Paul De Bruyne (ENG)
Published in huisboomfeest book (Dutch). Available at Jap Sam Books, Heiningen NL.

Wapke Feenstra and the Paradox of (a-)Virtuosity
Many artists, schooled in all manner of craftsmanship and artistic techniques, and many art experts, particularly those schooled in interpreting pre-modernist and modernist art, find Feenstra’s work hard to fathom. Where exactly do the skills lie? Where is the ingenuity? Where is the artistry? Do photos and written reports on the ideas of ‘ordinary’ people – people with no ties at all with the art world – about ‘best places and things’ in The Best Place project (Wapke Feenstra: 2007) qualify as works of art? Can following the movements of land-based products, (gravel, sand, sheep) in Belgian Limburg in the Moving Landscape project (2010) really claim to be art if it entails communicating about these movements with all sorts of people in the process? Does the organisation of walks with residents of Piushaven in Tilburg in the long-running Hearth and Earth (huisboomfeest) project (2004-2010) have anything at all to do with the concept of visual art? How should one comprehend the artistic quality of a project like Hearth and Earth when it seems to revolve around observation and a website where people report daily rituals and everyday objects in urban landscapes? As socio-artistic work? As part of urban regeneration? As a piece of sociological research?

Feenstra’s work raises some key questions about the how’s and why’s of what – for the sake of convenience – we lump together under the cover-all of ‘Art and Culture’. These questions are intertwined with the notions of ‘encounter’ and ‘(anti-)virtuosity’ in art. But Feenstra is not alone in exploring this domain. These notions are relevant in contemporary developments in both the visual and the performing arts. Developments in these two traditions overlap and inspire one another in concepts such as ‘performance’, ‘movement’ and ‘interventions’. Perhaps ‘interventions’ is a good starting point here; for what Feenstra and a group of her associates (www.myvillages.org) do is intervene in an existing visual experiential ecology, in an existing landscape (usually rural, but not always) in order to coax the locals and visitors into providing new or current readings of that landscape.

Pietsie Feenstra (2007), in her analysis of The Best Place, looks at the work of Wapke Feenstra primarily within a visual arts perspective. The connections with art movements of the 1960s are self-evident. As in conceptual art, thoughts and ideas are placed in public space. Take, for example, Hearth and Earth and the concept of ‘cyclical time’, which is built around the belief that time does not move linearly, as is commonly assumed in cultures like ours – dominated by the idea of progress. The notion of cyclical time, espoused in many non-western cultures, is closer to the perception that life consists of recurrent experiences and defining moments. Time does not march on; instead, nature (and therefore culture) re-invents itself time and time again in endless variations.

The fact that Wapke Feenstra’s quest for (public) space usually takes place in the countryside is strongly reminiscent of Land Art, which made various attempts to appropriate the rural landscape. In contrast with artists such as Dennis Oppenheim, who created grass patterns in a field in 1969, Feenstra does not add to the rural landscape, she is more of an explorer and an observer. She shares her interest in the ecology of the land with many Land Artists, but in her work, ecology clearly embraces human actions and interventions as well.

Perhaps the most obvious category for this work is the Live Art movement that came in the slipstream of the happenings of the 1960s. Live Art cast aside the creation of artworks as objects and concentrated on exploring the artistic potential of encounters between people, between people and objects, and between objects themselves… At the heart of Feenstra’s work is the organisation of encounters. The physical presence of the artist on the one hand and the introduced work formats on the other bring the perception of an existing moving environment to life and make it dance with vitality. Feenstra asks questions about how the space is perceived. Sometimes literally, sometimes through the power of observation and documentation, and sometimes by introducing unfamiliar, non-indigenous elements in the (urban) landscape. But, she imposes no other norms than format norms. Everyone is welcome to tell their story, to reflect, to express their own vision in words or another medium. The work evolves from the bottom-up. The presence of the artist raises questions about the relationship between people and places, the beautiful and the abhorrent, solidarity and isolation, rituality and flat repetitiveness, time as a one-off experience and time as a cyclical event, which create a context for reflecting on our own culture and (by comparison) the culture of others. Heritage – implicit in every landscape – acquires a dynamic character. And a collective character, because it is only in dialogue with others that personal visions take shape and change.
Pietsie Feenstra comments that this kind of work fits into a new interpretation of an old art concept that is characterised by authenticity, unicity and aura. Wapke Feenstra’s work rediscovers authenticity and aura by placing the actual moment of creation at the epicentre. In the deconstruction and reconstruction of the resident’s and the visitor’s perception of the landscape the moment of aura creation is captured and experienced. Presence is celebrated: creation comes alive and we savour the show. Pietsie Feenstra also suggests that – from the societal perspective – the slower aspects of Wapke Feenstra’s work (walking, meeting, documentation, talking) can be understood as a necessary search for repose to counterbalance the ever-accelerating pace of globalisation. Roots and connections are revered by being unearthed, unravelled and uncovered.

