Logo of the Hebbel am Ufer

Reopening 2012

Press Conference Text

by Annemie Vanackere

September 13, 2012
Ladies and Gentlemen, dear colleagues,

In exactly seven weeks, the new season will begin here at HAU Hebbel am Ufer, the first under my lead, the first in a new constellation of people, old and new staff, old and new artists, in a different conception of practice, with old and new ideas, in a different language.

First of all, I would like to thank my predecessors: In the eighties, Nele Hertling created a space in this house, then the Hebbel Theater, for the contemporary and the international in the performing arts–and not least significantly, founded the festival Tanz im August. Matthias Lilienthal turned the combination of this theater with the two other houses around the corner into a great success story, established HAU as a strong brand, and anchored it in the city. I’m very pleased that what Matthias and his team achieved in the last nine years, and especially in the last season, has been recognized with the award of “Theater of the Year” for the second time. We congratulate them – especially the ‘old’ colleagues who now belong to the ‘new’ team, who have brought all their energy to work with us on the re-opening.

We will carry along a little bit of the momentum from this recognition in our first season, and that includes the artists that we are working with here. The tailwind that we are feeling also includes the decision by the Senate Chancellery for Cultural Affairs to guarantee the future of "Tanz im August" and to transfer sponsorship of this festival, which is so full of tradition and so beloved in the city, entirely to the HAU. The details have already been announced at the press conference on Monday. I see this decision as a sign of the confidence placed in our work. We are delighted that Bettina Masuch will be the artistic director for the anniversary edition of the festival in 2013. As you know, the festival is celebrating 25 years of existence.

That’s all good news – but of course it is also a challenge that we have accepted here. "But someone’s got to do it," is what I said here a year ago, when André Schmitz introduced me as the new artistic director of Hebbel am Ufer. That was not only an understatement, but also my way of saying: We want to continue to fill this fabulous international house in Berlin with life, bringing vitality to its different venues and its many artistic possibilities, and ushering new impulses into the city. That’s exactly what we want: a theater that both fits the time that we live in, but at the same time resists it and brings something to bear on it. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel – no one in their right mind would expect that of us. We want to link up to what’s here already, that’s one thing – and of course we’ll add some new accents.

For an artistic director who has spent most of her life in Belgium and then in the Netherlands, that is, who is marked by the theater system there, the move to Berlin includes an unusual role. As a passionate spectator and as a programmer, I come from a generation that began formulating its aesthetic ideas some 25 to 30 years ago. That was the time of the founding of not only the Hebbel Theater, but also, in the area that I come from, houses such as the Kaaitheater, deSingel, and the Shaffytheater. There was much overlap in the past between what we saw but also what we did, for instance with the Volksbühne, which was a long-time cooperation partner for the festival at the Rotterdamse Schouwburg, which I directed.

My task consists in making this long-term international experience productive for Berlin and for the HAU. Even though there are many parallels between the theater worlds in Belgium, in the Netherlands, and in Germany, this still represents a challenge. There are many things here that I still have to learn and understand. Not only the language, but also the way people think and act here. 
Anybody in such a process runs the risk of positioning things in the wrong way at first, of confusing things. The longer I'm here, however, and I've been here in Berlin since February 2012, the more I come to the conclusion that this very thing has its advantages. This not-yet-quite-understanding, the finally-starting-to-understand provides a different perspective on the city and the chance to open up new cooperations and contexts.

Riding around on my bicycle – to meetings, events, or even going shopping – and thus becoming familiar with the various social and cultural spaces of this city, I get the impression more and more that paradoxically people in Berlin seem paradoxically to have more time than people in Rotterdam, while at the same time they are under insane pressure. And I would not exempt myself – as we speak – from the latter phenomenon.

Many cultural centers that are worried about public support always seem to be busy formulating their agenda, defending themselves against the competition, trying to prove that they are not only economically relevant (and therefore fundable), but also, in terms of the contents of what their institutions do, socially relevant.

Of course, this dependence on public funding is part of a system of cultural sponsorship that is famous the world over, and is considered an exemplary system. Fortunately, here in Germany we are not yet so far gone as in the Netherlands, where right-wing populist forces are undertaking a massive dismantlement of the subsidized cultural sector, unfortunately with great success. But even here, during these times of financial crisis and austerity measures, you can sense it: Everything's getting tighter, there's a lot less room to move. Things that once were considered self-evident now increasingly have to be defended. 

For cultural centers, this involves the not always very pleasant effect that their directors and teams constantly have to give the impression that they know what they're doing, why they're doing it, and what is to be done. We all think we know what political art is, what conceptual dance is, what intercultural theater is.

But I think that art, precisely in these times, also has to be able to allow itself the luxury of not having any function, of not being useful, maybe even of being a higher form of wasting time. Perhaps it’s a little like love, which I would describe, in these neo-liberal times, as an endangered commodity, but also as a site of resistance.  To quote Frank Raddatz, "the passionate devotion to the imponderable" can "in no way be described as a ‘win-win’ situation. Quite to the contrary, love" like theater, "is an exclusive form and waste of energy and occasionally also of life. Love is a risk factor, which the reigning Zeitgeist would seek to minimize, but which fortunately cannot be outsourced to bad banks. The willingness to pay the price for love unlocks and legitimizes devotion in the form of a sacrifice – for the other or the others. Without love, without relation to the other, there is no dialectic."

