Conditions for a Project

Speech, Conference European League of Institutes for the Arts (ELIA), Rotterdam

When Ben Hurkmans asked me to open today's meeting on ‘Conditions for a Project’ I asked why he thought I should do this.  
He suggested that when discussing management of international projects in arts and education, people tend to look at what is already there and how its presently functioning.  Then they apply what they want to the existing structure, and work within that format.  But that, he told me, is not what you do.

He pointed out that I bypass the existing structures and prevailing political rules and constellations; that I make my plans and then suggest adjustments to the rules as they currently exist to accommodate the plans I make.  At the same time, I incorporate those rules, structures, and constellations into my planning so that my students may see what they are, also as things which must be dealt with as an intrinsic part of creation from their own artistry and
talents.  And, he added, he wanted this story to also be a part of this seminar.

If what Hurkmans says is true, it is an almost impossible story to tell.  The heart of the matter cannot be generalized, or abstracted in a series of guidelines you may carry with you back home again, to your work.  But I will try, and ask you to bear with me as I tell you a very personal story.

Some twenty or thirty years ago I saw a one minute black and white film of a snowy, hilly landscape.  The first lights of dawn shimmered on the horizon.  I could slowly make out the silhouette of a man walking to a shadowy shape. Only when he opened the door of this shape could I see that it was a car.
The car starts, the headlights blaze, and he drives away. There follow several shots of the car being decisively driven through an expanse of snow; there are no roads to be seen.  He arrives at a shed, the lights are extinguished, the shed is opened.  Silence for a moment, followed by the roar of a huge engine as a great light cuts through the darkness and a monstrous snowplough moves out of the shed toward the camera. Accompanying this is a nonchalant, laconic voice over: "Have you ever wondered how the driver of the snowplough gets to the snowplough?"  The Volkswagen emblem appears on the screen, just as everything fades to black.

What makes this commercial work is its overwhelming simplicity.  One single modern human dilemma is posed, and then answered in the clearest and most self-evident way possible.

This is not unlike what I have tried to do with the school I was commissioned to design, called DasArts.  My problem was how to create a post academic program for student artists.

And, of course there were several years of political debate on the subject, but I ignored all that: both the fact of debate, and its ostensible results.

Instead, I tried to determine, against my own background and understanding, what would be the best possible post-academic education I could invent.

Doing this was an intensely personal process.  Two seemingly unrelated elements were central to my beginning.  One was a immense pair of late twenties standing candelabra of the Amsterdam School which are perhaps -- at least at first sight -- more suited to a church than to an office; and yet they clearly communicate celebration, tradition, belief, and craftsmanship.

The other was a logo, the representation of a person juggling with the rungs of the ladder he climbs, comfortable in a supposedly impossible situation as he tosses and catches the styles with which he has worked.  To me, this communicated the idea of a program that focused on the individual, a focus expressed in a multi-disciplinary fashion.

With these elements as the backdrop, I worked forward with the assumption that we did not need more of the same, but that we must search out any and all elements which could be fruitfully applied given the basic circumstances, facilities, and funds.

I also assumed that whatever our budget would be, that the budget would have no correlation to any plan devised.  First we had to create the foundations for a school, the hows, whys and whats of it.  The foundations would then have to be adjusted to whatever the budget turned out to be, while the inevitable modifications were carried out with a minimum of compromise, and a strict eye to preserving those elements which were judged essential.

In other words, I had to forget what the budget might be, and concentrate on what the program should become.  I knew I would never get the budget I wanted: that was clear.  But more important was that I knew -- and clearly -- what the foundations of the school and the intentions of the program would be.

That was the paperwork, after which we had to find the students.  Rather than following a projection of what an ‘ideal’ student would be, we had to discover who was actually out there, what they wanted, and what they needed.

So we had a living and breathing foundation, and from that was built a structure; then we selected students, and from there we worked with those students in two experimental blocks, or terms.

These blocks occur twice a year, with a fixed focus of ten weeks per block; and as I say, there have been two of them thus far.  They have happened on the basis of our previously planned foundations, and onto these we have added the assumed and observed characteristics of the students, plus aspects of what both students and tutors have told us in an ongoing effort to create a climate of learning, experiencing, and doing which was and is exciting and inspiring to all participants.  Another major goal in this effort was to see the establishment of intense mutual dialogue and exchange between students, between tutors, and between students and tutors.

What this comes down to is that after determining that a thing is worthwhile, and that there is good and strong reason to do it, then we must believe in that thing.  The belief is the most critical element, but it comes after knowing that what you wish to do is really needed.  Very simple; very difficult.

