Louis Vanhaverbeke’s work is rebellious, low-fi, hands on, personal and at the same time politically motivated. On stage he navigates with ease between a plethora of objects, self-built installations and self-composed music. From time to time we also see him pop up in the programme of a circus festival. CircusMagazine spoke with him about craft, objects and his love for tinkering.
[This article was published in Dutch in CircusMagazine #55 – June 2018 // Author: Bauke Lievens // Translation: Craig Weston]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
In May, Mikado Remix, the third piece by the choreographer and performer from Ghent, premiered at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts. Mikado Remix is a combination of spectacular performance, intimate dance, a swinging concert with Curver boxes and beat-boxing. Vanhaverbeke’s background is one of visual art (mixed media at Sint-Lucas, Ghent) and dance (SNDO or Studio voor Nieuwe Dans Ontwikkeling, Amsterdam), but he refers to himself mostly as a bricoleur (tinkerer). Perhaps you know him from Kokokito (2015) with which he won the Circuit X-prize at Theater aan Zee (Oostende) or from the mosaic performance Multiverse (2016) in which he bakes pancakes, dances ballet, shoots off a rocket and plays records – in the past months a big hit at Theater op de Markt and Smells Like Circus.
Sometimes you get programmed in circus festivals. What do you see when you attend circus performances?
Louis Vanhaverbeke: “Craft. And especially the rules of theatre that you choose to comply with as a spectator, or not. I really like that: circus in a theatre. The confrontation with certain codes. If you look closely, you see that a circus artist is occupied with so much more than just theatre. I think that’s fantastic: all the things that being a circus artist includes. I myself ran away to the theatre, because I was bored by the rules of visual art. You show something, people come in, walk over to the wall and look at it. I hate it! For me it’s not about 2D, but about space. Sound passes through space. A body moves through space. Things bounce off of walls, it doesn’t make sense to me. I am also too much of a bricoleur to not be present where the work is being shown. The installations I have made were often busted after a day’s showing and I had to keep going back to the exposition to repair them. In visual arts you have to dare to let go of something, and then it’s gone. Making performances is more of a daily job.”
How important is it to you to share a moment, here and now, in a theatrical space with an audience?
“I find it fascinating and also rare these days. I really cherish that: a group of people who come together in a space for an hour to pay attention to something that’s not being transmitted through a screen. For me it’s very valuable: to ask a question together.”
What is your craft? Or do you feel like you have to develop a new craft for every object you choose to work with?
“That is absolutely the case. It starts with a fascination for an object, which transforms into craft through play. In my new performance I work with Curver boxes. Everything started with my love for those boxes: beautiful boxes, beautiful colours, beautiful material. And also, they’re everywhere: you can find them all over the place for just one euro. So I start to play with those boxes. I ask myself what a box is all about, what it means metaphorically, what you can do with it. Then all of that merges with my love for music, for samplers and knobs and the ‘craft of tinkering about with things’: okay, so I stick a microphone in it, I close it up with glue, I mount the screws like this, the sound cables like that, … Another track, another craft, is that of the movement; my physical relationship to the boxes. How will I play them?”
Is it by exercising that craft that you discover your material? Or the other way around?
“I try to push the craftsmanship to the point where a game emerges, in which I can do something with that craft. But in such a way that it’s at the same time the craftsmanship that drives me to create that playing field. I don’t feel like I have any control over the objects, nor over the game.”
So for you, craft doesn’t imply control or domination?
“I strive for perfection, but I never attain it. The things with which I surround myself are too clever. Or I use them incorrectly and then I have to adapt. That’s the game the spectator sees, I think. I strive for control as well, but I am way too much a tinkerer to ever truly succeed. In the craft of that tinkering a dialogue gets written for me and the objects. Were I to spend more money, then I wouldn’t have to be work with Curver boxes. But a Curver box that makes music intrigues me. That’s why I say: it begins with fascination.”