The more this kind of artist distances herself from the creation of artefacts and chooses to develop processes of encounter and intervention, the closer she comes to the performance arts and the theatre. The developing relationship between actors and audience is crucial in twentieth-century western art theatre and is strikingly similar to recent developments in the visual arts. Historically, one could see the past half-century of the western (and globalised) art theatre as a slow farewell to the idea of the performance as an autonomous work of art. Autonomy in the theatre had been understood first and foremost as the precedence of script above performance. The playwright was the only creative spirit. His intentions had to be faithfully translated on-stage by a team of actors, directors and designers. Autonomy acquired shape and substance during the rehearsals and the performance by according priority to the representative and fictional nature of the play. What mattered was not the physical presence of the actors but the expressed idea of a character. All these fundamental characteristics of (modernist) art theatre from the first half of the twentieth century came under ever-increasing pressure as time progressed. The growing influence of writer-directors such as Brecht, Beckett, and Pinter and – in particular – directors Stanislavsky, Grotowski and Brook placed increasingly heavy pressure on the on-stage autonomy of the work of art. The encounter between the dramatic action and the audience became ever-more important. Drama was transformed into a performance in a very specific context of space and time. And thus edged closer to the type of performances that were appearing more and more in the visual arts.

The oeuvre of Polish theatre director Jerzy Grotowski illustrates this development from the perspective of theatrical tradition (Shomit Mitter: 1992). Grotowski began by staging the work of classical romantic Polish playwrights while according an increasingly important role to the actor. In his own training methods, called via negativa, he endeavoured to downplay the importance of the character in order to create space for the creativity and presence of the actor and to engineer an intense encounter with the audience. To this end he gradually dispensed with the spatial separation between the stage and the audience in favour of designs that incorporated both. When, despite all his efforts, Grotowski still failed to achieve a meaningful encounter between the two, he discarded theatre buildings altogether and set up the ‘para-theatre’ where he organised action for players and participants alike. Walks in the woods, interventions in the landscape, reflections on nature and culture…

The encounter between makers, space and the audience, who become participants in a specific use of time, is paramount in the work of many theatre directors. Since the 1980s art theatre has been experiencing a development known as devising theatre. This term, through its active implications (devising), underscores the central importance of the ‘making’ process. The world of the audience, who become fellow-players, increases in importance, as does the time and space in which the performance (which becomes more and more of a proposal for an encounter) takes place. Space and time become active players in the event, just as important as living players (people, animals etc.). The distinction between animate and inanimate (dead) objects grows fuzzy or even fades away altogether.

In Making a Performance. Devising Histories and Contemporary Practices (2007) English theatre experts Govan, Nicholson & Normington set out a typology for the new-styled ‘devising theatre’. Two types fit in closely with the work of Feenstra. These are types in which personal encounters and the questioning of virtuosity are central in the ‘making’ and presentation process. In the first type the driving power behind the encounter between makers and audience is narrativity. In these performances the theatre-makers retell personal stories from the future audience, who are about to become participants. Often the theatre-makers do little more than orchestrate the events in which ordinary people can tell their own story. These stories explore the different layers of the communities and landscapes, the ecologies in which people lead their lives. The ‘how’ of the narrative, the virtuosity, is significantly less important than the ‘what’ and ‘why’. Here, everyday experience is lifted up and takes a form that tears down the veil of the daily grind to reveal a life that is again vibrant, visible and new. The affinity with the work of Wapke Feenstra is obvious. The second type identified by Govan et al., the devising theatre of performance and place, overlaps strongly with Feenstra’s methods and visions.

Govan et al. trace this type of work to the ideas and practices of the Parisian situationists of the 1950s. The situationists were a group of intellectuals and artists who explored the concepts of ‘place’ and ‘space’ by devising and organising walks, journeys and performances that shed new light on how (public) space is understood and experienced. The situationists were critical of what they called the ‘Society of the Spectacle’.
Sociologist Michel de Certeau also contends that awareness-walking has the potential to upset the system of space and place in a way that creates a more optimistic and other-cultural landscape. ‘The political impulse of the practice of such walks is therefore, to disrupt settled orders and hierarchies and to explore new networks of new possibility, new symbolisms and ways of being. The process is intentionally incomplete, ambiguous and performative.’ (Govan et al.: 141).

