Together in the dark | Sébastien Hendrickx (Extinction Rebellion)

I’m writing to you from Brussels, Belgium. As a dramaturge, I am part of the world of performing arts; as a member of Extinction Rebellion, I am active in the domain of environmental activism. The globalised standard of physical distancing makes it difficult to gather individuals, in the theatre as well as on the streets and on the squares. The pandemic is part of a much larger story – that of the high-speed and unjustly spread ecological breakdown. I ask myself the question: how relevant are the performing arts now that the state distinguishes ‘essential’ from ‘non-essential’ activities? Wouldn’t it be better, in these critical times, to concentrate fully on solidarity campaigns and (adapted forms of ) political protest? In any case, there is no place for live arts on a dead planet.

Today, May 27th 2020, Extinction Rebellion has 1110 groups in 68 countries. It is a large community of disillusioned citizens who want to face the truth of social and ecological destruction and turn to ‘praxis’. Philosophical pedagogue Paolo Freire uses that term as a denominator for the symbiotic mix of action and reflection, two poles that are both product and raw material of each other, in an ongoing mutual process. Where possible – not every country has the same level of political freedom – Extinction Rebellion tries to put pressure on governments with large-scale, non-violent actions of civil disobedience. Immediate success is not on the horizon, and being aware of that makes the resistance a resilient one. In the search for impact, political strategies must constantly adapt to changing circumstances. Many of our members (including myself ) see the movement as part of a last chance to keep the planet somewhat habitable.

Covid-19 has had a major impact on activists worldwide in recent months. Some regimes took advantage of the crisis to further intensify the repression. Since the Belgian lockdown restrictions have been loosened, the local branch of Extinction Rebellion has been rethinking actions in the public space, which are both disruptive and covidproof.

When and in what ways theatres will reopen their doors remains unclear for the time being. As a dramaturge, I have the privilege to see performances emerge before they become public, and to contribute to their emergence with research and feedback. For the first time since the start of the lockdown, I attended a rehearsal in an almost empty auditorium last week. Two male dancer-acrobats performed an intriguing duet on stage. During the after-talk we discussed the influence of their different body proportions on the performed movements, the simplicity of those movements versus their potential for virtuosity, the gendered character of poses and what role that aspect could play within the overall coherence of the performance,… I had truly missed this kind of exploratory, speculative conversations somewhere in between the abstract and the concrete – to construct something together in the dark. At the same time the question arose: wasn’t all this completely futile against the turbulent backdrop of what was happening outside?

An important part of the performing arts world seeks the answer to this paralysing question in the union of art and activism, the fusion of aesthetic considerations and the pursuit of demonstrable social impact. (Sometimes this fusion seems more like an outright takeover…) Normally the word ‘artivism’ refers to art forms that resemble political activism. In this context I prefer to use it as an umbrella term for the high-minded rhetoric around the ‘political radicality and impact of art’ (present in a lot of communication of cultural institutions, art criticism and theory) and the artistic practices that mirror it.

In reality, the seemingly vigorous artivism is often nothing more than a powerless grandchild of two outdated Western traditions: the historical avant-garde with its attempts at the revolutionary blurring of boundaries between art and life, and the petty bourgeois, institutionalised experience of art. Hence the schizophrenia of institutionally encapsulated militantism. Not only does artivism usually lead to aesthetic disappointments – especially when it imitates the functional dramaturgy of protest – it is also counterproductive as a political intervention because (1) it is largely made for and by socially privileged people for whom political change is an indirect moral choice rather than a direct vital necessity; (2) it diverts the energetic potential of criticism, action and political innovation to a harmless and symbolic context; and (3) it blocks actual political initiative by raising expectations too high or triggering feelings of hopelessness among the public. Without a proposal for a sustainable strategic action path, it remains an empty gesture, more a matter of subsidy applications, artists’ careers and thematic theatre festivals than a matter of social change.

The double disappointment of artivism weakens the position of the performing arts in general. Still, it is not because their political strength is sometimes so overestimated, that they can’t serve a purpose! Everything – including art – may be political; politics isn’t everything! Just like activism, the performing arts can be an integral part of ‘the good life’ in the twenty-first century. It is my conviction that through global heating and extinction, the abstract pursuit of profit will eventually give way to a more grounded utilitarianism. Even then, despite its uselessness, the performing arts will not be a luxury but a necessity. We will possibly even yearn for it more: to take part in ritual encounters, to discover imaginary constructions together in the dark, to experience artistic practices as individual-collective sources of empathy, solace, memory, insight, conviviality, vulnerability, mourning, humour, experiment, speculation, wisdom, etcetera.

Sébastien Hendrickx is a dramaturge, teacher, activist and art critic based in Brussels. He has worked with artists like Benjamin Verdonck, Jozef Wouters, Alexander Vantournhout and Luanda Casella, and is a member of the editorial staff of the performing arts magazine Etcetera. He recently created a solo performance called ‘The Good life’. He is part of Extinction Rebellion since March 2019.