We tend to presume that what we believe in is also what is needed, and it is here where we run the danger of loosing sight of the essential simplicity in what we do.

Really knowing what is needed can only come out of intense investigation, research, analysis and finally understanding of what is going on around you.  In doing this, you will be continually challenged by the fact that what we think and decide on the basis of investigation and research can have more to do with our perceived needs than they do with what is really needed by those people whom we wish to serve.
After all, when you run a school, you are not serving yourself: you are serving your students, and through them your society and your culture.  This challenge will be ever-present as you are confronted with complex choices about the kinds of development you will support in your students.  We cannot ever do everything; we are never all that we may be capable of being; and, in the end, we must always make choices, even if in making a choice you must regretfully bypass elements you also know to be good.

Much of who I am and what I know about theatre was determined by Mickery, an organization I started in 1965 to organize, produce, and make theatre.  When I began I had nothing but eager curiosity to sustain my efforts.  Guided by the simplistic determination that I liked something, or I didn’t, my theatrical diet was adjusted -- step by step -- over twenty-five years.  On one hand, this was a voyage into the unknown; on the other it was a determined sharing of the excitement expressed in the craft of those I principally considered friends.  This included both theatre makers and a public, brought together in shared debate over what was good, brilliant, an utter failure in spite of good attempts, or was minimally food for thought with further work needed.

Twenty-five years and some 800 productions of what was then known as the international avant garde either nearly, or literally killed me sometimes, but it also kept me very much alive, and wanting to know more.

This, plus a continuing hungry and urgent curiosity makes up a large measure of my knowledge of education.  I have always wanted something I didn't yet know, and couldn't expect to know ahead of time.  Does an intense and active interest stimulate a student?  I hope so: that's what I have to offer them.

With my experience of Mickery I learned the rule of simplicity I mentioned earlier.  I also learned the existence of the whole intricate nightmare of rules and regulations that determine the functioning of our society.  I came to learn then, and would like to continue in my belief that these rules and regulations can be applied, circumvented, or even be made to adjust themselves to our aims and goals, no matter how stumblingly those aims and goals may be vocalized.  They need not be experienced as only a handicap.

Mickery finally had to end, because I made three discoveries.
First, that whatever Mickery had done, whatever had provided adventure and surprise, had become institutionalized.  We had been sucked into another system that represented -- and will always represent -- a society that develops in its own miraculous ways, but whose strictures did not have anything to do with why Mickery (for example) had been created in the first place.

Second, twenty-five years creates a lot of baggage.  These times dictate amnesia through an overload of information, which made it increasingly and paradoxically impossible to escape old images which were no longer the images with which we wished to work.

And third, Mickery, even as an institution, could no longer exist without European co-production which, even under the best of circumstances, and the best of artistic and ideological co-producers and co-presenters, only generalized the choices possible, rather than allowing the extremes. Whereas the extremes were, at least for Mickery, the only things to keep it alive artistically.

These three discoveries, in addition to being major factors in the decision to close Mickery, have a great deal to do with the simplicity.  They certainly guide my thinking about DasArts.  
And, this brings us to questions of the theatrical situation in general.

Thinking of how often we refer to the theatrical activity in place as the theatrical landscape, I recently read a new book by Simon Schama, ‘Landscape and Memory’.  In the introduction Schama writes, "...if the entire history of landscape in the West is just a mindless race toward a machine-driven universe, uncomplicated by myth, metaphor, and allegory, where measurement, not memory, is the absolute arbitrator of value, where our ingenuity is our tragedy, then we are indeed trapped in the engine of our self destruction."

There is a growing awareness among theatre makers and theater lovers that The Theatre might be in trouble.  It increasingly seems that measurement, not memory, is the absolute arbitrator of value.  In his ‘Intimate History of Humanity’ Theodore Zeldin points out that the consumer society serves as a giant tranquilliser for raw nerves; and we, in the meantime, can see the arts snuggling up to that definition and reality.

Zeldin writes, "Mentalities cannot be changed by decree, because they are based on memories which are almost impossible to kill.  But it is possible to expand one's memories by expanding one's horizons, and when that happens, there is less chance that one will go on playing the same old tunes forever, and repeating the same old mistakes."

So the question becomes whether we are creating educational systems which point the way to expanding memories, not only in our students, but also in the work our students will create.

However much as we might like to use it this way, a consumer society cannot, finally, cater for either raw nerves, or real expansion in the arts.  A theatre, for instance, which attempts to function by smoothly reassuring its public that it may stay where and as it is, is, in my terms, a failure.

