Steven de Belder (Antwerpen)
Shirtology. 15 teenagers and an actor occupy the stage, almost without any movement or expression. No talking, hardly any music. All wear a thick bundle of T-shirts, which they peel off one by one. The T-shirts all have prints: letterings, photographs, pictures, referring to sports teams, pop music idols, fashion brands, cartoons or ecological movements. These are inscriptions of a commercial mass culture, products or signs with which people distinguish themselves from one group and identify with another. The T-shirts and their signs are combined with a logic that is both internal and externally imposed. Terms and images are combined and involved in the often literal enaction of what is shown on the T-shirt. Let me try to describe two scenes, although I my risk uttering complete nonsense in your ears: look Im sure youre looking at us (image of a face); relax (the group relaxes) no time to waste (end of relaxing) choice saint-tropez kinshasa take me follow me (others start walking behind this one) no. The fourth scene: dance (actor starts dancing) dance to acid (continues dancing) dance or die (continues, then stops) replay (starts again, and sings along the song text) shut up and dance (stops singing but dances on) say it loud (yells the song text) concept in dance bye bye (actor off). Signs, which as a rule serve as means for passive identification show themselves as performative. The theatrical action consists only of the inscriptions, the assigned actions en the pulling off of T-shirts.
Youth rules - confusion reigns. A transport belt conveys teenagers, like luggage at the airport. In swiftly succeeding tableaus scenes and dialogues in fragmented television-English take place: hitchhiking, trying to figure out how to seize a big deal, dreaming of producing films and videogames, asking themselves whether all of this is real or just a boring dream, discussing natural versus technological means of losing weight. References to films, philosophical issues and day-to-day worries jumble together, text fragments are repeated several times and combined with other situations, live amplified sound is mixed with pre-recorded text fragments and music. The general impression is one of hesitating resignation. The piece seems constructed as a sonic installation with moving images.
Kung Fu. A catwalk, preferably not in a regular theatre space. Videoscreens, a DJ. 25 youngsters, nice babes and cool guys as they announce themselves, run on and off the catwalk, alone or in small groups. They perform short fragments or monologues, firm statements or quasi-direct outpourings from their private diaries, or conversations from the pub. They all balance between embarrassing intimacy and ironic exaggeration. Often they take on poses from the worlds of advertisement and film, or the space is for a moment transformed into a dance club. Loud music and flashy video cuts abound. The atmosphere is provoking and sensual, but the status of the show never gets clear: is this a joke that got out of hand? A strong statement against traditional theatre? Or just a common ambient theatre performance?
The Victoria Theatre in Ghent, Belgium produces all these performances, and both Shirtology and Kung Fu have had an exciting European career. It started as a production space for childrens and adolescents theatre, but since Dirk Pauwels took over it transformed into a multidisciplinary house which combines the international theatre hits of Alain Platel and Arne Sierens with longer residencies and small projects for young artists. The performances I want to present you today have in common that they were made by a group of adolescents and a professional theatre maker. Shirtology was mounted in 1998 with the radical French choreographer Jerome Bel; Youth rules was presented this year with Roy Faudree of the Wooster Group. Kung Fu started within an independent group of youngsters, but was later supported by Victoria and director Pol Heyvaert.
I would like to look at these performances from the viewpoint of the everyday. Their material is relatively direct inspired by the lifeworld of the teenagers, which is adapted and edited for the performance. I would like to defend the thesis that the specific stagings enlighten the own theatrical qualities of their everyday lives.
Youth and the everyday, two fields which appeal strongly to the contemporary artistic and cultural imagination. Both form an idealised image, whether or not viewed from the perspective of its being threatened/ the youngsters represent dynamism, freshness, the hip, as well as vulnerability towards the excesses of advertisement and consumption. The everyday stands for the raw, primitive, uncorrupted sphere of the ecological Umwelt, as well as it is threatened by boredom, consumption and standardised behaviour. Linking both fields produces then, depending on the perspective, an exciting powder keg of headstrong identities, or a dreary landscape. Both visions betray a certain romantic approach, which ultimately blocks access to the everyday and the youthful, and therefore miss its universal presence in our experience.
Artistically, the figure of the everyday usually pops up in two different spheres. One is the domain of autonomous art ideologies, in which it functions as a means for reduction to basic qualities. From the genre paintings over impressionism until the modern dance of Merce Cunningham and The Judson Church Group, the figure of the everyday stands for the throwing off of as much ballast, to start again from scratch, in order to elaborate a completely new artistic vocabulary, freed from tradition and representation.
