Shit: or the importance to deal with it

Meeting Vera Mantero

Place: Lisbon
Date: May 30 – June 4, 2018
Travel time: 5 minutes bike, 23 hours train, 20 minutes bike
Meeting time: 10 hours
Reading time: 20 minutes


Dear Vera,

It is important we meet. It is important we take time to talk. Time to walk. To sit side by side. To share a meal. To go for a coffee. To meet during the day and late at night. To meet in Lisbon. In the theatre. To go to the places where you work and live. To smell the air. To feel the sun, the wind, the moisture. To climb the hills. To hear the noise. To feel the dirt. To be healthy. To get ill. To be thirsty and to drink. To be hungry and eat. To take off our shoes. To feel the wood. To wait. To talk. To listen.

We need all that and more. It is important to let things happen. To let things go. To share. To care. To love. To talk about that. I hear it. I feel it. I look for it. I want it. It was there.

People sometimes ask me what is so ecological about this Grand Tour. If it wouldn’t be better to meet all these artists in all these European cities through Skype? They don’t get it. It is vital to be patient. To explain. The movement is important. To go to places. To take the temperature. To shake hands. To kiss. To look each other in the eye. To take time. To be tired. Not wanting to give in. To let go. To stretch the limits. It is important to not only meet the artist, but also friends and colleagues. It is important. I want to see them perform. I want to hear, to feel, to meet the audience. It is really necessary. Some things only happen when we meet in real life. In Lisbon. It is all part of our meeting. Even when you were not there, I could take the temperature of your city, of your environment.

A lot of things happen around, before and after, during a meeting. Six months ago already, Catia sent me the material to prepare our meeting. She made a selection of projects linked to Imagine 2020. I get an overview of your work on ecology. But I have to go to Lisbon to see it. To feel it. I need to know where Lisbon is. How far it is. How many trains I have to take to get there (three). How long it takes to get there (23 hours). I need to know how tired I will be when I arrive in the early morning (not so much). How it will be to see your new work at the theatre in the evening (really nice). How things will evolve between us after that (very smooth and convivial). How you will be as an artist (as an artist). How the new play – As Pràticas Propriciatòrias dos Acontecimentos Futuros – will fit in the material that I received from Catia (organic). How it will be to finally meet Catia (as if we met before).

Catia sent me all there is to know about you and Imagine 2020 and ecology. But it is only while meeting and talking that we notice what is not there. We need time for that. We have to meet. We need to take detours, to get lost, to find things. That is why I had to come to Lisbon. It is only after we met that I can ask Catia to send me the text you wrote twenty years ago (in 1997). The same text you use today in your new work and from which I have to quote the following fragment:

it is also necessary to think with the body, to let the body speak, poor body. it is necessary to leave the purse and to enter the association, the delirium, the dirt (it is very important not to be afraid of the dirt), the coupling, coupling of elements to our body, coupling of senses to our body, or coupling of objects and senses with each other, it is necessary to enter into transformation, it is necessary not to forget that there is something called ecstasy, one must enter into ecstasy, contemplation, tranquillity, body senses, body, poetry, insights, astonishment, amazement, pleasure, unconsciousness, loss, emptiness, detachment, fall, it is necessary to take the shoes off, we must lie down on the floor, we must enter into imagination, stories, thought, words, humour, thought, words, humour, thought, the relationship with others.

What else can I say? There is this one sentence, somewhat hidden between brackets, whispered, that pops out: (it is very important not to be afraid of the dirt). That is what we were talking about when we met in Lisbon. We talked about what there is and what not. We talked about what is visible and what not. About what is important and what not. And we often – if not always – came back to the dirt. The thing that intentionally or unintentionally sticks to the body. Dirt is what one tends to avoid. It is what an artist like you likes to emphasize (with a whisper). It is your material. You invite your audience to step into a carpet of clay, barefooted. It sticks. Clay is the entrance to More or less, but less than more, the work in progress you presented at Culturgest – the same theatre where I saw your new work a few days ago – in 2013. You work with the same people that participated in We offer shades, the portrait you made that same year of Adua’s Land, outside Lisbon. There you put yourself in the position of the trees – it is them that offer shades and that are always already there (I like the sound of trees, whispering). In Culturgest you start from the elements that you have to bring into the theatre yourself: the clay, the words, the sounds, the gestures, the masks, the images. The elements you introduce in 2013 are very close to the ones you work with in 2018.


