Jan van den Berg: about a street in a small village, an intersection in the town nearby and the very end of the universe
When bringing possible futures to life and engaging an audience, many tend to resort to multimedia in its most tech-inspired/driven variant, while from a storytelling perspective “the art of acting” or theatre has so much more to offer. After some first experiences of our own in using theater as a way of communicating the future and triggering debate, we are definitely hungry for more. Yet our interest in theater goes beyond its utilitarian value in exploring and envisioning the future.
Theatre comes in many flavours and the Dutch theater company Theater AdHoc defies categorization in a lovely way. Join us on an inspiring trip through the mind and heart of its founder Jan van den Berg.
NB (Nik Baerten – Pantopicon) : I am sure there have been many attempts to characterize the kind of theater you and your colleagues at AdHoc have brought to the stage for many years now … “Experimental science theatre”, “Research theatre”, being amongst them. How would you describe what you do?
JVDB: I like to regard myself as an exploratory voyager whose expeditions do not necessarily lead to the blank spots on our planet but rather to the outer limits of our seeing and common sense. Driven by the motto ‘Reality is too interesting to leave it to the realists’ I visit scientists and scientific projects that demand the utmost of my imagination. Subsequently I make scenarios for theatre and recently also for film, i.e. dramatized stories about my expeditions and findings. Another way of characterizing what I do, could be: satisfying my curiosity in public, both through meeting experts ‘out there in the wild’ and by sharing my experiences in front of a live audience.NB: Aside from an artistic goal and drive, what do you consider your role in society? Do you consider yourselves to be communicators explaining complex technological and scientific developments and lowering the complexity threshold for a general audience, or do you feel like you are stimulating debate about certain contemporary/future issues? In which ways?
JVDB: My goal in society is to communicate an optimistic view of the future. This optimism is based on my experiences with fundamental scientists and artist-colleagues who have the unique, adventurous attitude of beind involved in fundamental research. This means, quite literally, that they have the courage of starting out with a task while neither knowing what its outcome will be, nor whether the outcome will ever become concretised or tangible. Now, the act alone of doing that and the commitment to do it, is one of great optimism. On the one hand, it provokes the pessimistic, reductionistic attitude and view on the future which dominates the stock markets, politics, manufacturers’ strategies and even educational systems; they are generally based on very short term goals and short delivery spans, which is a great shame actually! On the other hand there are scientists and artists who are on to something else, with a very, very long sense of the future and an optimism of investing in such futures. The number one problem today, it seems to me, is the actual mismatch between the time-horizons and timeframes of fundamental science and art and that of most people and organisations and institutes for that matter. By means of my art I try to keep the fundamental research attitude and energy alive and communicate an optimistic view on the future.
NB: As you mention the arts-science link or perhaps also divide, it reminds me of the fact that this year we are celebrating the 50th birthday of C.P. Snow’s famous Rede lecture: “The two cultures” in which he describes the drifting apart of sciences and humanities as a major obstacle to solving the world’s problems. Although 50 years later, one could assert that it is still a very contemporary issue. As you are constantly crossing borders between the two, tell us more about how you view the ‘inbetween’ space between arts and sciences and the tension or perceived tension between them.
I tend to think that, basically, the current tension, or division, in our world is not so much to be found between the worlds of arts and sciences (or between science and humanities) but rather between opposite concepts of space and time as such – and thus a pessimistic or optimistic mentality and attitude – and all the political, social, economical and ethical consequences coming with it – in whatever domain. Yet there is of course this major difference in the way in which arts and sciences consider the importance and necessity of proof and evidence for the assessment and appreciation of work. That is why I cherish the inbetween space as a sanctuary for the best of two worlds.
NB: Yet we also live in times in which the homo universalis attitude of artists practising science or scientists being involved in art are crossing borders to the point one could say a new middle ground is arising – not unlike what Dave Edwards refers to as “artscience” for example. Being a Harvard professor, he also runs LeLaboratoire in Paris where artscientists meet and work on their experiments. You once embarked on a passionate journey to turn the amazing ‘cathedral’ of radio communication in Kootwijk (NL) into a creative retreat and laboratory for artists and scientists. Is it still a dream of yours, whether as ‘Instituut Kootwijk’ or someplace else?
NB: Theatre science teaches us about the so-called 4th wall principle … the fourth wall being the imaginary separation between the onstage area and the audience seats, its opacity depending on the kind of interaction being established between players and audience. In which way do you vary the fourth wall in your performances? How does it change your story or the way it is perceived?
JVDB: In my performances there is absolutely no such thing as a fourth wall. During most of my performances, both on stage as in the audience the lights stay switched on. I want to be able to look my audience directly in the eyes when I tell them my story and create a truly here & now ad hoc atmosphere. I approach the audience as my guest. I welcome them, literally, and take them with me on our journey through the night (the show). This includes taking in account the particular circumstances (the beat & need & authenticating details) of each and every night. On top of that, live interviews with scientists and technologists are a regular part of my shows; dialogues between facts and fiction, between the reality of the theatrical and the theatricality of reality.
