Academy, or ideological traffic jam? Your choice

Text for a trial academy, initiated by Hanna Hurtzig, Bochum

I wonder if you have any idea what you're getting yourselves into this month? What you've committed yourselves to?

Had this been a closing speech we might have listed experiences shared, performative responses created, communications established, and new understandings sown like seeds that may -- or may not -- bear fruit in the time that follows. In the planning for this academy there's even a motto suggesting that if you are feeling in control, you're not driving fast enough. Forget control. Forget fast. What I see at this moment is a vast ideological traffic jam which requires untangling, rather than further creation.

This academy states that theatre is a space for memory. This obviously implies that whoever makes theatre has the faculty of memory intact, which should include a clear perception of history and where that has gotten us. At which point we may address with the entire force of our creativity the here and now. Inescapably you will run into looking at what ever you think you believe you possess in terms of desire, and ability. This Academy suggests there is a gap between desire and ability as wide as the Mississippi. But then, is the gap between desire and ability referring to the 'ability to remember clearly', or does it refer to 'the ability to do'? That is, does it refer to your individual ability -- or lack thereof -- to communicate whatever it is you feel must be communicated? But also: is it the theatre itself which is important, or is it the ideas and realities theatre can express which are of the most profound importance? The latter, obviously -- or at least obvious to me, but... how real is real? After all, in theatre we make a deal with the audience: Shakespeare has us suggest a battle field when what's really up there is a bare stage.

I come from a country that functioned for 5 weeks without a government. The Economist Magazine wrote: "[it is] a testimony to the extraordinarily cosy consensus in Dutch politics that the fall of the government in The Hague hasn't sent a ripple through the financial markets, has elicited scarcely any excitement among political onlookers outside the Netherlands, and has caused notably little loss of sleep among the Dutch themselves." Whatever this says about our democracy and its politics -- it happened, it was a freak show, the rift was quickly glued back together -- it must also have something to say about the all pervasive smugness in the Netherlands. One may well wonder what it does to Dutch artists when all creativity must be invented in an environment so neatly arranged that it is literally breathtaking.

Or, as the '87 Nobel Laureate for literature Joseph Brodsky describes democracy without enlightenment as: "at best a well policed jungle with one designated great poet in it for its Tarzan." But for Brodsky's remark, many nations in the world might wish for such a situation, but the creative predicament is real: how to summon the energy, find the challenge, the anger, the idea, or simply the acute and critical feeling to create, to determine what must be communicated in a situation that's so cosy?

In 1965 I founded Mickery which ran, mostly in Amsterdam, a theatre-, presentation-, and producing organization until 1991, when I decided it's day had passed, and it must stop. So I blew Mickery up with a festival called Touch Time. But throughout Mickery's existence it presented or produced the avantgarde of its time, literally from all over the world... from more than twice as many nations as are represented here today. Over the last five years I've developed a post-graduate institute called DasArts, a study program, a school... an academy for theatre -- the only one in Holland -- which also operates in Amsterdam. Of our multidisciplinary and international students we demand that they take responsibility for what the theatre of tomorrow might be. We confront them with specialists, not only -- or even primarily -- in the arts, and stimulate their performative responses to these challenges. It is perhaps no accident that the academy of the Ruhr has some similarities to DasArts, as Hannah Hurtzig has been a valued mentor for one of the DasArts blocks. But at DasArts the execution of these confrontations last for three months, twelve participants each block, twice a year. While here you are faced with cramming it all into one month all 112 of you; hence my reference to a traffic jam.

To return to Mr. Brodsky, he advises us to never choose to be a victim, to never be a victim. His words may help you keep sane in the coming month of madness, when he says: "No matter how abominable your condition may be, try not to blame anything or anybody: history, the state, superiors, race, parents, the phase of the moon, childhood, toilet training, what have you. The menu is vast and tedious, and this vastness and tedium alone should be offensive enough to set one's intelligence against choosing from it. The moment you place blame somewhere, you undermine your resolve to change anything..." He continues: "Whenever you are in trouble, in some scrape, on the verge of despair, remember: that's life speaking to you in the only language it knows well. In other words, try to be a little masochistic: without a touch of masochism, the meaning of life is not complete. If this is of any help, try to remember that human dignity is an absolute, and not a piecemeal notion."