I can tell you, this is also something that has to be learned, to produce an art that is not only geared toward being usable, but is also grounded on this dialectic of the sacrifice and is strong enough to manage this, above all when what we are talking about is not what art should by no means be: pure amusement, high-level entertainment, which is meant to keep tabs on quotas and workloads.

If it can be quite helpful not to always have to check everything for its usefulness, not to have to immediately understand everything that others think they know perfectly well, to muddle up an arrangement that has become self-evident, this is also because it can give us the opportunity to unlearn the routine, to teach ourselves normal procedures in different ways. Maybe even something new will come out of it.

The productive process, which ensues from my culturally conditioned understanding-differently and my not-immediately-being-in-agreement with what people are trying to sell me as truth and dogma–this is what I want to agitate for here at Hebbel am Ufer, reflecting it back into the city as an offer for discussion and contention. This is precisely the sense in which I imagine Hebbel am Ufer as a free space where compulsory, fixed, and solidified ideas can be suspended to a certain extent and held in abeyance. Only those who listen to aesthetic processes, who can value them as an open question, can unfold their true political explosiveness.

I also say this because art is sometimes trusted too much, but also often enough too little. Too much because, as explicitly political or activist art, it is meant to solve problems at once or to take responsibility for them, particularly when politics in the strict sense, as the sphere of political decision-making, has failed to do so. In turn, art is trusted too little when we believe that it can only be marketed and made publicly effective if we make it over into powerful slogans, headlines, or issues.
This is the sense in which I hope for a working process in HAU that proceeds more inductively than deductively. Not just the all-encompassing, effective theme, from which art is meant to be derived, and which, in the worst case, art is only allowed to illustrate. We want to look in and listen in when something arises in the working process, takes shape only step by step. Only then can it be formulated further. That's the starting point from which we might be able to see where the theme might lie, uncompensated for in society, which can be agitated from and which is in fact carried, and not just claimed, by each specific work. This is also why there is a need for a free space, an extra space, in which such a culture of attentiveness can be developed.

Fundamentally posing the question of the origin and the definition of artistic creativity is, I believe, important in a society in which precisely the imperative to self-realization has turned into a dogma, especially in Berlin, that can be committed to a neo-liberal model of a poor but creative city. How does theater relate to this ideology and to the "creative industries," the startups, that Berlin is so proud of? Under these circumstances, is creativity even fun anymore? I hope so.

This topic and the motto that I used at the time in Rotterdam, "A Sense of Belonging," has been the basis of an intense dialogue between myself and Tim Etchells from the British performance collective Forced Entertainment. He sent the following video message me and us.

I think by now it should be clear that I don’t consider excessive demands alone to be the working style for the Hebbel am Ufer. But if you think that means that the program will be empty because of that, I'll have to disappoint you. Even we couldn’t resist the temptation to show 21 projects right away in the opening month, that is, altogether 49 performances, with over 100 participating artists. After the re-opening phase, however, the concentration of the program will diminish somewhat, although not dramatically – if only because we have limited financial means and we don't want to make a principle out of underpaying the artists and colleagues that take part in the productions.

So now we are getting down to the daily business and to what we have concretely planned for the coming months. One thing first: HAU Hebbel am Ufer's character as an interdisciplinary house will remain as it is. We still consider ourselves responsible for theater, dance, performance, music, visual art, and discourse, on the one hand working with continuity, but at the same time creating new alliances and producing different contexts for our artists, some of whom you will be familiar with, others not. We would like to abstain from categories such as house director or associated artist. We will show international guest performances and co-productions, older productions and new ones of our own, we will create residencies and tie into long-term partnerships with institutions and artists from Berlin and the rest of Germany, from Holland and Belgium, Hungary and Bulgaria, from Brazil and the United States, from Austria, from Mozambique, and from Scandinavia.

In the following I would like to introduce a few of the artists who are important to us and new to the city, such as the Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó, whose work I already co-produced in Rotterdam. His reflection in times of the Euro crisis about the question of where Europe stands opens up a different perspective on how we see and perceive. Can we actually still afford the neo-colonial gaze of a commander looking out at events in the rest of the world? Where is the center, where is the periphery? He will formulate these pressing questions with his adaptation of J.M. Coetzee's famous novel Shame, his first co-production with the HAU. 

His fellow Hungarian, who lives in the Netherlands, Edit Kaldor, lets concrete questions collide with abstract ideals in her performances. We are showing two of her works. In "One Hour" she connects an extraordinary theatrical form with an existential theme: our relationship to time and our mortality. "C’est du Chinois" is about the possibilities of translating and understanding. In a crash course, Mandarin-speaking actors teach the audience a handful of basic terms in this world language so that they can follow the plot about the difficulties of a migrant family from China.
The young author and director Leonardo Moreira from Sao Paulo and his fabulous acting ensemble Hiato, seen for the first time in Europe, focus on the relationship between collective memory and fragmented biographies. It is about stories and destinies, which continue to be written, overlaid, and altered from generation to generation.