You talk about the dirt. How nice it can be to get dirty. To put your feet in the clay, to get a massage of dirt while talking. How people stay there for hours, just because they like it. You talk about the practicalities linked to the dirt. About your actors in the new piece who also work with clay (a work that is also a portrait by the way: not of a piece of land this time, but of an artist – Ernesto de Sousa – who crossed the land in search for popular art and many other things). About how they put it in their hair, on the floor, in their mouth and consequently don’t want to use it again the next day. They demand clean clay. About the ecological consequences of changing the clay every day: you have to find a new destination to recycle the clay (it goes to the art academy). About the plastic you use underneath the clay to protect the stage floor: the technicians in the theatre don’t have the space, nor the time, to clean it, so you also have to find a destination to recycle that (it goes to city gardeners in Lisbon).

These stories not only deal with dirt, they also deal with metamorphosis. When is something dirty and when not? How does it get from the one state into the other? How can it get clean again? By making new sculptures from dirty clay? Is it merely a feeling or is it a way of looking at things? How do you reverse things to go from one state to the other? It is important to change. It is important to move.

The next edition of More or less, but less than more (the edition after the work in progress) takes you to the outside again. Again, just like in We offer shades. But this time you stay in the city. You move between two theatres: Culturgest and Maria Matos. You find five gardens in between. That happens in 2014. I want to go back to look for the gardens. That is why I had to come to Lisbon in 2018. They became something else: a metamorphosis. Clean becomes dirt. Dirt becomes clean. (In the pictures I made on my way back – I’m always too late to make pictures, always have to go back, always need more time – I notice two ovens. One is built by people in the garden, to make bread, or pizza’s maybe. It stayed there afterwards. The other is part of the history of the building of Culturgest, which is actually part of a greater building of a bank. It is the oven that was used to make the bricks with which the arena for the bullfights was built across the street. Very ecological. Very short circuit. A relic from another time.)


You not only talk about matter as something dirty. You also show a healthy interest in dirty minds. It is something you learned from The three ecologies, the book of Félix Guattari you worked with in 2016. Guattari doesn’t really like most art that presents itself as ecological. Instead he refers to the work of Sade and Céline as examples of what he calls the mental ecology. That is where it gets dirty again. Sade and Céline were both trying to deal with their own shit. We have to learn to accept the dirt as part of our environment – in Guattarese: as part of our personal, social and environmental ecology. That is what you did in 2014 with the gardens. The gardens are a social work of art. That is how art & ecology work. People like it to make their hands dirty in the soil. They like to meet. To move. To share. Artists like gardeners and gardeners like artists. Dirty minds and dirty hands. You work as a curator in the gardens, inviting artists, neighbours and visitors. You care. People care. Of the self, of the other and of the world as reciprocal gestures. You create an exchange. You contaminate. Deal with people’s shit.

Writing about dirty minds, I have to think of the moment where you out yourself as a liar. You talk about a piece you made in 2012: The Caldeirão Highlanders, exercises in fictional anthropology. You perform with a tree. (Catia didn’t include that work in her overview. She did in the mean time. But I had to come to Lisbon, meet you, talk to you, share thoughts, spend time with you, to learn about the work.) You create a fiction, a fictional anthropology. But you consistently call it a lie. You enjoy being a liar. (You did it again in your new piece, with the Zero Biscuits™, to name only one lie. You boldly put the ™ sign on these fake biscuits. That is our cue to beware of the lie.) You discover that you have the power to make people believe everything. After every lie you have to make an even greater effort to make people understand that it is a lie. You start looking at the Caldeirão highlanders through the work of the French ethnomusicologist Michel Giacometti and his archive with recordings of mountaineer songs. But going there you couldn’t find the mountaineers. So you created your own story with a population you invented through personal experiences and findings of other anthropologists in other parts of the world. You made your grandfather part of the story to bring it closer to yourself. People need something to believe in. That is how good fiction works.

You have to know, Vera, that fiction is very important in my Grand Tour. I heard it time and time again: we need new stories, new possibilities, things to believe in. Philosophers call for help from artists. Artists call for help from the audience. There is a need to believe what is happening (shit happens) and to find ways to deal with it. There lies your contribution to ecological thinking: you found a place for artists to deal with it. You let yourself be inspired by the Inner transition movement. There you find a lot of techniques that are also developed in performing arts. More or less. (Less or more?) People tend to go for more of what they lack. You need more time. With the gardens you had the luxury to take your time to work on ecological issues. Now it is not possible anymore. You also need time to be with your family. (Or with me maybe? The person who takes you back in time to visit the gardens that went into a metamorphosis over time. To go back to the time when you had the time not to worry about time.)

