Once more, with feeling

Speech, Minerva 200, Groningen

You say I am repeating/Something I have said before.

I shall say it again/Shall I say it again?
(T.S. Elliot, "Four Quartets")
To begin with, it feels a little odd for me to address the question of 'the Academy of the 21st Century'. I quite strongly feel that I've been working on exactly such an academy for the last five years, but it is no simple thing for me to explain to you exactly what that is.

Second, I speak from the point of view that if we don't get our act together now -- as in immediately -- all too soon it will be difficult to envision any kind of art academy in existence at all.

The speed of our regression must be stopped. Very possibly this can only be handled on an individual case-by-case basis, the success of which presupposes a minimum of curiosity, intelligence, and desire to learn. Joseph Beuys was more generous about this than I can be. He suggested that "we're more or less agreed on most things anyway, what we must do is build the cathedrals."
He does set a level and a tone for essential discourse, but it's a difficult one to hold on to in these times. When interviewed by VPRO television about present day predicaments, the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk said, "For the first time we have a kind of United Nations. I don't mean the UN, but a universal get-together of cultures suddenly mixing in people's heads, which create an enormous pluralistic spectacle." He continued: "In past centuries Europeans could not have coped with this. The diversity which lead to a relativistic-pluralistic shock in the 18th century was only noted by a small elite of well educated groups, and then later, in the 19th century, only by those parts of the middle class who were well-read. In the 20th century, everyone sees it on television..." I must add here that television is hardly cathedral material.

If we're not careful about the way we take in media now, and at the same time allow ourselves to be distracted from what we're here for and from what we can be and do, we might well drown in the sense that the world is totally rotten.
It is too easy to forget that people have not changed that much through the ages. Human beings have always provided the good, the bad, and the ugly on this earth: the only difference -- and this is, I'll admit it, a big difference -- is that technology has made the possibilities of realizing, and being good much greater... and for being bad, infinitely worse.
I have great hopes for the future, and none of them are built on our enlarged technological capabilities. It's the tiny occurrences -- those things not yet enlarged to promotional size -- that give me hope: an almost hidden news item accidentally heard about or read, a note received, a letter sent, a performance maybe, or a sculpture, or a painting. Or those things which are not tiny, which are immense in direct proportion to the amount of time and emotional space we're willing to give to them: the changing light of day, and how depth of focus and perception changes with it. Dinner with a friend. A sunset. Manifestations of love... all these are treasures, when they are recognized for what they are. Cumulatively they make life more manageable, and really rather wonderful.

The Westergasfabriek buildings in Amsterdam aren't yet on the historical monuments list, but they're getting there. Situated on what was once the outskirts of town in the direction of Haarlem, and are now bordered by an endless succession of high rise office buildings. The red brick industrial architecture of the Westergasfabriek is found in the middle of what is a combination of wasteland and unintended parkland, complete with rabbits nibbling the turf and ducks in our pond.
This complex is to be developed into what is referred to as a 'cultural park'. Discussion of just how to accomplish this has stretched over the last five years which has also been the period in which DasArts, a post-graduate program and the national so-called Second Phase for the performing arts, has rented spaces there as an operational base. In this period we've been defining what such an institute might be. A Centre for Excellence, certainly, but hasn't such a description been hollowed out by its increasingly random use in recent years?

We're in a pickle at DasArts. The longer we work at it, the clearer it becomes that, as an Institute, it is unique in the Netherlands. Does this make it a potential model for the "academy of tomorrow?" That's a distinct possibility, but being surrounded by many an archaic institute of Higher Learning in the Arts throughout the Netherlands is nothing to take reassurance from.
In developing DasArts we had the advantage of being able to begin by defining what we needed and wanted to be about -- a process which could only work when we based it on the needs and desires of students we accepted, and the observations and suggestions of the mentors and teachers who worked with those students. At no time did we accept the luggage of the politically inspired and random demands and decrees which swamp the collegial institutes of the Netherlands. We began, quite willfully, from absolute scratch. We built with everything we knew, and learned, and with the passionate need to get it right for the people who came to us.

Sloterdijk describes the present situation by saying that the art of politics is at an all-time low. He asks, "How independent can politics be from giving intellectual meaning to what's being done? How free of any ideology is it possible for politics to be? And how obstinate, how wayward will they become? How long will brain-dead politics work? The answer would appear to be: for a long, long time."
The fact that Sloterdijk is largely correct in what he says does not release us from our obligation to do better, never mind the political idiocies we must work with.