When we try to educate with reassurance in mind, we participate in the creation of a disposable society: selfsatisfied, self-obsessed, smug, overloaded with prejudice: the attitude of the supermarket.  If the public buys into something imperfect, it may simply go back and try something else, and better luck next time.  This type of consumer wants only the best there is, within a very limited idea of what `best' can be.  Within such education, we imprint an expectation that if today's results are unsatisfactory, tomorrow's will be `better' -- never mind how they might be
made better, or what might be made better about those original
expectations themselves.

Schama suggests that the strength of what we should be about is often hidden beneath layers of the commonplace.  To unearth that strength, we need to excavate beneath the conventional levels of our landscape, and discover the areas where our memory has the opportunity of serving us well.

In other words, we must look beyond the obvious.  As Erich Fromm points out, what is easy or simple, or what we want or desire, is not necessarily good for us, or the right thing to do.  And how can we help our students to understand and work with this in a world which largely does not want to know?

Schama’s book has been hailed as extraordinary on one hand, and on the other has been termed an academic disaster.  Some critics have lauded it as inspiring and exciting for its choice of materials, its approach, its (ostensibly) haphazard, intuitive, and associative thinking and argumentation.  Others suggest that his approach is "not done", not scientific, not academic, and breaks too many rules.  Although some readers have found this book stimulating, motivating, life-enhancing and creative, others have dismissed it as unworthy on technical grounds alone, not perceiving profound depths which have nothing to do with accepted academic technique.

It may be obvious that I loved this book.  Not only for what it is, but also in how the varied criticism of it calls to mind the fact that DasArts is heavily criticised, not only for what it does not do, but also for what it has no intention of doing.  Such critics fail to see what DasArts intends to develop, and is discovering in its evolution.

And here is another paradox.  The present day market – for anything, really -- insists upon a selling job.  Unless presented as a clearly, quickly, and easily understandable product, the thing with which you work -- a school, for instance -- can not, and will not be recognised for what it is.  But, to survive, what you do must also be definable in terms of what is known, although what is known may have little to do with that for which you strive.

It is no small task to find a balance between these two opposing poles, but its terribly important to find this balance.  What we are called to do is urgently necessary.

Oliviero Toscani, the creator of the public visions of Bennetton, suggests that the arts have lost it.  He says, "In this world nothing shocks or creates controversy in art, painting, or sculpture.  Even the cinema doesn't create controversy like it used to.
Theatre is finished.  The avantgarde doesn’t create theatre now.  No, what creates controversy in this open-minded society is the voice of consumers and capitalists.  And that voice is advertising."

Toscani knows that communication, and how you communicate, is as important a product as the product itself.  He says, "I try to make advertising create life, and not just consume it."

We could do worse than hear what Toscani is saying, although arts education will be hard put to equal Toscani’s breathless audacity.  But if we seriously wish to create life, rather than only consume it, then we must discover -- not how we can equal this audacity, but how we can exceed it.  And we must do this, even as we create a balance between doing what is unknown and unexpected, and our attempts to present what we do as something familiar and understandable.

As we consider what that might mean for us individually, I will share with you something written more than ten years ago by the late Joost Sternheim, theatre critic, dramaturge, and at that point the artistic director of the Nes Theatres. "What I've seen this season in Dutch theatre ... shows the absolute incapacity to love each other in any purposeful or productive way.  There are still feelings, needs, a sense of relation, but they lead to nothing.  The form or perspective for a relationship is totally absent.  No person trusts the other, trusts even that which he lusts after, stands for his own culture or beliefs.  People busy themselves playing with warmth, cheerfulness, and they attempt to be funny, but all have a razor blade between their teeth."

About ten years later -- and two month's ago, at a DasArts lecture series entitled `Moment of Truth' -- Sternheim's thoughts were echoed by George Lawson, the head of the division of performing arts and deputy head of the directorate of the arts at the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science.  Lawson told us that, "What I see now is that the commercial and amusing part of the performing arts are more and more the image of the performing arts as a while.  In theatres there is less compassion or willingness to take risks, and also less possibility of doing so.  But we know that for more difficult art forms you have to invest with patience before you get results."

And yet, not a week later, I heard his boss, the Secretary of State for Arts and Education say, "To let talent ripen a bit in school is getting too expensive."

In his lecture Lawson suggested that, “In the past, theatres were built for cultural functions, and if you listened to how cities talk about their theatres, they talk about the list of functions it performs.  Its called city marketing: the thing has to function, although the underlying reasons for a theatre's presence remain unclear.  No one is saying, ‘We want culture, but it is very complicated’.”

I would add that the people of whom Lawson speaks seem not to know what is needed.  Instead they know what they think they should want, remaining ignorant of how they might reach a belief, much less the practical necessities to support that belief.

