Ethics in Aesthetics

On the ‘Manifesto for the active participation of the performing arts sector in the transition towards a fair durability’

Benjamin Verdonck & Sébastien Hendrickx

On March 15, 2011 the Flemish performance artist Benjamin Verdonck published his ‘Manifesto for the active participation of the performing arts sector in the transition towards a fair durability’ i. In an accompanying open letter he asked ‘all the employees of the performing arts organisations that receive structural support from the Flemish government’ to adhere for a relatively short period of time (from September 1, 2012 until February 7, 2013) to the rules mentioned in this manifesto. These rules confronted the everyday working routines in the performing arts world with the question of ecological responsibility. Verdonck, whose oeuvre is supported by the two largest Flemish performing arts organisations (the Antwerp city theatre Toneelhuis and its Brussels counterpart KVS), aimed to create a temporary collective playground wherein one could exercise and try to develop more sustainable working practices.
On October 3, 2012, shortly after the start of the period mentioned in the manifesto, Verdonck participated in the Modul Dance Conference on ‘Ethics in Aesthetics’. Together with the dramaturge Sébastien Hendrickx he brought the following text montage.

MAIL FROM: GUY COOLS
TO: BENJAMIN VERDONCK, SEBASTIEN HENDRICKX
SEPTEMBER 28, 2012, 8:37 AM

Dear Benjamin,
Dear Sébastien,

Hope you are well. We look forward to your presentation next week at the Modul Dance Symposium in Tilburg. We still expect you to come from Antwerp in the morning and travel back the same day.
See you soon,

Guy

MAIL FROM: SEBASTIEN HENDRICKX
TO: GUY COOLS, BENJAMIN VERDONCK
SEPTEMBER 28, 2012, 9:55 AM

Dear Guy,

We have a problem. Yesterday the Belgian labour unions announced a big railroad strike for October 3, the day of our presentation. Benjamin, are we taking the car Wednesday morning or will we travel by train, a day in advance? And how will we get back home?

Sébastien

MAIL FROM: GUY COOLS
TO: SEBASTIEN HENDRICKX, BENJAMIN VERDONCK
SEPTEMBER 28, 2012, 10:16 AM

Dear Sébastien,

Thank you for your quick reaction. How faithful can you be to your own manifesto? Is carpooling an option? Of course you’re more than welcome on the opening evening on Monday. Let us know because in that case we have to fix you a hotel.

Guy

MAIL FROM: GUY COOLS
TO: SEBASTIEN HENDRICKX, BENJAMIN VERDONCK
SEPTEMBER 28, 2012, 2:24 PM

Benjamin, Sébastien,

Pascal Gielen is living in Antwerp and he could maybe give you a lift Wednesday morning.

MAIL FROM: GUY COOLS
TO: SEBASTIEN HENDRICKX, BENJAMIN VERDONCK
SEPTEMBER 28, 2012, 2:27 PM

There is also a bus connection from Antwerp to Tilburg via Turnhout but this will take you two hours to get here.

OPEN LETTER TO THE FLEMISH PERFORMING ARTS SECTOR
BENJAMIN VERDONCK
MARCH 15, 2011

Dear,

from September 1, 2012 until February 7, 2013 I want to make a new artwork. I am an artist. The work is called ‘Manifesto for the active participation of the performing arts sector in the transition towards a fair durability’. To be able to realize this artwork I need your help. (I’m addressing this question to all the employees of the performing arts organisations that receive structural support from the Flemish government.) I ask you if you could live up to the articles of this manifesto as best as you can and only during a short period of time: from September 1, 2012 until February 7, 2013. (One half of a theatre season.) By signing the manifesto you become a co-creator of my work and as such you can promote it, criticize it, broaden it, twist it or sell it, just like you would do with your own work. I’m aware of the fact that my question for participation isn’t an easy one, considering the articles of the manifesto. As an artist I dare to ask it because I want to make a new work. This work. And because I believe the capacity of art originates in a capacity every human being possesses, more or less. Maybe.