At DasArts, we try to keep completely out of these discussions even when we must work around them to achieve our goals. But discussion of individual rules and regulations as they're handed down from on high do distract from the heart of the matter. With vital stubbornness we keep to our job: we must continually define, and redefine what our school can be. We can only do this by continually deliberating what we do, and why and how we do it, with our students, mentors, guest-teachers, and staff.
Plato tells us that an unexamined life is not worth living. An unexamined institution is not worth the powder it would take to blow it to hell. What we all too easily forget -- whether we're talking of individual lives, or of specific institutions -- is that the intense scrutiny such examination demands can not be imposed by an outside agency. If it is not demanded from the inside, and from there ripple to the outside, it simply will not work.
The basic structure of DasArts enforces ongoing examination. Two semesters, or, as we call them, blocks, are executed each year. There is no ongoing curriculum. Each block is newly designed from the ground up by the mentors chosen to execute that particular block. Each block functions as a ten week pressure cooker in which professionals confront students with their knowledge.... and the professionals are likewise confronted by the students. It is an extremely challenging -- not to mention labour-intensive -- way to run an educational institution. But it also works.

Until his death three years ago, Michael Oakeshott taught political philosophy at the London School of Economics. In 1995 he wrote about the differences between the worlds of practical and poetic imagination. He suggested that the practical is a dream, which is followed by the effort to make it come true. But the poetic is a dream enjoyed for its own sake. He wrote, "Instead of regarding work and play as two great and diverse experiences of the world, each offering us what the other lacks, we are often encouraged to regard all that I have called Play as either a holiday designed to make Work easier to cope with... or merely as Work of another sort. In the first of these attitudes the real gifts of art and poetry and the great explanatory adventures is lost. They become mere recreation and relaxation from the proper business of life. In the second attitude, these gifts are corrupted: philosophy, science, history, poetry are merely recognized for the useful knowledge they may happen to supply to satisfy human wants."
Surveying our own scene, here, today, I would suggest that in an atmosphere where human wants seem to prevail, it is in education where this differentiation is most dangerously corrupted. Oakeshott continues: "Generations may be deprived of that acquaintance with the activities of Homo Ludens that was once thought to be the better part of education."
He argues: "We may have associated school with work, in the sense of acquiring useful knowledge and skills without which the work of satisfying our wants is considered ineffective. But the word, school, means the opposite. It comes from a Greek word, 'skole' which means leisure, or free time. A school was understood to be the place where one was introduced to those activities and attitudes toward the world that were not concerned with satisfying wants, where, in fact, one was introduced to those activities of explanation and imagination that were free because they were pursued for their own sake, and were emancipated from the limitations and anxieties of work."

Early in DasArts' existence we invited Pierre Alain Hubert, the French fireworks artist, to come and give us the benefit of his experience of imagination. He wished upon us all a place where we did not loose the child in us, that we would not stop playing. "Loosing that would be death," he told us.
And in the meantime, three people from DasArts have recently returned from a trip to South Africa, also to interview potential students for our next block. From this country that has experienced so much death, misery and mayhem for so long, potential students displayed an incredible degree of energy and focus in terms of what they could do -- and offer -- in a three month period in Amsterdam, and then take back home with them, to share with people there.
It reminds me of what Ernesto Rogers, the first editor of Domus after the second world war ended, said when Italy began to struggle with the meaning of peace. "It is a question of forming tastes, technical skills, and ethical attitudes," he wrote, "all directed to one purpose: the building of a society."

As I speak we're bringing Block 9 to a close with the cumulative performative responses of our students. Studies, ideas tested and shared, sketches (doodling, sometimes, when we can't seem to help it)... any number of approaches to what a production might be, but never the production itself, which can -- and must -- be done outside the blocks, and outside of DasArts itself.
These students have been quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) inserting themselves, and their work, not only into today's Dutch theatrical landscape, but into the international artistic landscape as well. I'm very, very proud of their accomplishments and of DasArts staff, mentors, guest teachers, and fellow students, that nurtured them.

