Interview with Elke Van Campenhout by Heike Langsdorf and Sébastien Hendrickx in the context of the long-term research project OTCOE (more here)
Elke Van Campenhout is an artistic researcher. She worked as a critic and dramaturg for several years. In 2007 she started the post-master program for artistic research a.pass (advanced performance and scenography studies), currently based in Brussels. Currently she works as the research coordinator of a.pass and also develops her own research work independently.
“The recent years we were working on similar interests with respectively very different approaches and independently from each other. Currently our work leads both of us to the investigation of spirit. Spirit in the sense of an animating or vital principle, an intensifying principle. Etymologically the spirit is what “secretly carries off and away”, something that cannot be ‘held’, but has to be practiced. It is produced only by a practice following methods and principles. But what exactly is then intensified and what purpose does it serve?
My daily practice consisting out of spiritual exercises activates – in a pure physiological sense – my breath. My breath doesn’t get more but it finds more space to flow through. This has an interesting effect on how I feel and think about things. I somehow get less irritated or annoyed. I am simply more ‘ok’ while encountering all kinds of things – people, situations, emotions, etc. Here in the West we call it ‘psychologically more stable’. It helps me relate, think and act more consistently. What I can do (my capacities) and what I want to do (my promises), are depending on each other. Being aware of this interdependence makes me estimate less overconfidently how I can act within a certain situation.
The exercises I am doing regularly are just-sitting meditation, breath control exercises, (recently also a bit of singing) and yoga-postures. Under the guidance of Renée Copraij I pay attention to how these exercises are imbedded in the yogic school of thinking. I started contextual reading which is as such an important part of practicing following the yoga methods and principles. Also this reading about where they origin from is an ongoing practice and research. Actively studying and discussing with others is considered necessary in order to diminish the risk of mis-interpretation and dogmatic use of principles.
I started with reading the Sutras of Patanjali, (196 Indian sūtras (aphorisms) that constitute the foundational text of Rāja yoga) and I decided to look also into other writings, like the writings on yoga by a.o. Georg Feuerstein, on Bhuddist and Christian principles by Thich Nath Hanh…, more about the history of the Bible, the Koran .. also into the underlying philosophy of the Alexander Technique, Feldenkreis and Katsugen … and the Anekdotes of Confucius.
For the moment I am busy with a movement research under the title sitting with the body. sitting with the body is also the name of an exercise for body and mind which teaches us to ‘look inward’. ‘Looking inward’ in the sense of introspection, the observation of the Self. Departing from this exercise we want to develop images with the body which attract the attention of passers-by and get them – just for a moment – out of their own thoughts. Like prayer-cards or mandalas they can be looked at to intensify concentration on ‘something else’ than what keeps our mind constantly dwelling, busy and reacting.
I am interested in talking with you about your experience, use and conception of ‘spirit’.”
1.What do you understand by the term ‘spirit’?
Elke : It’s all connected to the work of ‘Bureau d’Espoir’…
Sébastien : What is ‘Bureau d’Espoir’?
Elke : ‘Bureau d’Espoir’ is an artistic research practice, that investigates, produces, exports, imports ‘hope’ and puts it to therapeutic use. In a first phase this research developed on the terrain of the political, of political theory. Then it became a research about the choreography of the social body. And then, the therapeutic, or rather spiritual, part came last. In fact I decided that 2013 would be the year I would research spiritual physical practices as performative vehicles for hope, and when I was in Peru to work with the shaman on Ayahuasca practices, that was the gift I got from the spirits: the power to heal.
Maybe I have to say what I was looking for when turning to a spiritual practices. I was trying to break out of a discourse around critical artistic work and research, that for me got kind of calcified. The political discourse is a very interesting one, but it sometimes gets stuck in a kind of critical academics that at a certain point started to become more of an obstacle than opening up any more doors. With Bureau d’Espoir I was working a lot on the texts of Jacques Rancière, and especially his theories on ‘le partage du sensible’ (the partition of the sensible, ed.). And I decided that we, as artistic researchers, seemed also to be stuck in one particular way of talking, and of being able to experience and share our work. We were using a lot the accepted, authorized discourse of artistic research, and the theoretical framework that comes with it. And that this made it somehow impossible to come to another understanding of our agencies. As artists, but also as citizens, as a person, as a woman. So accepting the idea of letting go of my sceptics around spirituality was a way to undermine my own authority of working and of knowing. I think it was hugely about restructuring my own categories of knowing. Because when I start to talk as an artistic researcher, mingling up political theory, performance discourse, and spiritual language, then I know that I lose a lot of my credibility as a theoretician. Spiritual practices and language are not accepted in the particular ‘partage du sensible’ of ‘serious’ artistic research, and for most researchers it seems also in total opposition with political thinking, and thus with seriousness…
But, back to your question: when we talk about spirit, I’m very much inclined to pick up on what you said about ‘intensity’. I have been doing all kinds of things this year of spiritual research, but I think in its most literal form of working with ‘spirit’ is the shamanic apprenticeship I did in an Ayahuasca ritual context in Peru. With Ayahuasca you ingest the juice of some jungle plants, which gives you first a heavy cleansing: you start vomiting or get acute diarrhoea. But then you can enter the world of the spirits, talk to them, ask them for advice. During the day we did meditations with the palo maestros, the master trees in the jungle, also drinking their juices, so the spirits can come and live in your body, and give you more easy access to the spirit world during the Ayahuasca ceremonies. So if you talk about spirits, there they live literally inside you. They live in you and you take them home…
I was reading this book on that kind of herbal spiritual practices, which is called ‘the cosmic serpent’, by Jeremy Narby. In this book he makes the connection between the visions you get during an Ayahuasca trip and the scientific imagery of DNA, of the most elementary building block of all that we are and all that surrounds us.