I look forward to your answer and I greet you with warmth and respect,

Benjamin Verdonck

manifesto for the active participation of the performing arts sector in the transition towards a fair durability
BENJAMIN VERDONCK
MARCH 15, 2011

TO ALL EMPLOYEES OF A PERFORMING ARTS ORGANISATION
RECEIVING SUPPORT UNDER THE ARTS DECREE
AND BY EXTENSION TO ALL WHO WISH TO RESPOND TO THIS APPEAL

I’M ASKING YOU TO HELP ME CREATE A WORK OF ART

THE WORK OF ART CONSISTS OF
ADHERING WITHIN A CERTAIN PERIOD
AND TO THE BEST OF ONE’S ABILITY
TO THE FOLLOWING RULES

THE RULES CONCERN THE ACTIONS OF PARTICIPANTS
IN THEIR CAPACITY AS EMPLOYEES OF A PERFORMING ARTS ORGANISATION
AND ARE IN NO WAY COMPULSORY
AS TO THE ACTIONS OF PARTICIPANTS OUTSIDE OF THIS CAPACITY

THE CREATION OF THE WORK OF ART BEGINS ON SEPTEMBER 1, 2012
AT THE START OF THE NEW THEATRE SEASON
AND ENDS ON FEBRUARY 7, 2013
160 AND A HALF DAYS LATER
IN THE MIDDLE OF THE SAME THEATRE SEASON

AFTER COMPLETION OF THE WORK OF ART
ALL COMMITMENTS ENTERED INTO DURING ITS CREATION BECOME VOID

AT THE START OF THE WORK OF ART ALL SO-CALLED ‘ECO TEAMS’
OF THE PARTICIPATING PERFORMING ARTS ORGANISATIONS ARE DISSOLVED
THEN PEOPLE ARE INVITED
TO MEDITATE ON THE CAUSES OF THE ECOLOGICAL CRISIS
BY MEANS OF A LETTER
SENT BY THE UNITED NATIONS TO THE ARTISTS GILBERT AND GEORGE
ON THE OPENING OF THEIR EXHIBITION THE NAKED SHIT PICTURES
TO INFORM THEM THAT EXCREMENT FROM THE WEST
STILL CONTAINS SUFFICIENT SALTS AND MINERALS
TO KEEP ALIVE FOR FOUR DAYS
A THIRD WORLD CHILD

AT THE START OF THE WORK OF ART
THURSDAY AS ‘VEGGIE DAY’
IS RESCINDED
THAT DAY IS SERVED A CHOICE OF
STEAK AND FRIES OR LEMON SOLE WITH ‘POMMES DAUPHINE’
THE PARTICIPATING ORGANISATIONS ARE THEN ASKED NOT TO SERVE
ANY MEAT OR FISH DISHES
IN THEIR STAFF CANTEEN ON THE OTHER DAYS OF THE WEEK
ANY EMPLOYEE HAVING A MEAL OUT OF THE OFFICE WHILE ON THE JOB
WILL ALSO ABSTAIN FROM CONSUMING ANY MEAT OR FISH, EXCEPT ON THURSDAYS

AFTER THE START OF THE WORK OF ART
ALL PROMOTION MATERIAL DEEMED NECESSARY
FOR PRODUCTIONS PREMIERING WITHIN THE STATED PERIOD
WILL BE PRINTED IN BLACK LETTERS ON UNBLEACHED RECYCLED PAPER
THE SHARE OF THE COMMUNICATION BUDGET SAVED THIS WAY
WILL BE USED COLLECTIVELY AT THE END OF THE STATED PERIOD
TO RENT ONE OR MORE BILLBOARDS
ON WHICH WILL BE WRITTEN ON A WHITE BACKGROUND
IN UPSIDE-DOWN BLACK LETTERS:
‘WE AGREED ON EVERYTHING’