The other is the field in which art tries to transgress its borders and fuse with the everyday itself. The historical avant-garde tried to fuse art and life by stressing the banal in the production of art, and by transferring the artistic processes closer to reality. With somewhat less revolutionary rhetoric this idea is carried on in for example community theatre or the so-called neo-naturalism: both show in a very direct manner local contexts and lifeworlds, far from historical narratives or heroes.
The three performances can be situated between these two models. Because of the large contribution of the teenagers the direct stake of their lifeworld is a basic motive in the plays. But it is no community theatre, since no specific group identity is proposed. Moreover, the performances explicitly question this identity as youth, which is unremittingly contributed to them. Besides, the everyday has been transformed into an autonomous form, thanks to the collaboration with the experienced directors who gave Shirtology and Youth rules a quite abstract grid. Maybe Kung Fu keeps the most close to the idea of community theatre: the direct reproduction of the catwalk and dance club, and the fact that is was originally put up by a group of friends, provoke more easily the interpretation as if it were reality theatre or youth culture on stage, not the least because the makers refuse to call their show theatre and stress that they do it only for fun.
What kind of experience can be associated with the term the everyday? From the perspective of sociology the everyday is the informal sphere at the edge of the social, where one eats, sleeps, makes love, hangs around, indulges in hobbies or just doesnt do anything at all. Therefore, everybody has always had an everyday life, though we may not be aware of it as such. The everyday is the sphere at the backside of social traffic; it concerns what falls beyond the exigencies of rationality and functional role expectations. It is the space where one could be him or her self, even if (or just because) there is a large portion of repetitivity, habit and thoughtlessness involved. It is a dimension that exists next to the coercive headway of history, next to the demand for productivity, next to the schemes of official culture and civilisation. The everyday is thus usually defined ex negativo.
writes the French philosopher Maurice Blanchot. The interest in the everyday is then paradoxical: he suggests that all attempts to describe this non-rational field, necessarily betray it. But these approaches are problematic inasmuch as they install a too huge gap between system and lifeworld. The everyday lifeworld can only be defined as utopia, or as reserve.
Whatever its other aspects, the everyday has this essential trait: it allows no hold. It escapes. It belongs to insignificance, and the insignificant is without truth, without reality, without secret, but perhaps also the site of all possible signification. The everyday escapes(1)
Blanchots elaboration of the everyday is closely connected with the aesthetics of the sublime of his compatriot Lyotard. For him, the everyday is one of the possible means of art to jump towards the sublime. It is a strategy to distance oneself from time, history and rational form. Everyday gestures and objects do not represent anything; they only communicate their presence. According to Lyotard, the overwhelming experience of the threat of the Nothing, reflected in the monotony and insignificance of the everyday, leads to the painful-glorious experience of the sublime.
The sublime may also shed some light on our three performances. In its slow and scarce action, Shirtology for example balances on the tightrope of the stagnation of time. The only constant appearances in this semiotic mess are the bodies of the actors, but they do not produce any signification by themselves, they are never shown as objects for the lustful gaze. Not dead, not very lively, but an almost pure presence. In Youth rules the breakthrough to the sublime could be situated in the performance of emotionlessness and boredom. The players characterise their play like this:
In Kung Fu the excessive amount of stimuli and provocation could produce a similar feeling of emptiness. After all, its not about concrete stories, but the sharp juxtaposition of subjective anecdotes. For example: one of the girls tries to turn on the audience as if she were an experienced porn-actress. She is suddenly relieved by another one who spits out: "I hate horny women. They constantly chase up my dad. Bah, I would rather stick a vacuum cleaner in his ass"(3). The short-circuiting of utopias, desires and the urge to be at pace with the hipper side of the world on the one hand, and the mediocrity or impossibility of any realisation thereof gives rise to a feeling of arousal and fear, a hysterical attempt to get a grip on the uncontrollable complexity of our society. But in the end, in this interpretation of the everyday as the gate to the sublime, it is used once again as a negative pole to dive in before leaving it in an abstraction or an ambiguous feeling of euphoria. In any case, the everyday remains a negatively defined concept.
