Meeting Jānis Balodis
Date: April 16-19, 2018
Travel time: 20 minutes walk, 20 minutes train, 2 hours for check in, 145 minutes flight
Meeting time: 15 hours
Reading time: 25 minutes
Two days before leaving for Rīga, Jānis Balodis sent me his application form for DasArts in Amsterdam, where he will start a new master this autumn. From his application I remember that he writes and makes theatre to fight an irrational feeling of being alone. He is motivated by a need to look at a world that is as unclear and complex as possible. That he wants to learn from failure. That he is interested in history and economics. But the most intriguing part is the part on Interventions into each other’s mind: meetings with young people in the world of finance, through one on one walks, trying to paint a possible future of economics. I like this idea of walking and talking and that is also what we will do during my stay in Rīga. Our meeting will start in the historical centre of Rīga and from there we will move in ever greater circles around the city. A journey in eight scenes.
Scene 1: at the gymnasium
It’s not without irony to have my first meeting with Jānis Balodis in the gymnasium in the historical heart of the city. The more we talk, the more I understand that this neighbourhood stands for everything he dislikes in his hometown. The large pedestrian zone, like in many historical city centres, is taken over by restaurants and bars and tourists. The city as museum-cum-experience-centre. Disneyfication as we know it. There you’ll find the gymnasium as an island of real life. No tourists there. Only pupils waiting for their weekly and voluntary after hours theatre-workshop with Jānis. They are working on a play with their own stories. Jānis made a script based on interviews that he transcribed word for word, including the ah’s and uh’s of the teenagers. They are preparing to perform the play in Germany, but will always bring it in Latvian. Language as sound, as rhythm, as colour. Language as an ecological principle. Taking things as they are, not wanting to change them. Idiorhythmic: each on his/her own rhythm. Polyphonic: always in between the rhythms, the many voices, of the others. The idea was that I would follow part of the workshop. But it turns out that I arrive on a moment of crisis. The festival in Germany doesn’t want to invite the whole group for the performance, all six of them. Instead they propose to perform the play with only four actors. They have to decide today if they accept to leave two players behind or not. You can imagine that it’s not an easy decision to make. Instead of an afternoon of rehearsal, Jānis prepares for an afternoon of discussion. I decide to go back to the hotel, take some rest. We’ll meet again after the workshop, later in the evening.
Scene 2: at the KKc
The Kaņepes Kultūras centrs is the place to be in Rīga when you’re working in theatre. In the evening it is a café with a nice garden – very suitable for the unexpected 20 degrees of this spring evening. During the day it is used by the people running the cultural centre. Like Liene, who also works part time for the New Theatre Institute: Latvian partner of Imagine 2020, with an office in the same building. Gundega, the director of the NTI, was one of the activists that made this building from 1895 into what it is today. We talk about theatre. About the discussion in the afternoon, where they finally decided not to go to Germany if they cannot go all together. One for all, all for one. They’ll look for other places to perform during the summer. We talk about the play that I didn’t see. About the inspiration he got from Life and Times, the play of the Nature Theater of Oklahoma that he saw in Talin a while ago. They use the same technique of performing text word for word, including the rhythm and intonation of the original. Language as music. I think of Schönberg’s Sprechgesang in works as Pierrot Lunaire (and afterwards it also takes me to Woody Guthrie’s Talkin’ Blues). I talk about Ron Vawter, the actor of the Wooster Group that I am currently working on for a book and exhibition project after this Grand Tour will be finished. The Wooster Group, also from New York and with no doubt an inspiration for the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma. Everything comes back. We share experiences with education, talk about working with students, about passing on knowledge. Is it the passion or the authority that makes a good teacher? Or is it a matter of being interested, of finding a way into each other’s work?
Later that evening, back at the hotel, I find a link to a page on the NTI website, announcing my meeting with Jānis. I’m honoured to find my name there, in Latvian: Piteru van Bogartu. The page is not there anymore, so I can’t check it, but I think I’m pretty close. Language as music. I see it as part of my ecology of language. Sue Spaid does it the other way around in her book Ecovention Europe, using the original names of the places she writes about. I see it as a matter of respect and decide to do the same thing with the names of Jānis and Rīga. It’s not so difficult to find your own ecological writing style and to show some respect for your environment. Each in her/his own way.
