As I am writing you I am sitting in a small coffee bar in Rome. We have travelled three and a half countries: Netherlands, Belgium, Poland and 1 day in Italy and I thought it’s time I write you. No idea where this will lead us so I’ll just type and we’ll see.
We started thinking about this project over 2 years ago, something about Hieronymous Bosch but not literally, something with many young artists, something with insight in the now and a vision on the future. We happily churned it over again and again for a very long time. Now, two years later, I am on the road with a journalist, a film crew and a dramaturge, speaking to more than 20 people in 19 cities of 8 countries in 30 days and you are not here to share it with me.
You pointed out to me the importance of the 16th century and the visionaries that emerged then. Thanks to you I know that Erasmus and More and Machiavelli had insights into the world 500 years ago that are still hyper relevant today. Erasmus calls for the necessity of conflict, the importance of always questioning your position about something and what your own vision is. More who revolted against the enclosure of the common grounds and demonstrated how corrupt power is and how privatization leads to increasing poverty and exclusion. Machiavelli who says that virtu and fortuna are the two forces that affect a person. Virtu you can control, it is about carrying on your work and remaining critical and studying and being the best you can be, while fortuna is not in your power, fate. You must always show virtu says Machiavelli, but you cannot steer fortuna. I only mention three ideas that stood out to me in the wonderful ocean of ideas and thoughts of the visionaries from back then. They battled against abuse of power and inequality; they sharply analyzed the individual as entity and the individual in those times. And they tried to cope with the fact that lust for power and status will never disappear and that, while you cannot save the world you can also not completely fuck it up either.
I would like to thank you my dear Matthijs, for making me look back in time. Looking back does offer leads and handles for the now. Firstly it places in context, in a good and not indifferent way, the fact that those gentlemen then were annoyed by the same things we are now. We share the frustration about the ignorance, greed and backstabbingness of people. Professor Trapman of the Erasmus University in Rotterdam said that people will never change in essence, that evilness and greediness will never disappear and that it’s our duty to offer a counterweight, to not be afraid and effectively really take every step we can. There are three types of people Trapman said: those who are destructive, those that are indifferent and afraid, and those that want to improve. I’d like to add a personal footnote and point out every person is all three, but it’s about the leading attitude. In my theatre show ‘Us Pigland’ I spoke about the boss piglets that can suckle from the first nipples, the standard piglets that drank from the middle nipples and the specials that got the rest in the back. All three types of people will always exist and they keep each other balanced, even though the balance is always off and leans towards destruction and fear.
Even though I sometimes would rather be a scared, tunnelvisioned, I-only-care-about-myself-and-the-small-circle-around-me standard piglet (more that I am now) and even more rarely a powerhungry, fuck the world, I-want-more-more-more boss piglet, I am not. Why? No idea. Upbringing? Genes? Certain movies or art or books or friends that inspired me? The fact is that beside my power-hungry, self-gaining, egoistic side (which I certainly have) I also have a I-want to-cause-something-in-the-world, I-want-to-create-something-and-preferable-something-that touches-people, brings-them-closer-to-themselves-and-each-other side. I have the necessity not to surrender to the inequality and loneliness and unfairness of the world even though I know full well that it won’t go away and that this side I have doesn’t make me ‘better’ or more ‘good’ than every other. It’s just a part of me.
Even the way I do this I did not choose myself. I admire the activists we speak to on our journey but I am not an activist, I am an artist or not even that, I am a creator. Yes that too, a self created term. Why? No idea. Apparently I’m like that. I rarely join a demonstration. Too lazy? Too spoiled? Too indifferent? No. I am not like that. I follow my virtu, work like a dog and try to remain (self) critical at all times while simultaneously being open to what comes my way and then I’ll see what fortuna does with it. Every project is a reaction to a necessity, an urge, a feeling, the starter gun that shoots me into action that will take me to the unknown. Does this make me a better person? No it has nothing to do with the good versus the bad, it has to do with whether you want to be moving forwards, backwards or stay motionless.
So apparently I am somebody with a cause and I surrender to that, what’s more I follow this cause so intensely and disciplined and vulnerable as I can. And sometimes I fail because the other piglets are in me too, but I do my best alone and together. Because that’s the beauty Matthijs, there are people like me and variations on that all over the world. What’s more, in every country, in every discipline (business, banking, art, sports, food, etc) are people with a cause and the balls to carry out this cause. All the people I spoke to so far share with me that they try to carry out in full virtu their necessity to cause something. No matter how different they and the ways in which they do this are, we share the cause. We, piglets from the back nipples, we share a battle and that makes the loneliness bearable and most of all: it connects us and allows us to carry on and keep carrying on.
