Blog 5 // retreat – Artist Conversation with Joeri Verbesselt

“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.

Joeri Verbesselt, retreat, film still, 2020.  © Joeri Verbesselt

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.

Joeri Verbesselt, Cannibalistic Rumble: Violence, Ecology, Coloniality, Resistance, Retreat, 2017.  © Joeri Verbesselt

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.

Joeri Verbesselt, retreat, film still, 2020.  © Joeri Verbesselt

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?

Joeri Verbesselt, retreat, film still, 2020.  © Joeri Verbesselt

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.

Joeri Verbesselt, Ende Gelände, 2016.  © Joeri Verbesselt

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.

Joeri Verbesselt, retreat, film still, 2020.  © Joeri Verbesselt

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.

Blog 4 // Countering visuality? Radio as a medium in artistic practices addressing the issue of political resistance. The examples of Katarzyna Krakowiak and Radio Earth Hold.

This post is part of the series ‘Thesis Highlights‘ in which recently graduated master students affiliated with LGC are invited to give a short insight into their research. This posting is by LGC researcher Marta Maria Wódz.

At first glance, radio may seem to be an example of dated technology, overturned by other, newer media. However, multiple artistic projects created during the last two decades seem to indicate the opposite: the upsurge of radio-related artworks or initiatives in both: grassroots artistic practices and projects carried out under the auspices of the biggest institutions (the examples from the Polish art-scene are Radio Kapitał [Capital] hosted by Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw or the series of audio programs Out Of Office as a part of Plac Małachowskiego 3 by Zachęta National Gallery of Art – both projects launched in summer 2019).

Why, out of all possible forms, do contemporary artists choose radio as a tool, medium or a way of presentation for a particular project? In what kind of context does it appear? To put it shortly, I was interested in radio in arts, rather than art in radio (radio art). For that reason I find useful the term transmission arts coined in the end of the 1990s by Wave Farm – a collective originating from New York which later developed into a bigger organization. By placing wireless transmission in the center of interest, it can broaden the notion of radio art and embrace a much wider spectrum of artistic practices not necessarily (or maybe even not at all?) happening inside a broadcasting studio, but including installations, live performances, etc.

In his manifesto The Radio of the Future, futurist Valimir Khlebnikov envisioned the transmissions of image and text alongside with sensations such as scents or flavors. In the first two chapters I have paid close attention to the history of radio, its use and social reception in its early stages also in relation to the development of science and technology: for example so-called ‘radio sense’ was a popular belief in the beginning of 20th century that some people can receive radio waves directly via their brains. Even if such ideas may now seem somewhat amusing, in the 1920s, described by Flora Lysen as the “early 20th century world of fuzzy boundaries between mind and media,” the existing imagery of over-encompassing, invisible oscillations which were already materialized in laboratories as epistemic things could render even surprisingly peculiar ideas as entirely plausible.

Radio artists, BPS, Jerusalem, between 1936 and 1946, Matson Photo Service, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-matpc-14319, repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington D.C. 20540 USA.

In my thesis, I am especially interested in radio as a tool used in artistic projects addressing issues connected to the civil disobedience or resistance – its potentially emancipating capacity to transgress borders and physical, architectonic barriers, contrasted with its history as a powerful propaganda tool. What I find fascinating is this self-contradictory tension between radio as a fundamentally state-controlled medium with broadcasts aimed for particular countries separately and its intrinsic impossibility to fit into dimensions demarcated by the national borders. Can radio, especially when understood as prehistoric, all-encompassing, natural phenomenon, become a counter-force to visuality or a response to the pictorial turn described by W.J.T Mitchell?

Radio masts, Ramallah, between 1934 and 1939, photo taken by American Colony (Jerusalem), Photo Department, G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington.

Although throughout the course of the text I refer to many other artworks, as the core examples I have chosen the projects by Katarzyna Krakowiak and Radio Earth Hold because rather than presenting finished products, the solutions they introduce are opening up a wide mesh of further possibilities. They touch upon political topics in a way that can profoundly challenge our thinking and encourage to reexamine not only the role of radio, but also the transmission and communication in or via art – perhaps in this sense they can be understood as a form of countervisuality.

Radio Earth Hold, Source: © Rachel Dedman

Historically speaking, radio (understood as technology) has always been influenced by plenty of external factors such as weather and closely connected to the presence of the listener who can adjust the antenna to receive a better quality signal. But what happens when, as in case of Katarzyna Krakowiak’s works, these two become one and the artist both metaphorically and physically turns into a part of the device via which the signal is broadcasted? The analysis of her works The Human Antenna – Rozgłośnia Stocznia 94FM and Free Radio Jaffa constitutes the third chapter. By recreating the broadcasting station that used to operate in the Gdansk Shipyard, Krakowiak presented it as a tool of communication on the local level and has put forward the community-building or maybe even identity-building quality of radio. Her artistic strategies are based on hijacking or (as the artist herself calls it) borrowing radio frequencies to create space for the messages that often remain unheard. Especially in relation to the colonial history of radio in Palestine, Krakowiak’s Free Radio Jaffa emphasizes the emancipatory potential of the medium.

Katarzyna Krakowiak, Human Antena – Rozgłośnia Stocznia 94FM, 2011. © Katarzyna Krakowiak
Katarzyna Krakowiak, free radio jaffa, in collaboration with Ronen Eidelman, Israeli Center for Digital Art (Holon), Jaffa 2009. © Katarzyna Krakowiak

The fourth, last chapter revolves around the topic of the radio voice with its potential to become authoritarian as well as to create an intimate experience of listening. Both of these aspects are rendered apparent in the works of Radio Earth Hold collective created by Rachel Dedman, Lorde Selys and Arjuna Neuman. Their broadcast REH#1: The Colonial Voice balances between curatorial and artistic practices; it presents the outcomes of their research but also offers a conceptualization of the link between the Palestinian and the Native American political struggles combined with the concept of sonic solidarity. Their approach hinges on the phenomenon of natural radio and the idea of acousmatic sound – a sound without recognizable source, the disembodied voice of authority, often compared to the omnipotent voice of God. This voice appears in Radio Earth Hold’s research on history of radio in Palestine, both as a tool used by the colonizer and as incorporated in resistance practices.

In my interview with Dedman, she has put forward a quality which was rendered ostensibly visible during the COVID-19 lockdown: the fact that radio can provide an alternative in response to the endless online activities eventually causing a “push-back reaction” or an answer for “a need for something more physically constructed.” Paradoxically, even if transmitted digitally, radio can create the feeling of presence that is more real or unmediated than other media. To describe this phenomenon, the choice of vocabulary becomes difficult – almost all the adjectives could be used between quotation marks since we know that digital radio is not really real, unmediated or materially present but it sells an illusion, as if it was. According to Dedman, radio “evades a sleek proliferation of the digital as a format of form.” In this case, I also understand ‘the digital’ as a category encompassing everything that gives an impression of being digital, rather than a strictly technical term. With its innate intimacy as if the voice was addressing the listener directly, radio can hide perfectly well the fact that it also functions in the digital space. Perhaps in this sense, the need for a more direct connection (in art, but not only) woken up by the pandemic circumstances, can in a longer run prepare the ground for the sonic turn to happen.

Supervisor at KU Leuven: prof. dr. Hilde Van Gelder, Art History
Supervisor at University of Warsaw: dr. hab. Marcin Lachowski, Institute of Art History
Tutor at University of Warsaw: dr. Łukasz Zaremba, Institute of Polish Culture