No story. No character motivation. No love triangle. No wit. No moral. No conflict. No climax. No denouement. No ending. No romance, adventure or intrigue. What keeps their interest? No interest. No problem.(2)
When one does try to develop a positive approach to the everyday, it appears that such would only be possible with respect to the everyday of the Other. But often this other specifically consists of groups that seem to be already less actively involved in the so-called system, or that are extra vulnerable to colonisation, but who almost magically dispose of means of primitive transgression to disrupt the access of the system to their lifeworld. This can also steer a possible interpretation of the performances. But in this way one risks again romanticising the everyday. Not that the everyday lives of the teenagers or other disenfranchised groups would be so enviable, but they posses this hint of rawness and struggle, they seem to be so close with reality. The black hole in this sort of approach is your own everyday life: the banality you discover in the Others life does differ at lest slightly from your own then? This approach of the everyday is then somehow connected with a feeling of resentment, a projection of ones own feeling of inauthenticity on a field which remains inaccessible.
However, it must be possible to consider the everyday in a more productive and positive fashion. For instance in sociology the everyday is continuously in contact with the functionally differentiated systems that our society is composed of. The everyday has hardly its own substantial domain, but forms the underside of all the others, where they are knit together in an embodied context, according to the sociologist Henri Lefebvre:
Lefebvre stays pessimistic however, because he conceives of the communication in only one direction, the one of domination and colonisation. But the interesting part of his position is that he discards a substantial identity of the everyday. True, the concept itself could only be invented when rationalisation threatened always-larger parts of human life, but that does not mean that this sphere is definitely on an irrevocable trip towards disappearing.
All systems have in common a general law of functionalism. The everyday can therefore be defined as a set of functions, which connect and join together systems that might appear to be distinct. Thus defined, the everyday is a product, the most general product in an era where production engenders consumption, and where consumption is manipulated by producers.(4)
It may not be possible to withdraw oneself from the dominant logic of the system in your everyday life, but we should not forget the possibility to turn the perspective upside down, and to take a look at the concrete managing of these given structures. And I would like to describe this way of dealing with the metaphor of theatre. When the everyday life of the teenagers on stage can itself be termed theatrical, we could possibly escape the pointless dichotomy that contrasts the hyperreality of our socio-economic system with the so-called real, lived reality of everyday life. Therefore we should not analyse the performances in terms of their fictionalisation of the raw fabric that is life. Kung Fus catwalk is not a theatralisation of a chunk of reality, but a concentrated form for a pre-existing theatre. That is why the youngsters can be aid to act naturally: not because they act like they are, but because theyre always busy locating and constructing their position towards the outside world.
Still too often when one uses theatre as metaphor or analytical tool it is meant as fictionalised reality, but that is the since long dated 19th century idea of theatre. Today, theatre and theatricality point towards a specific human relation, between behaviour that is in a specific way presented and the fact that is viewed by an audience. Theatricality is a play of showing and hiding says Lyotard the never exactly pinpointable relation between the real reality and the shown reality.
In his famous book the invention of everyday life Michel de Certeau has researched the ways in which concrete users of the system deal with what is imposed upon them. For him everyday behaviour is a creative process, an art of doing. Against the expectations of the thrusted productivity he notices the ruse, the swift tactic of reappropriation and re-using, having it ones own way and experimenting with given products and images. Certeaus idea of tactics connects with Lyotards to show, to hide definition of theatricality. It would not be wise to expect hat the world could be structurally changed out of the lifeworld. But the everyday, in its theatrical conception, can be the go-between zone, the paradoxical area of the not-yet, the yes-but, or the so what?
The culture of T-shirts, dreams conceived in Hollywood and unreachable ideals of being part of the hippest group, could be called typical examples of cultural discipline, in the vein of Foucault. The individual user legitimate this bright multitude of colours, forms and signs as the result of personal choices. But in fact it is a very monotonous process of mutual competition and distinction that is only strengthened by the so-called free participation of every individual. The choice for this and not the other T-shirt is seen as a means in which one can project ones identity; the shirt visibly marks your personality as adherent of a certain ideology, as the consumer of a certain product, as a fan Kung Fu identifies itself with the world of attractive young girls, commercial music and entertainment.
Shirtology and the two others recognise this functioning, but without nostalgia or relief that itll be only a station to pass. Instead, they start from total identification and visibility: in the time-space unity of the performances all the acts are motivated solely by the T-shirts, dreams and poses, there is no other story to transcend and cover them. In the eyes of the over-critical and impatient viewer this risks to become boring, little more than a bleak repetition of the stereotypes of the commercial dream factories. After all, even if the teenagers in Youth rules and Kung Fu clearly doubt the futility of the treadmill they feel locked into, they also seem too energetically engaged in reproducing this circus on stage.
