'History is not yet written'

Since he graduated from PARTS, Michiel Vandevelde has been a choreographer, curator and author. One of the leitmotifs in his work is his explicit political and artistic activism. Instead of waiting until everything gets better, he advocates taking the bull by the horns. 'I am convinced that every generation ultimately has to create its own institutions.' A conversation with Michiel Vandevelde for his Kaaitheater residency (2017-2021).

How did your current practice develop? What is your background?

Generally speaking, I divide my ‘oeuvre’ into three periods: before PARTS, PARTS itself, and what happened afterwards. Besides dancing in various productions with fabuleus, I sketched a trajectory with scenographer Jozef Wouters and my brother Menno Vandevelde. We created productions together, and experimented with sets and the machinery of theatre. This resulted in many grand gestures. It wasn’t about reflection, but about the practice itself: literally creating and building things.
For me, PARTS was a technical evolution and the construction of a more specific, substantiated discourse. I became more conscious of the context of my own work: what is the significance of making something, and how does that relate to art history – or history generally? After PARTS, my practice became more coherent, based on a number of lines that I had drawn through a number of different works.

You relate to the cultural landscape in various ways: you make productions, co-curate the Bâtard Festival among other things, are on the editorial board of Etcetera, and write articles. How do all these things relate?

It is not fragmented. You might even describe my practice as curatorial: I always use other people’s materials that I re-appropriate. This results in new compositions through which I tell a new story, and that is true in my dance and theatre work, as well as in my writing and curating. I use the principle of ‘cannibalism’, which I borrowed from Brazilian author Oswalde de Andrade. He conceives of cannibalism metaphorically, as the consumption of an invasive and hegemonic culture, which is then digested and secreted in a different form. Although Western society does not colonize me, I do not agree with it. What do I consider to be invasive in my life or – more broadly – in society? But even separated from that question, one discipline can inspire the other. When I started rehearsing for Antithesis, the future of the image (2015), I wrote a lot. The texts were eventually published in a magazine. At the same time, those texts resulted in the production.

In other words, you consciously choose to occupy a multifaceted and active position in the artistic landscape. What do you think more generally of the current position of artists in the performing arts scene?

In my experience, we have a very competitive and hierarchical landscape. There is a shortage of funding. And what’s more, the funding is allocated unjustly, primarily between arts workers, institutions and artists, and the artists are always underpaid. The field has professionalized incredibly, but to the detriment of the artists themselves.

Is the position you adopt in the field your way of dealing with that injustice, of campaigning against it and emancipating artists?

One of the insights I would definitely propagandize is that artists should become more involved in institutions so that they can take things into their own hands. We must become integral parts of existing cultural centres, not only to create art, but also to contribute to discussions in the various levels of an organization. Are we still at the heart of this or that organization and policy? Do we still feel represented? In just the same way, we must dare to act. Let your voice be heard, and if necessary, launch new initiatives!
I am convinced that every generation ultimately has to create their own institutions. That just doesn’t seem as easy nowadays. I think it is important openly to think about the how, the what and the why, without taking an organization’s specific expectations into account. History is not yet written…

It is striking how you always sign up in different ways to collective thought and practice. How would you describe the opposition between the individual and collective trajectories?

In the beginning, before and during PARTS, I often worked in collective ways. Sometimes they were very intensive processes that involved a lot of frustration and conflict. Friction can be interesting because it opens up new mental spaces and inspires you to think. But in many of these collective projects, the conflict was often external, which produced less interesting discussions. My more recent work is not collective – I would sooner describe it as ‘semi-directive’. I take the final decisions and guide the project, but I am in constant dialogue with the people involved.
I do work collectively in Bâtard and Etcetera. We take all the decisions together. I was recently thinking that collective work on the one hand, and directive work on the other, implies that with the former, the object is outside myself, and with the latter it is much closer to me. In a festival or magazine, the material is only indirectly linked to your artistic ideas. Ultimately, it is very delicate – vulnerable even – to debate your own creations, while collectively talking about other people’s work is very enjoyable: nobody is directly emotionally invested in it.

How do you imagine the ideal cultural centre?

I have developed various ideas about that. One of them is to found a nomadic school in which every student builds their own pavilion, and then to tour different cities with them. Dries Douibi and I have considered using a building in Molenbeek to completely obscure the boundary between a museum and a theatre. There would be three empty halls, which two or three artists or collectives could use for a few months every year. Each residence would end with a presentation event. This would demand close collaboration with the artist, and would result in many more experimental forms of art. I think there is a need for these sorts of places now. We need architecture that can be largely reconceived, in function of artistic work.
Another idea is based on the enormous hierarchy in the arts landscape, to which only very few gain access, while there are always more artists due to the wide variety of training programmes. How do we deal with that army of artists? Perhaps by creating an excess of institutions? By launching more initiatives, instead of the current policy of less. Imagine if art lovers, artists and art workers were to join forces to buy up various centres in the city, which could then be developed as sanctuaries for art!
Besides all this, I am convinced that we must capitalize more on individual and collective organizations, more on smaller than larger structures. Under Anciaux, artists were stimulated to join larger organizations instead of developing their own structures. The idea was that larger structures would be able to support artists more efficiently. I think we are seeing the disastrous consequences of that policy now. Large structures consume an enormous amount of funding, but only a small fraction of their artistic budgets actually goes to artists. The minister wants to support artists more effectively, but within the current policy priorities, that is simply impossible. What we need is the opposite of the current system!

For you, the city is a structure in which such an alternative system can be developed for the arts. Do you also look for active involvement with the city itself? You have turned away from the theatre hall several times, to develop an idea in the city.

My engagement with the city is primarily as a resident – not only as an artist. For me, the city consists of public facilities, from parks to theatres. There is often a tendency to see the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of a theatre as opposed. But I consider them both as public spaces, each with their own characteristics, their own advantages and disadvantages. Depending on the project, I move along that axis of inside or outside. Inside, you have focus and great performance machinery to create a feeling of ‘togetherness’. Outside, it is more chaotic, and attention is far less self-evident.
For a long time, I thought about the black box as the negative space of what is outside the theatre. That is how the German-Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han talks about the ‘over-positivizing’ and privatization of the city. That has not yet reached an extreme in Brussels, but in a city like Amsterdam, the presence of tourists totally determines the development of the city centre. Where does public debate still occur in a context like that? Theatres are ideally disconnected from that over-positivizing, they are black boxes for the representation or the sharing of ideas, as negative of the space around the theatre. As spaces for public discussions.
Theatre as a space for reflecting on and developing different discourses is something that I work on intensively. We are living in a bizarre age that confronts us with an excess of stupidity. For example, the biggest clown is elected president. How can we put thought back on the foreground? I see an interesting role for art in that process.


Michiel Vandevelde in conversation with Esther Severi (dramaturge Kaaitheater).