2016 / Thomas Bellinck
a version of this text was published in: Pavillon n°8 (December 2017), [Monaco]: Pavillon Bosio , 2017.
BUILDING A MAUSOLEUM
TO THE PRESENT
In 2013, as the European debt crisis was mutating into a full-blown crisis of confidence on all possible levels, I built my first museum. Usually, I don’t dabble much in the art of museum-making. I’m a theatre maker. I write. I perform. I direct. But when I was invited by the Royal Flemish Theatre to create a site-specific play on Jean Monnet, the French cognac merchant turned founding father of the European Union, I declined. Having just made a play about Robespierre, the French lawyer turned revolutionary figurehead, I was terrified of turning into the conveyor belt director of bioplays about French statesmen. Besides, as the focus of my work had gradually been shifting, I had come to realise that dramatic characters and narratives appealed to me much less than sociopolitical systems and institutional mechanisms. So I decided to build a museum about the European Union instead. A museum about a time of radical transition. A museum that would tackle the paradoxes that riddle the European Project, as well as my own constant wavering between pro-Europeanism and Eurocriticism. A museum that would be both highly ambiguous and, just like most state museums for that matter, totally subjective. A real museum, with mannequins, information panels and display cases.
While looking for a venue in the European Quarter in Brussels, we stumbled upon a derelict old boarding school. Its inconspicuous, ramshackle appearance beautifully counterpointed the pompous architecture of supranational power a few blocks away. Of the neighbouring EU landmarks, I was obviously most fascinated by the yet to be opened House of European History. I was flabbergasted that in the middle of a tangle of overlapping crises, the European Parliament had decided to fund a new museum on European history and integration. As museums traditionally are - to quote art historian Douglas Crimp paraphrasing Michel Foucault - the “institutional articulation of power and knowledge relations”, the House of European History would soon grow into the nemesis of our project. Before it had even opened its doors, I fantasised about what would be left of it in 50 years time, when the EU has long collapsed and sunk into oblivion. I dreamed of time traveling to my own present. Of creating a historical distance which would show the flip-side of contemporary institutional historiography. I thought up a future group of neoEsperantist pan-Europeans, desperately clinging on to and exhibiting its scarce remnants. I fantasised what their exhibition space would look like.
In his seminal essay Des Espaces Autres, Foucault coins the term “heterotopia”, an “other space”, which I once heard philosopher Lieven De Cauter saliently describe as “a place where people can take a rest from dystopia and dream up new utopias.” According to Foucault, “the heterotopia begins to function at full capacity when men arrive at a sort of absolute break with their traditional time.” This rupture with real time, which Foucault calls “heterochrony”, was to become one of the guiding principles of our project. (In retrospect this all sounds very deliberate. But needless to say, just like the contemporary history it was trying to address, our museum’s creation process was often haphazard rather than purposive, messy rather than chronological.) I fancied our neo-Esperantist, pan-European museum taking the shape of a claustrophobic labyrinth, cut off from reality, suspended in time. Of a series of dismal rooms, in a permanently temporary state of demolition or renovation. Rooms rife with withered plants, broken audio guides, signs in Esperanto, dusty maps and decaying artefacts. I imagined we would send in visitors one by one, with a minimal interval of 5 minutes between each visitor, so as to emphasise their feeling of desolation and appeal to a different sensory perception. I decided to name our project DOMO DE EŬROPA HISTORIO EN EKZILO, “The House of European History in Exile.” By parodying, appropriating and subverting the apparatus of the real House of European History, I hoped to profanate the very ideology the yet to be opened original was supposed to embody.
For a while, as we were constructing our futuristic-historical museum behind the inconspicuous boarding school façade, our presence in the European Quarter went by relatively unnoticed. Although we did publish an announcement in the neighbourhood magazine. It was only when we inconsiderately put up a sign with the logo of our fictitious museum that panic broke out. A small-scale local panic, but panic nonetheless. Panic about yet another obscure EU body that seemed to be setting up shop in the neighbourhood. About where they’d conjure up enough additional parking space to accommodate the avalanche of visitors that would no doubt flood in to visit this new European museum. Soon, we found ourselves distributing leaflets to local inhabitants, compelled to clarify our presence and that of our highly debated sign board. Much later I realised that the misunderstandings about our sign were early symptoms of what Sébastien Hendrickx, our dramaturge, refers to as the “heteronomy” of art, i.e. the blurring of the boundaries between art and life. In an article on what he aptly terms “as-if art”, he scrutinizes the dynamics of heteronomy in the work of artists who disguise their practice as something other than art: feeding on ambiguity, they open as-if shops, establish as-if political parties and build as-if museums. It was precisely this heteronomy that was to manifest itself again once our museum opened its doors.