AT THE START OF THE WORK OF ART
PARTICIPANTS WILL BE ASKED
TO USE PUBLIC TRANSPORT AND/OR A BICYCLE
TO TRAVEL TO AND FROM WORK
PARTICIPANTS NEEDING TO WORK
AFTER PUBLIC TRANSPORT HAS STOPPED RUNNING
WILL BE OFFERED A PLACE TO SPEND THE NIGHT
ANY PARTICIPANT MAY INVOKE UP TO THREE TIMES FAMILY CIRCUMSTANCES
IN ORDER TO RETURN HOME USING A TAXI SERVICE

AT THE START OF THE WORK OF ART
PARTICIPANTS WILL BE ASKED
TO CREATE DANCE OR THEATRE PIECES
WITHOUT A SET
OR
WITH A SET
BUT ONE BUILT OF MATERIALS
ALREADY IN POSSESSION OF THE ORGANISATION
BEFORE IT AGREED TO PARTICIPATE IN THE WORK OF ART

SPECIFICALLY FOR TRAVELLING PERFORMANCES
THE FOLLOWING RULE APPLIES
THE SET
(WITH THE EXCEPTION OF THE EQUIPMENT PRESENT AT THE HOST THEATRE)
SHOULD BE OF A SIZE
ALLOWING THE CAST AND TECHNICIANS
TO CARRY ITS PARTS SAFELY AND COMFORTABLY
WHILE TRAVELLING
THE AMOUNT SAVED ON THE SET BUDGET
SHOULD BE USED TOWARDS EMPLOYING ADDITIONAL PERFORMANCE ARTISTS

AT THE START OF THE WORK OF ART
PARTICIPANTS UNDERTAKE
NOT TO TRAVEL BY AIR
NOR TO RECEIVE
ANY COMPANY USING AIR TRAVEL
NO EXCEPTIONS TO THIS RULE ARE POSSIBLE
UNLESS THE PARTICIPATING ORGANISATION CONTENDS
THAT AN INTERNATIONAL TOUR IS ESSENTIAL
TO FINANCIALLY ENSURE ITS CONTINUED EXISTENCE
OR
UNLESS A PARTICIPANT IS IN POSSESSION OF A RING
HE TWISTS AROUND THE FINGER
MAKING HIM INVISIBLE
WHILE FLYING
AND DOING THIS
TWICE ON A EUROPEAN FLIGHT
AND
ONCE ON A TRANSATLANTIC FLIGHT
WHEREUPON THE ADVANTAGED PARTICIPANT
UNDERTAKES TO
HOWL LIKE A DOG
EVERY NIGHT
FOR A MONTH
UP TO THREE TIMES A NIGHT

IMAGINE WHAT WOULD HAPPEN
IF THE ENTIRE PERFORMING ARTS SECTOR
PARTICIPATED CONSCIENTIOUSLY AND ASSIDUOUSLY
FOR 160 AND A HALF DAYS
IN THIS WORK OF ART

WHAT A CATHEDRAL OF SKEINS OF DISSONANCE AND DIALECTICS
WHAT AN EPIPHANY OF POSSIBILITIES
FUNDAMENTALS GAMES JOY AND SYMBOLIC CAPITAL
THIS WOULD GENERATE
FOR OUR FUTURE ARTISTIC PRACTICE
REMEMBERING COCTEAU
WHO
WHEN ASKED
WHAT HE WOULD TAKE WITH HIM IF HIS HOUSE WAS ON FIRE
ANSWERED
THE FIRE

REACTION BY STEVEN VANDERVELDEN ii
(ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF THE ARTS CENTRE STUK, LEUVEN)
MARCH 21, 2011

Dear Benjamin,

Step 1 is the easiest: forwarding your manifesto to all employees of STUK. Consider that done! But step 2 is a bit more difficult. And step 3, 4, 5, 6 even more! But we’ll come back to you, that’s a promise!

REACTION BY ARLETTE VAN OVERVELT
(THEATRE DIRECTOR, CIE LUXEMBURG, ANTWERP)
MARCH 24, 2011

Hi Benjamin,

thanks for your manifesto. I’ve started reading ‘Terra Reversa’ by Peter Tom Jones after you mentioned it in an interview. The book is confronting for me as I was living my life without a lot of second thoughts about its ecological impact. I just wanted to let you know I’m busy with your question. I’ll come back to you soon.

