My skin is still too much a limit
Liesbeth Groot Nibbelink in conversation with director Lotte van den Berg.
About Agoraphobia, the necessity of speaking and the desire to break skin.
Where and when did this project start for you?
An important reason was the March of Civilization that we organized last year, to protest against the cuts in culture, care and education. I was very impressed by what happened. You saw that a lot of energy was created because we were working together. More and more people joined, people who felt ‘ho, something is happening here’ and started acting. You saw it growing, and everyone enjoyed it immensely. In a week’s time, with totally different people, and people that you thought you would never cooperate with, you suddenly are meeting each other. I thought that was incredibly beautiful and very inspiring.
At the same time, I must also state that it has not been possible to really get the protest off the ground, and to make it widely supported. During the preparations for the March, we have had many discussions, about whether that protest should only be about cuts in art, or whether the protest should cover a much wider area. For art alone, you can not go out on the street, in my opinion. I think you should also speak on behalf of the society you are part of. This is a much bigger story: it is also about health care and education. You should actually speak about the base in which you exist, about the tone with which things are spoken, about the attention and care that is or is not there. We then invited student associations, the GGZ, the fire brigade, all people who also wanted to protest. But it soon became clear that it would not work to make the protest more broadly supported. Often we got the answer: we are not going to bother about your protest, we don’t want to give away our own power. As if you wanted to abuse each other’s voice. The firefighters were not allowed to join in by their union… I thought that was pretty intense to notice. After the March, an attempt was made to set up a Square of Civilization in Amsterdam North, together with other organizations, we tried to involve others, to really make it bigger. But it just did not work.
I actually wanted to make another performance in 2012, but I have thrown those plans overboard and created a carte blanche for myself, to be able to respond to the questions that I have asked, to the energy that came free.
Shortly thereafter I was once at a failed demonstration on the Dam, where no one showed up; I saw Occupy bleeding to death, and I wondered: what is that, do we have agoraphobia? That failed protest is directly related to this question for me: do we have a kind of national agoraphobia, fear of all standing on that square?
Fear of forming a society?
Fear to speak to each other, to engage in conversation with each other, to ask the important questions face to face in public. At the same time you feel that there is a desire for that fear – the desire to speak out, to move closer to each other, to re-shape society with each other. I started thinking about these two counter-movements, and then suddenly I had that image in my head of a man who is focused on himself and talks to himself, and the audience that listens to it: first through the individual privacy of his own telephone, also introverted and focused on himself, but finally listening directly to the man himself, in the square. With which there is a development of self-centered, at a distance from each other, to a greater joint involvement, in which a group forms, in the middle of that square.
What also played a part in thinking about this performance is that I myself had the desire to pronounce myself, but I found that I did not do it either. I think it’s a good idea to use the space that I still have as a theater-maker: it has to be spoken. That’s nice too, I have not done that for 10 years, or longer, in my work.
It is necessary to speak – this sentence is indeed given extra weight when you consider that your work usually does not speak.
I have often tried to use words. At Braakland, for example, I started rehearsals with a microphone in the middle of the meadow, from the idea: there is nothing and there is a microphone, and there are people who want to talk, but they don’t. Eventually that microphone disappeared, and also the attempt to speak. But that image of the microphone in the middle of the plain and the desire to speak but do not know how, that has been with me for a long time.
Words are also used in Les Spectateurs, but that has become a Dadaistic sound game; although one tries to say something in one way or another. Anyway, now I thought: there must be spoken. I always find that very exciting.
Why is that exciting?
Well… if you’re going to speak, what do you say? If you are really going to talk, really say what you are doing? I would actually like to say: we need each other. I want to be able to name that as directly as possible, but at the same time there is also a fear of how people react to this: can you say that, how is that heard, what does that mean, is that moralistic? I think many people have that fear. You usually lurk around it a bit. In addition: if you really start speaking in public then it is also quickly seen as if you were crazy. For example, I think of the Damschreeuwer or the man who started to talk about Allah in the Concertgebouw in the presence of the Queen. Even though he said: do it quietly, I am not dangerous – yet he was immediately locked into handcuffs.
Why do we have a tendency not to speak directly, do you think, or as you say, dance completly around it?
I think we have a very dubious relation to words. In 2010 I worked in Congo for 4 months in Kinshasa. I have seen a very different attitude with regard to speaking with each other. There, talking has a lot to do with the search for truth, with the mutual expression of what is really important. Perhaps the faith in that truth, and the need to find it with one another, has disappeared from us. So where do you eventually talk, or from what do you talk about?