Autumn last year, when a final round of selection took place for potential new students at DasArts, there was an influx of South African artists who had applied for the program we'd organized for the first half of this year. It's theme: Storytelling and Reconciliation. To a large degree this theme was inspired by work done by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. In my meetings with these potential students I was confronted with an abundance of intelligence, energetic needs, wisdom and insight. Seeing who these seven people were, learning where they might be going, and why was a humbling experience. These were persons who cared, who had the experience which made them care, deeply, acutely, desperately. I heard myself saying, not once, but several times: "I'm really at a loss to say what our program has to offer you. From where I sit, I look at you in awe and leave it to you to suggest why and when you should be a part of our school." As an afterthought, as if this explained anything, I mused: "Maybe the memory of our war has almost dissolved, we live in a world that's spoiled rotten; we don't even realize how comfortably off we are."

Two of the seven arrived for the first block this year (several others are coming for later blocks). Shortly after they arrived they joined the rest of the students of the block to look at video tapes of the South African TRC hearings and listen to Colleen Scott lecturing on the pains their country had endured. In one of her lectures she told the students that, "Lack of attention to the fruits of history and their relationship to individual and group motivation causes terrible problems." She quoted the Chilean, Jose Zalaquett, who said, "Memory is identity. Identities consisting of false or half memories easily commit atrocities.", and went on to tell the students that, "History is a chain of human action and reaction. The present -- and the future -- are constructed in the past. But no matter how hard we may try, what we can know about what has happened before -- the history to which we react -- is inescapably formed by what we are able to perceive. It's quite easy to say that there's no such thing as truth. It's much harder to admit that we all have limits of perception; that we all have false and incomplete memories." To which I would add, within this construct we can also easily choose to be, and remain, victims. After two days of her lectures and tapes one of the Dutch students burst out, "I can't take any more of these horrors. It's all good and well for you two (referring to the two women from South Africa), you've come from right in the middle of it all." I don't think this Dutch student had even a glimmer of the meaning of what she had said. But one thing was clear: she refused strength, she refused endurance, and by definition, she cast herself as a victim.

But then, neither had I been very precise when I suggested to the South African students, in however much of an undertone, that maybe the memory of our war, of World War II, had dissolved, and -- by inference -- that we needed to feel our own war as... what? a source of energy? of inspiration? I meant something on the order of how we'd become victim to just how nicely arranged our lives had become... The remark that was meant as an accolade to the South African artists, came back to haunt me. Not as if we needed 'our war' in Kosovo to start feeling again. No, what haunted me about that remark was that finally, the only thing that counts for us, as artists, is how we express who we are and take the consequences of that, never mind the current state of war, oppression, memory or ongoing reality of either... or even of peace.

A few months later Carolyn Nordstrom provided me with a crucial insight. In her book, 'A Different Kind of War Story' about the hideous war, and finally -- more than ten years later -- the peace built in Mozambique she wrote, "It is interesting that questions of identity often arise, as Cornell West has observed, in the face of terror (warfare) and cruelty. It is perhaps here that people meet the most significant challenges to their sense of self and humanity.... Self culture and reality are regenerative. If people are defined by the world they inhabit, and the world is socially and culturally constructed by the people who consider themselves part of it, people ultimately control the production of reality and their place in it. They produce themselves... They create themselves in resistance... The dilemma is clear: between the world as it was, the world as it should be, and now of a world destroyed lies an abyss, a discontinuity, a need to define the one by the other, and the impossibility of doing so. Identity hinges on bridging this gap... What happens when very little of social and cultural relevance is left intact? Worlds cannot simply be created, they must be created anew."

For many of you, what Nordstrom is saying may feel worlds away... it may even seem too abstract and not personally relevant. But this is literally close to us all, as it refers to the vital matter of creating anew a world that would seem to have exploded in your face.