The main building of DasArts has offices for staff, a space for meetings which is also used as a canteen, and a growing library of books, magazines and videotapes. There are three studios, seven spaces like monk's cells for individual students, a space with computer hard and software, and a similar space for video editing. And then there's the glass house... "What's it for?" is a regular question, with the same answer each time: "It's for whatever it challenges you to do in it." And to date, except for the winter when it's too cold, or in the height of summer when it's too hot, the space has been used for a multitude of activities.
One in particular comes to mind. Only two weeks after setting out the themes to be developed, one of the two mentors of Block 4 had to leave: a member of her family was seriously ill, and was beginning the process of dying. The students spontaneously staged a farewell to her.
The entryway of the glass house is two meters wide and four meters deep. We were invited to stand in the middle of this space. Behind the glass walls, on both sides, the students lined up, six on each side, breathing their lungs out onto the glass, and writing mirrored messages of well-wishing and thanks on the misted glass. In a strange irregular rhythm, texts appeared and disappeared rapidly. For those of us who experienced this moment, it was a tender and tearful gift.
To have the right idea in the right time and present it in the right way is maybe the beginning of what we do.

That glass house, and what it stands for, is terribly important to me. The challenge is implicit in the fact that it stands there, waiting for creative response. And, true enough, it would be absurd to build a huge glass house for the imaginative sharing of ten minutes of sincere emotion. And yet, without this glass house, and the capacity to use it, the simple and effective would not have materialized.
I hardly need to add that this interpretation is invariably at odds with the reality of the day; and the last thing I wish to suggest is that all academies now make plans to build their own glass houses to foster new approaches to creativity. Rather, it is the principle of the glass house which must be applied. This principle has nothing to do with any particular kind of building: it has to do with the fact that there must be space for what we do not know.

This is the foundation of my hope for what a conference like this one will be. Without some inevitably painful consideration of why an academy exists in the first place, strategic restructuring of what existing institutes have become will fail, and will, in fact, contribute to an even quicker demise than now seems likely.

We are all aware of the fact that our demise is hardly speculation: it's discussion du jour. To address this problem and feed the cannibals too many academies are only too willing to construct perfectly aligned management plans, at the same time they utterly neglect their first priority, which is to answer the question of why they must exist at all.
We've recently been asked to chart, by committee, a profile of each and every type of artist known, so the 'we' (also by committee) may do away with those crafts 'we' have decided are redundant and out of date. In the meantime, we are to rush to embrace the 'new media' as a solution for every ill that might crop up.
To say that I find this approach totally ineffective for learning, teaching, mentoring, or stimulating is far too kind; I am, in fact, appalled. It makes me think of the fortune cookies one gets for free when buying a cheap take-out chinese meal. The cookies themselves are revolting, and of course the fortunes you find inside are rigged to please -- or at least not offend -- the largest number of people who can be induced to buy a meal that probably wasn't very good in the first place.

The artistic director of the Wooster Group in New York, Liz Lecompte, was considered to be a promising apprentice architect. That same group's top actor -- and an incredible actor, by any possible measure -- Ron Vawter, was a priest. Whatever training Jan Fabre had - he started as window dresser - it had nothing to do with ballet and opera. Dutch music wizard Paul Koek failed his agricultural exams in Wageningen. Or there's Jan Schoonhoven, a postal clerk; Matthew Barney, a photo model; Robert Ryman, a museum guard; Vincent van Gogh, an assistant pastor; Gauguin, the stock broker, Johannes Vermeer, brewer of beer...
They were -- and are -- all fortune cookies, exploding with the unforseen, the unplanned, the unexpected... and the unknown. They were not, and could not have been, cooked up to someone else's standard recipe, however brilliantly balanced that recipe might have been.

The question of how to kill creativity is hardly the exclusive domain of the arts. Terese Amabile, a Harvard professor of business administration and Senior Dean for Research, spent twenty years researching this subject, and has steadily published her findings in many learned journals.
In a 1998 issue of Harvard's Business Review, she wrote: "Even if you believe your organization fosters creativity, take a hard look at creativity killers. Some of them may be flourishing in a dark corner... or even in the light. But rooting out creativity killing behaviour isn't enough. You must make a conscious effort to support creativity. The result can be a truly innovative company in which creativity doesn't just survive, but actually thrives."
Her research revealed six areas which affect creativity: challenge, freedom, resources, working group features, supervisory encouragement and organizational support. And, while we're at it, we may as well agree that each of these six areas effect the work of an academy.
Amabile then tells us that there are two types of motivation: extrinsic, and intrinsic. Extrinsic is the least effective, as it functions on the principle of the carrot and the stick. Neither carrot nor stick will lead to creativity, although a person may exhibit creativity in their attempts to gain one, or avoid the other.
But the Intrinsic Motivation Principle of Creativity determines "that people will be most creative when they are motivated primarily by interest, satisfaction, and the challenge of the work itself... rather than by external pressures."
Amabile adds the wry note that, "Of course managers can not be expected to ignore business imperatives," But it is minimally peculiar when a Dutch Secretary of State for the Arts chooses for 'business imperatives' rather than cast himself in the role of caretaker of the values we are on the verge of losing. Values that simply cannot be expressed in money or distribution factors.