That connection between words and truth is not so obvious to us, I think. We live with the idea that you can construct worlds with words, manipulate meaning, that there is not one truth; the idea that you can communicate with language has also long been compromised, language is often not enough to express yourself….
Yes, language is not enough, and we also assume that everyone speaks from their own perspective, and then we accept each other’s difference of opinion. That is totally different in Kinshasa. We had an open studio on the street there, and there was always a lot of conversation about what was there to see: a painting, a rehearsal, or whatever. That conversation was always focused on sharing what you saw, determining together what happened; just until you understand or grasp what it is that you have seen. It was a kind of move to a joint speaking, to an agreement that really everyone was a part of. That is really a different kind of conversation than exchanging opinions as we know it here.
Do I have to understand it as a search for ways to find each other?
No, because that formulation is based on the idea that there are differences first, after which you would then become the same. I think that is very much from where we are from; for us the conversation is the place where you present yourself, give your personal opinion, manifest your individuality; and that conversation probably ends with the conclusion that everyone has their own opinion. While in Kinshasa I saw a lot more of a kind of thinking out loud, a search for meaning.
The theme of the absence of the difference, being one, is also present in Rob de Graaf’s text. I wonder how I can understand that. As a cross: do we have to give up our individuality?
We can not give up our individuality. But I personally think it is important to be aware that you can also be in the world in a different way. I sometimes have the desire not to start with myself all the time. The man in the text says: ‘my skin is still there, my skin is still too much a limit’. That is a sentence that touches me enormously. I get the feeling that you want to tear open that skin and that you just do not want to stop yourself. I recognize that and at the same time we can not deny that we are individuals. We have to start from there, we can not do anything else. In Africa, everything starts from the collective. I could never do that. These differences have to do with how you were born and raised; it is such a physical difference that you can never give up or change. But for me it is important to realize that initially I start and depart from myself, and that it also has its limitations.
Can you try to explain once more how the joint conversation in Kinshasa takes place, because I can not make a good impression of it with my Western mind.
I will try to explain it through a detour. We worked there with a painter, Joseph, and when he painted something, he always wrote what it meant. Many people do that, he had learned that at school. So you draw a tree and you write ‘tree’ there. One of the people I had asked was Rachid, a visual artist, and in order to question or perhaps provoke that mechanism, he made small drawings of trees, but he wrote other words, such as mon frère or ma soeur, mon ami, mon père. What we also noticed is that it is important that the artist stands next to the work, to explain it, to tell what it means. The idea that you look at a painting yourself and that you give your own meaning to it, that the individual experience of the work is first, and that you might want to know what the artist wanted to say, that does not exists.
Rachid did not want that, he did not want to stand beside his work to explain it. For his exposition he had made a complete course, so that people would not walk in a group, but just walk past the paintings alone. He was not standing next to the work either. He wanted to create a different situation than what we had experienced at an earlier exhibition of Ank Damen, where everyone was talking to each other, the paintings almost disappeared because the conversation took over.
That seems fantastic.
Yes, that was also very nice. Ank was delighted that there was so much reaction to that work. But Rachid wanted to question this way of doing things; he felt the need to let the work itself speak. And maybe he is not the person to be in the center of attention. He was present, but was not next to his work. People were really angry about that, they asked: where is he, he has to explain it, y’ai besoin the savoir, I have to know, I can not look at it if someone does not tell me what it means. So meaning is something that lies in the work itself, and exists outside of you. There was one poet who was greatly touched by the situation, who suddenly realized that in his work he always tries to articulate the trauma of his country, and that instead he could write from his own individual experience.
What a complex matter this actually is. I remember books about (women’s) emancipation, for example by Buchi Emecheta, or The Color Purple by Alice Walker, where it is all about the joy of discovering one’s own individuality.
He thought so, very much. He was in tears, that poet.
While at the same time it becomes clear from your story that togetherness, which has disappeared with us, could be inspiring again.
Yes. I think it works two ways. I have also seen in Kinshasa that this need for individuality and personal development exists, and that it can be a huge struggle to break with family, for example, while that can sometimes be of great importance. With us, the individual comes first, but we lack the collective as a basis. So the collective is something we are going to look for. We are looking for the group, on Facebook for example, but it is not a self-evident basis.
Back to the exhibition of Rachid: in what way is that an example of the joint conversation?
With that example I wanted to give an introduction to the kind of conversation that is normally conducted there. You stand there with each other, and then the conversation is about the question: what have we seen? That is where it starts: what have we seen, what have we experienced? You basically need each other to be able to name that. So it does not start at: I’ve seen this, and I’ve seen that, and where do we agree?
