Meeting Lotte van den Berg
Date: June 13-15, 2018
Travel time: 5 minutes bicycle, 6 hours train, 2 hours boat, 30 minutes bicycle
Meeting time: 10 hours
Reading time: 10 minutes
Terschelling, one of the Wadden Islands in the north of the Netherlands, is a fascinating place. It’s an island in between two seas: the very quiet, shallow, uncanny Wadden Sea on the one side and the wilder broad beaches of the North Sea on the other side. It is an island of contrasts: walking just a few kilometers you cross beaches, dunes, woods and meadows. There are sheep and cows and the bird population is extremely diverse. Some people live there. Others come to visit the island. Tourism – like in so many places I visited on my Grand Tour – is an important business here. And every year, in the month of June, thousands of visitors take over the island for Oerol, the festival for theatre, art and music. That is where I meet Lotte van den Berg, two days before the start of the festival, while she is installing her new work: We have never been Modern.
The title of the work is the same as the book by Bruno Latour, published in 1991. Last time I met Lotte, was in April, at the beach of Rotterdam for another work, named after the last section of the same book: The Parliament of Things. There the work was part of a larger project: Building Conversation, a series of meetings, organized with visual artist Daan ‘t Sas, where the conversation is created as a work of art. Here too, for their new project on Terschelling, Lotte and Daan work together. And here too, conversations will be created as new works of art.
Another thing that comes back in these projects is something we could call the history of the end. The end here, is not a point in time. It is an ongoing process. A development. That makes it so nice to end my Grand Tour with Lotte on Terschelling. The end of this Grand Tour is just the beginning of something else (the book we will present in December, to name just one thing). The end also plays an important role in the ecological thinking of Bruno Latour. In a way, we already live after the end and have to find a way to deal with it. The end of the world as we know it starts with climate change. It is a process and, just as we don’t know where and when it started, it is impossible to say where it will end. All we know is that we have to find a way to deal with it.
Some five hundred meters in the Wadden Sea, Lotte and Daan installed a glass cube. When the tide is low, the cube rests on the sand. When the water comes up, the cube disappears in the sea. You can sit in the cube and watch the movement of ebb and flow for twelve long hours. There is a glass roof on the cube to make the isolation complete. This is what the end looks like. Like a bubble: the total and final separation between nature and culture. It is what Latour writes about in his book. The reason why we have never been modern is actually that we never succeeded in separating nature from culture. The cube you see over there is the final dream of modernity. An impossible dream.
A few days before I arrive at Terschelling the freshly installed cube turns out to be leaking. ‘This is the end’, says Lotte on her blog. ‘Stay calm, don’t panic’, says Daan. This is Latour’s modernity at work. It will never work. There will always be a leak between nature and culture. Impossible to separate the one from the other. That is the reality we have to deal with. Every end stands for a new beginning. We have never been modern, we have always been in between. Hybrids is what we have always been.
How to deal with this new reality? This leaking reality? It’s a process. It goes from acceptance to emphasizing. It starts with Daan saying ‘don’t panic’ and ends with him drilling more holes in the cube. In between these two moments there is a lot of discussion, a lot of words and thoughts. Arie, artistic advisor of the project, suggests not to talk of a failure (mislukking in Dutch) but of a realization (verwerkelijking). This is after all how reality takes over the art project. As an artist you want to frame something (that is what the cube is: a frame that appears and disappears in the sea), you want to show (the cube is an object) and to see (the cube as a window). But what Lotte wants to avoid is that the emphasis lies on the end of the work. This is a hybrid work. It wants to show a process, a series of thoughts, it wants to inspire, to be (or build) a conversation.
That is where the new words come in. Get rid of the word stilleven (Dutch for still life or what the French call nature morte: death nature). Use opstelling (installment) instead. That is the way to turn this work into a learning process again, where the visitors become part of the development. On such moments the work tends to become too therapeutic (says Lotte). But therapy can be helpful when dealing with our relation with nature (says Arie). Why not name it like that? In therapy too, the conversation is very important (thinks me): to exchange ideas and learn about the self through the other. The problem is that we tend to file everything that deals with self development under therapy (Lotte again). Life is one long exploration and development. The problem is not that something is therapeutic (that is inevitable) but that it is reduced to the therapeutic. It is more than that.
The inevitable, the conversation: I should say something about that first, before we continue. When the cube is the central image of this work, there are two more elements to complete it. Three containers give room for the ateliers. A bit further a platform becomes a scene. That is where the conversations come in. In the containers they grow out of one on one situations, on the platform they become a group experience. But each time objects play an important role to trigger the conversation. That was already the case with the Parliament of things in Rotterdam. The difference is that, instead of talking for the objects, here the objects help you to talk for yourself. Every conversation goes in four steps, each guided by a new question: What is nature? What is the self? What is inevitable? What do you need? For each answer to each question the invited participant takes a new object to help her- or himself out. It is a matter to move with (be-with) things. Beyond failure, beyond perfection, beyond ambition, there lies movement. It often starts with resistance, but at a certain moment the resistance breaks. The question is: when do you accept the resistance to break? In the beginning? In the end? Or is that too part of an ongoing process?
The leaking cube brings this ecological work back to reality (“een verwerkelijking”, “a realization” as Arie would call it). Working on ecology becomes too much of a thought exercise. Last night Lotte called one of the participants to take place in the cube. She looked so much forward to her twelve hours of nothing. To take a step out of her hectic life. That will no longer be the case. She has to undergo the experience while the sea enters the cube. That is too often the case with ecological work (says Lotte): you create a story around it to make it work. But as soon as reality seeps in, things become clear. You’re not so flexible anymore. You become vulnerable. That is our problem: that ecology still seems too much like a thought experiment, because we are not (yet) confronted with it in a tangible way. Or not enough. Once that happens, the ecological turn will go much faster. That is what happened with the cube. That is what will happen with the world. Our thinking is too flexible. We must confront reality. Think ahead. Think about the next thirty years to come. About what we need to take action. We have to change our way of thinking.
For Lotte it is not the continuation of humankind that is important. She does not want to rise out above things, above the world. She wants to be part of what is other. Even when she will not be there, there will be another presence. Even the extinction of humankind will not be the end. Being part of an ecological system means being part of what is endless. The now. That too can be taken with pride.
Today Lotte works on the island of Terschelling. But at the same time she already thinks about presenting the same work in an urban environment. Maybe there is too much consent on Terschelling. Things are too easy there. There is no disagreement, no dissent, no friction, unless from nature. Lotte worked a lot in urban environments before. She showed a lot of interest in the end there too. Another thing that strikes me when looking at her older work is the quasi wordlessness of it. in We have never been modern words are the pivotal tools that bring everything together. This whole work depends on words, on conversations. The difference with ‘traditional’ theatre is that the words here are not fixed. “I cannot work with words that are fixed in advance”, she says. She loves to put the words to work. She likes words that come spontaneously, depending on the situation. Here she creates a space where people can speak for themselves. Monologues become dialogues. And when people don’t feel connected anymore – I saw that happen more than once during my stay on Terschelling – it ends.