I noticed that the battles of all these creators I met, no matter how different they are, share some common elements.
Creators strive to create a society rather than a better society per se. I quote Simon Allemeersch, who we spoke to in Ghent. He literally said: I don’t want to create a better society, I want to create a society. Society is a moment in which people meet each other and share or show their story. Simon spoke about the necessity for a sense of belonging that is essential for a community. If people don’t feel they belong/are seen then you don’t have a society. In their own way everyone we spoke to on our journey so far is trying to create ‘shared experiences’ (as Slavomir Sierakowski defined it) so people can regain a sense of belonging, ideally in a public space.
The second element creators everywhere share is the battle for a true public space, places of common ground. The idea of the world as something that belongs to us all, that water, air, nature are something we, animals and everything on earth, are part of has been increasingly challenged throughout history. In the 13th century we had the Chapter of the Forrest, which declared that the forest was for all people. But in the centuries that followed more and more forest became the private property of less and less people. Thomas More revolted against this process in is his Utopia. He loathed that some owned everything and many nothing and it hasn’t changed since. Reclaiming the common grounds, the public space, the places where we -as people- can meet each other regardless of private or commercial intentions is the other European battle we must fight today. And continue to fight even though we’ve been at it since the 13th century.
A third battle is the one of having, commutating and sharing of visions. Apparently last year, the mayor of Warsaw said that visions are something for people who take hallucinating drugs, not for politicians. Aside from the ridiculousness of this statement, it also illustrates a misunderstanding of the concept vision or visions. They are not fleeting, absurd dreams. Visions are concrete, can be executed, maybe not instantly, now-now-now, but they are achievable dreams that allow us to look beyond tomorrow. They provide insight as well as a horizon. And without a horizon you’re staring at a wall. And walls are terrifying.
Giorgio de Finis’ vision to open a museum for modern art in an old salami factory in Rome occupied by 200 immigrants and outcasts is very concrete. 300 top artists from Europe donated a total of 400 art pieces, usually made on the spot and often in collaboration with the residents. You can find the art pieces throughout the compound in larger shared spaces, as well as in the living quarters of the residents. People can visit the museum every Saturday and everyone works and cooperates for free. Giorgio works so hard to execute his vision he is not making any money now and even moved back to his mother’s house. Honestly, I was touched walking around there. Not because of the suffering of the residents, which is horrible of course, but by Giorgio’s vision on how art can really cause something. He said: I am trying to save these illegal people and this illegal place. I use art because art gives them a horizon, imagination, dreams, collaboration and encounters. Also because people would never come to the ghetto’s of Rome for a social project, but they will come for modern art. I lure them here and that’s how they meet the residents and find the human aspect in the immensely complicated problem of legal outcasts of society.
I ask him if he fears the eviction of the people that live there illegally. ‘Yes and no, because I have a plan. 200 refugees that are thrown out on the streets might leads to a small article in the newspaper. But destroying 400 works of art, that’s barbaric, that is impossible.’
We need visions and real visions are always a combination of dreams and actions, of starting something and keep going.
The fourth battle is the one of continuous kicking, biting, questioning, doubting and examining the general way things are. Creators can talk to the kings as well as the beggars of a country and we can do it in many countries simultaneously. Creators are not bound to geographical, social, economical, political or other borders. We can and must in the spirit of Erasmus continuously and always actively (re)think and question what we are doing. Why do banks function the way they do? Why is power so often corrupt? Why is inequality to immense? With active (re) thinking and questioning I mean that creators always act too, not only think but also act. This acting can take many forms. Whether it’s writing, creating, organizing or protesting, it doesn’t matter as long as we act. No matter how meaningless and useless it sometimes feels, it is precisely this active (re)thinking and questioning that keep the world in at least some sort of balance.
The last battle is that of the local and the global. What we do locally reverberates globally. The people we meet on our journey are all active locally, even though some, such as Slawomir, are known internationally. The local is necessary to realize the sense of belonging, while the global ensures the work itself is recognized. Social media can and must be used by the creator to offer a counter measure to globalization (that centers mostly around the economy) by presenting the power of the human and local to the world.
The battle of the creators who are everywhere and in all layers of society is a difficult and everlasting but essential battle. It is of the utmost importance that they meet every now and then, to share and exchange their ideas and visions. Because the most difficult and yet the most important is to never give up the battle. Carry on, keep carrying on, alone together. That is the fate of the creator, that he is alone yet connected and that every day the world turns again with or without you.
Dear Matthijs, I must go now. The crew is waiting for me. We have to go to Florence to meet a real Count to talk about Machiavelli.