[This article was published in CircusMagazine #52 – September 2017]
[Author: Bauke Lievens – Translation: Craig Weston – Picture: Tom Van Mele]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
For the last two summers Diede Roosens and Carmine De Swerts – together Het Kabinet – have made the Flemish roads unsafe with their retro-motor-propelled-carrier-scooter. At a blazing speed of 22 km per hour they travel from town to town, along with their small bizarre circus of stuffed canaries and rusty little machines. Both ladies followed trapeze and tightrope lessons at Circusplaneet and then went on to study at the KASK (School of Arts) in Ghent. Two years ago they graduated, with a real flea circus. Both they themselves and their latest project, ‘De Kanariteiten’, breathe a fascination for the romance of the old traveling circus.
Did you work with circus during your studies at KASK School of Arts?
Diede Roosens: “Originally I didn’t, no. I had kind of left the circus behind and didn’t really see a connection between what I did in trapeze lessons and what I was studying in my drama courses.”
Carmine De Swerts: “I was building circus machines in Multimedia Design. My very first project was a little, non-functional flea circus in a tiny suitcase, with a bell. After that I built a self-playing accordion, also semi non-functional. The idea was that the accordion could serve as the musician during a circus performance.”
Roosens: “And you once made a huge beast that hung on a crane and that you could sit on.”
De Swerts: “Yes, a firefly. That was also a sort of spectacle machine. I have always been fascinated by the circus and by machines. Both share the notion that nothing is impossible.”
The fact that things are not necessarily possible, but appear to be?
De Swerts: “Yes, circus makes the impossible possible. And when you do run up against something that is truly impossible, then you just resort to your imagination.”
Is that then so different from the theatre or visual arts?
Roosens: “The difference is probably that for circus artists it’s essential to do something or to learn something that someone else cannot do.”
Is that concept of the impossible somehow present in your way of working?
Roosens: “Maybe we’re not so conscious of what others can do or what has never been seen, but we are constantly pushing ourselves to go further. For ‘De Kanariteiten’ we had to learn how to weld, as well as all sorts of things about mechanics and taxidermy.”
Where do the ideas come from?
Roosens: “Our point of departure is the fantasies we share. We try to realise them through drawing and tinkering. In the first phase we just build all kinds of things in our workshop.”
De Swerts: “We also search for solutions to the things we would rather not do, like being visible as performers or players.”
So the things you make emerge from the initial fooling around you do in your workshop?
Roosens: “Exactly. Only in the second phase of the work on ‘De Kanariteiten’ did we start to think about the ‘show’. I would probably be suspicious of a work method that first concentrates on your ‘trick’ and then only afterwards considers what you want to do with it. But actually that’s how we work: we start with the technique. That’s how it works in our heads. That said, we do think about dramaturgy and the atmosphere we need, about something that can hold all the elements together. For instance, we asked ourselves why we were working with canaries and not with pigs. But we sometimes forget to put ourselves in that picture.”
And why do you work with canaries and not with pigs?
Roosens: “Because we love the colour yellow. (laughs) And because canaries by nature do many things that you could call ‘circus’.”
De Swerts: “They swing, like on a trapeze. They fly. They sing. They hop about.”
Why do you work with stuffed rather than living animals? Is working with dead animals a criticism of the idea of taming wild animals?
De Swerts: “We’re tinkerers, not tamers.”
Roosens: “I’m not against circus with animals. It’s more a case of feeling that we were born about 150 years too late. It’s heartbreaking to realise that we were not born into a circus family that goes back five generations. And so we thought: we’ll just make that up. We are a traveling circus that has been driving around with canaries for the past five generations. Since they were not blessed with eternal life, they had to be stuffed. Otherwise there would be no show.”
Is ‘De Kanariteiten’ a circus performance?
Roosens: “Yes, certainly as far as the dramaturgy is concerned: it is a stringing together of acts. With our carrier-scooter we travel cross-country, pull up, build up and break down again. What happens during the performance refers to typical things from the circus, a trapeze number and a knife-throwing act for example.”
De Swerts: “We were really obsessed with the question of whether you can speak of circus if you have no talent of your own. We want the spectators to come and watch all the things our canaries can do, not what we can do. That’s one of the reasons that we chose to be invisible during the performance.”
Roosens: “Still, we did have to develop a certain skill in order to control everything with sticks from behind the vizor of our scooter, working with mirrors. So we do flirt with craftsmanship, and with magic. In that sense it is a presentation of our abilities, albeit in function of what the canaries do.”
You worked together with Iris Carta from Cie Circ’ombelico. What was her role?
De Swerts: “With Iris we worked on our own presence in the performance. She asked us who we were, why we wanted to make this, and how we could make that clear. How to offer something that’s not just a bizarre exhibition of strange canaries, but a performance in which people understand what we want to say and why we are doing it.”
Roosens: “Since in the course of the performance all kinds of things can go wrong technically, that quickly leads to a world of slapstick and clown. But as the performance developed, and during the work with Iris, we realised we had to behave as normally as possible. To play ourselves actually, with the same calm that we have when we’re building up the installation to begin with.”
The idea that a circus performance is not so much the imagining of something, but rather a particular practice that you have put a frame around?
Roosens: “Yes, and there is already so much meaning in that. Showing our practice and exhibiting the machines that we’ve built – which is actually closer to visual and installation art – was more important to us than presenting our own ‘number’, in which the canaries would simply be our props.”
De Swerts: “Absolutely, you don’t need another story beyond that of who we are.”
All the material you work with is recycled?
De Swerts: “Yes, as much as possible. Of course you can’t use a rivet more than once, and from time to time we buy new sandpaper, but we mostly work with things that we’ve found and collected.”
Roosens: “We automatically choose for old things, because we think they’re beautiful.”
Is that a plea for continuity and an awareness of history?
Roosens: “No, just literally recycling. Call it conservative, but why would you throw something away if it still functions? Conservatism has a negative connotation, while at the same time there’s something beautiful about it. The fact that the Dutch language still exists is also a result of a bunch of ‘conservative’ people who wanted to save the language by putting it into dictionaries.”
Also in the arts? As an artist working today, why would you want to go back in time?
Roosens: “I think it appeals to me because to work with the ‘old’, or that which everyone thinks is passé, evokes reflection on who we are now and how we live today. The act of placing something in your present world from another, earlier time, sets off something in your head. You could call it nostalgia. Art is by definition a shaking up of the normal order of things. Something that takes place in the ‘wrong’ time has that effect: it jolts you out of the habitual, and perhaps it pushes you to dream.”