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 1 // They Say She Was – Artist Conversation with Erien Withouck

Image from the slide sequence ‘Selkie’ (2020), © Erien Withouck

This weekend will be the last chance to visit the exhibition “they say she was” at CAS, Ostend. In an old building located in the popular Belgian coastal town, artist Erien Withouck shows us the power of storytelling and oral history. “they say she was” portrays two stories of female characters: one from the Shetland Islands in Scotland and one from Ostend – Selkie and Miete Delanghe –, and each story is approached in a particular way. It is not surprising that the central medium remains photography, as Withouck is schooled in photography. The eye-catcher of the exhibition and also the cover photo, is a large black and white picture of Shedlandic waves. Withouck’s interest in the oral transmission of history is reflected in her use of headphones in the installation. These connect you directly to the voices of eight different women telling the Selkie story in their strong Shetlandic dialect. As you are listening to the varieties of the story of the Selkie Wife, you are also invited to watch a slide show with photographs of Shetland contemporary life. The second mythological character highlighted in Withouck’s exhibition, brings us close to the history of Ostend and its fishery. Miete Delanghe was, according to the fishermen, a witch who cursed them when they refused to give her fish. One of the stories about Delanghe is brought to you through an installation of posters at the gallery and the fishery docks.

Professor Hilde Van Gelder (HVG) and intern Clara Wouters (CW) sat down with artist Erien Withouck (EW) to talk about her interest in oral history, which led to this project.

CW: For this project, you went all the way to the Shetland Islands to discover the oral culture and in particular the myth of the Selkie. How does this project about mythology relate to your artistic interest throughout the years?

EW: My artistic projects always depart from material that I find, which can be either photography or archive documents. For this project about the Selkie story I decided to start from oral history, which is still very much alive on the Shetland Islands. It surprised me to see the amount of stories still travelling around there.

CW: As you are living and working in Belgium, how did you stumble upon this story in the Shetland Islands?

EW: I have travelled to the Islands before and I found it remarkable how isolated the people live there. In the past, this community lived off fishery industry. Men often went out to sea to fish and because this used to be very risky, there were numerous widowed women living on the islands. Women predominantly ran the community, which means that the history of the islands was transmitted through their voices. Focusing on the stories told by them brings out a female presence in history. This in particular is what attracted me to Sheltand in the first place. Also, storytelling is quite common there, more than in Belgium, so there it is not very hard to find stories like this one.

CW: The fact that the story is told by a female artist is also really important. Is this female point of view a common perspective in your artistic research?

EW: Yes. But it stands out the most in this project.

HVG: Your Belgian background together with the coastal theme of your project brings you to this exhibition space in Ostend. Can you explain how you translated the Selkie tradition into the Belgian context? And why did you choose the title “they say she was”? What does it mean?

EW: Maybe it is good to answer your last question first. I initially exhibited the Selkie project in Leuven (Ithaka #28, 2020). I wanted to show the project in Ostend for the obvious coastal link. But for this exhibition in CAS I wanted to add something which also put Ostend history into the picture. It was a bit harder to find vernacular history in Belgium than it was in Shetland. I think this is because the storytelling culture is less alive here. But nevertheless, after some research, I found the many stories of Miete Delanghe who was said to be a witch. As I got more informed about her, I kept in mind how this extra project would take form within the already existing exhibition. This is the point where the title “they say she was” came to me, as it can be applied to both stories. In addition, it includes also a reference to storytelling and oral culture itself and refers to the female perspective. By using the verb “was”, the meaning of the sentence can be purely existential, or one could easily add an adjective. I really wanted to bring Miete Delanghe’s story back to life here in Ostend, and this is why you will discover that the poster is not only hanging inside the exhibition space, but also on the docks of Ostend. The connection between the outside and the inside world is important for this project.

Installation view of the project Miete Delanghe (2020) at the fishery docks in Ostend,
© Erien Withouck

HVG: So the Selkie figure and the Miete Delanghe myth become slightly conflated in the exhibition.

EW: Yes they do. Because I think they have a lot in common. They are both strong and independent figures. The Selkie tale shows a more positive representation of a woman while Miete Delanghe was seen as a poor old witch, which says a lot about how women were presented in the past in these different coastal regions. Through studying these stories, I hope to present another perspective on the history of these two places.

Installation view of the exhibition they say she was (2020) at CAS, Ostend, © Erien Withouck

CW: You chose to highlight the oral transmission through adding hanging headphones to the exhibition space. They connect the visitor with Scottish women who each tell the story a little bit differently. Can you tell us more about this?

