“If we want change, then I believe that the ‘usual’ pictures around us do not suffice: images of violence breed violence; films focused on one desiring protagonist breed ego-centrism. Regarding protests, resistance, uprisings, … I want to propose an alternative audio-visual vocabulary which might function as fertile ground to envision another future.” (Joeri Verbesselt)
A wise retreat to regain strength, devise new strategies or negotiate is what Joeri Verbesselt proposes in his work retreat (2020). For the representative challenge posed by such an issue, he offers us, as he calls it, a new audio-visual vocabulary. Through the processing of amateur and staged protest images, a violent post-apocalyptic world emerges in which a non-violent encounter takes place between the riot police and an underground army, which expresses its protest in dance. The work was selected for the Copenhagen-based CPH:DOX film festival and found its expression in the recently published short story The Withdrawal. Professor Hilde Van Gelder and LGC-intern Ellen Van Driessche asked the artist some questions to gain more insight in retreat.
Hilde Van Gelder (HVG): Joeri, retreat is your graduation work in the Master of Film at the LUCA School of Arts (Brussels). Afterwards, you further refined the film until it was completed earlier this year. So, it took a few years before you came out with it?
Joeri Verbesselt (JV): Yes, that is right. For many young artists, the period after graduation is a kind of black hole, when you must try to take the step towards the creation of artistic work, preferably with remuneration or financial compensation. That period is quite hard: there are not many opportunities and there is a lot of competition. On top of that, several of those first opportunities are unpaid and only give your work visibility on a small, local scale. That is why, as an artist, in my case as a filmmaker, there is a lot at stake with the graduation work.
retreat was originally conceived as a short fiction film with a script that was almost completely thrown overboard in the production phase of the film. During the production we mainly filmed with performers and dancers at different locations in Brussels. I also needed a lot of found footage: contemporary films of protests made by amateurs. For this I did research on YouTube. That research first focused on protests at different times and locations around the world. As the editing progressed, I began to search for specific elements within those protests, such as tear gas or policemen in a wooded environment.
During the editing, the challenge was to digest the quantity and diversity of material – images shot with professional equipment and staff versus amateur films with sometimes low pixel qualities or ‘shockiness’. This digestion is done by looking at the material, putting clips next to each other, placing sounds, etc. For me, there are no classic editing rules; I only allow myself to be guided by my intuition. I try things out and feel if it works. I will look at and adjust these small editing sketches repeatedly. For retreat this was a slow and intensive process, spread over almost three years (with rest periods of a few months).
Ellen Van Driessche (EVD): You recently wrote the article Kannibalistisch kabaal. Een wansmakelijk recept voor artistieke benadering en kladderij [Cannibalistic Rumble. An unsavoury recipe for artistic approach and a fine mess] for Forum+ in which you reflect on the position of the artist in contemporary (popular) culture. How does this approach of ingestion, digestion and egestion appear in the working process of retreat?
JV: In a first phase of ingestion in my work process I try to include as much input as possible as a sponge. I have read books and looked at images around protest and contemporary ecological issues and theories. This inevitably includes popular culture and media: films like James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) or the way protests are framed on television and social media.
In a second phase all those texts and images start to crawl together. The second phase, digestion, is the most subconscious and intuitive phase. I start playing with the source material on a kind of workboard: scratching, making notes, marking key words, scratching things through or adding notes. What resonates in me? What do I feel intense passion for or anger against? What do I want to change, delete, lighten up? In this way a digestion process takes place in which I process the source material from the first ingestive phase. In this way I came closer and closer to the essence of what I wanted to say: withdrawal as a kind of intuitive force of nature, an indestructible longing.
As an artist you must present your own creation with your vision at the last, egestive phase in which you present a personally finished product to an external audience. The processed source material is then barely present on the surface, but only detectable during a kind of forensic analysis. This conversation is a kind of analysis in which those traces become visible again.
HVG: In what way has Iconology, as reintroduced by W.J.T. Mitchell in the 1980s, now recently called Image Science by him, been of decisive importance for the genesis of retreat?
JV: I cannot imagine that I could have made the film if I had not first completed my studies in Art History. I first encountered contemporary Iconology during your Iconology classes in 2014. Because of my fascination with contemporary images and image theory, these lessons have had a fundamental influence on my thinking. I cannot start working on a film now without thinking about what images are already circulating on that subject.
During retreat my “Iconologist persona” was initially only present implicitly. During the research I wondered how (ecological) protests were shown and what that meant. The image is never just an image, it influences how we look. After all, certain rhetoric and narratives are always embedded in images (even when it is only metaphorical through word choice). And what do all these images mean? My preliminary research was about this: how to avoid all those pitfalls, away from violent protests and away from Western models of looking that seemed impotent to me regarding depicting a future.
HVG: Do you see any other ways in which retreat connects to W.J.T. Mitchell’s Metapictures project?
JV: Following on from the above elements of intuition and assemblage, for me retreat is primarily conceived as a dialectical image. The concept of retreat was really an ‘aha’ moment for me, after which a whole new horizon opened for future imagination. The retreat can be a pivotal moment for other ways of dealing with violence and ecological issues. And at the same time – and this is what I think is the strongest about the concept – it leaves all possibilities open. Withdrawal exudes potential. It opens possibilities without explicitly suggesting one. This is what I wanted to evoke in the film.
Secondly, retreat of course links back to “What Do Pictures Want”. I really see retreat as an idea, experience, feeling that you are being whispered in and that can inspire you. The title is conceived as a verb: retreat. I was hoping it could become a kind of phrase that would keep repeating itself in the viewer’s head, like a kind of infectious melody. And that it would then begin to live its own life.
