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Sharing knowledge and imagining together

An interview with Thomas Bellinck by Esther Severi (Kaaitheater)

In the production Simple as ABC #3: The Wild Hunt, theatremaker Thomas Bellinck presents a polyphonic portrait of what he calls one of the most acute forms of man-hunting today. Just like his previous work, the production was based on extensive research as he works with groups of people at locations where key figures gather in function of this hunt. This generates intense debates, staggering stories and a theatre performance that deeply penetrates both your head and your heart.

Your new production is the next step in a series of works entitled ‘Simple as ABC’. You consciously opted to work on one theme over a long series of works – it is even the subject of your doctorate in the arts (at KASK / School of Arts at the Hogent). Can you elaborate on this decision, and explain the general title ‘Simple as ABC’?

Simple as ABC is a research project that has resulted in a series of works. It is a long-term trajectory during which I attempt to focus in different ways on aspects of European mobility management, and specifically how the European Union facilitates the movement of certain bodies through space while hindering and preventing the movement of other bodies. I intentionally use the word ‘mobility’ rather than ‘asylum’ or ‘migration’. In any case, I do not think that you can separate one kind of mobility from the other – the opening of the internal European borders is inextricably related to the closing of Europe’s external borders.

The Simple as ABC series has been running for several years. I made Simple as ABC #1: Man vs Machine with Jozef Wouters/Decoratelier. It was a short production for large venues without actors, which attempted to focus on the detection technology that is used on Europe’s external borders. There was a device around which pilot projects were being developed then: the electronic nose. Its objective was to replace sniffer dogs with machines that could smell both drugs and people hidden in trucks.

Simple as ABC #2: Keep Calm and Validate was more an exploration of discourse. Which words are used for which purpose and what is their impact on the images that we construct? The project was inspired by a European Commission text about the use of violence when taking the fingerprints of people applying for asylum. This text did not just use classical terms like ‘migrant’, ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’ but especially the word ‘data subject’. As a musical, the production attempted to explore the shift in words that are currently occurring and showed an accelerated process of datafication at the border, as a result of which more and more decisions are being outsourced to algorithms. Simple as ABC #3: The Wild Hunt initially began as historical research into the ‘mental furniture’ of European mobility and border policies. Why do people think the way they do and what are the historical roots of this thinking?

A series allows you to address a certain theme more profoundly. Each work in the series is a new step in your reflection process, an expression of where you are in your research at that moment. I’ve noticed that for several artists, working in series generates ways of creating time, against the neoliberal logic of creating as many ‘new’ works as possible in the shortest possible amount of time. Is that true of your work?

A series like this absolutely feels like a kind of antidote. Especially in a time when series are being used to accelerate something and bring products to the market. We live in an age in which ‘the series’ – like the Netflix series – dominates and in which something successful has to be reboxed and reformatted at least three times. In contrast, I think it is interesting to explore the enduring significance of a different kind of series and what the results might be of extended research that has no finality, no predetermined form and no endpoint. The attempt to work in a series is more about constructing a universe in which you can take new steps in your thinking – while simultaneously continuing to cast a spotlight on the same material.

Furthermore, a series offers you the space and time to not do everything all at once. In the earlier stages, the work was more analytic. For Simple as ABC #3, I returned to the feeling that I had at the very beginning. But now I am able to recontextualize that feeling because it is embedded in a different thought process than ten years ago. And it is becoming easier to let more and more people in. We are trying to create space to exchange different kinds of expertise, especially in the current process.

Expertise is a word that you often use, especially as a way of describing an encounter and to give the people that you meet and work with a clear place in the artistic process. In line with what you said earlier about words like ‘migration’, you also avoid the words ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ because they are so closely associated with predetermined notions. Rather, you talk about ‘experts of a certain reality’. The expertise of the groups of people who collaborated on Simple as ABC #3 in Athens and Tunis was very diverse: people who crossed the border in an ‘irregular’ way, from Afghani to Greek journalists to the Greek border patrol and Tunisian people traffickers. As a researcher, you constantly ‘outsource’ the idea of expertise. Is that a conscious choice?

I sometimes get called or invited to speak as a ‘migration expert’, but I feel that I'm first and foremost an expert on myself, as, throughout my work, I come closer and closer to the ways in which my own privilege is constructed. I sense that I have less and less to say about other people and more about how certain power mechanisms function, how I am implicated in them, the ways in which I reap the benefits, the ways such things are legitimised and what their historical roots are. That's a different kind of knowledge than what the other people I invite into the process have to contribute. I'm thus learning that there are different forms of knowledge. Throughout various processes and collaborations with people, I increasingly explore ways to give all these different kinds of knowledge a place in one narrative.

You comment on forms of knowledge that often stay invisible or under the radar. In Simple as ABC #2, you cast a spotlight on a very visible institutional discourse, but one which is perhaps rarely seen as a whole. By bringing together the contradictions of that discourse, its ambiguity and perhaps even its danger become visible. Simple as ABC #3 is about knowledge, narrated by voices who rarely have the agency to tell their story themselves. Their storytelling is always mediated by others, such as journalists. As a result, the stories themselves are formatted and stereotyped. Is your clear perspective on expertise and (in)visibility a kind of statement to focus on those who have the right to speak and those who don’t?