I think what is very interesting about that book and the experience of Ayahuasca is that it relates you both on a microscopic level with what is inside your body and on a gigantic universal level with everything that is around. And that these two levels are deeply connected. So if you think the spirits, or Spirit, on that level, we are talking simultaneously about one (let’s call it for now the DNA of the universe) and an endless multiplicity of things (the realizations within that universe, the concrete species, creatures, objects, materialities, manifest or unmanifest) within. Jeremy Narby calls this DNA in the sense of a certain kind of intelligent materiality that just reconstitutes itself into different life forms. And he points out the striking parallels between the most ancient and contemporary visualizations of the Ayahuasca visions, which are often connected to intertwined snakes, vines, etcetera. And the imagery of DNA. He also points out the almost incredible coincidence (that borders on the impossible) for the ancient shamans to have found out about a chemical solution as complicated as that of the Ayahuasca brew, and reminds us that the shamans themselves say that ‘the plants told them what to do’. Or, the spirits of the plants did.
So actually all these intuitions you get in meditation that there is no death, there is only reconstitution, there’s no real suffering, there’s only acceptance. In Ayahuasca this becomes very tangible somehow. It’s somehow a shock-therapy into insight. I’ve been doing a lot of work with the trees, talking to them and accepting them as my teachers, and after a while I got better and better in understanding their voices as being really-really diverse.
Heike : You did this after you had drunk these hallucinatory fluids?
Elke : No, during the day, as a preparation for the nightly ceremony, you go into the jungle to talk to ‘your’ trees. Remo Caspi, Madre Tierra and Chulachuki in my case. They all have another ‘function’ in the spirit world. And you start to listen better and better. When you say ‘spirit’ is an intensification, I would say yes, it’s an intensification of my relatedness to things and an enormous opening up of new answers. Of other ways to open up to other energies, and other voices to enter your field of experience and perception. In a workshop in a.pass around ‘Schizophrenic Bodies’ (which we did in a project with workspace Bains Connective), we were working with theatre maker Robert Steijn on the displacement of you centre of energy, out of your body, somewhere in the working space. That was actually what we were trying to do at that moment, which for me had a lot to do with getting rid of thinking together the ego, which we consider most of the time as ‘me’, and your center of intensity. It was really an interesting but difficult exercise: to place your center of intensity somewhere else in space, to let go of the direct connection with your ‘homely’ body and your spiritual power. It was a really nice way of getting rid of certain kinds of preconceptions, which started to stop make sense for me already when I started working on ‘anorexic practices’ in answer to some texts of Deleuze.
Heike : They stopped making sense?
Elke : Yes, Deleuze talks about different kinds of ‘bodies without organs’, which, if I simplify it greatly means: bodies that get rid of their inner organization, of the functionality of their bodies, the tight arrangements of the ‘organs’, of the embodies’ order, the accepted body logics. In the body without organs this whole logics is rearranged, left behind. The anorectic is one of these bodies, that rearranges not only her relation between her body and her food intake, but also all the social, and especially familial, relations around it. The anorectic is the one that becomes pure outside and is only a marker of the relations around her. She has given up on the interiority of the ‘I’ as the marker of her own existence. She rearranges for example the family life by denying herself pleasing the family by being the accomplice in the family meals. She rearranges and redistributes attention. She is the one that doesn’t consume in order not to be consumed by the regularity, the normativity of meal times, of the ‘ideal’ body.
Heike : ‘She’? You mean someone anorectic?
Sébastien : You did this concretely, I mean, these ‘anorexic practices’?
Elke : Yes. And yes, it’s still going on. I did this little exercise as a hunger artist in Brasil. A hunger artist is obviously not eating at all. I was a hunger artist three times more since then. But I got wearied of the spectacularity of the hunger artist, and developed ‘anorexic practices’, as a more complex counter-practice.
Sébastien : You still have two minutes for this question.