And that fascination is always very material and concrete?
“Yes, like the Heras fencing in Mikado Remix. I actually saw a square of Heras fencing at a flea market. People were using it to hang up the jackets and jumpers that they were selling, while that piece of fencing was actually there to cordon off an area where a manhole cover was busted. That was fantastic: you close off the outside space, you cannot fall in the hole, but the space around the hole is also being protected. I found that to be such a powerful image.”
Are there materials that fascinate you, that you fiddle with and work with, but that you finally leave behind because you get the feeling that you cannot control them well enough?
“Yes, for Mikado Remix I had made a sound-system with jerrycans and barrels that functioned as speakers. I wanted to carry the industrial association with the Heras fencing through to the sound of the performance: hollow, industrial objects emitting sound. But it turned out to be very difficult to control that system. That will have to be for a new project. (laughs) I also came to the conclusion that dramaturgically the sound system didn’t fit as well with the Heras fencing as I had expected it to.”
So for you the appearance, the aesthetic of an object is in the end less important than the actual concrete experience you may have with that object?
“Yes, indeed. Those speakers were super-beautiful, but that wasn’t reason enough to put them on stage. Something has to happen with an object, I want to do things with it. I often work with functional objects. Take this can for example (takes a can from the table). When it’s empty, it has lost its functional logic, but it still captures my attention. I think that’s fantastic. During the entire performance that object is present and the questions it raises remain relevant. That’s Magritte, actually: a constant observation of the object continues to evoke new functions for it. It also continues to change identity in its relationship with the other objects surrounding it.”
Do you then always begin with the concrete quality of the material, avoiding any expectation in advance of what it should ‘say’?
“No, those are different tracks that begin about the same time and which at some point merge. If they don’t merge, then I throw it out. Sometimes I make diagrams of what my working day should look like: reading, soldering, fooling around with plastic, dancing, drawing, … A successful workday is a day in which I have touched on all those things. It never actually happens, but all those activities are at the same time part of the creative process. And it is in the last month, the last phase of the work that things really start to get interesting. The months before you’ve been working, but you are never sure if what you are doing will make it to the final production, because there are always lots of things that will be thrown out. I tend to take detours. And I really need Dries (Douibi, the dramaturg, Ed.) to help me dare to make those decisions. Sometimes I want to keep something simply because I have worked on it for so long, even when everyone says: ‘Get rid of it’. So the fact I have worked so hard on it is not really an argument, kill your darlings. I just know: okay, there are a lot of directions I have taken during the creative process, and in the end it’s all those directions that are important, not their results. The process itself is the craft.”
What is the relationship for you between all the different ‘minor’ disciplines that you exercise (singing, moving, drawing, object manipulation, reading, …) and the ‘bigger picture’; a concept, an idea, or the dramaturgy of a piece? How do you deal with that relationship during the creation process?
“A lot of my friends have different little notebooks: this is my book for planning, this one is for my little ideas, this one for ideas that have to do with other people, … I always start out with the intention of doing that, but each time I give up and throw everything together. That is delicious: working as an artist you are continuously in that kind of dialogue. You are always thinking of something, imagining something. So you chop that up, throw it out, or present a small piece of it later, when it seems to fit in the bigger picture. That’s the work I guess. For Mikado Remix I published a small book of sketches I had made of all my movement patterns from the performance. I believe that a drawing has to be full. In the patterns and actions that I make and take there are no empty moments. Yet in the theatre it is the empty space around an object that is so interesting. People who draw or who paint are interested in the white space of the canvas. That’s not me: If I have an empty page, then I must fill it completely. In my performances it’s also like that: everything on stage has to be justified and part of the same logic.”
But a white space can have its own logic within a system…
“That’s the beauty of it: an audience sees that white space, but I don’t. That’s why I consider myself more as a craftsman. I am so involved in the game, controlling it or not controlling it, but I don’t see the frame in which it’s all taking place. I am too busy playing.”