One of many contemporary examples that evoke associations with the work of Feenstra comes from Wrights & Sites, an English ‘research and practice’ group which encourages people to view the city as an art gallery while they walk: ‘Allow yourself to be stopped and diverted as often as possible. Accept these delays for whatever they seem to offer you… go drifting with a child or children. Let the children choose your direction at each junction. Call it "exploring". Maybe take a notebook for them to write their thoughts in or for you to record them.’ (Wrights & Sites 2003: 10, 40). Like Feenstra, Wrights & Sites stress the importance of documentation and reports as a medium for sharing and perpetuating the experience. Their work – like Feenstra’s – is part of a strategy to re-experience the social order of an urban or rural space as more fluent and interactive than is generally assumed. Wrights & Sites see their work as an aesthetic strategy that allows people to capture and experience public space as private space. Or, at any rate, to restore the relationship between the public and the private to the agenda of the cultural imagination.

Feenstra too problematises the relationship between public space and intimate experience. She too sees her interventions, performances and improvisations as aesthetic and artistic work aimed at sharpening the perspicacity and imagination of individuals in creative ways. Even so, many artists and art experts cannot or will not or understand the aesthetic and artistic character of this work. Many of them regard a product or – in this case – a process as artistic only if it is accompanied by a clear form of virtuosity: it is the exceptional dynamic of colour and graphics that turns works by Kandinsky and Miró into art. Somehow or other, the expression must be unique, characteristic, original and so on and so forth. So Feenstra’s work, regardless of whether people categorise it under visual art or performance, cannot be art because it makes no distinction between virtuoso and non-virtuoso. Feenstra is a-virtuoso, rather than anti-virtuoso. Of course, her projects harbour exquisite photos, texts, actions and moments. But the exceptional ingenuity behind it all is never brought to the fore and turned into something special.

The two visions – art as a virtuoso artefact and art as a process of revelation and validation of existing ecologies – are not as polarised as they first appear. Both are about the dynamics of breaking free. Breaking free from the humdrum of daily life in our culture, which is analysed – perhaps in different terms but the nature of the criticism is largely the same – as a culture that alienates us from our authentic or creative self. Or from a united community. In both cases the art is the healer. A-virtuoso art creates encounters between equals through which the imagination is revitalised and the response is refreshed and possibly even cleansed of negative and alienating forces in an active – let’s say, democratically collective – experience. Virtuoso art creates an encounter between unequals, between teachers and pupils, masters and disciples, artists and viewers. Between artists and priests, mediators who have to explain virtuosity every single day. Virtuosity creates a relationship of faith: the artist produces miracles of beauty through which he creates the possibility of faith. And in the attitude of faith lies – as is known – the moment and the chance to break free from all the evil in this and all possible worlds.
The common attitude to breaking free is paradoxical in both cases. Artistic miracles lead to devotion, sacrifice, liberation, beauty and closeness. But they can just as easily lead to rejection and aversion from those who cannot or will not observe them. For them virtuoso art is not liberation, it is just another brick in the wall, one of the means employed by certain elitist groups to forge the chains of alienation and inequality. Or: we can’t possibly join that church because it all goes straight over our head. A similar paradox is appearing around a-virtuoso art. An encounter of equals does not only create the beauty of proximity but also aversion. Familiarity breeds contempt and distance. Everyday ecologies are uninteresting because – precisely because – they are everyday and not worth aestheticising.
It is in these paradoxes that the work of Feenstra lives and flourishes alongside the views of those who cannot or will not understand her.

Bibliography
- Debord, Guy, ‘Theory of the Dérive’ in Andreotti & Costa (eds.) (1996). Theory of the Dérive and other Situationist Writings on the City. Museo d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona.
- De Bruyne, Paul, ‘De vrijheid van de marionet’ in Peter van Zilfhout et al. (2010). Ruimte Scheppen. Fontys Hogescholen. Pp.198-218.
- Feenstra, Pietsie, ‘De Beste Plek. Een culturele uitwisseling over het verleden en het heden’ in Wapke Feenstra (2007). De Beste Plek. Veenman Publishers. Pp. 218-227.
- Feenstra, Wapke (2007). De Beste Plek. Veenman Publishers.
- Govan, Nicholson & Normington (2007). Making a Performance. Devising Histories and Contemporary Practices. Routledge.
- Mitter, Shomit (1992). Systems of Rehearsal. Stanislavsky, Brecht, Grotowski and Brook. Routledge.
- Wrights & Sites (2003). An Exeter Mis-Guide. Wrights & Sites Publications.

About the author
Paul de Bruyne (1955) is associate lector in Arts in Society at Fontys University of Applied Sciences in Tilburg. He publishes essays on theatre, dance, film and art sociology. His most recent published works are Een stoet van kleur en klanken. De muziek van Luc Mishalle & Co (2009), which is about multiculturalism in music and – in association with Pascal Gielen – Being an Artist in Post-Fordist Times (2009). De Bruyne directs and writes theatre scripts including Graan! and Old Sores, which have been successfully staged in the Netherlands and China. For many years he was a regular contributor to the Flemish national newspaper De Morgen and to Radio 1 in Flanders.