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Much ado about nothing? Chris Dercon

HARD TALK! Last Sunday, the Volksbühne officially rebooted under the artistic direction of Chris Dercon of Tate Modern fame. The charismatic Belgian invited us for an unusually frank talk about Berlin and the drama surrounding his appointment.

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Chris Dercon is the man of all contentions – of all projections, he’d say.

Since his appointment at the helm of the Volksbühne, the charismatic Belgian who left the Tate Modern to head the legendary Berlin institution has been met with suspicion and sheer hostility by the Berlin theatre establishment – or part of it. His main crime? To be a “hip, zeitgeist-chasing curator”, as a commentator for Die Welt put it: a Berlin outsider, alien to the German theatre world, cooking up a glamourous, “art-inflected” programme.

In another city, scoring such a world-class player would be celebrated as a coup. Not in Berlin, eager to defend its ensemble theatre and its parochial uniqueness in the face of cultural globalism (which in the case of the old Volksbühne extended to a dogged resistance to English surtitles, by now common practice at Berlin’s other state theatres). Following news of Dercon’s appointment in 2013, a strange psychodrama unfolded, kicking off with a rather hostile open letter from Volksbühne insiders fearing the “selling-out of artistic standards” and job cuts. It stepped up a notch with a 40,000-signature petition and physical threats following the official departure of Dercon’s famed predecessor, modern theatre icon Frank Castorf. It finally reached comedia dell arte paroxysm when Dercon found “German faeces” at his doorstep.

Now that the new Volksbühne’s first season kicked off on Sunday – continuing on Thursday, September 14 with A Dancer’s Day – we thought it was about time to sit down with the 59-year-old and review the facts behind the grievances. Effortlessly switching between English, French, German and his native Flemish, Dercon joined us for a conversation about identity politics, lazy hipsters and, yes, those German faeces.

You speak German – is this from your time at The Haus der Kunst in Munich? How many languages do you speak?

I learnt German as a child when I joined the European scouts in Tervuren near Brussels. I was one of the only Flemish kids there – as I grew older, I became part of the artistic bilingual community in Brussels. I consider myself to be one of the last ‘Belgicists’, maybe along with people like David Van Reybrouck or Dries Van Noten. Our generation was lucky enough to embrace both cultures, French and Flemish. We married each other and spoke both languages. Take the famous Belgian dancer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. We speak both Flemish and French together, we mix, switch, whatever. Today people in their twenties or thirties identify as either Flemish or Walloon. Even young immigrants in Antwerp or Ghent – they speak Flemish, or they’re Francophones. It makes me sad.

Do you see it as a broader issue, that retreat to parochial notions of identity? It seems there’s a certain obsession with identity politics, and not just among nationalist right-wingers. It also comes from the left.

You know what Steve Bannon said? Let the Democrats keep themselves busy with identity politics – I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left focuses on race and identity, and we go with the real stuff, the economy, etc., we can win.

Yes, exactly. And it’s dangerous. You know what Steve Bannon said? Let the Democrats keep themselves busy with identity politics – I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left focuses on race and identity, we go with the real stuff, the economy, etc., thus we can win. So we have to be careful not to fall in Bannon’s trap. I’m stupefied when I see young people concentrate only on identity issues.

Is this what’s been happening here in Berlin with all the Volksbühne drama: a crisis of identity politics?

Of course. But it’s a lot more complicated. For instance, we’re seeing a bunch of international hipsters in solidarity with the old left in Berlin. Like a holy communion – even if they don’t speak the same language! It’s fascinating. Castorf’s plays were all in German, but they came and sat through them anyway, just because they wanted a piece of the ‘real’ authentic Berlin.

Exactly: the Volksbühne was much more than the sum of the plays that were staged there. It was a cultural stronghold, emblematic of a certain East German culture that’s slowly disappearing. We’re touching upon the realm of the symbolic here…

I agree, but I think what you’re saying is too Ostalgic. Castorf and Pollesch are much more than nostalgia. The debates they took on in their pieces were very much about globalisation, gentrification, consumerism, etc. I’ve been a fan of Pollesch for many years. Did you know that we even tried to bring him to the Tate Modern? But we decided not to because Tate Modern is not a theatre, and we didn’t have that capacity.

What did you think about the latest petition to “renegotiate the future” of the Volksbühne? Forty thousand people signed it…

In Berlin, every day brings a new petition. There was the petition against horse-drawn carriages that brought over 100,000 signatures. Even the petition to save the Baumhaus in Schöneberg gathered over 50,000 people… For the last 100 years, Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz has been a constant battleground! There were names added to the latest petition whose “owners” were surprised to see them there.

