When does creativity become heritage? Let's explore

Speech, research workshop Artistic Explorations in cultural memory, Leiden University, Faculty of Creative and Performing Arts; topic Speak memory! Grasping the past, reshaping memory

Objective: “To bridge the gap and a perceived lack of understanding between professionals engaged in contemporary creativity and those working with cultural heritage..“ I think I can work with this. But gap? Maybe there is no gap, beyond the confusion created to justify our jobs.

I prefer Dragan Klaics’ new title. It encapsulates everything as ‘artistic explorations on cultural memory’.

So, when does Creativity become Heritage? Let’s explore:

I have some knowledge of creativity. I created a theatre called Mickery in 1965 and ran the place for 25 years. We presented roughly 800 productions of theatrical adventures from all over the world and ending it with a flourish, ten days bursting with new work, under the title Touch Time. When Mickery was finished I was invited to create a post academic institute for theatre making. I called it DasArts and I ran it for 7 years. After which I started a new life as a visual artist.

And yet --

The other day I visited a seething creative factory for those living in the underbelly of society. It is a 6000 square meters space, proudly carrying the name of “Collateral” and available to  four foundations: Beeldenstorm, Terra, Rzpkt and ISH.(The latter for instance operates with talent from the Philipines, Thailand, Burkina Fasso, South Africa, Maroc, the US and Holland. Average participant age is 21)

The four foundations embrace three operational codes: Identity, History and Networking. The foundations work nationally as well as  internationally while developing new theatrical directions that are very much public oriented. All of this is fathered by Gerard Cornelisse who, in his words, “inspires, networks, makes possible and dreams”.
All people I met welcomed me warmly. Some asked who I was, where I came from, what I did. Thinking the 25 years of theatre making might be good reference, I talked about Mickery and added that I am now a visual artist.
“Mickery? What is that?” I told something of Mickery’s work and heard:  “Man, I wasn’t even born then; but nice meeting you”.

At age 68 am I representing Creativity? Or Heritage?

Herbert Read wrote: "My conclusion is that art in its creative aspects has little concern for democracy or any other political system. It is an unpolitical manifestation of the human spirit, and though politicians may use it or abuse it for their ends, they can neither create it nor control it nor destroy it.

“This, however, does not mean that society can ignore its artists. Indeed my strongest belief is precisely the contrary.

“Art is always the index of social vitality, the moving finger that records the destiny of a civilisation. A wise statesman should keep an anxious eye on this graph, for it is more significant than a decline in exports or a fall in the value of the nation's currency.”

Does that sound interesting but a bit musty? Well, Herbert Read (1893-1968) is long dead and To Hell with Culture from which the quote came, was published in 1963.

But let’s consider for a moment. If Art is, as Mr. Read tells us, an unpolitical manifestation of the human spirit, then what Art does is communicate. It doesn’t communicate politics but it communicates the State of the Human Spirit. And perhaps, looked at from this point of view, Art isn’t able to do it’s job very well just now.

Let’s look at the murder of Theo van Gogh two years ago. His self proclaimed passion was the making of movies, and he made four of them.

He was a virtuoso writer of polemic prose. His often scandalous tone and personal animosities got him involved in a number of public law suits against other writers and public figures. He was  fired as a columnist of a succession of magazines and periodicals, forcing him to seek refuge at his own website, called De Gezonde Roker ("The Healthy Smoker").

Working from a script written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, van Gogh created the 10-minute movie Submission. The movie deals with the topic of violence against women in Islamic societies; telling the stories of four abused Muslim women. After the movie was released in 2004, both van Gogh and Hirsi Ali received death threats. Van Gogh did not take these very seriously and refused any protection – reportedly telling Hirsi Ali: “Who would want to  kill the village idiot?”

Early morning of November 2nd , 2004, I was driving with my wife to the corner of the Oosterpark in Amsterdam when we ran into an abundance of police presence. All entrances of the park were blocked as was the Lineaus straat around the corner. I switched on the radio and bit by bit I got the news.

Mohammed B. shot Theo with eight bullets from a HS 2000, a handgun produced in Croatia, and he died on the spot. Bouyeri slit van Gogh's throat and then stabbed him in the chest. Two knives were left implanted in his torso, one pinning a five-page note to his body. The note threatened Western governments, Jews and Hirshi Ali (who went into hiding).

There was a terryfying amount of desperate, enraged and ugly communication going on here. The human spirit was being communicated with a vengeance. And with violence.

Can art siphon off this violence, to make communication heard across cultural bounderies?  Do the demands of Heritage make it impossible to do this? Or does heritage require that our cultural expression find a way to bridge this gap?

On Tuesday, October 24, the International Herald Tribune ran a story on the inside front page about two fathers.  One is Jewish, the other a Palestinian.  They are both profoundly religious men.
They've also both lost sons to the mutually destructive
conflict which rages in that part of the world.  One year
after their sons died, they jointly addressed a gathering of
Israeli and Palestinian youths.

Their sons had died because the Palestinian's son had
kidnapped the Israeli's son. Israeli commandos staged a rescue raid, in the course of which, both men were killed.

A weekly newspaper in the area spent months to bring
the two fathers together.. When they finally met, they were struck by how alike they were and decided to work together.

