War in Words 4: Dialogue with Pieter Van den Bosch

25 October 2015
Image: Vlatka Horvat from her Up In Arms series

In 2014, Kaaitheater in Brussels ran a season titled Up In Arms, which featured a range of projects by artists responding to questions of international conflict and the legacy of World War One. They invited me to do a series of dialogues or correspondences with artists involved in the season, the results of which were published in Kaai’s quarterly bulletins. I’m posting those dialogues here in the Notebook, just to give them a different profile. The last correspondence, below, is with the artist and performance maker Pieter Van den Bosch, the others are with Lara Pawson, Vlatka Horvat and Pieter De Beuysser.

Image above: Vlatka Horvat from her Up In Arms series

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Dear Pieter,

Most of the artists in the Up In Arms season that I’ve spoken to, or corresponded with for these dialogues, have been dealing, to one extent or another with narrative – with the way that narration, and spoken language might help us process violence and conflict, and with the way that narratives (or information) about conflict might either help define or control us, or help (in some small way perhaps) to free us from different kinds of mythology, and political constraint in relation to our understanding of war. Your work seems to take another approach – something more direct and experiential, something closer to the ground, in terms of materials and actions. I’ve been looking at the videos of your work and I’m struck by two things – first by this focus on substances and physical processes, and second by the way that, in your work, you’ve been exploring ways of giving people direct experiences with, or close to things like fire, explosion and so on. What interests me about this immediately is the directness, and the lack of recourse to narration. What are you thinking about in making these works?

The second thing I wanted to ask about right away was the title “Attacks Without Consequences”. It’s a fantastically arresting and confronting title – I think because it so boldly states something that at first sight appears to be an impossibility. An attack, we might think, always has consequences. An attack is linked to the desire to intervene on another subject or territory, physically or intellectually, and it’s linked, in my mind at least, to the desire to cause harm. In what sense are you thinking about “attacks without consequences”?  Do you mean “ineffective attacks”?

In the international political sphere – the only place I’ve really heard this phrase before – this idea of “attacks without consequence” seems to get wheeled out in Israel’s statements about Hezbollah, for example, where Israel’s right to retaliate (to cause consequences) to rocket attacks, is asserted. Does your work concern itself with this question of retaliation? I suppose what I find most interesting about the title, in fact, is that it opens this question about what consequence is – attacks have consequence on the victims, but to my mind they also have consequences on the perpetrators – violence is brutalising on both sides. Your work also opens the question for me about what is an attack, and who decides or defines that? States, for example, or political systems, perpetrate violence but it’s not seen as ‘attack’, more as the way things are! It’s more often those that challenge the state who’re called the attackers. A lot of questions there, I realise – but perhaps you could think a little around questions of attack and consequence – in terms of the work, and in terms of the wider world it reflects on?

All the best – Tim

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Dear Tim,

Your question, “What was I thinking about making this works”, reminds me in first instance of a father giving his son a lecture about “not doing stupid things”. In many cases, and especially in my case, the answers could be: “I dont know, I wanted to see what would happen”.

I do know that all my actions are aiming for one purpose: showing a moment of transition. I’m interested in that, because during those moments the old and new rules of a situation are not fixed. For me the most imported or drastic changes happen in moments we don’t control or understand and we are mainly busy with the consequences or preparation for or around them. Gathering more knowledge and skills in the unknown gives the possibility for evolution of the present context or situation. Therefore I use and chose materials that have a autonomous manifestation potential and that cause a strong reaction. The reaction I’m mainly interested in is the movement towards or away from the situation. If we are scared we run, if we are reassured we approach, and when we don’t know… then what? In fact I need people to make the manifestation of the material clear. In the end the work is more about the material than about people.

Attacks without consequences
I think that an attack, in general, tries to destroy. An attack ‘without consequences’ holds in its title a human perception that the attack has missed its impact and stays without bodily or material damage.
I believe that only the attempt of the attack exists, and that there are always consequences. Take for instance a lion, that can catch an impala after 7 attempts. Only the 7th attempt has definite consequences for both animals. The 6 attempts before are part of the attack and are learning experiences in how to adapt in order to survive. After the 7th time the attempts stop because the goal is reached.
I feel very limited in discourses about big conflicts in the world. I have an opinion about it that is always overshadowed by an awareness of my own European perspective and limited and incomplete knowledge about these conflicts. What I know for sure, is that we are exposed daily to a great number of images, of things like explosions, fire, casualties, destruction, that for us form the image of ‘war’. I protest against that because these images are showing the materials I work with daily in a very negative and one-sided way. In first instance the attacks without consequence for me are fire constructions more than attacks, in order to give more space and freedom to the manifestation of the material itself.
Do the experiment, make a part, put a candle on the table, keep some water nearby, knock over the candle and see what happens. But please don’t do stupid things.
all the best
Pieter

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Hi Pieter

Thanks for the mail. I like very much the idea (and practice) of stupid things. Years ago, the Irish artists Jo Lawlor and Christine Molloy, working under the name Desperate Optimists, spoke to me about a bramble patch near the housing estate where they’d grown up – a place on the edge of things, outside of adult control, where as kids they’d gather to fool around, set fire to things, break bottles and so on. There was a similar place down the end of our road – an illegal dump where there were always things to collect, assemble and disassemble. There’s something very vital about that kind of space and the processes that go on there – even in the form I recall strongly which was throwing stones at old television sets, trying to get them to explode! I’ve always seen a strong correlation between that kind of ‘experimental practice’ and the work I make, and that I value from other people – the space of the laboratory, constructed for unspecified aims – to see, as you say, what will happen.

