State of the Youth 2019 - Luanda Casella| 6 September 2019
How are you?
Have you seen the world? It’s been great, hasn’t it?
I was completely blown away by the whole thing.
In fact, I think I’m leaving.
All the reasons to make a revolution are there. None is missing. The shipwreck of politics, the arrogance of the powerful, the kingdom of the false, the vulgarity of wealth, the cataclysms of industry, the rampant misery, the naked exploitation, the ecological apocalypse—we are not spared from anything, not even from being informed about it. We are daily reminded of problems against which we cannot battle. We have all been experiencing a collective anxiety created by the asphyxiating feeling of powerlessness that our sick social organisation cultivates in each one of us. However, I believe the urgency that the climate crisis is presenting us with is revealing a lot and it’s turning our present into a quite powerful moment to live in.
So what to do? Do we all become activists, go to the barricades, protest? Do we engage in social work? Do we volunteer? Do we donate? How many organisations do we have to support to feel ‘off the hook’ about our privilege? (I’ve even caught myself the other day bragging about the organisations I supported. I felt silently so ashamed!)
So what do we do?
We do theatre. We comment on the world. But this world is no longer to be commented on, denounced. We live surrounded by a fog of comments and comments on comments, of criticism and criticism on criticisms, of revelations that do not seem to set anything into motion, except more revelations about revelations. And this fog takes away all the learning from the world.
I’ve been seriously questioning our role as artists and asking: By ‘commenting’ the world around us haven’t we slowly made ‘misery’ our own commodity? Aren’t we all regurgitating consciousness that does not turn into action? Or at least into personal ethics?
So why do theatre? What can we artists exchange? What is or should be our currency?
I grew up in the 80’s—and as a middle child, very important information—I seemed to need quite a lot of attention. So I tried to be funny, (which now being a mother myself I know it only meant I was hyper-active). But my mother used to say—as a joke—‘You know one day, the circus will come and take you with them’. The circus?, I thought. Why? They’re so….entertaining and sad. Look what I can do with these colourful balls! Of course that’s not what I thought. When you’re a child you take things literary. I was obviously terriﬁed they would take me away from my mother (and that’s why I hate circus). But now thinking back I guess I was also terriﬁed that that would be my only possible destiny. The 80’s cliché of saying a funny child should join the circus, wasn’t my mother discouraging me, it was the society around her afﬁrming that every child who has a certain creativity, or needs to learn in a creative way, does not have a future, except for being a clown. So when I think about the role theatre plays in our society, when I think about how we deal with knowledge in the theatre, and the importance of the dissemination of this knowledge, I question how we were educated.
Knowledge is something diverse and dynamic but also speciﬁc.
In our daily lives, we think about the world in all the ways we experience it: visually, in sound, aesthetically, associatively, rhythmically, we think in abstract terms, we think in movement, we think in an interdisciplinary way, we use our imagination, we depend on our imagination to survive. However, our schools haven’t trained us in poetry, haven’t trained us in music, theatre, dance, literature. We had those subjects, but they were optional, secondary. There was no room in our school system to develop our creativity as a priority, in a sustainable way, as a point of departure. I had a wonderful teacher in the university who once said something I will never forget about the historical power of imagination for our daily survival, he said: If you make the wrong ﬁction of the lion, it will eat you up. I think that’s exactly what we’re doing, we’re making, as a society, very wrong ﬁctions of everything.
When I want to be optimistic about the work we’ve been doing in the theatre, I think about the type of knowledge we are producing. In the liveliness of the theatre we get different planes of reality to co-exist, we invent new types of arrangements, new formal structures, new possibilities of meaning. So I think there’s a direct connection between the disastrous state of the world, our feeling of powerlessness and a certain regret about our education. Our educational system has failed us. We were trained to kill poetry and to believe that the knowledge we were interested in was not knowledge at all. We grew up to believe our weapons were worth nothing.