To me, the mechanism of invisibility was just as present in Simple as ABC #2. I attended several ‘border and migration management conferences’ at the time, during which I heard presentations by all kinds of experts from the European Asylum Support office, Frontex, Europol and The European Union Agency for the Operational Management of Large-Scale IT Systems in the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice. Just like me, the majority of the people in attendance represented a certain position of power and a certain dominant normativity – almost all of them were white men in suits. Very occasionally, a person would be invited to these conferences to represent the objectified category of ‘the migrant’. They would then be permitted to recount their life story very briefly, in order to embed the dehumanising discourse of such conferences in humanitarian need. And around this central biography, everyone else would speak as though they had expertise in the matter. But apart from that one person, nobody at those conferences actually knew what it is like, both physically and psychologically, to cross Europe’s border. The only people there were people who build the border. In Simple as ABC #3, we take the expertise that is made invisible at such conferences seriously, and doing so immediately makes the other form of expertise - the normative form - very marginal…

The result is an arsenal of stories that shock you as a viewer – not because they are spectacular but because of your own naivety or your own limited collection of images and narratives concerning a particular issue.

The authors and actors who contributed to the production have acquired expertise into the dynamics of hunting that play out on and around the border. And they are able to describe these dynamics with great precision. You hear things that you have never heard before simply because these are questions that never get asked in the mainstream.

In these collaborations, you clearly present the artistic stakes from the very beginning. In Simple as ABC #3: The Wild Hunt, it was the idea of the ‘wild hunt’, a pan-European legend in which hunting scenes were seen in the sky as an omen. The iconography of the wild hunt is, likewise, the subject of numerous historical paintings and hunting scenes. Using some of these paintings, you asked the experts to compose their own ‘wild hunt’, to paint a verbal scene that they perceive as a key moment in the humanhunt. From the very beginning, you not only involve your partners in the preparatory research for the production but also in the artistic translation of that material onstage.

If we’re talking about the construction of images, it makes sense to ask the people who are the subjects of those images to see how they would like to be depicted. We do that literally in this production by asking the question: ‘If you were to construct an image about a certain form of human-hunt, what would that image be?’ I think it is very important that we make an artistic project together and that the process is as appropriate and professional as possible. You appeal to a certain expertise, knowledge, and people get paid and are mentioned in the credits. In terms of content, the focus is on their knowledge about certain dynamics of hunting, rather than their biographies or personal stories – though such may be present in the background.

In addition to the artistic theme of the wild hunt as a perspective from which to construct images, a different artistic motif was gradually added as a framework: the museum as a context and point of convergence for the material. These ‘images’ obviously had to be exhibited somewhere!

To me, the museum functions as a working instrument and a space for reflection. In the traditional sense, the museum is the space par excellence where an organisation, a nation state or supranational political entity manifests itself spatially, where they thematically present their ambitions in rooms and objects, historicise themselves and claim a certain future. Historiography is never neutral. Indeed, every historiography is a claim to a possible future on the basis of which one seeks to construct a certain world. And the museum is the ultimate expression of this objective. That is why I think it is interesting to question and challenge the museum as a tool. In an earlier project, Domo de Eŭropa Historio en Ekzilo, a museum about the implosion of the EU from a future perspective, we attempted to parody such projects, whereas now we try to come one step closer to a possible answer to the question of what a museum might be today. We are constructing a real museum, but it is ephemeral and auditory. The people who make the images are the same people who have the images etched on their retinas. You can only see the images because they are momentarily evoked while they are being described. And they disappear just as quickly. The result is that you go through an exhibition together, ‘thinking’ or constructing it together because an appeal is made to your imagination. I think of the museum approach as an attempt to formulate a possible answer to what a museum might be in an age in which the museum is rightly being debated as a 19th-century institution that all too often functions as a national and colonial instrument of power. Which histories do museums describe? Who is given a space in a museum and what does it symbolize? Who wrote the narratives? Of what does the collection consist? Where did it come from? From which context was it ripped or plundered? I am not only talking about the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, which is currently being debated in Brussels, but also about how Greece is still negotiating with The British Museum to get the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon back after 200 years.

That touches on an interesting field of tension in your work as a documentary maker and your discourse around documentaries. You recently co-organised a symposium on speculative documentary in cooperation with the research group The School of Speculative Documentary (KASK) and Kaaitheater. Speculative documentary is an approach in which questions and awareness about the (power) positions of makers contribute to determining the images, and in which space is created for uncertainty in relation to the representation or interpretation of reality. How did you detect these questions in the creation process of The Wild Hunt?

The first question is how transparent you are about the fact that you select and edit certain things, that you are constantly present in your work as a creator, that you are the channel that mediates between your artistic apparatus and the people with whom you collaborate, in the best case, but who in the worst case are treated like “characters”, subjects or objects of a narrative over which they often have no control. When you make a documentary, you randomly create a new reality. And the question then is about the consciousness that you impose and the extent in which you involve people in the creation of that reality.

In one of the first workshops that we organised in Tunisia, somebody asked me if I don’t feel strange about the fact that my European passport enables me to travel to Tunisia without a visa to go and make something there about the fact that the people there must pay through the nose to apply for visas to go to Europe and that the vast majority of these applications are rejected. Such a simple question goes straight to the heart of the balance of power that this whole production is about. On the one hand, this is obviously the subject that you want to address, but on the other, it makes you realise how deeply you, yourself, are rooted in the problem, even within your own artistic practice. Avoiding the question then becomes completely impossible.

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