Another thing I was thinking, in relation to your work, is that it offers the spectators a possibility to be close to things that ordinarily (under less controlled or carefully planned circumstances) might indeed be dangerous. Dressed in the appropriate clothing, protected with boots, facemasks, helmets, goggles and gloves the audience for Attacks Without Consequence are able to be close to the heart of an event or process that might otherwise harm them. The image of the human figure – test pilot, crash-test dummy, stunt man/woman – face hidden in some bulky apparatus that allows rather restricted vision– is something that seems to come back again and again in your work. The figures have a certain pathos because in drama after drama, the materials they encounter explode, objects burst, collapse, vanish in flames or smoke, leaving those humans to pick themselves up off the floor, examine the evidence, or orientate themselves in a changed world. How do you think about the human figures in your work – the performers or the audience members?

Finally, I was thinking about the photographer Sally Mann, whose images in the collection Immediate Family involved several in which her children had suffered physical damage from falls or accidents, or in which it looked like they had been injured. She spoke about these images as a form of psychic inoculation – a way of preparing herself for the possibility of their being injured at some future point. Does the human encounter with the destructive and volatile elements used in your work have this kind of inoculation or preparation function?

All the best

Tim

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Dear Tim,
I see the human figures in my constructions as animals. As an example I’ll refer to a work called Paint explosions: Red. In that piece, when a bag of paint explodes, spreading paint on the walls and on the audience who are dressed in protective clothing, the spectators have a very instinctive reaction. It makes me think about a cage of monkeys in which you throw a banana, causing a commotion, somewhere between excitement, threat and pleasure. What makes it human, in the case of the ‘Paint explosions’ or in the performances of Attacks Without Consequences, is that we are standing on two legs, that we walk erect, that we have two arms and a head pointed upwards. I’m surprised how quickly these features are readable as a human figure. In the video images of Attacks Without Consequences, you see living beings, all dressed the same, moving, reacting, and there is no doubt that this movement is human. But what I’m even more surprised about is how fast and obedient people behave during AWC – they follow instructions in situations that are basically potentially life threatening.
My approach to working with the ‘human figure’ has a lot to do with my background – I was first educated as a farmer and I worked with cows. After that I studied to become a teacher in elementary school. And then I switched focus to performance studies at Maastricht Theatre Academy. During that study I started initiating performances, in which the audience often became participants. The best way to describe them is maybe as ‘witnesses’, because it captures in a better way the different experiences of the audience.
What was difficult however, in all the performances I made and mainly in AWC, was the negotiation with institutes and authorities about rules and regulations. I want to work more autonomous now. Of course rules and regulations and safety procedures are important, but they can lead to the death of the work. During Festival Canal, I made a performance on the canal – it was supposed to be a burning construction on water that would slowly approach a group of participants on a bridge. In the end, the construction looked more like a candle on the canal, surrounded by speed botes, fire trucks at the shore, and closed-off streets… I was impressed, but not by the work.

Inoculation:
I like the idea of having a scar that always stays sensitive. It can prevent a possible, similar situation and outcome. You learn something because of it. I try to be ahead of the scar and to go further. I want to evolve the reference frame and the source codes. It’s not about destruction – the fire constructions function more or less as a model, because they are clear in material and because they are easy, they are close to the notion of time that we think we can control. It’s about time also, but in the end, about the impossibility to catch time.
I have a garden with chickens, and when I feed them worms they get crazy and they can think of nothing else than eating the worms immediately. Time after time, they themselves get eaten by a fox, which comes at night. From one night to another they disappear, only some feathers remain on the ground. I never witness this moment when they are caught, but I would like to catch it, literally.
I can’t even catch a simple dove. I can buy a rifle and shoot it out of the air, but that’s not what I want to do. I want to enable an encounter between two entities, that can teach me something. I can behave as bait, of carry the bait, make a form for the bait. I can for example keep the bait in my hand and attract the dove to it, so that I would only have to close my hand and catch her in this way. But then I have to train the dove to deal with the human figure, because her reflex is to react to that – the same for the fox.
I strongly question how my work will develop itself in the future, because I’m looking for a more active manifestation then the one possible within the limits of the cultural context I’m working in now. Sometimes I think it will lie in the method, maybe I have to develop a method that I can then teach to others. To develop an education system, for a new generation.
all the best
pieter