“Hybridity is a part of identity”

Geert Opsomer tells how to reinvent collectiveness and why the future is for cities, not countries


Open Place interviewed Geert Opsomer

July 25, 2018
Poznan, Poland


Open Place met Gerd Opsomer during the Assembly at the Malta Festival in Poznan. Gerd Opsomer focuses his research on the issues of participation, collectivity and hybridity. Gerd Opsomer is working on the creation of a “transit zone” for young theater workers. He teaches at, and was co-founder of the new dramatic Arts department of the Royal Institute for Theatre, Cinema & Sound (RITCS.)

Open Place: Please, introduce yourself and tell a little bit about your background.

Geert Opsomer: My backgrounds: philosophy, theatre practice, performing, a bit of anthropology also. I worked some time at university, a long time actually, in the field of performing arts and philosophy and cultural studies. Also I tried to work there in practice, which was difficult in our university(K.U.Leuven). And then I had theatrical practice next to it, and in a certain moment I chose to work in theatre.

I worked in the Art centre in Ghent, Belgium (Nieuwpoorttheater). It was not so big, but very well-known Belgium artists coming from it, and always with social commitment in their work. I worked there for ten years. With the people working there we tried to make art with the social commitment – instead of art in arts. The words from Peter Sellars “the voice for the voiceless” became very important in our way of working. We tried also to look for another audience. We worked with communities in Ghent. Lots of young groups were developed from that.

As I didn’t feel very well at university, with a few people we also started the parallel school within the institute which was absolute old school of theatre. It was very difficult. It was group of several people and we didn’t fit to the system. The school, in the beginning, in the first three-four years, was very important for me, but then I went away. Now I am back in the school.  I’m still doing the theatre. I’m starting again in the smaller initiatives in Brussels.

If you want to do the school, you have to come in the system and a bit attacking it being together and taking a risk. At the moment when we started, very important for me was the meeting with Peter Sellars in 1994. That year we had the parallel meeting at the first edition of a big art festival KunstenfestivaldesArts in Brussels with a lot of people and it was called “City of Cultures”. I admired what Peter Sellars have been doing in Los Angeles (Peter Sellars was artistic director of the Los Angeles Festival in 1990 and 1993), I wanted him to come to Brussels. I thought that maybe he would convince people to work that way, to work with communities.  He came and gave a wonderful speech which came in all of newspapers and impressed many people. We had a talk for a whole night. I said I want to start a school and we were talking of how to educate people not only in the privileged classes. He said: “The most important thing for the teacher is to be open to what students have to teach you, only then you can teach”. Now many people think like that, but that was in 1994.

"You can express minor culture within the major one"

Open Place:  Can you explain what do you mean under “reinvent collectiveness”? And what is “minor culture” instead of “excluded minorities”?

Geert Opsomer: It’s about practice and theory. For the whole of my life I was inspired by  Pierre-Félix Guattari. Every time I was reading theory which really struck me, like Frantz Fanon, or this French psychoanalyst Jacques Marie Émile Lacan. These are known names, but for me they were very important because they were linked with practices. I became very enthusiast about these things, and always the name of Guattari came with the others. And I didn’t know who this guy is. When I studied philosophy I was a fan of Gilles Deleuze, a French philosopher in  the time of Michel Foucault. Especially Foucault and  Deleuze were very important for me personally to understand things about society. And there again Foucault was a fan of Guattari and Deleuze wrote books with Guattari.  I think 20% of the books of Deleuze are written with Guattari and  Guattari wrote as many books as Deleuze. Deleuze was philosopher, a university professor, and Guattari was an activist. But because Guattari was an activist, people forgot him.

I was amazed at the idea of writing together. And then you read how a philosopher becomes an activist and an activist becomes a philosopher. It was really something which stuck me. The term “minor culture” is coming from them.  Guattari worked at the experimental psychiatric clinic of La Borde in France. La Borde is a clinic with psychotic people, people who are dumped by society, psychotic patients refused to be in society. Lots of people in Western Europe and Latin America went to visit the clinic just to be in contact with Guattari. And I even found out that thinkers, that are very important nowadays, as Italian neo-marxists like Antonio Negri, Giorgio Agamben and Franco Berardi, all went there. They stayed there for a long time. Even when they were at risk in their own country in Italy, they went to La Borde  to be with the patients. This was really a mad’s clinic with totally different rules and a kind of community, which in the same time was very experimental.

The idea of “minor culture” is that you can express minor culture within the major one. This is the struggle which you have to do, and in fact you change the culture. And so, you change a little bit an idea, such as: these people are excluded, and we have to help them to have at least the basics of life. No, we have to be very ambitious about that. We and they are together to create other languages within a language, other thinking, just like Kafka speaking another language changed German literature or the Roumenian Ionesco changed French language. And that’s what Guattari actually did in La Borde: he re-invented the system and the language of psychiatry voicing the excluded people. Once I was there, for instance, one of the patients wrote a new constitution for France. He was a law professor the certain time and then he went crazy. When he did so, Guattari invited lawyers, thinking about the country, and they listening to him. It’s a mixture of psychotic and socio-political delusions and real revolutionary thinking.