In circus you often see performances with loads of objects on stage and no room for the circus artists to breathe. When you ask about that, the circus artists often say that they don’t actually know how to just ‘be’ on stage, and so they choose to fill every moment with action, so that they can ‘be’ in that action.
“I would say it’s the same for me. I come from the visual arts. When I began to study dance, I was always the visual artist that needed objects around me because I didn’t actually know how to dance.”
As long as you’re doing something, you are truly present on a stage?
“Yes. I don’t think you can be authentic without a goal. Certainly not when there are people watching you. Even if it is just being conscious of your breathing, that’s still a focal point.”
Authenticity is also a very paradoxical criterion in the performing arts. Everything has been constructed.
“Yes, that’s for sure, but it’s a question and a paradox which is endemic to the performing arts. I think you get closer to yourself or to who you are by embracing who and what you are not.”
Why have you chosen to work alone?
“I don’t know. I work a lot with other people, but why the ‘produced’ pieces become solos… I don’t know. It probably has something to do with my formation in the Visual Arts, where the question of an artist’s identity is so central.”
Can’t a collective have an artistic identity?
“I tried that, but we function in a system for the arts that demands individual identity. Within that system it’s incredibly difficult to function collectively. So you end up saying: damn it, I am just going to go it on my own, leave me alone! It felt so good to close the door of the studio behind me and not to have to listen to all those opinions. Even if I do often feel the need for that collective energy.”
Does it perhaps also have something to do with the relationship between you and the object?
“You speak of ‘me’ and ‘the object’ but I see it as a space in between. The dialogue between me and the object, that is what the audience is watching. Objects are just a means of evoking that dialogue. Still I think it would be a logical step for me to stop making only solos.”
In circus, the transition from solo artist to a collective is also difficult, I think that’s precisely because a performance comes from one specific person, the creator and performer of the work, and it’s anchored in the capacities of that particular person. Could you imagine making something in which you are not on stage yourself?
“I just so enjoy being on stage. And if you enjoy it that much and it is really clear what you want to do, then it only makes sense to do it yourself. An idea is also very much in dialogue with the medium in which it’s expressed. For me that is tinkering around with an object, with language and with music.”
Does that make your work autobiographical?
“People often say that they see my world on stage. And then I think ‘Shit, the world is about so much more than that.’ But my world can also strike a chord for someone else, which hopefully means that the work becomes a bit more universal.”
You often use the word ‘bricoleren’. What do you actually mean by that?
“Bricoleren is to get down to it and constantly be adapting the work as you go along because of things you hadn’t foreseen. In contrast, a craftsman has foreseen all the steps before he begins, he can look into the future. ‘Bricoleren’ is starting with Ducttape and ending with a technician who builds the final product for you because your prototype constantly falls apart. But the prototype is essential to getting at a functional idea. The result, the performance, is very technical, but I think that the audience senses that it was me that got the whole thing to ‘work’. I’m not quite sure how they come to that conclusion. That is the kinaesthetic magic between me and the object. Apparently I have built up a relationship with the object, a relationship that becomes apparent because I put things into motion. There must be elements of all those months of work that remain present in the final result.”
Why did you find it important to take the step towards an education ‘without objects’, to go and study dance?
“For me, dance is the ultimate medium. When I lay out an installation, it functions as a framework that I cannot quite control. Every form of art is of course a sort of frame, but in dance I no longer felt the frame. The attempt to hold onto that frame, that for me is dancing. In this case the frame is the choreography. You make, or you simply are the choreography by dancing. So then I danced and danced and danced, also without objects, and realised that what I am truly researching is the distance between myself and that can, for example. That is also dance. Because you say dance, you don’t look at the can, but if I do this (makes a fluent movement with the arm) in an art gallery, people do look at the can. I am doing exactly the same thing. Those questions come together in what I make.”