We had decided to cut the ribbon on May 9, also widely ignored as Europe Day. A few hours before opening time, an inquisitive journalist of The Guardian decided to come and take a look. He probably just had some spare time because on this godforsaken Europe Day no other Europeanish activities were taking place. The EU institutions had just thrown a party the weekend before and had shot their bolt before their actual festive day. The resulting article in The Guardian seemed to hit something of a nerve. In no time it triggered a deluge of interviews, articles and reports that appeared in newspapers and online magazines and were featured on TV and radio shows across Europe. Intriguingly enough, instead of ending up in the arts column, the museum managed to creep into the world section. For once newspapers didn’t dispatch their art critics, but sent us their foreign correspondents. The articles they wrote, were not reviews, but news. Those who couldn’t come, wrote articles about the fact that others had written articles about the museum. At first all the buzz was pretty much a virtual affair. In my morbidly silent, shabby building I was just making my rounds and watering the withered plants, entertaining more journalists than visitors. But then an MEP and former prime minister decided to come and take a peak. And the MEP twittered. And from the realm of the media, we entered the realm of politics. One of the vice-presidents of the European Commission delivering a keynote speech in Bratislava, used DOMO as his starting point to talk about the EU’s current woes. To be perfectly honest, most of his speech was pretty laborious and highly problematic, proffering the same solutions that got us into this bloody mess in the first place. The vice-president actually never even visited the museum. I should know. I was there. Making my rounds and watering the plants. Serving drinks at the museum bar.
After their claustrophobic romp through the EU’s past present, most visitors were happy to knock back a shot of Romanian plum distillate at my megalomaniac, 10-metre long bar top. As we’d boarded up all of the windows throughout the rest of building, blocking all natural daylight, up here on the top floor visitors drank in the panoramic view, marvelling at the European Parliament glistening in the distance. As a bartender, for the first time ever I got to meet each and every member of my audience. After the imposed solitude of their individual visit, they were eager to talk to me. Or to the other solitary visitors. Regardless whether these were inhabitants of the neighbourhood, Eurocrats, Eurosceptics, regular theatre goers, followers of the twittering MEP or passers-by whose curiosity had been roused by the sign outside. Every now and then, a long overdue European debate arose and a microscopic civil society forum spontaneously popped into being. As I had the journalists before them, I told the visitors I firmly believed we were at a crossroads in history. Options were closing in for the increasingly faltering EU, but I still cherished hope for a change in course. That was in 2013. Today I realise we are way past that crossroads. The EU’s leadership’s handling of Greece’s debt crisis and of the migrant reception crisis have widened the gap between EU rhetorics and reality beyond bridging. The world has changed. I have changed. And, as we’ve taken DOMO on the road, so has the audience.
After Brussels, Rotterdam and Vienna we are now set to open a new, revised version in Athens. The derelict boarding school has been substituted for a disused ministry. The top floor view of the European Parliament has made way for a rooftop view of the Acropolis. In his prison notebooks politician and theorist Antonio Gramsci famously recorded: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” At present, I can think of few places in Europe where this holds more true than in Athens, a city permeated with a persistent sense of urgency and precariousness. It is here, on the periphery of the European Project, that its fault lines have become most dangerously palpable. Back in 2013, journalists and visitors calling at my megalomaniac museum bar repeatedly asked me whether I really believed the EU would collapse or whether DOMO was rather meant as some kind of distress signal. I replied I had chosen to paint the worst case scenario precisely because I believed it could still be averted. I told them I had intended DOMO to be some sort of a mausoleum, a tomb proactively commemorating an intriguing postnationalist experiment. Not because I wanted to bury the European Project, but precisely because I wanted to talk about death in order to avoid it. Today, in 2016, I no longer wish to do so. Even though we can’t seem to let go of it, the old is dying beyond all doubt. The last thing that I want is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But today I hope our museum-mausoleum might somehow function as a site of mourning, as a concrete, physical space to properly say goodbye to the old. So that the new can finally be born.