But if our practice has such little valued on the market isn’t because the paradigm of value is completely upside down? We need to radically review our view on knowledge.
We have been watching our own shipwreck for too long, bewitched as if it were a spectacle. We are so taken that we cannot even feel the water already covering our legs. And what will we do at the end? Will we turn everything into a ﬂoat? Because that’s the destiny of shipwrecked people, isn’t it?, to transform everything they touch into ﬂoats. Or will we stop the storm?
The arts offer us an incredibly valuable way of looking at the world; the abstract way. And without abstraction we can’t get to the essence of things. Especially now when the world itself has become ﬁction, it’s ‘true ﬁction’ that can enhance our perception of facts, and give us a parallel path to the objectivity of journalism. And I know you’ve heard this before ‘the world has become ﬁction’… But it has. We are threatened by the idea of scarcity, when we live in abundance. Imagination might be our last weapon available before the ﬁnal shipwreck.
And that’s our currency. That’s what we can exchange. The knowledge that isn’t purely rational. The world needs loads of it. Let us believe we’re setting the tone. Let us believe we’re expanding the idea of ethics. Let us believe—as Sara Ahmed says it so beautifully— we’re widening the scripts for what counts as ‘a good life’.
A meaningful life can only arise from crisis. It is in crisis that we’re able to distinguish the trivial from the relevant. It’s in the precariousness of sources that we ﬁnd new energy. Sometimes it’s in the precariousness of our own energy that we ﬁnd the dynamics of art.
I’m now experiencing a period of intense crisis in my life, hovering between two very distinct emotions; On the one hand, I’m living the great joy of seeing my work being recognised; of receiving incredible invitations to show, to participate in discussions, to voice my opinion, to develop my writing in amazing contexts. On the other hand I’m deeply mourning. On the 20th of April this year, my dear sister Mariana passed away after ﬁghting for ﬁve years a very aggressive type of cancer. And I can’t stop thinking about the order of things. Is life presenting me with all this prosperity so I can deal with the pain? Is it the pain that is giving me depth to live all these opportunities fully and become a better artist? Or is it just life presenting itself in the overlapping of things so I can grow with the crisis?
This is for me also a professional crisis.
Mariana was an ontologist and one of my main collaborators. She was my ﬁrst (and last) proofreader, my perfect audience. She was a passioned reader who had so much knowledge to share—of literature, of politics, of philosophy—who helped me ground my research on language, understand the deceptive power of rhetoric. With her I could share one of my favourite pleasures in life: the pleasure of the text and that of understanding irony silently, together.
It was her who thought me that ‘meaning’ is a mental process that endures through time; that concepts like ‘event’, ‘plot’, ‘story’, ‘conﬂict’, ‘crisis’, ‘change’ are all processes that endure through time.
I can’t ask her in which ontological category does ‘death’ fall in. I would call it a process as well—even though for her it was ﬁnal—a process that grounds me in a very intense and wildly way. It presents me with a certain truthfulness that helps me seek more meaningful encounters. And the power of the crisis is that I’m strangely thankful to her that I have experienced death and that I have this pain, that comes with a certain detachment, which can be transformed into thoughts, into text, into language that I hope becomes contagious, for she has thought me how much words really matter.
In March this year, we were working together here at Vooruit, studying Sara Ahmed’s Killjoy Manifesto, interviewing theatre makers, educators, journalists, feminists, about the strategies they used to battle against violence in their practices.
Once again, she grounded my understanding of the very meaning of a ‘manifesto’—a psycho-social construct—the power of making things manifest.
The manifesto is often a misunderstood format. Many mistake it for a rigid set of rules, while it’s an urgent, sometimes even clumsy, set of ethical principles. Sometimes they’re only making something manifest, a violent order of ideas. Sometimes they’re outlining practices, borders of style. Of course you can’t follow all its principles. No one can. But the idea is to dialogue with them, to bear them in mind and hope for the best.
