Interview - Thomas Verstraeten

                                                                                                                                                                2020, scale model © Thomas Verstraeten


Thomas Verstraeten (°1986, Belgium) is a theatre -maker, actor and visual artist. Together with Stef Aerts, Joé Agemans and Marie Vinck, he forms the FC Bergman theatre company which, with its daring, large-scale plays and operas, has won respect nationally and internationally. For the last six years, FC Bergman has been attached to Antwerp’s municipal theatre Toneelhuis. Aside of the collective work, Verstraeten has his own, independent practice which combines both performing and visual arts. Verstraeten finds his inspirations in the dynamics, movement and life of the city and its inhabitants. In his videos, installations and often participatory performances which are presented in public spaces and in cultural institutions, the ordinary is theatralized into the extraordinary. Thomas Verstraeten is represented by Fred & Ferry Gallery. 



Kinga Jaczewska: I got to know you and your artistic work through the work of FC Bergman collective of which you are one of the members. Could you tell me when and how was the collective established? 


Thomas Verstraeten: We met at the Antwerp Conservatory while attending acting school. Since I had to redo my second year, I ended up in a group with the others, who would later become members of FC Bergman. A year after we first met, we established the collective. That was in 2008. 


K.J: You do not hold a degree from an acting school though, is that right? 


T.V: Yes. It was not allowed to triple a year in acting school, so I had to leave. I then went to a visual arts school, Sint Lucas in Antwerp, and that is where I ultimately received my degrees from. 


K.J: But this split did not stop FC Bergman from developing? 


T.V: Not at all. We kept on developing our work and it was actually in these early student years that works like ‘300 el x 50 el x 30 el, which is still in the company's repertoire, were created. 


K.J: How did you experience the shift from acting school into visual arts? Did it affect you in any special way? 

T.V: At Sint Lucas, I discovered something completely new. Something which, comparing to my years of studying to become an actor, felt so much more like a freedom. Back then, I thought of the acting education as very narrow. It was about becoming an actor and only an actor. If you gave a glimpse of other interests, you were considered as not suited for the program. Acting school felt too focused on ticking the boxes of what a good actor could or should be and there was not much flexibility in understanding of what it actually meant. 


K.J: Did visual art education offer a bit more of that flexibility? 


T.V: For sure. In its classical form, theatre is somehow very formalised. At the school, they taught us: here is the text, this is where the dramaturgy starts, and at this and that moment you have to divide the roles. At the end you might consider creating a little bit of a set and then the audience comes in, is seated opposite of you on the tribune and watches your play. I felt like the format of a maximum three-hour-long play with a break included was also barely questioned. I am of course exaggerating and presenting this protocol slightly as a joke, because there were and are a lot of plays made outside of this format, but the freedom that I have discovered in the visual arts, on both the level of form as well as content, was striking. I have a feeling that visual arts have managed to remain open and is not bound to its tradition, which, in my eyes, I perceive as a being more mature than the tradition of theatre. To me, visual arts have always felt as much more emancipated towards everything; it allows for many more crossovers than theatre seems to do. 


K.J: Also, for more of an artist’s own voice, maybe? 


T.V: In my case, yes. I remember how incredible it was to discover that performance is so much more than only a performance on the stage in a theatre setting, for instance. Visual arts have such a long tradition in constantly discovering new formats, in reinventing them, while theatre still feels mostly stuck to its buildings. To me, visual arts just offer greater possibilities. 


K.J: Not really on the logistic level though... 


T.V: No, unfortunately not. Comparing to the theatre which for now still can offer a budget to realise ideas, visual arts could be described as a sector with poverty everywhere. 

K.J: I have a feeling that visual arts are also a bit more careful and more humble in putting stamps or assigning labels. 

T.V: For sure. At the theatre school, if I would say that I have an opening, in which I would show a series of photos, I would be told that I am a photographer. Such labelling never happened in Sint Lucas. Even when I was out for few months working on a play with FC Bergman, our work was seen as part of my own artistic search and development. I never was stamped for being an actor or theatre maker in visual arts school. 


K.J: Nonetheless, your current practice is somehow a combination of both visual arts and theatre. 