Elke : Ah, then maybe this is not that important… Well, back to the spirit. The spirit, or the spiritual was for me a way of dealing directly with physical practices of transformation, which is actually what I would call my idea of ‘hope’ in Bureau d’Espoir anyway. And to get rid of the misunderstanding that I think is inherent in the idea of hope. You, Heike, you were working on ‘radical hope’, and I was working on ‘critical hope’.
Sébastien : And what is the difference between those two?
Elke : Well, in my case, I used ‘critical’ not in the sense of creating a distance to things, but ‘critical’ in the sense of ‘urgency’. When you talk about a ‘critical patient’, this means that this person is on the verge of dying. And I had the impression that the same was happening with ‘hope’ in a lot of the talks I had with artists and researchers.
But I cannot deny that the criticality has always been in my work. I was a critic before, and a critical theoretician. So for me the spirituality was also about getting rid of this kind of minimal distance I seem to need as an artistic researcher: to make a distance between the subject and the object of my work. In the spiritual practices that becomes more and more blurry, and I even think that the subject is vanishing or is spreading out over the whole world. My experience in meditation is one of being as big as the city or even bigger, sometimes as big as the universe. At that point the difference between subject and object obviously don’t matter anymore. And my reaction is a bit like Heike’s: I get irritated much less, I’m much more calm. It’s very oppositional almost, that by giving up your centre you become more centered.
2. How do you apply ‘spirit’ in your work as a theoretician, researcher and artist?
Elke : I think it has something to do with what we were talking about before. It’s a lot about giving up your position of authority and the clarity of what you stand for. The giving up of a crystallized, which in this sense means immobilized clear discourse that people recognize. What I’m working on now is the blurring up, the mixing up of different discourses, like the political, the sociological, the poetic, the spiritual, and to see what happens when they meet. I want that people don’t know actually anymore where your authority is situated. That they have to find themselves a position towards what I’m saying that is not already suggested by the place it takes in the ‘partage du sensible’, but that resists direct recognition and evaluation. So for example now I’m making the ‘Tarot of Hope’. You know how the Tarot works?
Sébastien : No…
Elke : You have key figures on the cards that belong to different categories of life, and you lay them out on the table. Then out of the relationships between them you make the interpretation of what is at stake, what is the issue. Now I would like to make a Tarot that contains political figures, spiritual practices and social movements, so that out of the clash of these discourses, the interpretation with the person sitting in front of you becomes much more disturbing. So you could have Ulrike Meinhof, relativity theory and Mother Ayahuasca for example, answering to your question about what to do with your awful job. And then you start to talk. I would make a totally new set of cards, together with the other Bureau d’Espoir workers, but respecting the relationality of the Tarot.
I also picked up the spiritual format of the Satsang to do lectures.
Sébastien : Satsang?
Elke : Satsang is a spiritual practice of people coming together to discuss spiritual questions. One of the ways to do this is for the guru to sit down, saying “I have nothing to say, but you can ask me anything”. I did that twice now when I was asked to give a lecture. I go and sit on the desk in front of the audience and say “hi, I have nothing to say, but you can ask me anything”. And it’s quite nice actually, it’s a completely other way of relating – if they get to the point that they do it, which they always do, but quite reluctantly, the questions that come out are quite surprising. You are in an academic context and people start asking questions about their agencies, their lives, life in general. Or they switch to a completely different register of interests.
Sébastien : Was this also the moment when the switch happened… I don’t know very much about your professional past, but… where roles started to blur a little bit too? Like for example when you say ‘I’m a performer of artistic research’, it’s a bit three different things combined…
Elke : I think that started when starting a.pass. That ‘artistic researcher’ and what that role is… I came with a theoretical background but then I started to think completely differently when confronted with the concrete practice of artistic research. From the artist’s point of view rather than from the theoretician’. I started to begin to see artistic research more and more as an exemplary practice, as a conglomerate of very different practices that combine your artisthood, with your role as a researcher, but also as a woman, as a human being, as a performer, as a writer… These together form one exemplary practice, which is completely yours and that is unique, but that is also completely random. At a certain point you just take seriously the point where you got and turn that into a kind of creative working process.
That’s a big difference with how I worked as a critic for example. And opening up the practice of the theoretician to things that go further than what the mind can grasp, opening it up to another consciousness or another state of perception, does give you an entrance into things that otherwise become ungraspable in artistic research and that then have to be forgotten about, like the question of intuition. From a spiritual point of view it’s quite easy to say what this is, how that works. If you say intuition is just a kind of preparation for the consciousness that seeps through your body practice into your conscious mind… It’s just a kind of indication of what you already know but are not aware of. Instead of ignoring it and saying “well we don’t work with intuition, we’re political artists – it has to be clear and it has to be on the table”, you get another possible position to take these kinds of knowledge into account.