For the purpose of addressing the public the Palestinian
father put on the kippah of a religious Zionist; the Jewish
father donned the takiyah of a Muslim sheikh.  And they told those gathered that, "We have no choice but to live together.  We are two people who live in this land; we have each suffered; we have paid the price with our sons. Things must change."

Creativity,  or Heritage?

Aldo Rostagno is a theatre director, a man of many parts, and a frequent guest with his performances at various festivals in Italy. We became friendly and he turned up in Mickery in a series of performances called Even Kijken (Just Looking) in 1980.

Around 1988 Rostagno invited me for the opening of an exhibition called Museo di Musei presented in the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. More than 100 paintings from Fra Angelico to Vermeer were represented. The top of European painterly heritage was present, but the fact of this collection was a dream or a nightmare, take your pick. Every painting was a forgery, a fake, right up to the elaborate golden frames they were presented in.

We discussed how this show might be presented in the Netherlands. An impossible museum, with an impossible collection, would seem a wonderful (theatrical) addition to the thoroughfare of the Rijksmuseum. So I talked with the then director of the Rijksmuseum Beelaerts van Blokland to see whether it could be arranged.

He reacted by telling me that I had gone stark raving mad and that was the end of it as far as Holland was concerned. The show did travel to Japan, and eventually all works were sold. I don’t know whether they were sold up as originals or the fakes they were.

What was it though, Creativity or Heritage?

In the mid seventies the Angels of Light were operational in New York and in San Francisco. If flower power ever had an image this was the one. Glitter galore basing itself on a very thin but utterly endearing story line. The New York Angels lived near La Mama at East 4th St and there were five of them, two boys, twin girls, and their mother. An abundance of costumes were made by the mother and the girls, the boys took care of set pieces decorated in glitter and all colors of the rainbow.

They came for the first time to Mickery in 1973 with “Enchanted Miracle”. A second visit in 1975 gave us Razzmatazz after which the Angels left to be presented at the Nancy World Festival. When they were there, Jack Lang, the Nancy Festival creator and later Minister of Culture of France, organized a photo opportunity on the steps of Nancy’s Grand Hotel for Mitterand to ‘glitter’ with them as he visited the Festival on his election tour.

Some ten years later one of the Angels visited, and offered me a tape made by the founder of both Angel factions in the States, David Weismann. The  tape was made as a fundraiser for Aids. And here it is:

Song of an Angel (3’25”)

We in the West aren’t quite as frantic about Aids as we were back then. Many of us in the West went through a difficult ten years as we lost friends to this disease. But things seem to have calmed somewhat. Now Aids is primarily a problem in Africa and Russia and South East Asia. But not so much here – or so we think.

Is this tape Creativity or Heritage?

And then there is the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles founded by David Wilson. Packed from top to bottom with artifacts, many of which are extensively documented in scientific studies which are published irregularly.
“What the Museum of Jurassic Technology ‘saves’, if you will, is an original imaginative capacity historically formed, in an era of scientific uncertainty,” writes Barbara Kirschenblatt Gimblet. She continues: “As if to say, without the ability to imagine the improbable, we will fail to imagine, let alone recognize the possible. Using the Museum as its medium, to his art practice, Wilson works with the poetics and possibilities of the unknown, the unknowable, the unauthorized, and the purely speculative.”

It’s creativity galore with random objects found around each corner, preciously presented and scientifically documented as our heritage.. But it’s a 100% creative construct. Creativity or Heritage?

In 1985 as part of Mickery’s program I created what in these days is called a montage production. Its title: “Rembrandt & Hitler or Me”. Basically a bricolage of materials and texts, found or made, realized with members of Theatre X from Milwaukee, Mabou Mines New York, and a Japanese performer from London.

What was also made for this production and not used was a 35 mm table-top stop-motion film (video didn’t yet do the trick at the time) in which 63 selfportraits of Rembrandt dissolved from one into the other. Rembrandt in his own version aging from beginning to end.

The original film somehow got lost after we ended  Mickery’s activities with Touch Time. But I had a VHS copy which I kept and carried with me 15 years later when I began a year at PS1/MoMa in Queens, New York to start my career as a visual artist.

September/October of 2000, the first two months in New York, I kept coming back to the tape. It demanded that I work with it. It suddenly hit me that I wanted to see what Rembrandt looked like, not how he painted himself, but how he could be constructed as an image in the middle of a dissolve: at the moment of one picture disappearing while another entered. A portrait not painted by Rembrandt yet created by his vision.

A laboratory made slides of the middle of the dissolves, after which they were scanned and made prints of it. A choice of them are presently adorning the monumental staircase leading to the Rembrandt exhibition here in Stedelijk Museum de Lakenhal next door. Its title: Honestly Stolen from the Experience of a Lifetime.

Heritage embraced as a creative exercise?

And finally there is Michael Thompson’s Rubbish Theory published in 1979. Thompson’s relevant essentials are that first, anything we deal with, things as well as ideas, can be divided into three categories: the Transient, the Durable and Rubbish. And second, that there is a ‘law’ ruling the transition between these categories. Things can change from the Transient to the Rubbish category and from the Rubbish to the Durable, but never directly from Rubbish to the Transient.

There we have Creativity and Heritage, (and all our value systems) on the move and overlapping. Not even a gap, but a traffic jam, with lots and lots of fascinating – and urgent – questions.

Leiden (NL)


Leiden University. Edited by Colleen Scott.