftermath of what has happened in the ecology of things and people interacting in the space.
The practices we introduced in these weeks were also related to this: to hospitality and the gift. Varinia Canto Vila for example proposed an experiment on the rules of hospitality: to invite someone in her own house, where he/she becomes the host while she (Varinia) takes up the role of the guest. In her case the guest/host brought someone else as a gift for her, and the situation became very complicated. The gift of a person as an ‘object’, of how to handle this doubleness, of understanding the gift as a gift proved to be very difficult, making the communication strained and unproductive. Which resulted in the three of them being unable to share the house. The non-understanding of the meaning of the gift made the experiment go haywire, but in a good sense. This shows that the gift not always coincides with the joyous moment of celebration, nor of recognition of the other one’s position. It can be a very unsettling object or idea, a destructive gesture. It problematizes our ways of being together. For me LaZone is not at all the happy, utopian place where everybody does whatever he wants. A place of unlimited freedom and pleasure. It is actually a space of quite harsh conflict resulting from the frustration of not being able to rely on rules. It demands of the participants a lot of decision-making in which they position themselves, mark the place they want to occupy if no positions are set from the start. What are you willing to give, and where does that generosity stop, and when are you actually not willing to be generous anymore at all? When do you consider the other to trespass your personal limits? In the artistic community we talk very easily about migration and nomadism, and quite often, even if we don’t acknowledge this position, we have quite old-fashioned ideas on our cosmopolitan state of minds, on our humanist multi-cultural beliefs, even if we would never express these thoughts explicitly. There is a multicultural political context grounding these preconceptions, but at the same time there reside a lot of hidden frustrations in the heart of these ideas. For me LaZone is the place where these frustrations can come up and where the most ugly sides of what we are can be appear in a critical environment: our hidden racism, our hidden non-trust in the other, the fact that we are willing to share but only if this doesn’t devaluate our ideas. What happens when these feelings and thoughts come to the surface? LaZone practices the horror of utopia. The only thing asked is to keep on being open to raise or discuss the problems. I will be working on LaZone for a long time, and would like to investigate more on the potential of this harshness that comes to the surface in this way of working, thinking and being together.
CS: LaZone is part of an overarching project you lead on the motive of Hope, and was preceded by Critical Hope. Can you tell me how this two research fields relate to each other?
EV: The whole project is called ‘Critical Hope, the choreography of the Social Body in Transformation’. The first step in this research was Bureau d’Espoir, which was conceived as a very positive experiment. It was about how you can make hope circulate in the city, how you can involve people in redefining hope for themselves, on the level of the individual as well as on the level of whole communities. How can hope be instigated into the city by making small changes, by marking the architecture, by marking social structures? The project was meant to be naïve and it functioned in quite an innocent way, out of a happy green caravan, that ejected small notes, interviews, hidden messages, etc…
LaZone explores the flip side of the hope question and is situated in a much darker space. Here hope becomes truly critical, in the sense of a ‘critical patient’, in other words: on the verge of dying. The criticality of this project is the fact that it investigates hope out of the point of view of its sheer impossibility of being sustained. Out of its necessary impotence to generate change. Not only personal hopes are questioned but also the inherent failure of democratic hope, the hope of ever living in a society or in a group where the rules would be satisfying for everyone. At this stage the necessary conflictual model that drives what we can still hope for or not, becomes really critical. It is a thought picked up from Chantal Mouffe and also from Jacques Rancière: the idea that democracy can only be sustained by placing it again and again before its own impossible demand: equality for everyone. This is never going to be accomplished, but a democracy can only thrive on the unstable grounds of this repeated presumption.