But there will still be different opinions about what has been seen?
Yes, but the conversation is much more organic. It is a group that speaks. People are not in a circle where you see everyone talking, but close together. You do not see everyone who speaks, you hear someone say ‘it’s about this’ and another ‘no, because look here’ and yet another ‘but have you looked there’ and everyone is constantly talking to each other. It is thinking out loud together. The starting point is different, the starting point is: we have seen the same thing together. There is one truth, it can be interpreted in one way. We were already talking about the truth, at the beginning of this conversation, and how our belief in the truth has disappeared. We live with the idea of different truths. With us, speaking has become something else, you make a proposal for a different way of looking at something. A proposal, a performance….
Do you now have a renewed faith in the truth, do you think there can be such a thing as one truth?
Well, I grew up with a father who really believed in one truth. When I was 15, he became a monk. A very special monk, I have to say…
But surely his truth is not your truth?
No, I did find out that it is not my truth, but I still had to accept that there was one truth for him. Otherwise I could no longer engage in conversation with him, in my opinion. And sometimes I also agree with him, or in any case: he is right in really going for something. I understand that, I see that it gives peace, that it gives direction. In addition, I also resisted, because during my training and in my life I constantly came into contact with the idea of different truths. Those two things have always faced each other in my life. In the performance I bring a man forward – that is fine, that I am not myself – who does have the desire to fully go for something that dares to manifest.
To come back to ‘must be spoken’: is that the reason that you are now working with a pre-written text for the first time?
Yes. I have thought about whether I would write something myself. I really like writing, have done that before, but it never happened that I write down things that are said in the performance. I have already experienced a few times that the text disappears in the process. Often the images are so obvious that I do not need it in the end that there are words. I thought, if I want to take talking seriously now, then I have to ask someone to write a text. Then I immediately thought of Rob de Graaf.
Because he works a lot with physically trained actors, he is physically aware. What he writes is very close to reality; he starts from the world in which we now live, and at the same time his texts are often very poetic and abstract. He makes the connection with the here and now, while he also creates his own world with his words. Sometimes it is very concrete, sometimes not at all.
So there is also a kinship with your own work?
Yes, maybe. When it comes to making something that is both concrete and abstract: yes, absolutely. And I also work strongly with the presence, the physical of actors. That is also a quest in this process. There is a text that is learned by heart, and then it is all about constantly contacting that man, that body in that very large space of the square, with the reality of that square.
Why did you ask Marien Jongewaard to interpret the man in the square?
That was actually a suggestion from Rob, and I immediately thought that was a very good idea. Marine is someone who really is from the streets. His father has been a market trader, and his grandfather too, and we are often talking about it now, that he is doing that text as he thinks about his father once sold the fish on the market. And we are talking about what happens when someone really says what he has on his mind, perhaps he is ashamed of it, but that it still has to be – when do you accept that, when don’t you accept that? There it is of flesh and blood, the physical presence is very important: that means that you do not see a thinking head, but a human being.
I find it very nice to make this together with Marien and Rob, and with Maartje Teussink who makes the music. They are people who are all creators themselves, and that makes it a very nice collaboration, right now.
Is Maartje’s music improvised or prepared?
A part is improvisation, but she builds all kinds of layers of music on top of each other, so it is important to think about it beforehand. It is very important what that music does. Marien once said: the music, that is the lighting. The music lays a foundation under the text, ensures that there is a framework or support, also for Marien. Meanwhile, the music enters into a relationship with the place where we play, with the square. Music abstracts, but at the same time brings you back to reality: there is a performance, and in the meantime the music always brings you back to the here and now of that square.
Someone who speaks out in public is quickly seen as crazy, you said earlier in the conversation.
Yes, that is going to play a role immediately, whether this man is crazy or not. In that respect, the film Nostalghia by Tarkovsky has also been important. That film ends with a scene of a man on a large Italian square, who climbs on a statue of a horse, addresses the people and eventually sets himself on fire. He talks about the so-called sick and the so-called healthy people, and says: why should it always be the madmen who speak the truth? That touched me enormously: maybe it works like that, if you really say what it is about, then you will be looked at as a fool, as a crazy person. Because people find it too difficult to hear the truth.
By naming something as crazy we make it harmless and so we can just continue.
Yes. But that is pretty intense, as far as I am concerned.
Even a sentence like ‘lunatics speak the truth’ has that function, it seems to me, you can also dismiss something like that.