So, maybe it’s a positive sign: Berliners care about theatre almost as much as they do treehouses or horses…

The problem with such petitions is that they’ve become an instrument of propaganda, a crowd-sourced propaganda.

Yes, maybe, but as much as I take the discussion seriously, there are two things I won’t get into: petitions and Facebook. I’m not interested in these ‘instant’ expressions of so-called democracy. I don’t see it as a form of true communication. The problem with such petitions is that they’ve become an instrument of propaganda, a crowd-sourced propaganda. In Berlin, it’s also a form of folklore. Or maybe it’s a further expression of Berlin’s growing precariousness. I talked about it in an interview in 2010. I was astonished how many people spend their days in cafés, sitting at their Macs typing out 10 projects in the hope of getting into a film, getting a grant or scoring an internship.

Well, many of those young creatives spend a lot of time on their Macs looking for funding. You should be sympathetic – you know how difficult it is to finance artistic projects. Of course, you got lucky – isn’t Volksbühne 90 percent state-funded?

I was always state-funded everywhere I worked.

But at the Tate Modern you had sponsors once in a while. Is that something you want to do here? Your detractors are already fearing you’ll sell out to big brands…

I know. But sponsors are quite normal. I had them in New York, in Rotterdam… You know, at the Volksbühne they had sponsors as well. I was astonished to learn many years ago that they worked on a small project with Prada!

Let’s go back and review the criticism you’ve gotten so far. It started pretty early on with a quite hostile open letter from 170-180 Volksbühne staff members who expressed their fear of seeing you…

…No, they expressed their fear of Frank Castorf having to go! They used me as a kind of projection screen for all the fears which have been building up in Berlin during recent years: gentrification, globalisation, lack of jobs. They said I’m just an event organiser. That kind of talk is the very reason I don’t take the accusations seriously, because people need a kind of ventilation for their fears – and shall I say that I’m willing to play that role?

Are you willing?

Yes, by now I’ve gotten used to it. I don’t care much. People in a fragile city like Berlin might need that kind of outlet. They are frustrated because of all the promises which were made, maybe. ‘The city is and will stay cheap’; it’s not true. ‘You will find a job’; it’s not true. ‘You will be able to get subsidies for your projects which you’re typing out every day in the café’; it didn’t become true. I speak constantly to these people because I know them from London and other places. They’re living here and they don’t want to return, but they’re disappointed and they don’t know where to go either. So they’re subletting their own flats in order to get by…

I get that, but still: when someone like [ex-Berliner Ensemble artistic director] Claus Peymann says “Dercon is the wrong casting for the Volksbühne”, he might bring up a legitimate argument: what do you have to do with German theatre?

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I’m coming from the art world, which is supposed to be “bad”. For theatre people, the art world represents “neo-liberalism”. And it’s based on the tension between symbolic value and financial value. The Tate Modern is an amazingly successful building with seven million visitors. For those people, success is suspicious. And London is the capital of capitalism. So the anger as to why somebody would come here from London, Tate Modern and the art world, that was the first issue. The second was that I’m not coming from the theatre world, that I don’t know what to do. But that was before we even got a chance to introduce our programme. It was all about prejudices, until the past few weeks… I don’t have to tell you that we had to clean shit off our windows on a regular basis. German shit!

Wait, how could you tell it was German?

Well, of course I can tell, my brother is a biologist [laughs]. I’m sorry, but what should I say? It was clearly German shit. When I said that, people laughed or got angry. What should I have said?

I see you’re not afraid of being provocative…

Twice, I had to leave the S-Bahn because people recognised me and shouted at me to go back home to the Tate.

I know, but if I had said “Berliner fecalia”, they would have said, “No, it came from Dresden!” But let me ask you – weren’t you surprised? I was surprised how violent people were. Twice, I had to leave the S-Bahn because people recognised me and shouted at me to go back home to the Tate.

By now it’s hopefully reached a point where people who were sympathetic to the old Volksbühne cause are keeping their distance from those extremes – it’s silly and rude. But what about the criticism of your tabula rasa politics, liquidating the old Volksbühne – why didn’t you make an attempt at continuity?

Who says that? We asked Pollesch to stay, we asked Castorf, Pollesch, Marthaler and Fritsch if they wanted to keep their plays in the repertoire, and they said no.

You really asked them to stay? The word on the street is that you didn’t…

I know that the Germans don’t want to hear this, I know I’m not going to get it out of their heads, but we have their negative response in writing. They said “No”. What are the other facts?

Okay, that’s cleared. What about the early fears that people would lose their jobs?