In hindsight, digging into my own past, there have been moments when I had to express intangibles during crisis. Theatre became an instrument to address pain and confusion; theatre was a beautiful container which worked in an attempt to put things on track once more. An example I've offered is 'Rembrandt and Hitler or Me'. My war seemed quite literally far away as I was seven years old when the second world war ended. But that wasn't the point. My war was the divorce of my parents which occurred shortly after the war ended, and somehow I'd always felt that must be of secondary importance to the real one, which in a personalized sense, of course it wasn't. A lot of things were happening in that period I made the project. It was 1985, and both of my parents were very ill, and I was armed with a beeper as I drove from one intensive care unit to the next. Many other realities were being put to the test. And for someone who functions almost entirely intuitively, rather than along a logically defined matrix, the added factors of the fake Hitler diaries, the ongoing research into real and fake Rembrandts, a book by Gary Schwartz about Rembrandt's life which -- never mind the greatness of his paintings -- demonstrated just what a bastard the man had been, and the published analysis of Alice Miller, a Swiss psychiatrist, who suggested that much of Hitler's behaviour could be explained by examining his childhood... all this merged and became a mass of material I had to personally make sense of. I did that in the only way I knew, by making theatre of it... and by making damn sure the experience could be shared and understood. Thus 'Rembrandt and Hitler' became a journey which provided new insights for the redefinition of a future, yet, meanwhile there was enough material there -- in the most personal sense -- to find myself a complete, if self-proclaimed, victim of circumstance. But the point of this exercise was that you can find the divide between feeling that you're a victim, and wallowing in that feeling, or feeling that you're a victim... and rejecting the designation. This can happen even when you're looking at a situation that seems too painful to cope with, when there's no role left to you but be witness to it, until, and when, you may get to the point of being able to express your personal position toward it, rather than becoming trapped in the sense that you should have been able to do something... but you just couldn't see WHAT. Sometimes there is no solution, at least none for you, not at that time.

But I assume that there is a creative source, and a reasonable sense of self -- a sense of self that also maintains it's relative importance in the world -- that will become a new source of energy which informs the need to express, the need -- the REQUIREMENT -- of finding a way and the means to communicate. You can work with this, rather than prolonging the sense of paralysis which is a sure sign of feeling oneself to be a victim of circumstance. All you must do is build the world anew. The creative person will find ways to express this through her or his craft in such a way that it will also deliver the meaning of events beyond the pain of them.

It is the task of anybody busy in the arts to define his or her own position at any given moment in relationship to her or his direct environment or society in general. This is not only the task of obviously creative souls in the face of crisis, a shift in regional politics, a war, what have you. Either you are aware of the fact that on a daily basis you must define what it is you must urgently say, and to whom you must say it, or you're lost. Memory is important, and you must know what really happened in the past as clearly as you're able, but the moment you are caught up in the past, the necessity of a future may well disappear.

I'm not talking personal therapy here. We can widen the circle a bit.

I offer you a description of a whole world presented for re-creation by its public, as devised by five members of the last DasArts block. What was going on in Kosovo and Serbia was brought home to us in Holland by a many-layered manipulation of the public present for the performative response of five students: three from Holland, one from Australia, and another from South Africa. They gave us the material to construct a whole world...

We were all given a numbered receipt, and walked to one of the studios. In the darkened studio we were confronted by five huge shelves filled with miscellaneous objects, and five grey-coated people, all wearing glasses, patiently and in their own good time serving us. We received a series of exciting, mysterious, or funny objects in exchange for our receipts: a decrepit easy chair, a globe, overcoats, underpants, little Chinese objects, a bundle of letters etc. And suddenly we were all filled with childlike cheer, comparing who got what, some people offering to trade goods with others... With the object we each also received headphones, with instructions as to their use to follow. We trickled out of the studio carrying our new found possessions, and were led, roundabout, to the next space an empty parking lot. Not quite there we passed two huge lampposts with old amplifiers hung from them; once we entered the area we heard a woman reading a letter sent from Belgrade which described the perils and predicaments of living while NATO bombed the hell out of the area. Meanwhile slowly overlaying groundplans of a house where drawn on the concrete. And we were told of the history of the house: how it had been built, how rooms were added over time, how it had been destroyed and built again. We were then asked to put on the headphones, and while the letter from Belgrade continued to be read in the background we were being told to enter the building, to respect the walls, use the doors, and gather in one of the side rooms. There were sixty of us in the audience, and only then did we discover that we were divided up into groups, each group receiving different instructions and different stories, each group being moved through the non existent building by an unseen hand, each directed on different wave lengths. Each group was also hearing very personal stories of the student's lives. Some of the stories were imagined, and some were real, but all of them told us of joy and pain, suffering, loneliness and celebration. Thus each of us in the audience was offered the gift of one of five stories. Some finished sooner than others, and those who finished sooner took off their headphones and, carefully picking their way through the ground plan of the house, moved to hear the end of another story, trying to get close to another story teller to hear at least the ending of it. But with the headphones off, the Belgrade letter moved into the foreground again and it was difficult to hear anything else. Slowly everyone converged in a large central room of the house, where the grey-coated figures brought in an old refrigerator. It was opened to reveal champagne glasses and bottles. The bottles were opened, the champagne was poured, and soothing music played now. There was a moment when none moved, none came forward, somehow champagne was too painful to consider, but slowly we took our glasses, still hesitating, and when everyone had been served the grey coats suggested we make a toast, any toast that was our own, and turned slowly walking away, disappearing around a bend.