CS: The body as an interface is an important notion to approach LaZone as a relational space. Previously you worked on the notion of the social-affective body…
EV: The concept of the social body resulted from the workshop “The Emotional Body” with choreographer Lilia Mestre, in which I was invited as a dramaturg. The material that was developed there was further explored in the research project Sense Radio, in which we (Lilia Mestre, Pierre Rubio, David Elchardus, Els Viaene and Elke Van Campenhout) we worked on the creation of a relational body. We approached this as a body consisting of different bodies and objects in space. We attempted to let this ‘social’ or ‘spatial’ body be affected, to let an emotion affect travel through the different components of this relational body by letting the singular bodies/objectss be affected by the other, and react on the affect or the impulse of the other. In this research sound was considered an important carrier of these affects, but also the change induced by slightly sliding frames of interpretation, of recognition. For example: you are in a space which you think is an ordinary living room, but then the sound of the water cooker becomes unexpectedly loud and seems to travel outside the space. Or the reindeer hide on the floor start purring like a cat.
At that point you create a relational body, a body in transformation, going through different states. I think I recognize an object, I think I can link it to a certain memory state or an emotional recognition, but before I get there it has again transformed into something else. An object is never what you expect it to be. And the other spectator becomes at a certain point a performer in your own narrative. You think you know what is going to happen, but before you get there you’re already somewhere completely different, because the other elements of the social body have changed position, have changed focus, in the sense that they shifted from one phantasmatic or imaginary framework to another. The combinations are endless, and the work of bringing them together is the work of the individual guest/spectator.
We reflected on the state of undecidedness characterizing the ‘affect’, this moment of awareness of a (potential) change before it crystallizes in an emotion, before it is contextualized in moral terms or reduced to your personal history. As long as you are in doubt of what you are feeling, there are a lot of different possibilities that can develop out of this situation. In this half conscious moment you can become aware of the potentiality of the choices you can make, of the decisions you can take afterwards. This is what Brian Massumi calls ‘hope’ and this hope is always situated in the now and is very strictly contextualized in the unfolding relations of a given situation. It unfolds in my being here now with you, in this space where something can happen between us. My understanding of hope is not related to a distant utopia or a far-away future. In that sense it is not a strictly ideological position, but rather a political-ethical attitude. The relational body carries that kind of openness within it, embodying the ecology of an environment in a constant state of becoming, of potential change. Becoming aware of this opens up a temporal windowfor hope.
In that sense hope is not so much a concept as an attitude. Hope is performed in relation. Also now: you need a certain attitude to be able to live in LaZone. You need the openness to be affected by the others and to take the risk of whatever that might mean.
CS: There is a strong sense of vulnerability involved.
EV: Yes, this is very important. For example, when we held discussions we structured them according to rules or scores. One of the discussions demanded that you would pick up a paper mentioning a certain subject, and develop a talk out of this within a fixed time frame. Like: talk about ‘generosity’ for 6 minutes 30. This can expose you, leave you in a very vulnerable position, because you can receive a difficult subject and be very quickly out of words, leaving you stranded in a deafening silence. It is heavy, you feel stupid. But it should be possible in LaZone to bear this collectively. At the same time it should create openings to think together by allowing the rhythm of the other to influence you in the structuring of your ideas and in your being there, but avoiding to come to a moment of collective agreement. In that sense it is exactly the disagreement, the lack of negotiated outcomes, that drives LaZone as a constructive principle.
CS: Could we see LaZone as a rehearsal space for modeling such practices of disagreement?
EV: It think so, yes. Maybe even a rehearsal zone for society at large! Although the issue of democracy keeps coming back, for me it is not even necessary to freeze-frame our societal experiments on this level. But as a reference point it is off course an important one, since it is addressing a concept we consider known to us, and discovering at every turn we don’t know the first bit about it. Since when we actually start discussing it nobody really agrees on what the rules of democracy are. What do we believe in then? What is a democratic practice? What is an essential constituent for our understanding of democracy? As said before, we worked with the texts of Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau to develop the notions of critical democracy and critical hope. To refer to a consideration of Jacques Rancière, the moment you keep restating the essence of democracy, you know very well that equality under its rules is a complete impossibility. Apparently we have to live in this kind of lie, and to bring the issue of equality back every time again to even just imagine what democracy could be. That is an interesting exercise. Most artists don’t really want to talk about democracy in a literal sense. They want to discuss politics, but solely from an artistic point of view. But I think it is important to keep on trying to think the impossible in the concrete realm of our political systems, and to return to them from time to time as reality check, or rather as a proof that our basis of reality is even more phantasmatic than our artistic imaginaries.
