SPEECH PRONOUNCED AT THE OPENING OF THE FLEMISH THEATRE FESTIVAL, KAAITHEATER, BRUSSELS

2009 / Thomas Bellinck

a version of this text was published in: De Cauter, Lieven, Ruben De Roo, and Karel Vanhaesebrouck. Art and Activism

in the Age of Globalization. [Rotterdam]: NAi , 2011.

 
WE WERE DYING
AND THEN WE GOT A PRIZE

                                   From a conversation after our nomination:

 

                        -          We’ve been selected for a theatre festival!

                        -          Theatre?

                                   What the fuck have we got to do with theatre?

                        -          It’s for our protest action.

                                   It’s like a prize.

                        -          They want to award us a prize?

                        -          No.

                                   It’s more of an honour.

                        -          They want to help us?

                        -          No.

                                   It’s more of an honour.

 

To the exemplary director of an exemplary cultural institution,

Dear Mr director,

 

On 18 March 2009, when together with 9 hunger strikers we scaled a container

on Place de la Monnaie to sing the Brabançonne, theatre was the last thing on our minds.

The tears that were shed were true tears.

From true exertion.

Because, after a month of starvation, some could no longer climb the steel steps of the container and had to be pushed or hauled up.

Because, after 4 months in an underground car park,

some had to readjust to the exposure to so much sunlight and so much oxygen.

Moreover, the song we sang truly was our battle song.

We had chosen it because our battle had been lacking one.

And because this song happened to be vacant, since nobody wished to occupy it any longer.

So from a theatrical point of view, our protest action wasn’t worth a damn.

The idea that you later applauded, dear Mr director, was neither brilliant nor original.

It’s fairly easy to teach a bunch of emaciated people a forgotten anthem,

to help them into an oversized suit and to invite them up a container.

What was being conveyed at that moment was not the flimsy dramaturgy

of a none too ingenious concept.

What was being conveyed at that moment was a months-long political struggle

that had led these undocumented people all the way from hope via desperation to despondency.

What was being conveyed at that moment was the isolation, the lethargy, the constipation,

the kidney failures, the dying brain tissue, the psychoses and the diabetic comas

of people who had chosen to die because to them life was no longer of any help.

But those months go unmentioned in the brochures

because it’s kind of tough to applaud these sorts of things.

 

Dear Mr director,

when later on you congratulated me on our nomination, I was a bit shocked.

          Shit.

          I’ve accidentally made art.

          This has never happened to me before.

And what art it was: winning at the expense of the losers.

Just when I’d made a fundamental choice.

Just when I’d decided that I couldn’t possibly continue doing theatre within this context

if my assistance was much more urgently required for other reasons

than for the sake of art.

When later on you congratulated me on our nomination, I remembered my first march

together with these undocumented people.

As just about the only Belgian amid the flags, the pots, the pans

and the slogans whizzing through the air.

          Turtelboom tu as foutu / la jeunesse dans la rue

          1ière 2ième 3ième génération / nous sommes tous des enfants d'immigrés

               [Turtelboom you threw / the young out into the streets

               1st 2nd 3rd generation / we’re all immigrants’ children]

I was clutching the end of a heavily painted sheet, mainly trying not to stand out too much,

while simultaneously showing that of course I was extremely committed.

Now and then I twitched the corners of my mouth and mumbled something.

And with every slogan I thought:

          Yeah, sure, that’s all very well, but is that really the case?

          Because from a historical perspective...

          And yes, but yes, the social safety net...

          And...

And I felt such a coward, the socially engaged leftist intellectual critical self-reflective artist,

who aims to expose the complexity without lapsing into these one-sided political pamphlets,

who wants to keep contextualizing the ongoing events,

who wants to present things as nuanced as possible.

Dear Mr director,

I understand your question about the geopolitical conceptual framework I make use of.

I understand your sense of nuance, because I share it.

But a battle is no place for nuance.

A battle is no place for our cherished pose of the right-minded artist.

On the contrary, our much-treasured critical distance almost a priori inhibits

our ability to take action.