[Laughs] That’s not true. Of our staff of about 232, only 18 people were replaced, and many of them said they wanted to go themselves. When Oliver Reese comes to the Berliner Ensemble he takes his artistic staff from Frankfurt and he replaces the core artistic group. We did exactly the same thing. It’s normal in the theatre world. In my case some people may have left in protest, but 210 people are still working here.

Another, maybe more convincing argument against you and your programme: this place used to be an ensemble, repertory theatre, and you’re transforming it into a “performance hall”, with touring acts which could be seen anywhere else.

All the plays which we are programming – let’s say 80 percent of the plays – are being picked up in the repertoire. For instance, Iphigenia is coming back. We are trying to build up an ensemble, which is not easy. It will take time because of the many times we were threatened or asked to leave. Would you want to work for or with somebody who might have to leave in three months? Nobody wants to take that risk.

Did you feel let down by politicians? They appointed you and then Die Linke joins the ruling coalition and the culture senator wants to reconsider because it’d please his electorate…

That’s not very manly [laughs]. It’s not very courageous. But I’m used to cultural politics becoming instrumentalised because I come from Belgium. Maybe people get angry when I compare eine kaputte Stadt like Brussels to Berlin. But, truly, it’s not that different here.

Back to your appointment – you were approached by Tim Renner, right?

I was approached by the mayor and his culture senator, Michael Müller and Tim Renner. It was a complete surprise for me, because there was no reason whatsoever to come to Berlin to run a theatre. But to run the Volksbühne? Yes. Because the Volksbühne has always been more, much more, for me than just another famous German city theatre. It had a reputation of risk, of anarchy, of many different disciplines coming together and something new coming out of it. So I could not say no to the offer – it was a dream come true. I had said already in Munich in an interview that if the Volksbühne ever approached me, I would do it.

That was what, 10 years ago?

Yes. It’s on file. Since Berlin, I keep everything on file because I don’t trust anybody. [Laughs]

At no point did you ever feel like throwing in the towel, saying you’re fed up, not dealing with this any longer?

I thought about it when I saw the shit – I don’t want to deal with excrement. That, for me was the limit. The very, very limit.

But do you feel supported at all? I know that in the art world, people like Rem Koolhaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist wrote a letter in your favour.

I still have a lot of support, absolutely – that’s the reason why I’m still here. I believe we have a good programme, we have an amazing team and we have these amazing technicians here. The transition period was incredibly messy, but since August 24, I’ve loved coming here every morning.

Where from… where do you live?

I live in Zehlendorf. I swim every morning at 6:30 – it’s sheer luxury. I like to read and I don’t like to go out, it might be asocial but I’ve always been like that. I don’t want my time to be dictated by social engagements… I want to be the intendant of my eigene Zeit.

What’s going on with the famous Bert Neumann wheel? Castorf took it with him, it went to Avignon… and now?

It’s here in Berlin, at a workshop being repaired. It got damaged somehow. I don’t have anything against it. I mean, if the people working here at the Volksbühne decide to have it back, it should come back, If they decide not to have it back, it can go. I am not a dictator.

You don’t seem thrilled about it.

No, no, I love it because I think Berlin is lacking good public sculptures and this is one of the rare examples. Plus for me, it’s always been an amazing mirror, a negative image, of the Mercedes Benz star. But I’m not supposed to say that either, I think [laughs].

Unsurprisingly, your programme is very international and interdisciplinary, mixing up art and stage and film, Arabic, English, Thai…

Yes, I think it reflects the situation of Berlin. Berlin is a city which is truly international, but Berlin is also a city of artists who like to think in between things. Think about Tino Seghal, who lives in Mitte. He is not theatre. He is not dance. He’s definitely visual art, but he is mainly ‘in between’. And I think in Berlin there are so many artists who are very radical and very experimental, not just coming from the visual arts world, but also architects like Arno Brandlhuber or fashion designers like Bless. Of course Pollesch is very radical, but Ersan Mondtag is also very daring – he even operates in museums. Just to give a few examples.

So you opened with dance first, with French choreographer Boris Charmatz. Why him? That’s another criticism – you’re bringing in many outsiders, unconnected to Berlin…

A lot of artists we’re bringing might have strange names – like Yael Bartana or Tino Sehgal – but they’ve been living in Berlin much longer than me and they speak much better German than I do. Boris Charmatz worked with the Volksbühne and became successful in Berlin early on. Susan Kennedy has been at Theatertreffen. So I don’t know what is wrong with the people who are saying “This is not Berlin.” All the things we are doing are grounded in Berlin in one way or another.

But you can see the rupture from the language-driven German repertoire theatre that was there before.

No – we’ll bring a lot of Sprechtheater. When Albert Serra brings his piece here in February, it will be in German.