CS: In order to open up perspectives on the political, Jane Bennett was referred to during this residency. She develops a very peculiar idea: the need to radically open up the space of democracy by giving voice to the non-human.
EV: Yes, at a certain point the notion of the relational body opened up to objects. Sher Doruff, who is a mentor for the Master of Choreography of Amsterdam, proposed a text of Jane Bennett from the book ‘Vibrant Matter’. Bennett proposes in it to radically re-think democracy by seeing it as a system that not only includes human beings, but also impliesobjects. Not only organic objects are hereby taken into consideration. Man-made things like synthetic bottles are viewed as equally important. All these elements take part in the ecology of a democracy to be, in the sense that they also have a voice in constructing societal rules and an understanding of the social order.
Of course, this is an extreme understanding of democracy. If we consider with Rancière that rethinking democracy is about giving a voice to those who didn’t have a voice in the public forum before, then we are still talking about people with a will and a potential to take a part in a democratic system involving communication and negotiation. In a system where a plastic bottle has as much voice as I have, we come to an absolute zero point of what a democracy might be. Or rather, we enter into an ecology of the democratic system that involves everything that is discounted from our current frames of thinking and experiencing the world that surrounds us. For me this discourse then rather elaborates an ecological democratic attitude than a sense of democracy. And it is quite problematic to make it concrete. But it is a very interesting point proposing such an impossible form of equality. There is also a clear affinity between Bennet’s thought and Lilia Mestre’s exploration of the object taking over the role of the performer. And if we consider that under colonial rules until quite recently whole groups of people were considered ‘objects’ or ‘commodities’, were not seen or heard – for example in the ‘egalitarian’ American revolution, in which African-Americans were simply not taken into account in the extremely positive appraisal by European intellecutals of the implementation of equality in the social rule-giving system – maybe this idea of an object-inclusive democracy is not so far-fetched after all.
CS: Part of the material was Nicolas Bourriaud’s theory on relational art, and how to apply his ideas in a performative setting…
EV: The idea of relationality interested us not only regarding the perception of the artwork, but actually on the level of the gathering of people within a space, in relation to the artworks, but also to each other. On the possible shifting notions of the artist, the curator and the spectator, where they no longer occupy set positions, but enter an environment in which their functions could easily be turned around in their appraisal of the situation and what is produced there. Nicolas Bourriaud was an interesting reference, but we got more thoroughly inspired by the text of Irit Rogoff “We, Collectivities”. She talks about the differences that occur once you step out of the role of the spectator as a subject looking at an object, and enter into a mode of what she calls ‘criticality’. You then become aware of the fact that it is not so much about the spectator seeing an art work, but about a spectator being at a certain point in time together with other spectators in a very particular space. The art object is just an element of it. She emphasizes the fact that seeing the same object or going to the same exhibition in another place with different people can potentially become a completely different experience, and can invoke a social body affected in a totally different way. So she takes the relational esthetics of Bourriaud a couple of steps further by linking it directly to a political praxis of gathering. Irit Rogoff refers to a text of Hanna Arendt developing a very peculiar understanding of power. Her conception differs radically from the static notion of power we usually have, when we view it as embedded in institutional frameworks. Arendt states that power coincides with the moment people come together to express their thoughts commonly, at which point they develop a sense of being together. Arendt’s conception is also very relevant from a performative perspective: the power is only there in the moment of coming together, of constructing a social body, and is ephemeral as it dissipates when the group spreads out.