In his tenth and last speech for the opening of the academic year before his untimely death this fall, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the University of Amsterdam, Jankarel Gevers might have been speaking of Rick van der Ploeg when he said: "He who excludes the action of making mistakes, repairing them, applying changes, looking for variations, and making combinations when talking about and dealing with complexities lacks any insight what so ever." But, in fact, Gevers couldn't have been talking about Van der Ploeg. Gevers died before his former Professor of Economics was installed in the government.

"What is the meaning of an image that does not want to be the representation of what something 'looks like'? Why are we so sold on what is directly discernable? Why are we so committed to material reality? What is the relationship between art and reality?" Peter Sellars asked these questions at the Nexus conference on Idolatry. He went on to say that: "Idolatry is the denial of the existence of another world: a world of spiritual values. Idolatry is making things profane, it is the reduction of non-material values to material ones. This way all can be calculated, can be bought, and possessed. We can even earn money with it. Idolatry is the idea that anything can be manipulated, and exploited, and thus can serve the satisfaction of our personal wants."

Obviously distribution is a valid concern, but it comes in a distant second to how you create a climate in which non-material values can exist and be recognized for what they are. Just possibly using the carrot and the stick is not the way to go about creating that climate.

I'll tell you a story about Robert Anton, who gave puppet shows in his living room in New York: occasionally friends of friends where invited to witness the miracle of his performances. We were introduced and I invited him to perform in Amsterdam, in my backyard office at the Mickery. There was an audience of sixteen people, jammed into the tiny space.
Anton performed puppet shows of his innermost nightmares. He had the characters that haunted his dreams come to life on his fingers and perform miraculously obsessive ceremonies straight out of hell. Dressed in black he was, a fragile figure standing behind a tiny table on which the ingredients of his imagination waited for him to give them life. His angelic face floated above it all, now amazed, now seemingly calm as he watched what might happen in this moment when his terrors were temporarily under control. But then there was us. We loved him to death.

There followed the Nancy festival where Jack Lang and Francois Mitterand arranged the Chateau Vincennes for him, as a place to live and work and make a new show in one of its huge thickwalled chambers. He lived and worked there for a year assisted by a deaf mute Rodrigo. Then the 'Beau Monde' of Paris took possession. Robbie ended up doing shows for whoever was important in Paris, imprisoned as a privatized power-pet until the French reluctantly let him go to the Theatre der Welt festival in Cologne to perform in a medieval cellar complex. Robbie Anton went home, discarded, emptied and exhausted.

He escaped to a barn in Vermont where, within a year, he decided the demons had won and killed himself. We might have managed our greed and adoration. We might have cared for him once we got what we wanted of him.
There are many more stories like his; where success came too early; where the development of an artist and his art, or a (theatre-) group was cut short. When talking about and dealing with complexities, these aspects demand serious attention. If I've been focussed, for almost longer than I can remember, on the question of how to build an environment in which an artist may blossom (also learned from bitter experience and failure) I cannot but be on the opposite end of a simplified message from a politician in a hurry to make his mark.

Peter Sellars gave us a book of Sufi teaching tales, and I'd like to share one of those stories with you. "...[A ] great singer was invited to the court of the king of Bukhara. The king welcomed him warmly at the court, and asked him to take a seat.
"But where shall I sit?' asked the singer.
"Sit in any place that may seem fitting to you,' he was told.
"On hearing this, the singer took the seat of the king. This astonished the king very much, but after hearing the singer's art, he felt that even his own seat was not fitting. For he understood that his kingdom had limitations, whereas the kingdom of the artist is wherever beauty prevails. As beauty is everywhere, so the kingdom of the artist is everywhere."

To explain the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, Amabile asks us to imagine business problems as a maze. One person might be motivated to make it through the maze as quickly and as safely as possible to reach the tangible reward, like money... the same way a mouse will rush through for a piece of cheese. The person following the mouse's example will take what appears to be the simplest route, and certainly the most well-trodden path, solving the same problems in exactly the same way they were handled in the past. She goes on to explain that another person might choose the challenge of exploration. Choosing the challenge might take more time, would certainly involve mistakes and blind alleys to back out of again. But the solutions thus found would unquestionably be more creative.