Yes. But yet. On the Leidseplein is often a woman who quotes from the Bible. You walk past that, you do not want to hear that. But actually she says: love each other. So you can not say that on the street. While you would just like to say that! This also affects my father who has made such a fundamental choice. That was also said at the time: he has gone mad.
I remember, vaguely, that people said: well, what a waste…
While he himself feels that he can really speak now. It’s about speaking again, I notice. He felt trapped in the theater, on stage, in that as if situation. He had the idea that he could not really speak in that theatrical reality; that you can not really talk to each other in a situation where there are 900 people in the room and he is on his own on stage. He longed for the direct one-on-one conversation. He now has that conversation with people. Sometimes the word “hermit” falls, but people come to him; they drink coffee together and talk to each other – in reality, and not in the separate spaces of a stage and a room. People indeed think ‘what a waste, that man has gone mad’, but of course he does not experience that at all.
A bit of a detour perhaps: first make theater and then become a monk, is it related to each other?
Yes, that is at least the same way. He sees that himself. His search went through the theater. He also talked about talking, telling a story.
I have the idea that his performances were about the fragility of life: he worked with dolls, or the beauty was that they were not dolls, but objects that had become animated…
His search on the stage was also a spiritual quest, that’s right, the search for the core, or the vulnerability, the smallness in yourself, that which you can not forget, that which is always there – that was for him. Anyway, at one point he simply believed in God, and you can not proclaim that on a stage. For him that truth was so tangible and so real, he did not manage to translate that into a performance.
Returning to madness: the philosopher Gilles Deleuze sees craziness, or to be more precise, schizophrenia, as a positive, creative force. Schizophrenia stands for the uncontrolled and disorganized, for those who do not fit in, not normal. This makes it possible to visualize what we regard as normal or as a standard at the same time. That uncovering the normative offers a view of the potential, of what could be, of what we have forgotten to imagine.
But what we can imagine…
Yes. It is about being connected to what might be, Deleuze calls it ‘becoming’. Becoming aware of the limitations of your own thinking that generates energy. Performances can sometimes also have that effect: suddenly you see what your own conceptual framework is, because it is questioned through the performance, it breaks open.
You can also see madness as a positive or creative source, do you mean?
Yes. Do such thoughts about madness play a role for you?
I think of a friend of mine who was schizophrenic, he no longer lives.
That was a boy who was ‘broken open’ you could say. He was so called crazy, but he was also totally happy. A very strong person, with a lot of energy. He could easily turn things around, say: Come on! It is not that complicated! And if he said that then you were indeed thinking, what am I doing? He also could not deal with rules, or with forms, he said: boys, all those rules, we only made them up, that does not make sense, those forms. He could not, could not fill in those forms. That did not work at all, those frameworks.
A refusal of the system?
Maybe, but also just inability to do it as it should. Of course he also had to deal with a heavy, dark side, but when I think of him, I do understand the positive power of madness. The breaking, breaking open, refreshing, different view. Sometimes I see someone on the street who reacts differently to things than you would expect: someone who walks very slowly, or looks around, or laughs at something that blows away – people like that also remind me again. You should not romanticize it, of course, because it is also heavy and intense to be the outsider, but it can inspire me enormously. You can see that theme in the text of Pleinvrees, which moves text back and forth between feeling different and separate from the rest of the world, and the desire to be part of it. Again it is about fear and desire, a heavy and a light side. The man in the text was trapped in his own world, in his own dark room, and on the other hand, there is that almost excessive desire to break open the skin, to go out and manifest in the midst of the people.
The text also raises the question of whether or not someone should get up and take the lead. There is talk of teachers.
Yes. I think there is a great need for that. This is also said by politicians, so this is not a sensational consideration of the contemporary situation. Yet, sometimes it seems that leadership is something dirty. That is disastrous. You must dare to speak; dare to raise your voice in front of others. It has to do with speaking again. Someone stands up somewhere and speaks to people. I’ve always found that spot on that stage, that elevation, or the pedestal, a very special place. If you stand on that, you still have the feeling that you have something to say.
But often nothing or something totally unimportant is said on that stage…
Right. So how do you use that space that you have been given?
Do you also see Agoraphobia as an investigation into what the stage is, to search again for what is actually ‘the higher ground’?
Yes. That is what we do now outside; I find it very nice to do that right there, where there’s no increase in principle. I spoke with Marine about the soapbox. Probably it will be a crate of beer, but that very small increase still makes you have another presence on that very large plain of that square.
projecting the head above the surface level, literally.