CS: LaZone is a space where the desires and the shortcomings of cosmopolitan identity can be expressed…
EV: Cosmopolitanism is basically a very problematic notion. The danger of cosmopolitan thinking is that it places at its center a very specific kind of human being and pretends it is a universal model for the whole of humanity. But this is not the case at all, because it departs from an overly privileged, well-educated, mobile and culturally open type of individual. To be multicultural in the sense that you can consider yourself an inhabitant of any kind of city culture of the world is overseeing the localization and the specificity of a cultural, economic and social topicality. The cosmopolitan feeling indeed refers to the commercial centers of the world, where Richard Florida’s bohemian resides, where the arts and the economic value system inhabit the same domain. But such a sense of cosmopolitanism is overlooking 80 % of the rest of the territory of these big cities, and does not take into consideration that you can only escape being designated by culture or by belonging if you have the money and the means to do so. In that sense the cosmopolitan dream is a humanist construction that doesn’t take into account the ecology of things, people and spaces, and how they relate to each other. It preferably cuts out a very small part of this whole map of very complicated and oppositional senses of belonging, and pretends that this can be shared by everyone, everywhere.
Now I will be contradictory, but what I do like about the cosmopolitan stance is the idea that your identity is not made up by the literal belonging to your nationality, your social strata, or your sexual orientation. It is made out of dozens of different strands of belonging: to international communities, interest circles,… You cannot be pinned down by where you come from or how you grew up. The complex identity is a useful idea, but it is also a problematic one. If you talk to young artists now one of the points that keeps popping up exactly this: the complexity of their identities, their sense of belonging to different completely contradictory spaces at the same time. The feeling that this complexity has taken away their agency, their power to act. They can for example belong to the community of struggling artists, feel solidarity with third world countries, while on the other hand also be part of the fashion community and love to be seen in a vintage Dolce Gabanna piece. They have so many different kinds of belonging that they are not able to position themselves any more, they no longer know what to stand for.
The necessity to work around hope came out if this frustration I felt working with artists. An attempt to get out of that deadlock which makes it impossible to act out of what you consider your own agitation to be. Not only because we realize we are a social construction, but because we acknowledge we are several. So whatever you do, you will always end up doing something that is oppositional to what another part of yourself believes to be. We are living our lives on the crossroads of divergent value systems that are simply not combinable. I think one of the strongest accomplishments of neoliberalism is that it gave people so much power to construct themselves that it blew up the frontiers of what you can make of yourself. In the end you come to such complex constructions they undermine themselves and render you completely immobile. During a workshop someone referred to a well-known joke comparing totalitarianism and liberal democracy. During totalitarianism, it was not allowed to speak. So, if someone spoke out all the others were listening very attentively and trying to make sense of the statement. This created quite a critical audience. Whereas under neoliberal democracy everybody is allowed to speak but no one is inclined to listen. Everyone is producing thoughts, but there’s no place left for someone to pick them up. And if we bring this back to Hannah Arendt’s understanding of power, the lack that this produces is precisely this place to come together and create the power of sharing certain expressions or ideas. It is this enormous free zone of expression in democracy that makes it impossible to get anything said anymore, in a sense of giving a voice to the ones that are not heard.
CS: Another layer of LaZone is the realm of the pure phantasmal; can you tell me more about this aspect?
EV: In this regard, one of my great interests is to work on the alien, on figures that balance between objects and individuals, between recognition and absolute otherness. These hybrid creatures are situated in-between phantasy, fiction and reality. They are political but in no way effectively so.
I read this incredible nice book “Aliens and Anorexia” by Chris Kraus. The author departs from Deleuze’s conception of anorexia. The philosopher is not psychologizing the anorexic position, not viewing it as an act of defeat or a refusal to grow up, but as an active resistance against the repetitive quality of consumerist life. Anorexia is about the necessity to stop the whole machinistic drive of our lives. For me it is so interesting to turn over the perspective in the understanding of what an anorexic is, and thus reversing the kind of pathetic femininity that the everyday understanding of it portrays. ‘Aliens and Anorexia’ produces unlikely figures of hope, in the sense that you can come to a different explanation or perspective of what actually this position means. Not as figures lacking a defined position, but as those who open up our rigid understanding of things as they are.