REACTION BY GEERT SIX
(THEATRE DIRECTOR, UNIE DER ZORGELOZEN, KORTRIJK)
MARCH 20, 2011

Some of the rules in your manifesto we’re already putting into practice for some time. For example, most of our scenery is a collection of found stuff, that we’re thus giving a new life. And our costumes are mostly second hand clothes. Only when it comes to food, I must admit I personally cannot adhere to the rule considering vegetarianism, even not for half a theatre season! I’m addicted to meat, you know! And by the way, are we going to save the world with mayonaise? Let’s be serious here! When I was a kid I prayed for days and days and days for Jesus to give me a bike. When I noticed my prayers didn’t work I stole a bike and prayed for forgiveness.

REACTION BY DOMINIQUE WILLAERT
(THEATRE DIRECTOR, VICTORIA DELUXE, GHENT)
APRIL 12, 2011

I forwarded your manifesto to all my colleagues, but I still didn’t receive any reaction from any of them. Probably because they are busy. Always too busy, busy, busy. According to me, our constant lack of time is an illustration of the fact that the art sector has incorporated the ethics of the free market. We’re all working on our own projects, hoping for applause, trying to differentiate ourselves from the others, etcetera. I think your manifesto is a good start to move towards a more sustainable arts practice. There’s only one thing I would like to stress. Next to changing our routines we also need to formulate a radical critique on a systemic level. Small ecological changes are not enough. We really need to question the current status quo and propose alternatives to the hegemony of capitalism.

REACTION BY GUY DERMUL
(ACTOR AND THEATRE DIRECTOR, KVS, BRUSSELS)
MARCH 28, 2011

Dear Benjamin,

you ask others to help you realise your artwork. But as a coproducer I don’t have any say about the work and about how it should be made. Your manifesto is very dogmatic. One is obliged to follow your rules. I consider your manifesto a product of our time, in which the smoker, the carnivore, the car driver and other scapegoats are being banished. Further more, you force everybody to copy your own arte povera style. I think every artist is free to work as he pleases. The only rule in your manifesto which really matters is the prohibition to travel by airplane. But this would have gigantic and unjustified consequences for our window on the world. And the last thing which disturbs me is that your artwork is limited in time. So after February 7, 2013 we can just go on wasting energy? Is that a solution?

REACTION BY GUY CASSIERS
(THEATRE DIRECTOR, ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF TONEELHUIS, ANTWERP)
APRIL 24, 2011

Dear Benjamin,

thank you for your manifesto. Just like every artwork it’s a proposition to rethink reality. Your manifesto addresses me in two ways. As a citizen and the head of a performing arts organization it’s my duty to develop more sustainable ways of working. We already have some projects running at Toneelhuis to tackle our wastes of energy and material. But as an artist I’m convinced it’s important to go on tour abroad. This means transporting scenery and people, even if a show is scheduled to be played only once in a certain theatre. And I also believe it’s important that our theatre in Antwerp can welcome a lot of new performances by artists who get the opportunity to freely develop their own artistic practice.

REACTION BY ALEXANDER NIEUWENHUIS
(PERFORMING ARTIST, AMSTERDAM & BRUSSELS)
APRIL 27, 2011

I propose to use zeppelins for international tours instead of airplanes. One could imagine painting the name of the internationally renowned dance company ‘ROSAS’ on a zeppelin and building a rehearsal studio underneath the airship. This would be the most beautiful studio ever built. In 4 to 6 weeks one could reach a skyscraper in Shanghai or Rio, unroll a rope ladder and descend. I heard a zeppelin is not so expensive.

REACTION BY BART MEULEMAN
(THEATRE DIRECTOR, TONEELHUIS, ANTWERP)
MAY 1, 2011

Dear Benjamin,

I just wanted to say I’m not going to sign your manifesto. This doesn’t mean I’m not concerned about our environment. I only think the world doesn’t change for the better through artistic or symbolic actions. The world will only change when somebody realises he can make money out of it. Is that a problem? No, I don’t think so. Well of course, it’s a pity money is our main motivation. But good intentions won’t help us further.

