The Antwerp-based duo Yves Degryse and Bart Baele founded BERLIN in 2003, together with Caroline Rochlitz. Their first series of multimedia performances, called “Holocenes,” include Jerusalem (2003), Iqaluit (2005), Bonanza (2006), Moscow (2009), and Zvizdal [Chernobyl – so far so close] (2016), headed to our black box theatre February 8-10. These works, which are built from interviews and integrate innovative forms of video and installation, are unique portraits of places and people existing in our current epoch.
Fusebox curators Anna Gallagher-Ross and Betelhem Makonnen spoke to Degryse on Written & Spoken about BERLIN’s body of work, the process working with Nadia and Pétro, the octogenarian couple whom this project follows, and the translation of their unforgettable experience to their unique form of live documentary.
BETELHEM MAKONNEN: Could you introduce yourself, in your own words?
YVES DEGRYSE: Barton and I have worked together since we were fourteen years old. And in 2003 we decided to start the company. I was in acting school and he was studying scenography. We began the cycle we call the “Holocene Cycle,” which is a series of city portraits. Our first project was Jerusalem, which was super hectic and impressive. Works that came after existed in small communities, as with the 2006 project Bonanza—that was, of course, very small because it was about the seven inhabitants of a tiny town in Colorado and their mayor and the city council. Zvizdal is similar… The form every project takes is particular to each project. It can be a contrast or it can be a confirmation of what you have done before. Sometimes it took us to Jerusalem, to the North Pole… sometimes it was about meeting a French journalist who told us a particular story, as was the case with Cathy Blisson and Zvizdal. And she asked us to join us to her. We don’t have a history of collaborations with artists. But we do a lot of collaborations with what’s written in newspapers, articles. She was journalist and dramaturg.
With Zvizdal, it’s just two people who are the only ones left living in a village that was once a big community… and the moment we started to film it, there was no structure anymore. There’s a big difference with the other projects within that cycle. They all had a structure, even Bonanza, still had the structure of the city council and the mayor. And here in the case of Zvizdal, there was no structure anymore. It was about surviving. There was no structure and there was the question of surviving.
ANNA GALLAGHER-ROSS: I’m intrigued by the term you use: holocene. It’s a language that implies a large scale of thought, but also, much of your projects, as with Zvizdal, take a miniature form. Could you say more about your choice of this geological language and the contrasting scales you work in?
YD: The start of our company was connected with the idea of a cycle. We chose the name of the city of Berlin because it will be the ending point of our company—where we make our last work—the holocene cycle will finish. And for that project we will bring together people from all the cities where we have worked and collaborated with. Berlin is also a city where there is a major balance between its history and the future. It makes big choices for the future as well. Every question about the future is connected with that past. So that’s very interesting to make these geological projects begin from a city that has the past and the future in such a concentrated way.
BM: How do you go about doing the initial mapping for these projects, these ideas. Like how did you come to Jerusalem?
YD: I think it’s a bit a mixture of plan and intuition. In the sense that sometimes we have changed gears because of the form of the project or a subject we want to dig into deeply. You come across another city which has this subject where you can dig more in or where you can illustrate the contrast between, say, Jerusalem and the North Pole. When we went to Moscow, at that time it was the most expensive city in the world. And it also had this huge history of communism and this big clash between hyper capitalism and being most expensive city in the world. Sometimes these ideas are defined by us, through research, or sometimes someone give us a tip, “Do you know what’s happening in this city, this region, or this situation.” We’ve received requests from many cities in the world to make a project there. But that’s not how it works of course, we are not like painters on commission.
YD: It was very special from the beginning. Cathy was visiting them and asked us to join her. And when we were there the first time, we asked Pétro and Nadia what we wanted to do for the next three years—and they were already 84 years old at this time we started filming—and they agreed. Pétro’s only question was: “Are you coming for the good and or the bad?” And we said “For the good,” and he responded “Well then, OK you got the right answer.” And that set the tone for the next five years. His question and his conclusion were very typical of his philosophical way of meeting and talking and being very direct. Yet, on the other hand, it has a lot of secrets in this answer. He and Nadia said we could spend time but their only rule was that we were not allowed to enter the house. So we never entered their lives entirely—we were always outside, like the camera, looking in.