Finally, thirdly, for me retreat is a “metapicture” because in the film there is a reflection nestled on images of protests on the one hand and images of ecological problems on the other. It is about how we look at these two types of images. retreat wants to propose an explicitly different way of looking at both and is therefore linked to Mitchell’s cloud “Picturing Vision“. In comparison to Romantic paintings, for example, we do not look at the landscape in the film through a painted character from a distance, but dive right into it. And when I reproduce certain ways of looking, for example the amateur images of the protests, the Earth from space, or frontal police officers, these images are manipulated in such a way that the original viewing experience disappears and the images are viewed and experienced in a new way.
EVD: The dancers in retreat seem to find a kind of collective power in their movements and have a strong connection with the earth and the nature around them. As the intensity increases, they seem to be almost possessed by forces of nature, but violence is absent. What is the role of dance and movement in retreat? What role could it play in connecting with each other and with nature?
JV: I myself, have participated as an activist in numerous protests and climate actions. What has struck me most is not the violence. Despite the fear and sometimes very harsh conditions, a strong, almost euphoric sense of collective connection prevailed because we were intensely committed to a cause we thought was worth pursuing. That feeling came to me as a kind of exhilarating drug, a trance, but better and with more interesting after-effects.
During my research in preparation of the film I visited the exhibition Soulèvements by curator and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman at Jeu de Paume in Paris. Thanks to the intelligently constructed discourse of the exhibition, the visitor comes to realize that protests as a force are analogous to raw forces of nature: riots like a raging storm, an uprising like a rising wave, a whirlwind of emotion, a burning passion, a volcanic explosive situation… This metaphorical interaction in our use of language between the rise of repressed emotions and forces of nature does not seem to me to be a coincidence. With an extreme emotion we can go into a trance, which literally means transition; a transition to an alternative consciousness, to another reality. Intense emotions and desires are powerful and potentially dangerous, but do not have to be violent.
With the dance and movement in the forest in retreat I intended to evoke such intense longing for a different reality away from the violence on the street and against nature, and for a close connection with each other and that same nature.
HVG: Can you situate retreat within your oeuvre?
JV: After graduating, in parallel with finishing retreat, I worked on two projects thanks to grants. The first project involved writing a scenario for a new experimental film with the working title Motherships. This film is an artistic offshoot of a reportage assignment about underprivileged mothers and children in Brussels. This film project raised important questions regarding participation and political representation, as well as my position as an artist. What can my role be within these issues? After in-depth research (immersion and literature) and writing the scenario in 2019, this project is on hold. The second project concerns performance (and dance) and focuses on Western art history under the working title Tableau Vivant in collaboration with the Taiwanese performers Wan Lun Yu and Mei-ning Huang (with both I already worked on retreat).
If you put the three projects mentioned above side by side, it seems inevitable to say that my work is inspired by violence. With retreat it’s about violence against activists and against ecosystems, with Motherships about structural violence that leads to deprivation and with Tableau Vivant about representative violence (what is proposed within the dominant paradigms of the visual arts and how). When you, as an artist, want to counter violence, you are always threatened with the pitfall of the Messianic position, the world’s improver, the moral enforcer. With retreat I absolutely wanted to avoid this moralizing position. After all, moralizing and judging is a violent form of communication.
EVD: How does the dystopian optimism you wrote about relate to retreat or “withdrawal” as a possible way out to change or to initiating possibilities?
JV: I thought that the concept of dystopian optimism enabled me to reconcile a critical deadlock in popular ecological thinking: on the one hand, apocalyptic doom-mongering and, on the other, unbridled technological optimism that disregards the social and physical limits of the earth. With this concept, I am arguing that we already live in a society with dystopian characteristics, but that we must actively counter this dystopia with an optimistic belief that things can be done differently, with care for ourselves and the environment. With dystopian optimism, I want to maintain a tension between fear and hope, self-preservation and action, reality and fiction, society and individuals. Optimism cannot be separated from dystopia (limitless technological optimism), nor dystopia from optimism (misanthropy).
In this sense, retreat could be conceived as a dystopian optimistic strategy. Ecological activists are in a state of war with dystopian powers, and humanity, if you follow the Gaia hypothesis, is at war with Earth. According to the inventor of the Gaia hypothesis, biochemist James Lovelock (together with microbiologist Lynn Margulis), man is well on his way to losing that war. That’s why he pleads for a lasting retreat, an opening to new possibilities, on the way to a healthier relationship between man and his environment.
Today I am not so convinced of the value of the theoretical concept of dystopian optimism anymore, and that has everything to do with my current research stay in Taiwan. To what extent do I fall into the trap of Western framing for a problem that reaches far beyond the West, and may even have been caused by it? To what extent is such theoretical framing problematic, a form of neo-colonialism? For the time being, I would like to replace dystopian optimism with a more concrete and poetic alternative, a quote from The Parable of the Sower (1993) by the Afro-American science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler: “The world is full of painful stories. Sometimes it seems as though there aren’t any other kind and yet I found myself thinking how beautiful that glint of water was through the trees.”
Ellen Van Driessche (°1998) is an intern at Lieven Gevaert Centre and is currently completing a master’s degree in Art History at KU Leuven focussing on contemporary art. She writes her thesis on the work of Carey Young, more specifically the presence of bodies or identities as fluid constructions, ready-mades or participants with a focus on gender and performativity.
Hilde Van Gelder (°1969) is director of the Lieven Gevaert Centre, and presently completing a book entitled Ground Sea. Photography and the Right to Be Reborn (Leuven University Press, 2021).
Joeri Verbesselt (°1990) investigates how to connect ecological activism with future imagination. His work can result in various forms: writings, films and performances. In the framework of his PhD in the arts on Dystopian Optimism, he is a part of the research groups Lieven Gevaert Centre and deep histories fragile memories.