Scene 3: at the market
Next day I meet Jānis at the abandoned market, Vidzemes tirgus, where he works with Kate Krolle, his set designer, on a new piece, Latvijas Plānošanas institūts (Planning institute of Latvia), that will premiere in a few weeks. It is a play about the future, post-apocalyptic, he says. It will be brought as a walk: from shop to shop. It is about the future, but the place, the rituals, the legends and inspiration come from the past. There will be a ritual fish burying in the fish shop, a bedtime story with two speaking wolves in the animal store, a movement to the upper floor after the flood of global warming, where someone is keeping the conscience alive (I see a reference there to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, but that has also to do with the pile of books that somebody left in the corner before leaving). The walk will end in the office of the director, who decides on the future. The future is now. The market looks as if people had to leave very fast, leaving many things behind.
Scene 4: to the studio
We are still in the 19th century centre of the city, where the famous Jugendstil buildings are. The more you move away from the historic centre, the more buildings are empty. Rīga is a city of opportunities. We move on to Jānis’ studio at the other side of the railway tracks that cut through the city. He tells me about the project of Baltic Rail to make a direct connection to Warschau: a new line that will cut even more in the fabric of the city. I joke: that’s what I needed to come here. With this direct connection to Warschau, I wouldn’t have to be flying to Rīga. What’s bad for the city, would have been good for me. The one ecology is not the other. Being ecological depends on where you are.
We walk through the station to the other side of the tracks. We make a quick visit to the new market, bigger than the abandoned one where Jānis is staging his new play. Getting closer to the studio, we pass by the new headquarters of the party of the mayor of Rīga, installed in a former abandoned warehouse. Rīga is a city of opportunities. Jānis worked in a theatre in such a warehouse, a bit behind the one of the mayor, but they had to move. They work at the other side of the river now. Which is a good thing: that’s where they all live after all, away from the city centre. Jānis’ studio is just around the corner. He works in a wooden house. Unlike the Jugenstil buildings in stone at the other side of the tracks, less fortunate traders built houses in wood, abundantly available in the region. Jānis, with the other artists he shares the building with, made a deal with the owner. While the artists work in the building, paying a symbolic rent, the owner does not have to pay taxes on the empty building. While being there, the artists also maintain the building, doing small but necessary refurbishing works.
We take a rest. Look around. Talk about wood. About the wood they burn to heat the building. I make a remark on fine dust particles. That politicians in Belgium are thinking about prohibiting wood fires in urban spaces. He explains the circular movement behind the burning of wood: the CO2 produced by the fire has already been digested by the trees used in the fire and will again be digested by the trees that will replace them. Everything comes back and there are many trees in Latvia, producing wood and clean air.
He tells me about the work that he is doing here. About the amount of work that comes together at this time of the season. That he needs more time for less work. It’s the problem of our time: nobody has time.
Scene 5: to the house
We leave the studio. We walk. We talk. We stay far from the centre, always further, on the fringes: that’s where he likes to walk. We take the tallest bridge with the heaviest traffic to cross the river. We continue following busy roads and we talk, surrounded by cars. I ask him how he got involved in Imagine 2020. He takes me back to 2012, when he met the people from the New Theatre Institute. They show him the way to the New Economics Foundation and their proposal for a Great Transition. With director Kārlis Krūmiņš, set designer Sintija Jēkabsone, cameraman Dainis Juraga and actress Anta Aizupe, he proposes Testing Transition, a simulation of the economic apocalypse, where he goes back to the countryside to be self sustainable without money. Their experimental exchange economy turns out to be a failure. He uses his diaries about their improvised simulation for a new piece that he takes back to the countryside as part of the exchange: a gift for the people he met there. Testing Transition takes him from Rīga to Zagreb and Ljubljana. Imagine 2020 offers the grid, the layout, where he can play around. He likes to have room to play. Room to be wrong, to fail. Too many works on climate change turn out to be failures – it’s seldom good art. Theatre is the place for opposition. Where is the energy when you start preaching about climate change? You need other ways to work with that. You have to share ideas in space and time. Think about how not to fail. In the end, with Testing Transition, he went back to what he knew in the beginning. The best performance was the one in Ljubljana in the summer of 2014.