REACTION BY JAN LAUWERS IN A NEEDCOMPANY NEWSLETTER
(THEATRE DIRECTOR, NEEDCOMPANY, BRUSSELS)
MAY 3, 2011

‘Art that pretends to be anything other than itself is bad art. Beauty is freedom in appearance.’ Schiller wrote this two hundred years ago, though at the time he was extremely ill and surrounded by revolutionaries. But no one is troubled by the fact that many people in the governments of European states would now like to abolish art. Because this is an impossibility. One might just as well want to abolish being in love or being ill.
So we are carrying on and it’s going well.
All’s well with Needcompany. Excellent in fact. We travel from country to country and are warmly welcomed everywhere. We have never before had so many offers, received so many prizes, and pleased so many people. The art we create is generally considered of a high standard and sometimes even life-changing. And we earn plenty of money from it. That’s what it’s all about in this world.
So our little worldwide company is doing well. Until we received that letter from Benjamin Verdonck. Another Flemish artistic creator. And someone close to my heart. A naive jester in a kingdom that’s too small. He wants to create one big green collective work of art in 2012. I quite agree. A little teasing: saving the planet by turning ultra-nationalist. No more travel. Showing only the arts made here in our region. No more trips by air. No globalised sense of peace but acts of tribal violence. Everyone for themselves, in their own back garden. Away with Eurotrash and intercontinental cooperation. No more sets that have to be transported by polluting lorries. No energy-devouring lighting designs. Making theatre in a bare space with just a single light bulb and a performer. It’s alright with me. In fact I’m one of the best at it. And at the same time we would be rid of those irritating djembés. Art is ecology, art is politics, art is anything but art. After all, Schiller is too ill to turn over in his grave.
In the same way as religion sold well for a time, and every show that had anything to do with the Koran or the Bible sold like organic hot cakes, now it’s ‘ecology’. No electricity. No set. What happens on stage isn’t important. It is ecologically sound, so it’s good, and what’s more it’s cheap!
All into the darkness together. And if you commit an error, against ecological law, you are punished. Such as howling like a dog three times. Every evening for a month. Penance. We’ll always be Catholic and Flemish.
Everything’s going very well for Needcompany and we are still green behind the ears, which we close off with the used earplugs we have collected on intercontinental air trips so as not to hear our own crying.
All’s well with Needcompany, but it should be better.
Beauty is a freedom that we have to learn to see.

LETTER TO THE EMPLOYEES OF KVS, BRUSSELS
BENJAMIN VERDONCK
SEPTEMBER 22, 2011

Dear people from KVS,

Next Monday you all decide whether or not KVS will sign the ‘Manifesto for the active participation of the performing arts sector in the transition towards a fair durability’. And whether or not this will be mentioned in the subsidy application you have to hand in by the end of this month. First of all, thank you for considering my question seriously. I know there’s a lot of reasons for saying ‘no’. There’s only one argument I can bring up against such a refusal. Namely, I’m convinced of the necessity to experiment with new ways to relate ourselves to the big shifts surrounding us. And working in a cultural institution subsidized by the government should enable us to do so. A theatre shouldn’t be a commercial enterprise. It’s not obliged to make profit. This position generates a relative liberty to experiment and to search for alternatives. Of course I’m not sure if adhering – for half a theatre season – to the rules I mention in my manifesto will take us any further. A month ago I asked a young academic specialized in ecology how humankind should deal with the big worldwide shifts and he answered: ‘it should withdraw gracefully’.