The dancer and choreographer Meg Stuart – one of the most renowned and influential protagonists of the international dance and performance scene since the nineties – has had no direct connection to Berlin as a production and performance location since 2010. HAU Hebbel am Ufer would like to offer Stuart and her company Damaged Goods a new artistic home in the city. In January she will make her quarters in HAU3 for a several-week-long residency. In addition, we will show her production "the fault lines" and her new work "Built To Last," which was created in collaboration with the Munich Kammerspiele.

I would love to speak at length about Laurent Chétouane, with whom we are building up an artistic partnership, or about Philipp Gehmacher, Ivo Dimchev, Scritti Politti, Peter Brötzmann Tentet, or Kris Verdonck, but I’m going to restrain myself and refer you to the program in the press material for further information.

Just a few words about the program during our re-opening weekend, from November 1 to 4, with productions by Jérôme Bel, Schwalbe, and Wunderbaum as well as performances, films, and concerts by Miet Warlop, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Gob Squad, Ja, Panik and many more.

It is not by chance that Jérôme Bel’s "Disabled Theater," a co-production with the HAU, will be one of the central productions in the opening. The French choreographer developed this evening together with mentally disabled actors from the Theater HORA from Zurich, radically calling into question familiar ways of seeing – as Jérôme Bel says, "a living infiltration of theater and dance." At the end, we have to wonder who actually are the handicapped here – the performers, or more likely us, the fine, clever spectators who understand everything.

It is also no chance that the actors' collective Wunderbaum from Rotterdam and the Belgian performance artist Miet Warlop will be represented in our opening program. Both are currently here in Berlin to prepare their productions for Hebbel am Ufer, and I'm delighted to be able to introduce these wonderful artists to you personally.

We are meeting today in the still unrenovated spaces of this theater. Long overdue technical improvements will be carried out backstage, and not just in HAU2. This, by the way, is the main reason why we are starting our season in November. There will also be intense optical changes made to all the spaces of our house. The design concept for the coming years was developed by the Berlin set designer Janina Audick and her team, who are known from their collaborations with Christoph Schlingensief, René Pollesch, and Herbert Fritsch. In includes redesigning the façades and the foyers in HAU1, 2, and 3, as well as newly outfitting WAU – the cantina, the meeting point, the restaurant. These are public spaces where you can catch your breath before going into action again as a spectator. Transitional spaces in a world that actually only consists of actors, but also spaces for doing nothing. We hope to create an environment for processes marked, as artistic activities are once, by their non-planability and their non-predictability.

Perhaps on your way here you noticed that the surfaces of the doors and windows have been covered with the word RE-OPENING, the HAU sticker, the monthly program with its new appearance, the new "HAU color," and the clearly designed logo. All of this has been developed by our graphic designer Jürgen Fehrmann, who last worked at the Schaubühne am Leniner Platz. It is, I think, a vital and hopefully also robust, luminous blue, which, by the way, goes quite well with the beautiful old neon letters at HAU1.

Furthermore, we have opted for a vivid internet presence, and thus for a significant increase of the online aspect, and for a consistent bilingualism, which will be more inclusive to the inhabitants of this increasingly international city and our international guests. We will be online starting October 1.

Ticket sales – as announced – will begin on September 15. The bilingualism is being implemented in our monthly programs as well, which you have received today, hot off the press. For certain productions, we will also be offering English-language surtitles – in November, for instance, at the new performances of "Schubladen," the most recent production by She She Pop, which will be shown at the HAU.

I have been forbidden from introducing the whole new team, but I would like to mention my artistic co-workers here: Aenne Quiñones, who I first met during her great festival "reich & berühmt" in Podewil and then later as a dramaturge at the Volksbühne. Ricardo Carmona, who I got to know in the context of the international network "Next Step" and who has left Lisbon to share his knowledge of dance with us. Then there is Christoph Gurk, who was already responsible for the music program at HAU, but who also provided the house with many other artistic accents, most recently with his dramaturgical support for the world’s fair at the Tempelhof Field.

Last but not least I would like to acquaint you with our new comrades-in-arms, who will take us all into their critical or even amazed gaze over the next weeks from various places in the city – animals as independent beings, not as mere objects, as the basis for our nourishment, or as helpers with tasks that we humans don't care for very much. Much like the case of Kornél Mundruczó's view onto Europe or of Jérôme Bel's actors, we're posing the question: What perspectives do we want to take on – and, to speak with Donna Haraway, what are these "logics and practices based on the domination of all who have been constituted as others"?

Even if you’re tired, ask questions or try one of the genuine Dutch Stroopwafel.
And come by again soon!

(Annemie Vanackere, Berlin, September 13, 2012)