The word imagine is very significant for an artist working on the future. But what about the 2020 part? He thinks it has more sense now than in 2012. Things happened in the mean time on a personal, local, global level. It makes more sense today than he thought back then. Things are different in the world. Urgency make you formulate answers. Like with all the deadlines around this time of the season: they force him to work and rethink the roles he plays. It’s never pleasant to fail. The relevance only comes later. But what he always tries to pass on to people he works with, or when he teaches, is that failure is OK. It can help to generate things. You may think about things you wouldn’t have thought about before. It’s all part of the process. Doubt is the crucial part. It is good to be passionate, but always keep the doubt.
It’s the same with this meeting. I make him part of my doubt in this Grand Tour. We have to improvise. That’s what we do walking and talking on this urban highway that takes us ever further from the centre. He had his doubts, but cannot be against a meeting – that’s against his nature. He needs to meet, to discuss, to have conversations, to intervene and get a glimpse of the other person’s mind. He likes to search for the crucial differences, for the moment of struggle. It could all happen in this meeting. Just go for it and let it do something without knowing what. He learned not always to go for the big leap, but to enjoy the small steps. That’s what artists can do, little by little, bit by bit: enter other people’s minds. Try to touch the inner core. What politics should do, what it lacks. You cannot win an election on climate change. We need incentives to help people think and act. Art can help. Art is playing around. It is cunning, it is tricky. You doing your Grand Tour by train and bicycle and coming to Rīga by plane will create a funny moment. You fail! That’s funny. That’s human. He likes that. It’s not easy to create a situation as tragicomically as that. It just happened. Your ambition to travel by train and bicycle is a good thing. It is an attempt. You have a moral ground. But it is a street without end: what do you drink, eat, consume? Shame and guilt are a real problem today. It’s all part of the Twitter politics we live in.
We turn the corner of his street. The road is made of cobblestones the size of small rocks. Pretty intelligent design to make cars drive slowly from a time when there were no cars. Next to the road there is the tramway. And then you have the railway tracks. There were plans to enlarge the road for more and faster traffic and for extra rail traffic with the new line to Warschau – all in front of his house. Imagine. He wrote to the city to protest. They said it’s already decided. Then more neighbours wrote too. The plan changed in building a road outside of the city. Things can change, if more people write, when there is a critical mass, they will take you in account. Of course the Rail Baltic plan has more plusses than minus. It depends on how you approach it. I mumble something about the NIMBY syndrome. He says sure and takes me to his backyard. Deviations in language. He lives in a wooden house. A few years ago it was still abandoned, until his mother bought it and started the restoration. Rīga is a city of opportunities.
Scene 6: Ruta
We have diner with Ruta, his partner. She prepared the food. We bought the drinks. Ruta works for the Latvian bureau of statistics. She is part of a group working on zero waste. But she is a data person – statistics, you know – and she gives up. Not enough data: the problem of an ecological life. The art of being ecological is to do it without data. Vegans eat palm oil, but the producers of the oil destroy the natural environment of the baboons that will eventually die. How vegan is that? Coco that is transported from the other side of the world – how ecological is that? The problem lies not with Ruta gathering data, but with the companies that make the products that she wants to consume. They have the power to change something. They have the data. Where else can she go? Produce everything herself? Is that an option? Ecology is a luxury. It is only doable for those who have the money and the time to live an ecological life.
Through the window I enjoy the view outside. Passers-by on their evening stroll, joggers, a car now and then, the tram, the trains to the harbour and to the city. Paths are made by walking. She shows me their favourite spot, on a pile of concrete blocks, in between the tracks. Train conductors know them by now and honk when they pass by. It’s good living on the fringe I think when I walk the five kilometres back to the hotel into the night: his studio on the other side of the tracks, his house on the other side of the water, the walk at the side of the road, his work in preferably intimate settings and deserted places. Tomorrow we will drive to the sulphur swamp. We will nearly end up by the sea, but just before we’re there, he will turn around and head back to the city. That’s how he is.
Scene 7: Daisy
He picks me up in the morning in front of the hotel. He drives a VW Golf. 29 years old. It’s part of his circular ecological way of thought: better to use an old car till the end than to produce a new one. He knows where to get spare parts and how to replace them. Not everything, but a lot. Daisy, his three year old daughter, is in the back of the car. It’s his turn to take care of her. We stop by the supermarket to buy things for the picnic. I buy a bottle of birch sap on the way out. It’s that time of the year. We talk about the future while Daisy is chasing butterflies. He says something about the darkness of the future that not necessarily has to be negative. We live in this culture of light, of progress and solutions but there are also a lot of unknown forces left unexplained. What you don’t understand is not necessarily negative and can make you think differently. The beauty of uncertainty, maybe? (my try) That is how he starts his drama class in autumn. He has kind of a direction, but leaves room to float and to touch each other’s mind. There you’ll find uncertainty. He needs a journey where things are experienced in a different way. When there is no uncertainty, there are no expectations, no imagination. That’s what the darkness is for: to imagine. I think of Timothy Morton who starts Dark Ecology after the end, after the catastrophe. He thinks of Ursula Le Guin and the uncertainty of gender in The Left Hand of Darkness.