Time also plays a major role in As Pràticas Propriciatòrias dos Acontecimentos Futuros, your new performance about the history of the future, your portrait of Ernesto de Sousa, the Portuguese artist from another time. De Sousa started out as a filmmaker, organising cinéclubs all over the country in the 40’s and 50’s. He goes to France to study cinema. He will make one feature film for which he creates the Spectators Cooperative to fund the production. That happens in 1963, inspired by Italian Neorealism. De Sousa’s is an oniric neorealism. But then he stops making films and starts traveling the country again in search of forms of popular art. He makes a lot of photos and starts making storyboards like Aby Warburg did with his Atlas in the 1920’s. Warburg’s technique is very close to filmmaking, a form of editing on paper. Little time capsules. You let the artworks, the objects that de Sousa photographed, come back to life in your performance. Different times mix: what was and what will come, the has been and the will be, the contemporary and the archaic. You take your time in a performance that went from three hours (at the premiere) to two and a half (in the version I saw, two days later). Just like de Sousa you show an interest in life and living conditions.


The sixties (and early seventies) play an important role in the work. You call it a very convivial period. Not denouncing, but putting in action. You say something about post-criticism: time to do things for real. De Sousa showed himself as a very resilient person, living under dictatorship, always looking for the next thing, always organizing. He is a social artist, like so many artists working in ecology. Like you with your gardens, working as a curator. That is what you see in the sixties (and early seventies): a magical period that allows for impossible things to happen. Thousands of people believe in the power of peace and love. You went back to Woodstock, the film, to find the image of a couple in a pond as a proposal to make love instead of consume. People are too occupied with objects. Woodstock, that is love, freedom and openness. That is also what you see in many ecological movements: the comeback of the hippie. Look at Tamera, the German commune in the south of Portugal. They call it a healing biotope. There too, this play with time, with generations. It is an intergenerational community where young and old meet. Mega hippie: it’s not over yet. The transition movement is an attempt to do something similar in the city. Something similar happened in the gardens. It also has to do with the combination of gardening and art. Both generate energy.

When you want to deal with ecology through art, you have to do something that sticks. Like the shit of Sade and Céline: the soil in the garden, the clay on the stage. You need something that doesn’t leave people indifferent. You need to make people part of the performance. Share the dirt. It is the thing that nobody wants to touch that gives life: not only shit, but humus, compost, rotten things, digested things. You admire rites where people get dirty. It brings you into another mind frame. It’s very intensive: these are the moments when you really feel alive. It is an ecology of being: disconnecting yourself, releasing yourself, becoming other. That is what I like in We offer shades: that you take the place of the tree, you think from the position of the tree, you become tree. That is where I see the power of love and care: to displace yourself in the position of the other, to think with (be-with) the other. (And it is no coincidence that We offer shades comes around the same time as The Caldeirão Highlanders, your exercises in fictional anthropology, where you not only work with the recordings of Michel Giacometti, but also perform, dance, create a partnership with a tree on stage.)


Back home, writing these words on my laptop, I get glimpses of you working on your laptop in your new piece at Culturgest. The elegance with which your hands move over the keyboard – they don’t move, they float, hardly touching the keys. I wish I could write as elegantly as you did. That the text would come out as smoothly as it comes out with you. That the text would lead it’s own life, like it did with you. Maybe it’s only a matter of doing. A matter of looking. Like the child that looks at the typewriter in More or less, but less than more. In awe, the child looks at the mother and shouts: look mommy – a computer and printer in one. Let’s call that progress in reverse. And maybe that is also what we need when we deal with ecology. Take a step back and look with wonder at how things used to be.

We need more reversals like that. More elegance in our way of doing and in our way of thinking. Spontaneity. Time. More dancing and singing. More joy.

To find joy, pleasure, was also my ambition with this Grand Tour, traveling by train instead of by plane. I don’t know if I really succeeded (actually, I didn’t, the moment I took the plane to Riga). It not only took me a lot of time to travel, it took Ilse at the Imagine 2020 office a lot of time to get things organized and it also took me a lot of time to deal with all the discomforts I encountered on my journeys. Like: cancelled trains (between Brussels and London, between Cologne and Hamburg, between Brussels and Rotterdam, between Paris and Venice), or: falling ill after an exhausting journey (I got a flu after London and returned with a cold from Lisbon, and I also take the pretty painful sun blisters after my most recent and final stay on the island of Terschelling as part of these discomforts). But still I think it was an important experience. I had to feel it. I had to find out how it feels. I had to know if it would be possible to forget about flying and check out the dis/comfort of slow traveling.

It is a matter of taking the measure of time, through travel experiences. I know you have, not unlike many artists on my Grand Tour, a special interest in taking the measure of things. I noticed it while watching the monitor with the VU meter on the stage in your new play. But it also became clear while I heard you talking about your new car: a hybrid car that gives you a lot of work and offers everything but relaxed driving. You are always looking at the meters on the dashboard to see how you’re driving. As a result you drive much slower now, trying to use as little energy as possible. It makes you more conscious of your driving habits. A slow car: can we file that too under progress in reverse? More or less. But less than more is the future. That’s for sure.

See you next time,


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