T.V: Yes. There is a clear path of making theatre with FC Bergman, with still some – one could say – more classical specifics to it and, aside of that, I have my individual work, where I am completely free and the work can take any form, it wants to take. To have these two paths next to each other, that is something I really cherish. 

K.J: Do you treat them separately or are they somehow integrated? 

T.V: I do treat them separately. And I don’t think it has much to do with the content or how the work develops itself, but it has more to do with the idea of collective versus individual work. Working in a collective is very interesting, but it can also be a demanding and a tiring process with a lot of side discussions and compromises to it. 

K.J: In FC Bergman you work with a fully horizontal structure? 

T.V: We try to. It is not always easy, but that is the intention. To create a work as a collective is already work in itself. Which is why – even though I did some attempts into integrating my visual work into the work of the collective – I have quite quickly decided to keep both of my practices separately. Such division gives me freedom to realise my own ideas, but it also makes it easier for me to go along with other people’s ideas. It allows me to be much more constructive in the collective process.


K.J: Sounds like a nice balance between your own voice and the voice of a group. 

T.V: Yes, and this a balance that I find both very important and liberating. 

K.J: The impression I have when looking at your individual work is, that instead of inventing some sort of virtuosic or new content, your focus it rather to bring the existing one into visibility.

T.V: I do see myself the most as some sort of medium that walks around the city and watches what is happening around me. I find so much inspiration in the streets, in what I see in people and in their ordinary behaviour or problems. This is what I try to frame and to somehow bring back to the audience. I see the world as a stage. It is the ordinary, in which I believe a lot of truth could be found. 

K.J: Would you say that your work is somehow are theatricalizing the common? 

T.V: You could say so. I believe that through such a process the common becomes somehow un-common and gains new or otherwise overlooked sense or meaning. I actually think you only need a pair of lights and a frame for something to happen. I like to use all that theatre has to offer in order to enlarge the smallest elements or actions. 

K.J: Or to turn it into an event? 

T.V: I don’t really think about enlargement or the use of theatre light as a way to turn something into an event to be honest. For me, it is some kind of paradox that the more light you put onto something small, the more you stress on how small – in comparison to “the bigger things” – that thing actually is. I like to think of my work as a way of blowing the smallest things up till the moment when we can realise how tiny they really are - for this I believe, you need the contrast. 


K.J: Many of your works with ‘The parade of men, women, and those who look from a long way off like flies’ as one example, seem to carry some kind of collective content to them, at least that’s how I see I; as if they intend to connect people or to create a community of some kind. Is that something you are busy with? 


T.V: I have to say that forming a community is never my first ambition. It is more like a side-product, I would say. My first intention is always – and I think that that is the most sincere thing you can do as an artist  – is to try and make a good work of art. However, the parade, which happened on the 20/5/2017, was magical. To see these 1000 people of various backgrounds willing to be part of something together, to feel their engagement to create this work together, was very, very touching. At the end of the day, what I think of as one of the most beautiful and powerful qualities of art, is that is can bring people together... 


K.J: And ‘a good work of art’, what does that mean to you? 


T.V: It is a good question, the answer to which I don’t know. I will paraphrase Jacques Rancière, who once said that on the one hand, it is about pushing towards life, and on the other hand, it is about a sensible experience - an experience that goes to and through all your senses. He says that it is in the tension between these two that a good work of art might happen. I also always think that art has a lot to do with the ending of things, with death. 


K.J: Death is definitely the last subject that I think of when I think about your work... 


T.V: I think that art it is about the celebration of life. It is a formalised celebration of it. In waiting for death, you celebrate life - that is what I believe good art does. I see it as a way of searching for meaning in relation to death. But here again, I still don’t know the answer. 


K.J: Which is probably a great motor to create, as a way of finding out. 


T.V: Of course. For me, art is also about giving, about communication and about sharing your thoughts or feelings. I don’t think the work of art that stays in the basement or is hidden by a collector really exists. I believe that it comes to life only when it is in relation with a spectator or an audience. It needs to be in dialogue. 


K.J: On September 25th your newest work ‘Familiestraat’, which you describe as being ‘about a truly extraordinary, but also perfectly normal street where you live and work in Antwerp, will start its dialogue with the audience. 