I think it’s nice to think about the basics of the stage and the theater in this way, and to wonder what it’s like to take the floor, to climb on stage, just on a square: a place where it is not so normal to do that. You naturally also question that space.
Is it scary or dangerous, speaking in public?
In the middle of a square, raising your voice in broad daylight is, I think, quite dangerous. Speaking in public can be of course also speak at a conference, or something like that, that is an accepted form. But speaking on a square? It does not happen. So you break a code.
Why is it dangerous? Someone who is standing with two pigs on a square in the middle of office buildings might also break a code….
When you think of everything that is going on in the world, speaking is quickly seen as extremism or excess.
But what could happen?
First, we are now rehearsing on squares, but you actually need a permit to do something in public.
While it is a public space…
Yes. Last week a lot of police walked around during a rehearsal, but they did not even see that we were working there. Then we rehearsed only the beginning of the performance; we do not know what will happen if we do the whole text, when Marien starts raising his voice. Anyway, that is not really dangerous, being picked up by the police.
What also plays a role: people can respond to you, you make yourself vulnerable, you can not just run away because you stand among the people; Opening your window and then speaking is something different than climbing up in the middle of a square. In the Netherlands speaking in public is of course not unbelievably dangerous, but you can see the protests in Egypt or Syria, for example, what the danger is of really speaking, and to really take that speech seriously. You see what happens – it is horrifying what happens next. The place where you speak makes a difference. But taking the floor, in all that openness, without protection, is in any case not the most secure thing you can do.
And apart from the danger for your life or your body, there is also another kind of vulnerability. When you really talk about what is most dear to you, there can also be a fear of how people react to that. People can get angry, misunderstand you, take your words off. As soon as you speak out loud, a different reality arises than when those same words are still in your own thoughts. So there is also doubt: are they the right words, I might not be able to speak, because I am understood?
The man in the text also chooses to continue to doubt. Doubtful, I find really beautiful and important.
But we have all become a doubting country, I think. Doubting can also mean that you are critical, that you dare to question yourself.
Doubt can renew thinking, that’s right. But that is not really going on, in the Netherlands. I do see a different kind of doubt, the doubt of ‘well, if it’s not quite right yet we’ll just wait’ or ‘I want to go to the movies but I’m not sure if it’s a nice movie so I stay home ‘. Do not do things because you are not sure whether things are going well, or whether it is beautiful, and then just do nothing. You do not speak because you do not know if you can find the right words, if people listen to you, if it is understood, and then just do not say anything. I experience that doubt strongly, a slowing doubt.
There is a morality in the text, a proposal for a different kind of living together. Is it new for you to express yourself explicitly in your work?
It’s that man who speaks out, not me. That man expresses himself explicitly, and I also think that it is necessary to make it as explicit as possible, but I can do anything with it. That text does not describe my personal thoughts. If that were the case, I would have to say the text myself. I stage the text, I can choose whether I support the words or give a counter color.
What’s new is that the dividing line between representation and reality is very thin, or even merges into one another. We play on many different squares throughout the country and the performance works towards the moment when the man speaks aloud. Many people in the square will not know at that moment that it is a performance. Someone is on his way to the Blokker, hears a patch, and walks on again. There is of course also the informed audience, but there is also the audience that walks by, just for a while – people who may not hear anything but see that there are a lot of people together in that square. It will have an impact on the actual environment in many different ways. So there is not only a performance; that what happens in the reality of that square is just as important. The performance partly exists in reality itself.
After the performance there is a small bar where people can drink and talk. I would like to create that moment afterwards where you can discuss with each other what has happened. At the moment I am thinking a lot about how the performance will end. It would be nice if there would be a collective, that people in the square would support the man. But probably the man ends up alone: he has said it all, everything he wanted to say, but it did not work out. That is almost impossible: he goes to such a climax that the anticlimax must follow. That will put him back alone anyway. That may also say something about this time, that we can not listen to these words, can not give him what he wants.
Where is the beginning of a solution – is that in the collectivity as you have seen in Kinshasa, for example?
We should not take that as a model, that would be nonsense. For me, the solution at the moment lies in the desire that is felt and that I see around me, the desire to be together, to do things together. The point is that we dare to express that desire honestly. That is also difficult, I sometimes notice that myself, I am also sometimes inclined to keep that inside. But I also see how a situation can suddenly break open when we are honest about it. I see that people become happy with togetherness. It seems incredibly important that we spend more time and attention on this; taking the time to think consciously about how we shape society, how we redesign democracy, how we make decisions together. Who are we together, who do we want to be together, and how do we think about that together?
Amsterdam-North, July 2012