These students could have become victims of the subject matter of this block, victims of their personal preoccupations with that subject matter (and they really had to fight to come to this communal interpretation). Instead they imagined a next step, their own step, within the context of a wider interpretation of the world they could see, not singularly but the five of them.

Not only Joseph Brodsky, but also the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk notes the seductive forces of victimhood. Sloterdijk tells us that a basic theme of modern philosophy is dealing with the fact that nothing is any longer determined. He writes: "That (it is) a vital moral-philosophical theme, wherein everyone feels like a victim. Nobody wants to be an entrepreneur any longer, nobody wants to carry any responsibility. Responsibility is rated lower and lower, whereas victimhood is rated higher and higher. It's a trend that's very dangerous for our society. This victimological model for thinking has become the most important form of resentment." He continues: "Of course it must be said that there are indeed people to whom wrong is done, and who obviously may or must take action against this wrong. But that's not the point. Victimology, the seduction of feeling that one is a victim, can be seen everywhere you look, and has become an extremely potent moral force."

I'll offer you four more quotes. They are prime examples which show the seductions of victimhood that Sloterdijk is speaking of before I'll try summing up a world in which desire and ability may be joined, rather than be left with a gap 'as wide as the river Mississippi'.

"The point is tragedy, that's what story telling is about," says Jens Hillje, one of the four new leaders of a rejuvenated Schaub├╝hne in Berlin. In Orwell's '1984', Winston Smith tells us that "Tragedy belonged to ancient time, to a time when there was still privacy, love, friendship, and when members of a family stood by one another without needing to know the reason." Hillje tells us that, "Until the 90's we've desperately held to an intellectual stance and thinking that declares the end of history." Francis Fukuyama, the American who wrote a book about how the fall of the Berlin wall heralded the supposed end of history, has since written that, "The problem with a culture of individualism is that it ends up being bereft of community. A community is not formed every time people happen to interact with one another; true communities are bound together by the values, norms, and experiences their members share."

And, here you are. Not a community yet, but you'd better work on it.

As I suggested at the beginning, had this been a closing speech we might have listed experiences shared, performative responses created, communications established, and new understandings built to the point that they would begin to grow. Now I can only hope that I've offered you some reasons to either enlarge your understanding or show how to be very... no, EXTREMELY careful when you determine what it is you have understood. I hope I've begun to make a case for the fact that you must have maximum patience with your co-collaborators. (And, I must add that you cannot talk to people from 33 different countries at the same time very effectively.)

The limitation of a month is a disaster. It's too short. Particularly it's too short because it suggests that you might 'get it' in this period. You won't. You'll only begin to see a place to start by the end of this month, and that is already a very great deal to have. All this presupposes that you are able and willing to stand on your toes, and reach for more... also after you leave Bochum. At this point, the success of this thing can only be measured by its statistics, which are a pretty impressive place to begin. Aside from how many of you are here, and the number of places you come from, this place is the first step towards an international educational miracle. An academy like Bochum is not generally what subsidy is applied for... nor is it the sort of thing which receives it. And here it is: an opportunity, in a fearfully compressed period, to add to your knowledge, to awaken creative reactions, to communicate with friends -- and foes -- you've never before met. And, believe me, the entire experience will ask the maximum of personal attention and flexibility from each of you individually. If nothing else, and well before you really get to the point of this Academy, you will become inescapably aware of your own personal baggage, your preconceptions, and the degree of brainwashing you've never before thought to question.

But you're safe for the moment, here in Bochum. As depicted in the academy's brochure you're surrounded by sound-protective walls. You're in your own little village, a community to be. You're linked up with more than a hundred other exciting talents, and the teaching staff to go with it. (Not to mention the Academy staff: never underestimate how much effort and care is going on behind the scenes to make a thing like this function.)

And after this compressed period of experience, impressions, ideas, and counter ideas, you may realize that there's nothing wrong with a process of gestation, in which you figure out what it is that makes you YOU, and how to translate all that in your personal environment and culture. In the meantime, you should be continually asking yourself why what you want to communicate should be of interest to anyone else for more than a minute.

If, finally, you execute this faithfully, against all odds you will be proving what can be accomplished in a mere month. Which will lead to future Academies. Until the Academy of the Ruhr, and others like it, will become inevitable. And unstoppable. Your choice.

Bochum (D)


Edited by Colleen Scott