Chris Dercon, Artistic Director of the Volksbühne Berlin, will be one of the speakers at the opening ceremony of THE ARTS+ on 11 October 2017. We are very honoured that he took the time, despite his busy schedule, to answer our questions about culture und digitalisation, the meaning of language in times of twitter, and why a “+” is such an important sign to him.
Mr Dercon, you’ve been Artistic Director of the Volksbühne Berlin since the beginning of the year; previously, you were, among other things, the director of the Tate Modern in London, Haus der Kunst in Munich and Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, as well as Program Director of MoMA PS1 in New York. You are cosmopolitan and a boundary breaker in the cultural world. In your opinion, what can and should culture achieve today, in our age of digitalisation?
Chris Dercon: Digitalisation also has something to do with isolation and sensory overload. Art – theatre and dance in particular – can bring people together, creating a true sense of community. Just think of the choreographer Boris Charmatz, with whom the Volksbühne opened its new season on the apron of Tempelhof airport on 10 September. His piece “Fous de danse” is a ten-hour dance performance with a total of 18 items on the programme, all of which are performed in a row, without intermission. Some explicitly invite viewers to participate.
On the other hand, the Internet and its digital architectures are as important to theatre today as, for example, television in the 1970s was to the American dance and performance scene or to experimental Italian theatre.
In an interview with the magazine Monopol, you talked about seeing the Volksbühne as a sort of “global theatre” of the 21st century, for which you want to develop new, web-based performance formats. What is the current status of the “digital stage” and what projects are in the works?
Chris Dercon: “Fullscreen” is our digital venue, where we invite artists to experiment with new narrative forms. It isn’t just about filming and streaming theatre performances. Rather, the screen becomes a stage for pieces that are created for the most part exclusively for “Volksbühne Fullscreen” and that take a creative approach to the specific possibilities and limits of the Internet. Many of our artists work with both analogue and digital elements. It was important to us to respond to these artistic needs. The wonderful thing about this digital stage is that most of the pieces for it are produced in house, with our infrastructure, and then made globally visible and freely available. The first premieres and series beginning in November are the video piece “Massacre: Variations on a Theme” by the choreographer Alexandra Bachzetsis, the film series “Im Auge der Libelle” (“The Eye of the Dragonfly”) by Alexander Kluge and the web series “Charisma” by Sarah M. Harrison and Wojciech Kosma. In early 2018, there will be three additional premieres, with, among others, Tim Etchells (author, director, performer and head of the performance group Forced Entertainment) and the pianist Marino Formenti. Both of them are known for their experimental approach to performance forms.
Language is an important medium for you and, at the same time, a personal passion of yours. Earlier this year, for example, you announced that you wanted to learn Arabic. What medium-term effects do you think new media like Twitter will have on everyday language use and, as a result, on the medium of language?
Chris Dercon: I don’t think that social media – Twitter or Facebook – are really a form of language. They are efficient means for transmitting information and expressing opinions at the global level, but not in interpersonal communication. These new channels accelerate and expand our options for sharing, but they don’t strengthen or improve communication between people. We probably have to develop new digital mediums, newer digital tools, very quickly if we want to fulfil the early democratic promise of the digital world.
That said, it’s interesting how everyday language use is changing perceptions. A full stop can be perceived as passive-aggressive, for example – as aloof. We’ve become so used to an affirmative, euphoric self-marketing style of speaking – ideally via emojis – that you no longer come across as positive enough anymore without exclamation points.
A propos of this, Salman Rushdie recently said that he was surprised by how aggressively people “write” to each other (see Facebook, Twitter, etc.) – they would never talk to each other that way in person. And maybe that has something to do with our compulsion to constantly flaunt and emphasise our identity. In his latest book “Golden House”, Rushdie has one of his characters say: “We are narrowing ourselves until we are like aliens to one another.”
On 11 October, you will open THE ARTS+ as keynote speaker. This new initiative of the Frankfurter Buchmesse aims to build bridges between creativity and technology and to actively promote the development of a “Culture 4.0”. What do you make of this endeavour?
Chris Dercon: I think “+” is an important sign – it reminds me of influential creative artists and thinkers like Godard or Deleuze. If we want to be successful – that is, if we want to advance digital forms of expression – maybe we have to start be seeing them as extensions of already existing forms. With the “+” sign, perhaps we are on our way toward something completely new for which we don’t yet have a name – or the necessary experience. Virtual reality may never replace theatre or film, but it can become its own form. We are only at the very beginning of a new movement or genre.
What are your professional and personal expectations for a festival like THE ARTS+?
Chris Dercon: We should always add a plus sign to the disciplines – interdisciplinarity is very important. I’m extremely interested in things with a “+”.
Thank you very much for your time, Mr Dercon.