Anke Bangma: Wendelien van Oldenborgh, Sarah Vanagt
How can the past become a detour to approach the present? Recent works by Wendelien van Oldenborgh and Sarah Vanagt attempt to create a space in which the temporalities of colonial histories and histories as they are made in the here and now coexist.
Wendelien van Oldenborgh, Maurits Script, from the film set, 2006. Photography: Wendelien van Oldenborgh, courtesy of Wilfried Lentz Rotterdam
Wendelien Van Oldenborgh’s project Maurits Script (2006) is based on a little remembered episode in Dutch history; the short period, during which Holland had a colony in Brazil, governed by Johan Maurits van Nassau. The basis for this piece is a script composed of excerpts from historical documents, ranging from council reports to personal letters, which juxtaposes the official history of the time with other narratives.
The script was recited by nine performers, and filmed in the presence of an invited audience in the splendour of Johan Maurits’ residence in The Hague – the current Maurits House Museum, a monument to the Dutch Golden Age. The script presents 17thcentury views on topics such as the art of government, the economic advantages of slavery, civilisation and the supposed nature of the native population. The voices that tell these stories keep a distance to the views they express. It is evident that they do not identify with their roles, but read their texts in a Brechtian manner. In Brecht’s dramaturgy citing instead of empathizing with a character is one of the strategies to achieve an alienation effect. Brecht instructed his actors to speak their lines as if they themselves were not sure about the words they were uttering. This would allow the performer to remain an observer of the presented subject position and thus also prevent the audience from taking it as given. Van Oldenborgh’s approach results in a similar kind of friction. She collaborates with non-actors, who are given the script as material to work with in a live setting. But she also gives each historical character two voices and thus activates what each participant brings to the scene. Johan Maurits, for example, is delivered in the theatrical voice of a Surinam woman, but also in the hasty voice of a Dutchman, who seems to rush through the words of the colonial ruler as if he wants to give them as little importance as possible.
This kind of polyphony, in which multiple conflicting, yet equal voices intersect, is characteristic for Van Oldenborgh’s work. Each of the recited statements not only represents a historical point of view but is also imprinted with the accent and ethnic background of its contemporary performers, and resonates with their responses to the words they articulate. Thus, each historical document is literally made to speak in a ‘double voiced discourse’, which makes the conflicting perspectives of the historical narratives rub against each other.
While the participants take turns in assuming their place in front of the camera to read passages from the script, the others are captured by a second camera, now engaged in a discussion about the script and the legacies of Dutch colonial history. Here the past becomes a detour to approaching the present. What starts as an effort to understand the implications of a politics of tolerance guided by economic motives, for example, leads seamlessly into reflections on contemporary Dutch immigration policies, latent racism, and invisible but insidious new mechanisms of segregation. At stake in Van Oldenborgh’s performative method is more than an effort to uncover repressed truths about either the past or the present. The open production format, in which individuals from different spheres encounter each other around a compilation of heterogeneous source material, is a catalyst for an unpremeditated process of exchange, during which some common ground is found but participants also disagree. At a time when The Netherlands and other European nations tried to arm themselves against the plurality and complexity of the contemporary post-colonial world with defensive gestures such as the canonisation of national histories, Van Oldenborgh’s work can be seen as an effort to create space for a polyfocal response to contradictory realities.
Sarah Vanagt, still from the film Boulevard d’Ypres, 2010
The film Boulevard d’Ypres (2010) by Sarah Vanagt starts in the present, as a portrait of the people who populate the street in Brussels where the artist also lives. She captures the street at a moment of change; the Mediterranean stores and the caravan of trucks that fill up the street will have to make space for new urban development, symbolized by the huge crane that hovers above the scenery. Vanagt turned one of the gradually vacated warehouses into a film studio and invited her neighbours – the shopkeeper, new inhabitants, asylum seekers and illegal immigrants who congregate on the corner of the street hoping for work – to tell their histories. Here, too, a method of distanciation is brought into play. Vanagt asked each of her collaborators to present their histories as a third person narrative – to say ‘he’ instead of ‘I’, as if they were recounting a story.
There is the fairytale story of an American who came to Brussels on a short contract and stayed when he found love; the story of the Flemish crane operator who fantasizes from up high about the people below; the story of a boy from Guinea who was imprisoned and tortured to tell on his brother but who managed to resist and escape, to find himself in a country where he doesn’t know anyone; the story of a refugee so traumatized by witnessing genocide that he continued to see everyone in his new environment as a potential enemy and can only live his life in a perpetuated state of war; the story of the shopkeeper who is forced to move once again after arriving as a migrant twenty-five years ago. Occasionally the speakers slip from indirect to direct speech, when the recounted events come too close. But to tell one’s life story as a story that happened to ‘someone’, also makes it possible to put difficult experiences into words and to do so in a manner which allows the speaker not to appear as a victim but as a writer of history.
Sarah Vanagt, still from Boulevard d’Ypres, 2010
As these narratives unfold, the walls and pillars of the warehouse that forms the backdrop for the stories are animated with projected archival footage of Arab and African figures with swords and horses. These are images made at Ypres, the town that gave the street its name and that occupies a central place in history as the site of devastating battles between German and Allied Forces during the First World War. Not part of the official history of Ypres is the fact that Belgium, as well as England, France and Russia, made people from their colonies fight at the European front. Vanagt complements the silent visual records that bear witness to their presence with the voices of these colonial soldiers. Mostly functioning as cannon fodder, many of the colonial soldiers ended up in German prison camps, where the assembly of people from so many different ethnic backgrounds aroused a scientific interest. Under the direction of linguist Wilhelm Doegen, 1650 recordings of prisoners’ voices were collected. While Doegen also made an archive of ‘voices of celebrities’ – of people who deserved to be remembered because they represent significant moments in history – the voices of the colonial soldiers were not recorded for what they had to say but merely as typical examples of language, preserved for linguistic analysis. Vanagt played some of these recordings to her storytellers. As they listen to these voices from the past and translate the recorded words, they weave them into the collection of stories being told, and allow the testimonies of the colonial soldiers to be heard.
The testimonies in Boulevard D’Ypres are carefully framed to be more than the personal expression of an individual experience. None of the people we see and voices we hear are introduced by name. Their lived experiences are delivered as stories, histories, parables, that can be told and re-told, and thus be brought into circulation as oral history. This oral history may not be recognized in official Belgian historiography but Vanagt’s film shows how it is present, as collective, lived memory amongst many of the people who populate Brussels. Just like the images of the colonial soldiers that light up like ghosts on the walls and pillars of the warehouse in the Boulevard d’Ypres, these histories appear to be part of the very fabric of which the city is built.