I’m not that much braver than you are, dear Mr director,

but at some point I simply tipped over the edge.

At some point I moved into the underground car park

and started writing these one-sided political pamphlets.

Because there just happened to be an urgent need for them.

I have a lot of respect for artists who are into 'socially committed theatre' as we call it.

But surely social engagement also implies human engagement?

Surely engagement isn’t bound to time sheets or productivity targets?

Surely when you make something 'about', you almost automatically make something 'with'?

This is not a reproach, dear Mr director, it is a question.

Where do you draw the line?

I wonder.

I’m 26.

I’m young and I suffer from a deficient ability to keep my distance.

I cannot draw that line.

And I do not wish to draw that line.

I got so worked up these past few months, dear Mr director,

whenever you organized another temporary artistic occupation

by undocumented people who dined, slept and shared some cuddly audience participation

with the visitors to your institution.

Until your immigration-themed week was over and the undocumented people could piss off.

A genuine occupation, dear Mr director, inevitably ends in a hunger strike.

Because in the end this is always the last resort.

A two-month hunger strike equals a three-month reprieve.

Such is the unwritten rule in this country.

You may not like it, but this is how the game is played.

Unless we change the game.

I am against hunger strikes as much as you are.

Nevertheless, I’ve now witnessed three up close and supported them

with all my heart and soul.

Because there always comes a time when it’s out of my hands to decide.

I got so worked up these past few months, dear Mr director,

whenever you planned on organizing some well-intentioned event, but kept postponing it

because the concept wasn’t quite powerful enough yet.

          And if we want to have an impact, we need to come up with a powerful concept.

I understand that from an artistic point of view.

and up in my attic I can refine and polish as many happenings as I like.

But time measures differently for hunger strikers.

My time isn’t theirs.

They are fighting to the death.

Perhaps we ought to make theatre to the death.

I think our absolute necessity to create would soon become clear.

At any rate, if I want to lend my support to a political struggle, I have to conform

to a political agenda.

To this you replied, dear Mr director, that art should never be at the service of politics.

Whereas your inertia can be called just as political.

I got so worked up these past few months, dear Mr director,

whenever you sympathisingly slipped me money, as long as I kept the name of your institution out of our press releases.

I happen to know, dear Mr director, that on every floor of your institution

you have at least three water coolers.

Such a water cooler would have come in very handy indeed, dear Mr director,

because hunger strikers drink water like fish.

But you couldn’t give me such a water cooler, because that water cooler

has your name tagged on it.

And your name tag shouldn’t end up in an underground car park.

So you slipped me money - for which I’m still extremely grateful.

But imagine, dear Mr director, what might have happened if your institution

both in name and substance had thrown in its lot with our occupation.

If starving undocumented people had occupied your stage and every artist

had had to alter their show, so as to fit a dying backdrop.

If you had put all of your logistical, organizational, dramaturgical

and press and communication services fully at our disposal

and we had used the available intellectual capital to besiege the policy makers.

What kind of impact would we have had then?

 

I know, dear Mr director, you still believe that revolutions are triggered by individuals,

not by institutions.

And besides, you run a cultural institution, not a humanitarian organization.

Your main activity is culture, that’s what it says in your personal status.

But if you organize carbon footprint evenings, alternative market system weekends,

virological seminars and decolonization workshops then how could you possibly claim

that humanity is outside your remit?

 

I got so worked up, dear Mr director,

when you congratulated me on our nomination

and said that your institution could have been more supportive of our protest actions.

But I’m 26.

It’s easy for me to say.

And I mean it sincerely.

I have no money.

I have no name.

I have nothing to put on the line - but myself

 

Should you somehow feel the urge to applaud I would like to ask you

to applaud the following 9 people.

Not because they’re such brilliant theatre makers.

But because they were prepared to give their life to obtain what nobody should have to fight for.

Constance, Francis, Yassin, Mourad, Rachid, Abdoulkarim, Patrick, Ibrahima, Bader,

thank you.

(© 2020 by THOMAS BELLINCK)