Because of the very dry presentation in shirtology the technologies of commodification and identification show their absurd and painful edge, as unalloyed examples of social disciplining. The shirto-logic is dissected as the internalised obedience under the gaze of the others: you wear a T-shirt in order to be seen wearing it, to allow the others to identify themselves with you. But the flat and super-obvious presentation makes the mechanism look quite obscene. On the other hand wearing a T-shirts can turn out to possess a creative potential. The logic of commodification appears to be not the only shirto-logic: new logics are readily invented, reasoned till their end and done away with. Youth rules tries to shake the order of time and the specificity of personal language, and Kung Fu brutally combines contradictory worldviews and emotional situation, without further comment. The playfulness the performances acquire this way breaks through the monotony of their limited and repetitive schemes of action. These new logics play games with notions of identity, while concrete identities, or the authentic everyday selves if you want, stay backstage. 'Shirtology' realises this through a huge reduction: between the players there is no communication outside the T-shirts, let alone with the audience. They do not try to make their real identities visible at the backside of their absurd obedience to the codes, since their neutral behaviour rather suggest their full espousal of them. In Youth rules personalities stay hidden behind the low emotionality and the absence of any characters: the players use each others real names, but it doesnt help in understanding who they could be. Kung Fu seeks its relief in the hyperbole of the contradictory flood of confessions, provocations and quasi-hysterical heteronomous identifications in playback and pose. One could only catch a glimpse of the autonomous field of the everyday in the suggestion of the reappropriation of the signs. The everyday, as the concrete intersection of the logics of fashion, entertainment and lifestyle, shows itself as a theatrical concept: it takes place at the border between the social constructivism of the play of identification and the for that game unreachable bottom of a person that does not appear to show itself, because it does never exist as an autonomous reality. The quest for personality is a general theme in the performances, but is also the crucial selling argument in the socio-technological world. But without the persistent quest for it the plays would make no sense and end in cynicism. The everyday s thereby confirmed as a critical and polemical concept, but not as independent reality. It is not utopia, but a possible door toward it. This theatre does not implode reality and fiction into hyperreality, because it is too conscious of form. Neither does it keep the well-known structures of theatre as fiction opposed to reality, because it can be much more effective.
Certeaus idea of tactics is something without fixed place, it is about discourses without proper names, that take the place of other discourses, dresses in other peoples clothes, uses other peoples language, and never rests upon proved methods and results. Tactics is not about identities, but about acts - the acts hide the identities away from lustful gazes, feed these gazes wit a theatrical show that does not really represent anything at all. The everyday falls under a multitude of controlling and disciplining gazes, but it will never be totally subsumed under any single one of them, and theres always room for simulating participation. Indeed, Certau does not deny Foucaults analysis of the fine mazed web of technologies of surveillance and discipline, but he concentrates of the structural weakness of this system, that is, it cannot put up with its own theatricality. The system does not want its subjects to be aware that their behaviour is adapted because of the surveillance, because the system sustains itself with a rhetoric of naturalness and humanism. Once this seal has been broken there is the possibility to play with it, maybe not in order to escape from it forever, but to surreptitiously try to turn the situation and its conditions to ones own advantage.
Coup de théâtre: at the end of Shirtology there is a sequence of T-shirts without inscriptions, which varies on the colour of blue. Signs, identification mechanisms and inventive recombinations suddenly disappear. What stays is a possibly even more banal and everyday piece of garment around the torsos of the players. This looks like a moralistic final chord: is the message after all that behind the playing and dislocating there is still a bottom layer that is sound and authentic? It is indeed possible to take off the veil of discipline to lay bare the Ground, how banal and not specifically beautiful this ground may be, how limited but still genuine this field of personal freedom may be? This has been suggested in the critical reception of the piece. But it would be too easy, and it would reduce the rest of the play to redundant wasting of time, an easily passable station of youthful impetuosity. But then comes the very last image, which proves that exactly this direct deployment of authenticity is all the more easily recuperable: its a pink T-shirt with the inscription United colours of Bennetton. This very last slogan is not a haphazard sign that only twists the logic of the former images. Bennettons advertisements exemplify in a sharp and sometimes shocking way the ambivalence of the concept of authenticity: clearly ethically motivated themes like Aids, racism or sexism, that also protest against the plastic fantasy world of the fashion industry, are in a shameless and purely heteronomous manner connected to an ad campaign of a product, even more, of the pure simulacrum of the fashion brand, since there are hardly any Bennetton sweaters and pants to spot in the pictures. This last T-shirt is the counterpoint to this idealist outpouring, a reinstallation of the theatrical ambiguity that appropriates the productivity of the economy. Since it reconnects with the rest of the show, this final image is not a cynical espousal of the inescapable commodification of sincere feelings. Again: the question for the everyday and the honest keeps being asked and stays legitimate, but there can be no answer.