NB: You have travelled the world to visit some of the most amazing scientific experiments, labs and met some absolutely fascinating people. Tell us something about whom you met and how essential this interview deep dive is to your work?
JVDB: Meeting and interviewing scientists, both in their daily practice ánd live on stage, is crucial to my artistic work. This is mainly the case because my scenarios are inspired by their scenarios.
For example, meeting and interviewing J. Craig Venter (in 1998) while he was in the middle of his ratrace for sequencing the human genome first, gave my colleagues and me (1) far better one-liners than we ever could have imagined ourselves, (2) a unique insight (behind the curtains) in a revolutionary context at a historic moment in time, and (3) unique footage. In short: a thrilling, adventurous experience that inspired me to sometimes use all-American big statements and large gestures in order to make a story communicative and inspiring.In contrast with the all-American experience with Venter were the three days that I spent with Peter W. Higgs (1929). Because they were all about trying to imagine and visualize what’s going on inside a theoretical physicist’s head. Which is a far more subtle and complex, but just as exciting and challenging. Together with co-director Hannie van den Bergh I’m currently making a documentary film about the quest for the so-called Higgs boson, named after Peter Higgs. In 1964 he postulated a mathematical solution for an important question in particle physics: how do elementary particles get their mass. Besides a lot of other things, the LHC experiment at CERN (Switzerland) is supposed to provide experimental proof – 45 years later, notably – of whether Peter Higgs was right or wrong. It makes Higgs not only a world famous scientist but also a strong candidate for the Nobelprize for Physics in the nearby future. But all of this hasn’t weakened the man’s eagerness to stay in touch with the latest scientific developments and questions. In absolute contrast with his age he’s still a researcher with an almost boyish, adventurous eagerness to dive into unknown territories and this both in his mind as well as in his way of life. As such, the old man inspired the boy in me to stay alive, awake and always alert for new opportunities.
In this sense, penetrating 1500 metres deep into a mountain in Japan, as I did in order to visit a Nobel Prize winning physics experiment about which I wanted make a theatreshow, is sometimes not even half as exciting as drilling deep into an experimental mind.
NB: When dealing with the future, we are mostly dealing with stuff and situations which do not exist yet or are very abstract issues which are difficult to grasp, especially for people not – or only distantly – involved in their conception. This means we have to construct them, render them tangible somehow. How do you deal with this in theatre?
JVDB: In my latest show, entitled Zoom, I staged a macroscopic model of a nano-fotonic-experiment by professor Kobus Kuipers. Kuipers is a Dutch scientist who managed to make light stop, inspired by his scientific motto: “I do things with light that are not supposed to be possible. I’m playing impossible light games. I bring light to a standstill.”
Zoom was – on all levels – one of the most complex and difficult projects I ever realized, because Kuipers’ experiment was almost beyond my comprehension and imagination. However I didn’t want to accept that, because I regard light as something which ‘belongs’ to all of us. And I was told that experiments like the one of Kobus Kuipers are about to mark a new era in communication technology and thus influence our nearby future. So I felt the urge and the responsibility as an artist to relate myself to it. But it was really difficult to get a grip on the material.
To keep the spirit high, my colleagues and I encouraged each other by saying: “of course we’re never sure of what we do, that’s why it’s called research”. But sometimes even that didn’t do it anymore. The breakthrough in our creative process was the decision to stage a ‘sum over all possible histories’ of our understanding of Kuipers’ experiment, a simplified interpretation of the so-called ‘path integral’ as a dramaturgical hold, using all our theatrical means to tell the same story in all (our) possible ways. Parallel to Kuipers’ experiment (bringing light to a standstill) everyone in the ensemble developed a way to bring his/her own artistic means to a standstill; in music, dance, storytelling, stage- and lightdesign. Thus we tried to physically experience (ourselves) and creatively visualize (for our audience) what it means if Kuipers states that he does things (with light) ‘that are not supposed to be possible’.
NB: How do on the one hand scientists and on the other artists view your work? In which way do they respond differently?
JVDB: This last Zoom show, was highly appreciated by scientists and visual artists, though not as much by regular theatre audiences, alas. I think this has partly to do with the fact that what Theater Adhoc basically does, is telling and visualising stories about ideas and scientific experiments, rather than stories about the conflicts between characters and ego’s. This has turned our shows more and more into a kind of installation-like performance art, which is not necessarily a non-dramatic artform but much more a situational, poetic and delayed than the well-made conflict-based, psychological and explanatory theatreplays. We prefer to invite our audience to enter another domain of time and space and visualize what it might look like, beyond the borders of our naked eyes and our common sense.NB: Contemporary theatre and performance arts in general are getting their hands dirty on new media and technologies to incorporate in their performances. There have always been periods in theatre’s history in which the focus of ‘performance innovation’ lay on technique & technology, others where it lay in new stories, new ways to tell a story, new interactions, etc. How do you look at the future of theatre and performance arts? What are your dreams and nightmares for the field?