We talk about the future, about generations, about the 25 years between us. How things were for me 25 years ago – I just finished university, it was a time of promise, I quit my job and moved to another city, a time of exploration, difficult but important. I think about him going to Amsterdam next autumn to start a new master. About Daisy, who will be 28 in 25 years. Imagine. He says. There will be very little questions then. No discussion or doubts anymore about the climate, but measures. We will be beyond doubt. Instead there will be hopes and dreams that things will happen. The democracy fatigue will be behind us. Stay reasonable. Invent new forms of democracy. There will be sacrifices. He hopes education will still be important and even better than today. More people should access knowledge.
We try to imagine how it was for my parents, who lived as children through WWII. There were no limits after the war. Only in 1972, the Club of Rome sent out the first warning for the limits to growth. Ecology is not only linked to where you live, but also when. The speculations in his new play in the market will each time be set in a different time. They can’t exist simultaneously, they shut each other out. The location of the market shows the future as it is now. An abandoned place. It shows what happens to the world right now: where local producers are pushed of the market by big retailers. That is the apocalypse we live today. Always try to play with what is there. Another play he will perform this summer is titled What will tomorrow be?, with four players looking into the future in Brussels, Allepo, Rīga and Gdansk. That things come back does not mean that they will always be coming back. Sometimes things run out of energy and you have to fall back on what was before. Then you will get new content out of these old traditions. If we stop, it will be the end of civilisation as we know it. New forms will appear. But he doesn’t think we will abandon everything. Bad things also come back, like fascism. It’s a warning to stop the loop and start inventing new things.
We decide to leave the loop where this walk through the swamp never ends and where we finally sit down to enjoy our picnic. It is only later that I realise that we spent all this time walking and sitting and eating and talking and playing in the middle of the sulphur swamp with its smell of rotting eggs. You have to know that my olfactory capacities are quite limited for certain smells. It’s just like that. Sometimes that is a problem. But I think that’s a good thing while having a picnic in the sulphur swamp. It is only in the evening that I faintly notice the smell in my clothes and that I realise where we were. I wonder if it is toxic to inhale in a sulphur swamp. We saw a lizard there today.
Scene 8: at the cemetery
The day after, before returning back to Brussels, I get up early in the morning to visit the cemetery. Kate mentioned it to me the day before when we left the market. I started my journey with the children at the gymnasium in the historical centre of the city and thought it quite appropriate to end in the graveyard at the edge of town, with all the people that are no longer there. To start with the future and end with the past. It is a beautiful place indeed. There are moments where you could think it is a park if you wouldn’t know about the people buried here. Nature took over . The graves just disappeared. The graves that are still there give you a glimpse of how that happens. It’s really beautiful to see the plants taking over. The moss grows in the inscriptions on the graves: you would never be able to do it yourself. Only time can do this. All these humans that do not exist anymore. Why do humans have to exist? When nature can do things so much better? We just don’t want to be the last one.
This city deserves a cemetery like this. This city that keeps on growing on communist ruins. This city of opportunities. Not only for capitalists, but for all kinds of creative people. Look at the house of the KKc, think of the wooden house where Jānis has his studio or the wooden house where he lives. Think of the new headquarters of the mayor. Remnants of the past for a new future. With or without people. All these histories meet again on this cemetery where the moss gives new life to the graves.
(Before posting this text he sent me an email: the municipality of Rīga wants to build a new tram line through Lielie Kapi – that is the name of the cemetery. They don’t particularly much disrupt the place, but will use an already existing street. But the plan is to cut some trees. Civil society in Rīga is against the plan, but municipality has somehow even convinced EU to fund it. Another issue is that this tram line is planned to a rather small and not very populated district, while the city would definitely need two tram lines to some sleeping districts, but that is more expensive and less easy. Less easy is also not taking the EU funding. The one ecology is not the other.)