T.V: Yes, that is the plan. It is a work that again brings the ordinary way of life into focus. With Familiestraat, I wanted to confront these normal, daily happenings with so-called world history and important events which, simultaneously to those ordinary lives, happen in the world. With this work, I actually want to highlight the idea that what happens in a smaller scale is of equal importance to the bigger scale events. I wish to show how everything is connected with each other; to show that if something big is happening, it would somehow have its consequences on the local level and vice versa. Basically, I want to display how our local and personal lives are connected in relation to the global. 


K.J: Again, the contrast of the big and the small... 


T.V: Yes. I am still busy with emphasising the idea that the world is a stage, and in ‘Familiestraat, I try to do so by re-staging the street’s life and by confronting the local with the global. 


K.J: By re-staging, do you mean acting it out? 


T.V: No, not at all. The street’s life be will performed by actual residents of the street. Familiestraat will involve around 150 of them. And it is not even performing, they will just be themselves; they’ll cross with a bike, they’ll do a strange parking manoeuvre, they’ll walk with a yoga mat in hand... 


K.J: Sounds like a similar approach to the one you worked with in ‘The Parade (…)’? 


T.V: Yes, for sure. In Familiestraat, I also wanted to show the various people being together. They will be in a way simply reconstructing their own actions that happened throughout 2020. 


K.J: You have chosen a very interesting year to reconstruct... 


T.V: The original plan was to work with 2019, but then 2020 happened and it was clear that the work had to be based around that year. It was a very hard year for everybody and I also hope that with Familiestraat’ we could celebrate the beginning of something new, or to at least say goodbye to this difficult year. 


K.J: Will we hear some spoken text? 


T.V: No, not at all. Similar to the parade, there will be no words. 


K.J: Is it a work of choreography then? 


T.V: Or a sculpture... But here again, I don’t think that giving it a frame or a label is necessary. I personally don’t need it. 


K.J: In your own work, but also in the work of FC Bergman, the theatre text – if used – is not necessarily at the centre stage. Is there a reason for being spare with words? 


T.V: The standard answer to such a question, when asked in context of FC Bergman, would be that we want to create symphonies of images that go straight to the heart; we want to bypass the brain somehow. I don’t know if that makes sense in what I am doing individually, but I am just much more attracted to the visual. I get inspired by what people do in relation to each other as opposed to what they say to each other. I also think that when you use language, you have to be very precise and careful. To achieve that, you maybe have to be a bit more of a mature artist that I am right now. 


K.J: Aren’t you sometimes afraid of the ambiguity or misunderstandings that might come along with silently moving bodies? 


T.V: I always liked to create open art works and I hope such works can offer a lot for the imagination of the audience. I think it is important not to ever underestimate the gaze of the audience. To create works that find their final meaning in the eyes of the spectator is very important to me. Text has also something to do with a plot and I don’t think you can plot life; life in itself in unplottable, I think. 


K.V: What was the process behind the ‘Familiestraat’? 


T.V: I took a lot of time to sit and observe, but I also had a little camera hanging, which captured the events happening on the street. It is important to say that for me, the work has never been about who did what, but plainly about the choreography and actions that took place on our street. 


K.V: Is the scenario and dramaturgy of the performance an original copy-paste of what has really happened on the Familiestraat or did you alter them in service of the final performance? 


T.V: I always wanted to show all the actions exactly how they really happened, but as I ended up selecting 24 fragments from the entire 2020 to work with, there is some manipulation that evidently happened. To me this work is about time and the passage of it. It is about the history, about events. It is about wondering what makes an event an event, or when it becomes one. With such questions in mind, I knew that I didn’t want ‘Familiestraat’ to be created with a pressure of it needing to be entertaining. That is why timings of the selected happenings won’t be adapted. Situations won’t be shortened, but instead, they will be shown in their unaltered, original time scale. That is also why the performance lasts six hours and the audience is free to sit, walk around, walk out and come back. 


K.J: Are all the six hours set? 


T.V: No, there are quite few open spaces left – spaces for the unrehearsed. Rehearsing is not something I like to do a lot. I am afraid it could kill the possibility for the real and unexpected to happen, for the actual life to appear. Those things are exactly what the work is all about - the beauty of live being alive

Kinga Jaczewska, Antwerp, August 2021