"Speculative documentary": Europe in exile as imagined by Thomas Bellinck

Updated: Jan 25, 2019

Notes on Thomas Bellinck's opening speech, "Domo de Europa Historio en Ekzilo (House of European History in Exile)", Thursday 25 October 2018

Thématiques communes : #Europe #performance #altérité #langage #langues

Sujets spécifiques : #théâtre documentaire #théâtre politique

How does complexity produce brutality?

Brussels-based artist Thomas Bellinck provided a rousing point of departure for his examination of the place of theatre within the modern political, social and economic landscape of Europe by throwing into the space Saskia Sassen's question, "How does complexity produce brutality?"[1].

Being initially unfamiliar with Saskia Sassen's work, the context of the question was not immediately clear to me and I was intrigued to find out the connotations of the terms "complexity" and "brutality" as applied to Europe and theatre today. When the speech segued into a discussion of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben's discourse regarding "the Apparatus"[2] - which Bellinck loosely described as networks that govern and control living beings and turn them into subjects - I did not immediately see the link to the opening question.

The Apparatus

This became clearer when Bellinck explained further that the Apparatus, having been created by humans, has now effectively trapped humanity and is in fact dominating society. The Apparatus can encompass schools, universities, agriculture, philosophies, and yes, of course, theatre. However, perhaps the most pertinent example cited is the ubiquitous and insidious mobile phone which, as Bellinck pointed out, is a network that simultaneously connects the actions of large phone companies with a host of consequences such as harmful radiation, child labour in the Congo and the way we communicate and interact with others.

The undeniable interconnectedness of these phenomena caused me to look at my battered and broken mobile phone with a renewed sense of horror. As someone who has lost the battle to phone addiction, I am all too aware of the impossibility of continuing to exist even on a subterranean level in the modern world without having the device on my person on a quasi-permanent basis. Clearly, at least as far as I am concerned, the Apparatus is winning big-time.

"Take back control"

I was therefore gripped by the following question posed by Bellinck: what questions can we use to tame the Apparatus - to bring it back into the world of living beings - if we can neither believe it is neutral nor destroy it?

For me personally, the nuances of this conundrum brought to mind the Brexit situation, and the apparent popularity of the refrain "take back control"; a sentiment clearly targeted at taming the perceived power of the EU. However, the practical implications of this have so far resulted in deadlock; indeed, the difficulties of extricating Britain from the network of the EU which are neatly summed up in a meme which compares it to the process of extracting an egg from a cake[3].

Truth, reality and "speculative democracy"

Whilst I was contemplating the daunting impossibility of extricating my life from my mobile phone, Bellinck proposed a process of "speculative documentary", a documentary gesture that embraces perpetual uncertainty and bases itself on conjecture rather than knowledge.

From what I understood, his quest is to develop a research-based artistic practice which documents and engages different types of apparatus inviting people to re-think the existing dominant Apparatus – most prominently, the EU. As per certain ideas discussed in the collection Documentary Across Disciplines[4], whilst the documentary industry thrives on claims of knowledge and truth, documentary is now understood not as an objective depiction of reality but rather as way of "coming to terms" with reality through images and narrative. This involves acceptance on the one hand, and negotiation on the other. Documentary makers create realities, but of course there is a gap between reality and representation. There are gaps and paradoxical relationships on a macro level between, for example, the West and "Others", and on a more micro level, between artists shaped by their different power positions. As identified by Slavoj Zizek, we can never look at an objective reality, as we ourselves are our own greatest blind spot.[5]

This led me to consider whether there might not be some justifiable application of the term "fake news" after all; not in the sense used infamously by Donald Trump, but rather in the sense that are own interpretations of truth are coloured by our own experiences, such that one version of the "truth" cannot exist.

This leads to questions around alterity and the construction and maintenance of privilege. The question is not how to cover up these gaps but how to accept they exist and enter into negotiation with them. To use the utopian mood to free imaginative power and instigate change, an idea explored in the work of artists such as Barbara Caveng[6]. The French movement to decolonise the arts may be seen as another example of this phenomenon.[7]

Pre-enactments to create possible futures

How can we create a historical re-enactment of the present? Bellinck's proposal is to create pre-enactments to allow for the reconstruction of possible and impossible futures. He explores this possibility in his project, Domo de Europa Historia en Exzilo, ("The House of European History in Exile"), hereafter referred to as "The House", launched in 2013. This provides a space for the exploration of the financial crisis, and the migration crisis - which Bellinck prefers to call the "migration reception crisis", reflecting the idea that there is no inherent problem with migration itself but rather with the way it is perceived by those receiving the migrants.

The struggle for the artist, according to Bellinck, is how to position yourself within the work and within the complexity and ambiguity of the problem you are dealing with. To get around this difficulty, he created ta fictional group, the Friends of a Reconstructed Europe, as a distancing device. The House plants the visitor-spectator somewhere in Europe, somewhere in the future, but at the same time, by employing the language of Esperanto which very few people understand, it makes the visitor-spectator a foreigner in relation to the experience. The project is mostly presented in abandoned buildings, usually with a faded glory. The idea of solitude is at the heart of the visit. There is no natural daylight: the windows in the building are closed off beforehand as part of the experience. The setup of the space is labyrinthine so that the visitor-spectator loses all sense of orientation after a few minutes.

In this case, the borders are blurred, between national identities, between fiction and reality, between the past, present and future. In this constructed neutral space, everyone is plunged into the identity of the Other, in some way. The perfect invitation to construct something new to fix and replace the old, tired aspects of the Apparatus.

All too quickly, the talk was over, leaving my head spinning with a cacophony of questions, possibilities and most importantly, a sense of urgency to react to find new ways of using performance to tackle important and fundamental questions which go to the very heart of European society and, crucially, its future.

[1] Saskia Sassen, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy, Harvard University Press, 2014.

[2] Giorgio Agamben, "What Is an Apparatus?" and Other Essays, translated by David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella, Stanford University Press, 2009.

[3] Reddit: https://www.reddit.com/r/ukpolitics/comments/9n9bhm/brexit_explained_via_cake_analogy/.

[4] Documentary Across Disciplines, ed. Erika Balsom and Hila Peleg, MIT Press, 2006.

[5] Slavoj Zizek, The Parallax View, 2006, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, p. 17.

[6] Paolo Bianchi, “Utopia as Freedom of Imaginative Power: Essay on a Utopian Sculpture by Barbara Caveng”, Paolo Bianchi, Utopien Aveiden, 2013.

[7] Blog accessible here: https://blogs.mediapart.fr/decoloniser-les-arts/blog.

©2020 by Observatoire Critique.

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