This does not seem to be the case for Toscani's boss, Luciano Benetton, who will soon see the opening of his new school for the arts operating from a campus designed by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando, and which will be directed by Godfrey Reggio, the maker of the film Koyaanisquatsi.

I met with Reggio in Amsterdam, and answered questions about what DasArts was up to, interspersed with new-speak responses about his plans, shot out with the speed of a bullet train. He tells me that he envisions a global institute that will follow "an anthropological shift" and establish a curriculum which will provide "a context for a post virtual world", where "power would not be an inhibitor", and where "projects of authorship would be created."

The projects in this school are planned to "strategically embrace vital forms" that would "cause trouble, raise doubt, add some other voice" possibly following routes that would entail "deliberate creation of false evidence".  A sense of megalomania would be welcome, as would those who were "possessed by their voice; people who manifest themselves by questioning the real" and who generally live their lives "with this kind of seriousness".

The pressure on Reggio, on this school and, eventually, on the students themselves is immense, will be immense, and will only grow.  The money and the facilities available on that Italian campus will be vast; but, so too, will be the problems, tensions, urgencies and strains.  These only increase in proportion to the money made available, and having still more money, or improved facilities, or greater talent in the students and teachers at your disposal will never make it easier for you to do what is good, or right, or needed.  These basic dilemmas and questions will always remain.
There are many things that can be said and speculated about the Benetton school.  I can suggest that it will be a killing zone where only the very best students (and teachers) from what is already a world-wide selection of the best will survive.  I can also point out that, for all the excitement surrounding the plans I've heard so far, and even with the creation of a unique and surely gorgeous environment for learning, this establishment will also copy the worst of its time, firmly closing out any worthwhile artistic expression which has not embraced the market, or can not -- at least not as yet -- fit into the market.

None of which, I hasten to add, implies that the Bennetton school ought not to exist.  The students of this school will have a chance to survive so long as its present director remembers the meaning of Koyaanisquatsi, a Hopi Indian word that translates as ‘life out of balance; a state of life that calls for another way of living’.

In the meantime, the planned existence of this school certainly sheds a bitter light on the seemingly innocent remark that "letting talent ripen a bit in school is getting too expensive".

More money, more time, and better facilities do not erase or even ease the essential dilemma of discovering what is truly needed, or make it easier to act on knowledge of true need in good or right ways.  Neither will they make that crucial belief, the needed conviction, easier to either develop or maintain.  But being asked to fulfil Bennetton's requirements without his money is little more than democracy in a dump.

The present education system in the Netherlands, and the funding that goes into it, is under heavy constraints.  In a recent European assessment of the money spent on research and development of educational systems or investment in education itself, the Netherlands was rated on a par with Zimbabwe.  I don't really know what this means, nor do I care to find out.

Neither does it help to know that the German city of Frankfurt has a budget for culture that is equal to the total Dutch budget for culture; or that in the United States cultural institutions can only look to the government for subsidy in amounts anywhere from zero to thirty percent of their total budgets, as opposed to up to 85% subsidy for performing arts institutions in the Netherlands.

These facts do constitute `Conditions for a Project', but they are all red herrings.  None of us are ever going to have the budgets we want, or even the budgets we need, to do what must be done.  Even the most astounding budget will not make any difference if we do not know what is truly needed, what must be done, and thoroughly believe in what we are doing.

Obviously in the two years of DasArts' existence we have had confrontations with our environment, with the rules, regulations and structures which are in position.  I know that rules, regulations and Ministerial bodies will always be needed for society to function, but this does not change the fact that once you know what is needed, and if you truly believe in what you are doing, that those rules and regulations must sometimes be ignored, bypassed or adapted. This struggle is also a part of what we teach, and not only in terms of the practicality of letting students know how the world works today.

We, in the meantime, have a responsibility to our students, and through those students, to our societies and our cultures. We execute these responsibilities by striving for clarity and simplicity in our goals, by continually evaluating that which we do, by constantly questioning what are the needs that require our attention and effort, and by developing a real conviction about that which we do.

I'd like to close with another quote from Schama's ‘Landscape and Memory’.  He says, "None of this means that when we, too, set off on the trail of ‘social memory’ we will inevitably end up in places where, in a century of horror, we would rather not go, places that represent a reinforcement of, rather than an escape from, public tragedy.  But acknowledging the ambiguous legacy of nature myths does at least require us to recognize that landscapes will not always be simple ‘places of delight’ -- scenery as sedative, topography so arranged to feast the eye.  For those eyes, as we will discover, are seldom clarified of the promptings of memory.  And the memories are not all of pastoral picnics."

Thank you.

Rotterdam (NL)