EW: What interests me in the idea of oral history is that it is not fixed, unlike writing or photography. It is always changing depending on the context. Every teller will insert their own nuance into the stories. Instead of portraying one single version of the story, I asked several women to tell it their way. In this way, the ephemeral character of these tales is emphasized. On another level, I am very interested in the way that oral culture gives a different perspective on history than the more dominant written texts, which are very fixed and dependent on authority.

CW: Written history is nonetheless easier to study, you just have to look them up in a library. But what is the methodology that you use for your research on vernacular, more ephemeral history?

EW: For the Selkie story, I did an open call on the Shetland radio for people who could tell me anything about Selkies. This was one way to get information, but another was simply to get around and drink tea together with the female inhabitants of the island. This way I not only learned a lot about the history of the island but also about the personalities of the people who live there. It was a really nice experience. In Ostend, it was different. Because of the lockdown situation, I wasn’t able to talk to people the way I did in Shetland. But there are resources and databanks for these kind of stories in Belgium, which is how I discovered Miete Delanghe.

HVG: But to get to know everything about Miete Delanghe, people should visit the exhibition of course. And you continue to look around for locals who can add elements to the story from their personal recollection. Is there something like a local radio in Ostend?

EW: There is, indeed. I’m still planning on contacting them. I’m also planning on collecting more of these types of stories. I already found some other interesting women who were said to be witches. This is definitely only the beginning of a much larger project, which will focus more on Belgian characters, starting with tales from Ostend.

CW: In the exhibition, you approach the subject through different media. Primarily there is photography, then you have the audio files with the interviews, and then you add a dictionary for a better understanding of the Shetland dialect. How did you come up with this multidimensional approach?

EW: For me, the photography in the exhibition stands for the present version of what the island looks like today. The voices, on the other hand, are a way to break this temporality and go back to history. So, the combination of the photos and the voices works as a link between the present and the past. Listening to the voices while watching the photographs creates an opportunity to make up your own version of the story. It is a way of speaking beyond the visual element. Similarly, the installation of the posters of Miete Delanghe transport the past stories into a present context.  

CW: The aspect of the dialect is also typical for these oral cultures, and this aspect is fading in our modern society. In this sense, it is interesting to bring it back together with the more personal side of history.

EW: Yes, language says a lot about history. For example, the language in Shetland is derived from Scottish, but the island was also colonized by Vikings at one point, which is why they also use some Norse words. So, in this dialect you can already read a lot about the past of the islands.  

Installation view of the exhibition they say she was (2020) at CAS, Ostend, © Erien Withouck

CW: Entering the exhibition, one big black and white picture directly attracts the attention of the visitor. Why did you choose to bring the focus to this image of the sea?

EW: Firstly, it had a lot to do with the space itself. CAS is located close to the sea and when you enter the space the sea directly looks back at you. The sea is for me a place of reflection, of travelling, it is a departure point but also a resting point. This is the image that comes to my mind when thinking about the stories. I wanted to bring this space of reflection into the exhibition.

CW: For me it also brings out a big contrast between the black and whiteness and the colour in the other pictures.

EW: Well, the colours of the coloured pictures have this coldness, blueness. This reflects the isolation of the island, but it also refers to the elements of wind and sea, which are very present there. I chose to print the big picture of the sea in black and white because it adds this notion of timelessness. Whereas the coloured pictures are not as timeless because they include very contemporary elements.

CW: To me, the black and white print of the sea looked very alive. I had to take a moment or two to realize that there really was no colour in the photograph. Depending on the way I looked, a green or blue shade would appear.

HVG: It is interesting that you say that because my initial impression was the other way around. Looking at the sequence of the pictures on the wall, I had to constantly convince myself that this was colour photography. You see the colours, but there’s something really airy and thin about their atmosphere, as if the colours are about to fade away. That adds tremendously to their enigma. This aspect is probably the most visible in the last picture on the wall, a picture in which you look through a window at the sea. This one is almost a black and white photograph, and it is very nice how exactly that picture makes the transition to the large black and white print. The visual narration builds up very well, and offers a fascinating prelude to the multi-medial installation in the adjacent room.

Installation view of the exhibition they say she was (2020) at CAS, Ostend,
© Erien Withouck

The exhibition will be open until the 26th of July in CAS. It is open on weekends from 14:00-18:00 at Frans Musinstraat 19, 8400, Ostend. The artist will be present on the 25th and the 26th of July. We hope to see you there!

For more projects by Erien Withouck, please visit her website.