When we conceive of the everyday as a theatrical borderzone, we do not think it could be an unproblematic game. Theatricality does not imply the spilling of energy, but a necessary investment not without danger. The everyday is not an independent field, the mediated fictionalised representation of which we can judge in a theatre performance. When theatre and reality are contrasted in that manner, it can only lead to judging these endeavours as naive attempts that got stuck in the enthusiasm of the non-professional participants, with which one can or cannot identify oneself. When however we do look at these performances as intensifications of an already present theatricality, the stress is dislocated from the representation of the lifeworld towards ways of dealing with the world in everyday behaviour, which can also more easily reconnect with the experience of the audience, beyond its quality of alliance with the specific group that speaks.
Coda 1: Youth rules! The title may promise a spectacle by a bunch of hip youngsters and their cool American director. That is only half of he story. The other half tells us that they could make up only one youth rule: "you must change. You cannot be a child your entire life"(5). The other half is the second part of the title: confusion reigns. Adults desperately want to behave like teenagers, but the latter dont feel so certain about the ideal that is projected onto them. They lack means and imagination to construct their own world, and try to make their own edition or collage from it.
I've been experiencing a real distance on my own life lately, like I'm watching someone else. There's two mes. The one doing things and the other one who's watching? I'm making a movie. It's not a movie. It's a videogame. But you don't have to kill anybody or anything. We're all minor characters in my movie except for me and I'm going to die I just know it. Most of us will just get old. Nothing special will ever happen to us. We're happiest when we're dreaming about what we'll become when we grow up. We don't even know we're young. We won't know that until we're much older. We can't all think great thoughts. It's like they say, You get down from a goose. You can't get it off a duck.(6)
Coda 2: The final image of Kung Fu: the group stands imminently still at the front of the catwalk. Behind them on the videoscreen an old lady in a comfy chair appears. She had been projected there before, as if she was looking at the show with amazement and disbelief, and one would expect that as a representative from a few generations further she probably would not really like what she saw, just like the youngsters dont seem to respect the world of their parents and grandparents a lot. But then the old lady says, in the juicy local idiom: "you dont think I aint been sitting well here, hein? Ive been sitting veerrry well down here, hein!"(7), and bursts out in laughter.
© Steven de Belder (Antwerpen)
table of contents: No.9
References: => Bibliography => Performances
(1) M. Blanchot: Lentretien infini (1969), p. 357.
(2) Hans and Mout in Youth rules ..., unpublished script, p.9.
(3) Delphine in Kung Fu, unpublished video registration, recorded 4-11-1999 at Vooruit Arts Centre, Ghent, Belgium.
(4) H. Lefèbvre, The everyday and everydayness (1987), p.9.
(5) Pre-recorded voice in Youth rules..., unpublished script, p.10.
(6) Hans in Youth rules..., unpublished script, p.18.
(7) Old Lady in Kung Fu, unpublished video registration.
Blanchot, Maurice: Lentretien infini, Paris, 1969.
de Certeau, Michel: Linvention du quotidien. Vol 1: Arts de faire, Paris, 1980.
Felski, Rita: The invention of everyday life, in: New Formations (nr. 39), 1999, p.15-31.
Foucault, Michel: Discipline and punish. The birth of the prison, London, 1977.
Lefèbvre, Henri: The everyday and everydayness, in: Yale French Studies, (nr. 73) 1987, p 7-11.
Lyotard, Jean-François: Linhumain. Causeries sur le temps, Paris, 1988.
by Kung Fu, conceived by Jonas Boel, Pol Heyvaert, Tim Vandergucht and Felix Vangroeningen, produced by Kung Fu and Victoria (Ghent), premiere: 18-02-1998.
Youth rules – confusion reigns
by Roy Faudree and 'De Victors', directed by Roy Faudree, performed by Hans Bryssinck, Michiel De Jaeger, Rein Decoodt, Frauke Decoodt, Sebastiaan Jongbloet, Veerle Symoens and Mout Uyttersprot, lighting design by Wim Clapdorp, costumes by Elisabeth Jenyon, music by Tom Mahnken, produced by Victoria (Ghent), premiere: 28-04-2000.
last change 12.02.2001