Heike : It’s what actually physiologically happens to the brain, when you do meditations or other spiritual exercises, you actually slow your left part of the brain down and activate more the right one, which is the more intuitive thinking, and the rational you actually ‘still’. So it’s this stilling of the mind it produces… Then if you practice this you see, you feel and you act differently. That’s why from a spiritual point this as an argument…
Sébastien : I have another sub-question. So a more spiritual practice makes you more aware of what you otherwise would ‘sweep under the carpet’, but did it also influence what you produce, your texts or your public performances of research?
Elke : Yes, a bit like I already said, on the discourse level, I start writing texts now where I mingle up different modes of discourse, different life and writing positions. All of a sudden I’m half-referring to post-marxism and then I go into the spiritual domain, and that’s very confusing for people. I try to not ‘to not make’ sense, but I try to not exclude anymore the kind of navigation you can make through different zones of experience that are always there at the same time. As a hunger artist when I worked with Deufert and Plischke, I went for hunger for ten days and there were four performances of seven hours, so I knew I would not be able to keep up my concentration and energy levels. And I had to give lectures, always different ones, so I knew that my mind wouldn’t be able to cope with that, that I would not be able to control that as much as I would want. That I would start to stumble or maybe bring in things that I wouldn’t want to talk about at all. It creates a completely other kind of complicity with an audience, that is maybe also a bit scared and doesn’t know what is happening…
3. Does your understanding of ‘spirit’ help you act more responsibly as a citizen?
Sébastien : Can I also ask a sub-question here? I guess that these questions and concerns make very much sense to you as an individual, with an individual path of thinking, but, because you are also busy with intermediary forms that make your thinking public to others – texts or performances or… In what way is it also important for others?
Elke : I think the whole start of ‘Bureau d’Espoir’ was a reaction to a frustration that I felt very much in the performance scene, with the people I was working with, artistic researchers or artists that I knew… a kind of frustration that anything that would be produced or would be done, was already done or would be recuperated into a system where they didn’t feel they belonged to. So there was actually nothing you could say that would actually make a difference. I think the whole question of hope was about how to find that moment of change or how to see the potential that is still there to be embraced and worked through. And I also found that a lot of people seemed to be the prisoners of a certain discourse at that point, in which it became very unclear what you were still allowed to do. Very self-censoring, an enormous moral authority but that was not really exposing itself clearly to an inner critique. So I think what at that point I wanted to do in a.pass, and what became stronger and stronger, is to think our relationality differently. Not as a censoring or disciplining machine but as an opening up and an acceptance of different ways of living the world… Because okay, what’s the work of the artistic researcher? I think it’s to digest the world and make it come out in another way, so people see something they haven’t seen before. Breaking up conceptions, building new utopias,… When I was still a critic, I wrote this text on the critic as a cloaca: that the material coming in, goes through your body, it can make you sick, exhilarated, and through the same opening you have to shit it out again. But you have to be open to be changed, or even to be rendered sick, which is quite close to the Ayahuasca experience which provokes really violent spasms of vomiting…
Heike : And this also being an alternative to the purely ‘critical’…
Elke : ‘Critical’ in the sense of putting things in categories of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, here I understand you, there I don’t know what you’re saying, here in this place you can say this, in that place you can’t say that… Breaking up this whole kind of pristine categorizations. So I think yes this is important. I don’t think it’s necessarily important to share the literal knowledge that I gain from this process I’m going through now. But sending myself through that process of doing for example the spiritual practices changes my attitude towards how I run my ‘Tender Institute’ a.pass, or how I write, or how I share research practices.
At a certain point it becomes very personal and then that’s not really people’s business, but I do think it kind of evaporates through the different layers of how you construct circles around that first point of personal experience… Also I think it makes me much more ready to be vulnerable, because I want to take the results of my artistic research out to an audience. But I’m also ready for people to say “what the fuck are you doing! That’s not your place!” And then to discuss this.
Sébastien : And let’s maybe go back to the third question proper: does your understanding of spirit help you act more responsibly as a citizen?
Elke : I have a big question there, I think. Because it depends on what you believe produces or does not produce change. For example you could ask yourself if the spiritual life of the monastery if really doing someting for the rest of the world. But then you have to believe that this kind of isolation and this kind of pure working on compassion and love will translate in a change in the world outside of it. And my critical mind says that I don’t reeeally believe that! And then in my case the shaman said “actually you ask to get to the knowledge of the wise man but what you got from the spirits – which is weird because you didn’t ask for it – is this healing power. So your role will be a social one. So you have to use that in a social context.” And I think that is maybe my responsibility as a citizen. However I can on a small scale use the therapeutic value of ‘Bureau d’Espoir’.
Elke Van Campenhout, Sébastien Hendrickx & Heike Langsdorf @ Elke’s place, St. Josse, Brussels, 22-06-2013