When you took over at the Tate Modern, you compared your role to that of an “editor in chief” and called yourself a “change manager”. Is that something you still feel?

Yes. I’ve always been approached to come into organisations when they were about to change – when a new institution had to be founded or had to be created. And, yes, I like this whole idea of trying to make change happen. That is the reason why – without being snobbish or pretentious – I know how to work with resistance. That, I do know. Of course, it depends on how the resistance is played out. I’m not interested in fighting against excrement at my door or threats on Facebook….

To make change happen, you have to believe in the future, and I believe in the future of art. And you need to accept that art is changing in the same way artists and audiences are changing. The way we relate to museums, exhibitions, cinema and theatre has completely changed over the last two decades . So has the way artists are now creating “in-between” – I mean, could you have imagined 20 years ago that [visual artist] Shirin Neshat would be in Salzburg working on a classical opera like Aida with Anna Netrebko?

So do you think this is what all the resistance has been about – that people here are afraid of change?

I don’t think that people are afraid of change. What they are afraid of is changing themselves, and I think that’s typical for Berlin.

I don’t think that people are afraid of change. What they are afraid of is changing themselves, and I think that’s typical for Berlin. It’s interesting to see that the arrivals who came here in the 1980s, Germans but also internationals, are acting more Berlinerisch than the Berliners. It is a constant arguing, claiming “I was there first”. Who has the legitimacy to speak for the real Berlin?

When you compare this to what happened with Sasha Waltz at the Staatsballett, the resistance to her appointment – do you see similarities?

I think there it came more from a group which identifies with a classic form of ballet. It’s an incredibly emotional kind of thing, it’s not political nor ideological, it is really about their own bodies. The debate or struggle was much less violent in comparison to here. Of course, there were the screaming ballet mothers in the audience. I find it fascinating, the 19th-century hysteria. I mean, people shouting and screaming. It’s a beautiful image. The Belgian revolution started in an opera house!

Do you sometimes get paranoid?

Over the past summer, yes. When they started with the attacks, I was very worried about my team, and I’m still very careful that I’m not going to parties and stuff like that because I don’t want to be there in the midst of the shouting.

So you’re hoping to convince people not through confrontation but through your programme?

Yes – for example, with Boris Charmatz’s Danse de Nuit and what he’s trying to say about assemblage, with Susan Kennedy when she speaks about Women in Trouble in November, with Mette Ingvartsen when she choreographs bio-politics and women’s bodies, or Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff taking over the Grüner Salon. The programme is taking on many different contemporary issues, and I hope it will resonate with many different audiences.

Was the stage at Tempelhof your idea?

Yes, it was our idea. It was not the politicians’ idea. We said we would really like to come to Berlin if we can be present at Tempelhof – not because we want to expand, but because the Volksbühne is not just a stage. The Volksbühne is a city theatre, which means it’s interrogating the role of theatre in the whole city.

You understand that’s even more sacrilegious, that you’re transforming a site into an idea? For some people, that’s really unsettling.

Culture shouldn’t be comfortable. But it’s not about inflammation, it’s about communication, about going back and forth. Take the Pollesch plays that the hipsters love so much. They are about so much more than just East and West Berlin. But is everybody understanding all the references to Bourdieu and Derrida?

Well, that might explain why Pollesch’s shows were not always very full. Is it important for you to fill the venue?

Of course, it’s the most important thing. In the past three years, the theatre here was made smaller, reduced from 800 to 450 seats. We’re opening it up to 800 again, and we want to fill these seats because it’s much nicer to dance for 800 people than it is for 100 people.

Even if you need to be sponsored by Prada.

I don’t have anything against that. I’ve had really good experiences with all these people. They didn’t control the programme at Tate Modern. It’s a question of the negotiation table.

I’ve got to ask you about that one-liner by Jean-Luc Godard that I heard you quote several times: “One ought to make the possible probable and the probable possible.” Can you explain why you like it so much?

It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Especially: Make the probable possible. Basically, in order to create things, they don’t have to happen. They don’t have to actually take place. They can take place in your head, and that’s the reason why we make art.

On Thursday, Sep 14 (through Sep 17), the Volksbühne’s new season continues at Hangar 5 in Tempelhof with Boris Charmatz’s dance piece, A Dancer’s Day / 10000 Gestures.

Born in 1959 in Flemish Lier (near Antwerp), Chris Dercon studied art, film and theatre and is now one of Europe’s most sought-after curators, helming the Tate Modern gallery in London from 2011 until Michael Müller headhunted him to take over the Volksbühne. Before that, Dercon was director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst for more than 10 years, having also served as director of both the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen and the Witte de Within Rotterdam, as well MoMA’s PS1 programme director in the late 1980s.