OPEN LETTER BY THE EMPLOYEES OF KVS
PUBLISHED IN THE BIMONTHLY PROGRAM BROCHURE KVS EXPRESS
SEPTEMBER 2012

Workspaces for more than sixty employees and performing artists, set construction, communication (on paper), performances at home and on tour, and much more: a company like the KVS is no lightweight when it comes to energy use. The high figures thrown up by thorough monitoring spoke for themselves, and the rather depressing reports on our environment became a topic of conversation on our shop-floor too.
There was an urgent need for a commitment to be more economical with energy sources and to be more careful in our contact with the environment, and in 2005 the KVS Ecoteam was set up. With its varying members it examined the various areas where improvements could or had to be made. With the help of Ecolife, the first concrete plans were made and results achieved.
Now, about seven years later, plenty of so-called ‘low-hanging fruit’ has already been picked in the form of changes that organisations can make quite quickly and easily in the short term: LED lighting, energy-saving buttons, thorough sorting of waste, Vegetarian Thursdays, FSC paper and so on. And work on all this carries on undiminished.
In March 2011 Benjamin Verdonck presented his ‘Manifesto for the active participation of the performing arts sector in the transition towards a fair durability’ for active participation by the performing arts in a transition to fair sustainability.
In this document the artist listed a number of items that would make the art business more sustainable, and he asked the whole Flemish performing arts sector to stick to these rules for a particular period: 1 September 2012 to 7 February 2013.
The Ecoteam has put this ‘Manifesto’ at the heart of all the work done at the KVS, and this gave rise to renewed and far-reaching discussions in which many of us, employees in every department of the organisation, are taking part. For a short time we seriously considered signing the ‘Manual’, but after an initial study of the actual impact of this on the work of the KVS, that plan was shelved. After all, this impact already turned out to be considerable – in the areas of financial management, day-to-day operations, the KVS’s international project, etc. For most employees it was too much, too soon and also too short. The time limit – 160 days – met with a lot of incomprehension. And although the ‘Manifesto’ was intended as an invitation to join in the process of thinking, to play and to experiment, many experienced it as an aggressive top-down decision in which they had had no say.
Instead of shock therapy to drive a sustainable transition in the KVS, we opted for a somewhat more gradual course with a bottom-up approach. The Ecoteam, which includes representatives of every department in the organisation, made grateful use of the renewed energy and last season worked on a series of ideas we would like to see realised by 2020. iii This list is by no means complete or definitive, and remains a little vague here and there, but over the next few years it will be adjusted, focused and added to. We shall inform you at regular intervals about developments in the KVS 2020 process, which will move forward by trial and error somewhere between dream and reality.

We are largely ignorant but eager to learn, and therefore invite you to add substance and comment to this process. If you feel the call, you can always mail us at ecoteam@kvs.be.

Kind regards, the whole KVS team.

QUOTES FROM A REACTION BY
THE ARTS CENTRE SCHELD’APEN, ANTWERP
MARCH 20, 2012

Hi Benjamin,

just to tell you we’re in. We sign the manifesto. All of us. No thanks, you’re welcome! It’s not the first time we adjust our own routines out of necessity. We have to adjust our working routines all the time, even when we don’t consider it necessary, when we’re confronted with regulations regarding public safety for example, or public health, youth protection, copyright, and so on. And we usually also dare to take into account budget cuts, weather conditions and audience preferences. Now when some theatre dude passes by and asks us if we would like to participate in an artwork, a temporary experiment to save our planet (imagine!), we don’t have any troubles with that. On the contrary, it heats up our hearts and drives us a little bit crazy. Our work will not suffer from it, it will just be different.

And so the small arts centre Scheld’Apen turned out to be the only organisation signing the manifesto and trying to put its rules into practice. Looking back, the employees consider the experience to have been worthwile. It made them more aware of the ecological impact of their work and encouraged them to do it differently. In its turn, the KVS 2020 process proved to be a very slow one. Apparently it’s less easy for a big institution with more than sixty employees to change its course. However, 2020 is still a long way to go…
Benjamin Verdoncks manifesto aroused a lot more critical debate than it generated enthusiast action. Time and again, ecological responsibility collided with artistic autonomy. In an interview, the artist stated: ‘Artistic freedom is always limited, but within these limits there are endless possibilities. Often limits even help us to see new possibilities. Artistic freedom is very clearly conditioned by a budget for example. Actually ecological limits should weigh as much as financial ones, as we only have one planet.’