AGR: Could you speak a bit about an aspect of their day-to-day life that really stuck with you?
YD: They were very connected to the seasons. The big daily aspect was which season we were in because they had to plan to survive. And in that sense their whole daily life was them busy with preparing things for making sure that there were enough potatoes, making sure that they milk the cow on time. And you really felt this each time the winter started. There was this big mountain to climb again.
BM: How were you communicating?
YD: We had the same translator work with us for five years, Olga. She began when she was twenty-one or twenty-two and she became kind of a grandchild to them. She was the only one they could talk to.
BM: I’m thinking about the one rule, that you can’t go into the house. The project is a looking in through a window, without going through a door. It made me curious if that is aligned with Berlin’s approach to projects in general, or if it was specific to this work.
YD: I think it fit the way of working for this project. It was a way of working where we were trying to lose time. It’s the same with Pétro and Nadia. You cannot take a camera and say to them “OK, at three o’clock we need to meet in the car for an interview.” You cannot do an interview with him. You can have an interview but it’s not set up as an interview. Not for them and not for us. At the end it may look like an interview maybe, but it’s not made with the rules of an interview. We had 80 hours of film material after five years but we had hundreds of hours of just waiting. You just sit in the garden and you hear them coming out of the house and sometimes they just go by or they say hello and you let them pass by and sometimes they would stop and start to talk and all of a sudden they are in the mood for conversation. They come to you> It’s not us who would decide when or how. You spent time there and that’s a very nice thing that Pétro has said at one point: that the idea of time doesn’t exist anymore. They have season and they have moments.
BM: Did Nadia and Pétro ever watch the footage, or the translator?
YD: Olga came over to France when we performed in Paris. And at the beginning we showed Pétro and Nadia some footage just on the LCD screen of the camera, but they were not very interested in our project. I think they were very interesting in our visits.
Actually, their biggest desire was to create the village again. They asked why the president doesn’t decide to let people in again in the forbidden zone. Each year, each season they believed till a certain moment that it would happen, that people would come back. Their daughter kept asking them to move in with them, but they refused. And then it has been 25 years of total isolation with no running water, no electricity, and surviving and still hoping and imagining that people would come back.
AGR: Could you tell us a bit about what audiences will see at the Rollins Theatre in February? You said earlier that you are not a painter on demand, but actually you have so many tools at your disposal. Could you tell us about how they work together to communicate and express these incredible stories?
YD: With this project, it took a very long time to decide how it would work on stage. It took up until a year before the premier. It was very hard because each time you put an extra layer on it it felt too much, so we tried different things, in drawings. And then we turned back to the idea that was so important to us during those five years, what are the layers? And one of the biggest layers was that you go in and out, each time. You enter without announcing that you will come—there is no phone or letter you can write—and then you are leaving them again, without asking three weeks later, how are you doing in the winter there? So similarly on stage, each time you enter this scale mode, each time you enter this very separate world, this petri dish. It started form a little petri dish we saw on an image of scientific project—we realized that was what we were doing, we looked at them for five years. Whether we wanted to or not, we investigated them. Which can sound distant and cruel but it’s also part of it. This was each time the conflict: you want to make this project, but then they end up becoming your grandparents.
And the important other part of the scale models that you see is the season. How we can connect the decision to stay with them for five years, how we can connect with the idea of time passing by, and the very simple thing is the seasons. As we enter each season, we arrive or we leave. And you come in winter again and then all of a sudden it’s spring and then come back in autumn and two years ago we were here in autumn as well. So this whole process of time was connected to it, not with time on the clock, but with the seasons. And there were these emotional consequences going in and out of their lives, of these seasons, and this rhythm of “in and out” led us to the decision to use the scale models and also film them with small cameras, editing its life during the performance, to tell the story as close as possible to their story. To keep very close and intimate to their story. You can watch the film on one screen, without the installation, but that would be another project. You are watching the screen and the scale models are there the entire time, and that makes a big difference to your point of view—it depends on where you choose to look. What influences you. It enlarges your frame. On television you have one frame. In our work, you can choose your frame.
BERLIN: Zvizdal [Chernobyl – so far so close] opens February 8 for five performances in the Long Center’s Rollins Studio Theatre. This presentation marks the second year of our new partnership with Fusebox to bring unforgettable live experiences from around the world to Austin.