Together we started to study the new lexicon from feminism, from gender studies, the decolonisation movement and the climate crisis activism and how they are—by exposing violences—manifesting life. By giving us new words, these movements are steadily and gradually changing our modes of perception. We can now call things by their names: micro-aggressions; privilege; hegemony; internalised racism; internalised sexism; victimblaming; transphobia; whiteness. We can now reinforce one another with terms like: civil disobedience; learning spirit; gender ﬂuidity; allies; human ecology; women of colour; woke women; transfeminism; cultural safety; equity; empowerment.
These movements are giving us powerful tools to pave the path to new paradigms of existence. This path is not about spontaneity it’s about a lot of study, discipline, methodology, collaboration, empathy, and manifestos. If we are to battle all the narratives that contain our logic—the patriarchal capitalist exploratory logic, which is structural and systemic—we need a whole lot of imagination to create an alternative that is also structural, systemic and sustainable.
In the performing arts we are all the time creating new language. So it is our responsibility to never betray the very spirit of these movements. In our theatres, in our festivals, they should never be diminished to trends, they cannot be fulﬁlling an agenda of the institution. They need to be taken seriously. Our trend should be to educate ourselves endlessly so we can collectively create more terms, and new ﬁelds. Why should we be content with ‘transdisciplinary’ or ‘multiculturality’ when speciﬁcity is a weapon. So this was the introduction. I’d like to end with a personal manifesto I wrote in the search for sisterhood and sanity survival. Here are twelve principles inspired by the women I love (artists, activists, educators), who teach me how to be more ethical in my everyday life and in my artistic practice.
an ode to the women I love
ONE: THE TRUTHFUL
Get to know yourself. It’s a priority. People who walk around in oblivion cannot question their own values and biases.
TWO: THE AVID READER
Read as an act of resistance. Read. One book after the other. Be always in the middle of reading. Meanings appear with time, in waves. Be curious.
THREE: THE TUNED INTERLOCUTOR
Don’t engage in small talk. If you do make sure it isn’t for long. Be invested in the conversation. Test your emotional knowledge. Test your political opinion. Be ironic whenever possible. Behave. Be good company.
FOUR: THE PRESENT
Don’t be lukewarm about your chances of voicing. If you’re given the spotlight, be there. Stay in character.
FIVE: THE DIPLOMAT
Bring change to the institutions you are a part of. Be strategic. Enter in dialogue with those who don’t share your ethical values. Ask yourself how people begin and end a work with you.
SIX: THE HUMBLE
Your privilege is not your doing. Be humbled by your position in the world. Awaken others about their privilege. Make others humble. Help strengthen the core values of justice.
SEVEN: THE KILLJOY FEMINIST
Be a killjoy feminist. Beware of euphemisms. Be ready to spoil the enjoyment of others every time violence is manifested; in the form of racist jokes, misogynistic or homophobic behaviour or any other form of injustice. Do this in any given circumstance. Be energetic about it.
EIGHT: THE CHANNELLER
I order, I demand, I plead, I yield, I challenge, I provoke, I dare, I claim, I name, I condemn, I disrupt, I evoke, I initiate, I resist… Active (power) verbs provoke movement. Learn how to use them. Use them.
NINE: THE DISOBEDIENT INVENTOR
Question our standards of normality. Beware of trends. Create hybrid forms as a path to the imaginary. Learn how to disobey. It is only at risk that the unexpected can be born.
TEN: THE EDUCATOR
Don’t limit your work to critique. Don’t be narcissistic. Produce knowledge. Share your knowledge. Believe in the development of potency amongst us, as a collective.
ELEVEN: THE READY
Beware of your craft. Be focused. Be ready to perform.
TWELVE: THE WRITER
Create a bond of poetic faith with your reader. Always try to expand the language of art. Through art we can widen the scripts for what counts as ‘a good life’.