Luckily, there's help around the corner, and even a suggestion for a future. And those keys lie in the act of recognizing our past.
Fredrick Turner, poet and founding Professor of the Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas states that, "When we imagine the future, it is relatively easy to imagine technological wonders: virtual reality, artificial intelligence, biomedical immortality, space travel, etc." But the fact is that the world is not more, but is rather less futuristic than it was, say, twenty years ago. He tells us that, "During the Middle Ages, one of the two great periods of Greek and Roman classical design lay not in the past, but in the future. Consider also how the combination of recording and musical scholarship has brought about the paradox that we are probably more in Bach's musical presence today than any 18th century German could have been."
He continues: "Any present inhabitant of the past is also a fore-runner, a prophetic seer and advance guard of the future. A contemporary cliché holds that we should pay attention to the future, because that's where we will spend the rest of our lives. It would be more accurate to say that we should pay attention to the past, for the exact same reason."

Coping with either, and finding footholds that make sense, is a source of confusion. Sloterdijk gives us a grateful moment of simplicity when he identifies two general modes of attack. He suggests that there's a growing tendency toward nihilism, expressed by those who would live for the day, and who see their time as the last party to be enjoyed. The other method of attack is utilized by what he calls 'in-between' people. This group has a sense of the past combined with the possibility of a future, even if they can't put their finger on the pragmatics of how to get there.
I believe we must operate from the latter position, and I believe we must do so with a sense of humility.

I've tried to suggest that what it means to be human hasn't changed all that much in time: we must still struggle with the best and the worst in us, whatever technological wonders have been developed. Nothing changes the fact that on a daily basis we must still find our own personal answers to the insidiously persistent question of whether it's all worth it.
And we must still make our own beginning to express what answers we think we've found. Whatever we believe, it will only work if we've done our homework, not only done it, but done it five times over. And if work in the arts is what we want, we'd best give up hope for personal recognition, or personal advancement. If we want to get anywhere at all, we'd best get our priorities straight and prepare for the fact that for a long time, and perhaps forever, we may not be credited for what our presence has meant to others.
We may feel hindered by whatever are this moment's 'powers that be', we may feel cheated, short-changed, belittled, whatever... and yet we must go by intrinsic values and play rather than work. We must recognize fulfillment of being 'in between' rather than celebrating our despair. We must develop our taste and technological skills, but not at the price of developing our ethical structures. We must be a fortune cookie but bake it ourselves, and from scratch. We must find or create places which incorporate challenge, freedom, resources, workgroup features, supervisory encouragement and organizational support. We must look for places to make mistakes, correct them, apply changes. And, finally, we must face the challenge of exploration itself and never, never go straight for the cheese.

Turner tells us that, "One must acknowledge oneself to be a latecomer, a follower, a singer of tales composed by the dead. If a person's judges and ideals, being in the past, are no longer subject to contemporary masters, and are also therefore invulnerable to their control, the oppressor then stands revealed as another prisoner of time present, no more than another shopkeeper or another advertisement." This attitude is as good for academics as it is for individual human beings.
To illustrate his argument, Turner points to his experience as an instructor of karate. "The karate students I teach discover ways of knowing their bodies through strength that comes to them through me, as well as through my teacher, or sensei..." He makes the point that the strength that his students learn from him comes through more than six generations of sensei who can be traced back to an old Shaolin temple in Fukien. He adds that, "in their new bodily intelligence, karate beginners experience the selves of the dead."

In Amabile's maze, there is the example of the mouse that would rush through the fastest route to get to the bit of cheese. If we won't take up her challenge of exploration, rather than rushing down a well-worn path, we may end up in the seductive 'Little Fable' told by Kafka. It goes like this:
"Alas," said the mouse, "the world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid. I kept running and running, and I was glad when at last I saw the walls far away to the right and the left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap I must run into."
"You only need to change your direction," said the cat, who pounced and ate the mouse up.

Kafka has also written that "there's hope, but not for us." I would suggest that it's time for us to get to work, passionately and with conviction, to change that quote out of all recognition and turn it inside-out: "There's us. So there is hope."

Groningen (NL)


Minerva 200. Edited by Colleen Scott