When I’m reading and studying that, I’m always seeing examples of minor culture for me. And I think it’s so important to develop it as an idea.  These guys are dead. They were in fact the leaders of thinking. And what amazes me that people who worked there and don’t work there any more, they are still defending such ideas where they are in which context they are. I also amaze when I meet somebody who was inspired by this and has committed to social way, tries to do that kind of things in his way in his context, with group of people or with community.

“Heterogeneity is crucial for human being”

Open Place: You also proposed the notion of “city” instead of “nation”. How it would work?

Geert Opsomer: I think in Europe nowadays the nation state is a way to understand and to organize things and politicize the hierarchies in culture and economy. In 19th century it became very important. There were a lot of wars going on because of the nation idea, it has to be kind of purity in the nation. This is very weird idea of a nation as one. I think, it’s an old idea which cannot hold. This is a poem by William Butler Yeats “The Second Coming”, there is the row which is said: the centre cannot hold. So the idea of putting things together and having a kind of harmony and purity in it, such as we have a certain nation, and these are its heroes, – it’s a fake in a way, because hybridity of nation, the complexity and the intercomplexity is so big. You have to clean things and it convey to external war against another nation. And that’s what we saw in 19th century, and that’s what we saw also when fascism arose in the past and we still see it rising in Europe and all over the world now.

You feel that liberalism in Europe becomes national liberalism or ethnic liberalism more and more. I think the city is a kind of antidote to that. Now about the 50% of the work population are living in the cities.  People trust more and more in the municipalities, because the federal administrations really defending this idea of the nation, keep away the refugees. Municipalities become more important than the nation. Big cities are confronted with heterogeneity. Heterogeneity is also a basic concept of Guattari. In every text from him he’s talking about how heterogeneous we are. And how we can find ourselves and make ourselves. Heterogeneity is crucial for human beings. So, cities in the future will become stronger in political sense.

Hybridity is a part of identity. You are what you do. Identity is complex, and it’s not only defined by nation. It’s defined by all things which travel through us when we are doing things.

Making a social canvas

Open Place: You referred three strategies important for you: strategy of artistic autonomy, strategy of resistance, and the strategy of collective subjectivation. Can we focus on the last one in practice and theory?

Geert Opsomer: It’s broad! It’s very important, I think, when people are together to have a horizontal relations. The whole idea is the idea of helping each other. In TransfoCollect (http://www.transfocollect.com/) and also in K.A.K.( http://www.k-a-k.be/) the idea is that we have another way of institutionalizing.

Institutionalizing is not the fixed structure, which is there. It makes agreements like kind of social contracts but not on the level of the big society. It makes this on a smaller level in which you have your intents on ways of working with each other. You accept also the possibility that one taking a role of the other. Peter Kropotkin in his book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution put many examples in an attempt to show that the main factor in facilitating evolution is cooperation between individuals in free-associated societies and groups, where people become stronger when they work together in cooperation. If you look at TransfoCollect where I am working, or K.A.K. you cannot say who is a leader. All people together are TransfoCollect. This is forming an identity which is mixed social and on the level of horizontal things. It’s the kind of creating community when you goes through all these roles and identities and try to find the way to negotiate and to work with each other to cooperate. It’s like forming canvas together. And I know it’s a bit experimental, but there are tools for that. And people who are the most conscious of the tools, in a way, become informal leaders.

Open Place: How do your activity as a teacher connected with your artistic activity?

Geert Opsomer: When you create something for people it’s like you create object or you create a thing. For me it was very important too, but I never stopped there. Then I realised that you can be educator, learn from people and teach in another way, looking for the alternatives to meet people. Meetings are important. Learning from meetings is a form of education. Personally for me it’s the most important thing I found. This idea brought me to creation, people, social methods and some philosophical things.

I really believe in the idea of the ignorant master / le maître ignorant.

In teaching the teacher doesn’t take the master position: he lets the students create and take the master role for they are becoming masters and do not know it yet. They are ‘ignorant masters’. The teacher helps them to find their voice, their language, he ads his wisdom. And that’s the same for students and non-students, for teaching and creating. The finding of a voice is such a beautiful thing. The teacher is just like the creator a kind of Socrates helping the artistic work to become a piece of art. He co-creates rather than being a directing dictator. He is a wise co-worker creating artistic work and creative communities at the same time. In helping e.o. to find a voice people connect and form a creative community in which people are together for a moment: in a kind of populated solitude which is the new idea of “being-together-in-heterogeneity”.