JVDB: Personally, in terms of dreaming, I’m mainly interested in creating the ultimate storytelling situation and not so much in dealing with the latest technological possibilities. Which means that I’m focussing on ‘new ways to tell a story’ and on new forms of interacting with my audience. When I dream about that, however, paradoxically I always end up imagining very classical formats such as a symposion or a common room context. My nightmares are about so-called ‘events’ in which everyone can see for himself what one likes to make out of the flow of images, sounds, and mixed-media happenings that are vented upon the audience. At the same time I realise that it might be that such a borderless-intoxication-event is the ultimate and true consequence of what theatre has been after, from the very beginning of its existence; much more than my Appolinian approach of ‘the invisible’ and ‘the unknown’.
NB: Most of your performances aim for physics, genetics, information science … Indeed, discoveries within these fields have changed and are changing humanity and society in profound ways. Yet also within the humanities and for example economics changes are occuring which are absolutely revolutionary. Also in exploring the future we notice a similar gravitation towards science and technology when we probe them for events, developments, changes the future might bring which could possibly turn our world upside down. Which are your motivations to place more emphasis on the (hard) sciences and technology and less on the humanities ?
JVDB: In my case it all started out of plain curiosity. Coming from a philosophical (humanities) background, I didn’t know a lot about the (hard) sciences and technology for a very long time. Then, for various reasons, I started to feel ashamed about the fact that I knew so little about the stories and the concepts behind the big discoveries of the last few centuries; that I hardly knew anything about the scientific insights and the technologies that are making our world, and shaping my own life within it, functioning the way they do. On top of that, I read an article by Frank Schirrmacher, one of the chief editors of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, who stated (on the occasion of the sequencing of the human genome) that artists should regain their interest, their influence and their responsibility in the development of today’s major scientific and technological projects. They should do so not only on an aesthetic, a fictional and a moral level but also – and especially – on the level of research & development & decision making.
JVDB: The short answer is ‘no’, I haven’t been interested very much in imagining or bringing to life a possible future world. I guess in some sense I’m far too much a classically educated person for that; which means that I’m always, in a way, moving forward while paying close attention to the rear view mirror. However, one of the questions I’ve been dealing with a lot, is ‘the very end of everything‘. As a boy I could get really angry about the fact that I missed ‘the beginning of the universe’. And theferfore I fantasized a lot about the possibility of becoming part of the final scene of history. (By the way, this was long before Francis Fukuyama started to worry about ‘his’ end of history.) Now, gradually I learned to live with the idea of not being able to grasp the very moment of falling asleep; though I tried really hard. Then I also lost interest in becoming part of the Armageddon, or some other sort of apocalyptic final scene, because I found a much more sophisticated ánd intriguing way of dealing with ‘the end’, i.e. the study of several articles from Carl Woese and Freeman Dyson, two American ‘eminences grises’, articles about ‘the post-Darwinian era of evolution’, ‘the future of biophysics’ and ‘the end of time and space’.
NB: Theater is an artform which comes in many flavours and is part of just about every culture on the planet. Its form, function and appreciation varies depending on its context. But it makes me wonder: are there theatrical traditions elsewhere in the world that you admire and would like to experiment with? Are there themes – just as groundbreaking as but not part of Western science – you dream to assess some day, themes or developments just as fundamental in changing who we are, what and how we do things?
JVDB: I’m highly fascinated by the philosphy and the skills behind the art of walking in Japanese Noh Theatre. One of my ultimate future projects would be to try to tell a story with nothing more or less than (1) appearing on stage and being present for some time (just like that) … standing still … walking a little bit from here to there … and then telling a short story about a street in a small village, an intersection in the town nearby and the very end of the universe.
NB: What if you could and would really like to change something, to have an impact beyond art & entertainment? Which audience would you pick? What would it be like?
JVDB: Try to picture this: during my last year in highschool I doubted between applying for theatreschool or trying to become a development worker in a third world country like, for instance, Papua New Guinea. Now, I really don’t know if one can call that ‘an audience to pick’, just as much as I’ve got no idea at all, what and how it would be like if I would give it a try, but it would definitely change quite something in my life. Whether or not it will have an impact beyond art & entertainment, however, is to be doubted.
NB: To put it in slightly Trekkie terms : what is your ‘final frontier’?
JVDB: I reckon my final frontier will be death. As it is for most of us, I guess. My ultimate challenge will be to face and grasp, as much as possible, the very moment of crossing the boundary from here to there – the everlasting nowhere – and see whether I can prolong that very instant a little bit by telling a short story; about a street in a small village, an intersection in the town nearby and the very end of the universe.
NB: Dear Jan, thank you so much for sharing.