BOG. is a collection of theater makers Sanne Vanderbruggen, Benjamin Moen, Judith de Joode en Lisa Verbelen. Based both in Amsterdam and Antwerp, BOG. creates work starting from the desire to question, overview and put into perspective subjects so big and familiar that they are impossible fully grasp or hold on to. For the occasion of BOG.’s Belgian premiere of their latest work ‘Iemand die slaapt’ at DeSingel, Kinga Jaczewska talked to Lisa Verbelen and Benjamin Moen about ambiguity, artistic egos, Georges Perec’s work and the truth that can be found on teabags.
Kinga Jaczewska: Your latest work ‘Iemand die slaapt’ is based on the ‘Un homme qui dort’ book by Georges Perec. It is though not the first time that you work with his writings?
Benjamin Moen: He has been one of our greatest inspiration sources since we started BOG.
What we find inspiring in his books is what we call a sense of ‘zooming out’. He writes in a way that creates a sort of distance which allows for a new, more objective perspectives on the subjects he touches upon. In the first work we ever made, called ‘BOG.’, we attempted to zoom in and out on different parts of our lives. We tried to arrange them without expressing or imposing any pre-set value system. This way of looking at something from a distance is familiar to us ,it’s what we find so intriguing in Perec’s writings and what we try to apply in our own works.
K.J: To zoom out sounds like an intention behind your works as well as is the search for an objective perspective. Do these also go hand in hand with the choice of working as a group? Where the ego and the individual voice of one artist is somehow neutralised, compromised into the collective voice?
Lisa Verbelen: I never thought of it in that way but the interest in finding the objective might actually be linked to that choice.. What we saw a lot when we started to make own work, were ego documents of people. Stage presentations of their personas, their stories, their ‘I’s’. As we observed it for a while we became clear that we wanted to go against that tendency. Rather to make work about us, we wanted to make work about everybody – an idea way too idealised, ambitions and impossible became very attractive. We wanted to, let’s say ‘rebel’ against the ego wave and that has somehow resulted in us establishing BOG.
We have also found value in constructing work that is in a way an ‘open ground’ for the audience to walk on and read into. The fact that we all have different opinions, views and ideas has definitely been a strong influence behind it. ‘It is not about us’ is a rule we have been working with.
K.J: The BOG.’s rule?
L.V: The attempt to do so is the rule, yes. Objectivity is of course impossible, the way we arrange words is already an opinion but it gives us something to strive for.
K.J: Do you ever feel limited by the frame of collective? Or is it rather relieving since it is anyway not about you individually?
Lisa and Benjamin: It is surely both!!
B.M: I was brought up with an idea of universalism which is something we practice within BOG. We have four very different voices, four ways of being on stage and very different ideas about it. We do strive to find something universal though, to became a choir of one person or of all people at once. Even though the process of making theater is based on a constant struggle or discussion about a word, its multiple meanings or even a small comma – you do have to set aside big part of your ego and that is not always easy.
L.V: It is not what the audience sees but it does not always go smoothly…
K.J: Do you ever feel that having to compromise, you have to bend or adapt to the group so much that the sharpness of your ‘own’ idea gets blunt or unclear?
B.M: Those points are definitely there…
L.V: A big part of our process is a common language which we have found at the very beginning of BOG. A language which is of no one’s in particular, a sort of external BOG.’s identity. Something that got formed out of the mix of the four of us. You forget it while fighting about one word but when back in the picture, it brings a relief. For us it is not a personal failure if an idea does not get used in the performance as it probably just does not fit BOG and the work it wants to create at that moment and that is perfectly ok.
K.J: Can you observe that identity from a distance and see what it is or needs?
L.V: For me yes, and definitely with ‘Iemand die slaapt’. During the creation process I had a feeling that I did not really have to create it, that it was already there and all I needed to do was to find it. Thinking about it now, it is also how I think about BOG in general. That it will create or become something it wants to be and my job is to meet it on its way.
B.M: At the start of BOG. we were thinking of ourselves more as a collection rather than collective. We wanted to create a group which celebrates four individual approaches. We clearly did not want any unification. If anything we wanted to emphasize these differences while still striving to make integrated performances. This ‘collection’ vs ‘collective’ way of thinking is something we still do. It is a tiny shift which I believe is very important to the group.
In the future we are also planning to do projects in different constellations yet still under the umbrella of BOG. Lisa will be making another solo, Judith will be working with Harald Austbø. I will work withYannick Noomen from Nineties Productions but all these works will all still be part of BOG. but with different parts of the collection.
K.J: BOG as sort of institution for other projects?
B.M: We don’t know how it will grow in the coming years but for BOG. to stay alive, we need to differentiate. We will always come back to the basic constellation of the four of us and make more work but we also need to fly out and explore other things.
L.V: Until now we have tried to make work that titled with three letters only. With ‘Iemand die slaapt’ we were worried about how this loosening of previously strict rules would be read by the audience. It has not even been noticed…
B.M: Which I have found actually super relieving! It feels like our group identity can now become bigger, no longer so bound to its original, three letters words’ structure…
K.J: And why the three letters to start with?
L.V: It is a little like with some writings of Georges Perec. It does not have a real content of itself, it is more of a structural idea we applied at the start and held onto tightly.
K.J: BOG is attracted to philosophically broad and far from concrete themes. I feel like the ambiguity that goes with it is something people avoid or are generally afraid of. It feels like more specific subjects and conclusions are expected from a theater play these days. Though that is not what you are offering, is it?
B.M: For us this broadness is precisely what we find exciting. When a subject is way too big for us to handle or it makes us feel very small, that’s when there is a spark. It is exactly when most ideas start bubbling up. I do notice though that when presenting new ideas, programmers tend to get skeptical about this ambiguity. They would say: ‘wow that is big, that is wide’ or ‘what you are telling is not very specific or not concrete enough’. So yes, I do feel a sort of resistance but since this wideness is what we have been working with from the very beginning, it is now being received with more trust. At least I hope so…
L.V: We recently had a talk with a curator who joked about making work on good and evil suggesting that these were way too generic themes to make work on. For us this was precisely when we got seriously interested…
K.J: What is ‘too big’ to grasp is fun for you but how to make such broadness accessible to the audience? Are you trying to figure it out for yourself first, frame it and then show the frame to your public or are you more offering a way for the audience to look at that ambiguity?
L.V: I think it is the second. With BOG. we try to look at these subjects from very different sides and perspectives. These approaches and views placed next to each other is what we offer to the audience.
K.J: Which then needs to deal with it by itself…
L.V: We don’t want to pre-design a way in which work should be received, we can only suggest…
K.J: Isn’t that placing yourself in a very vulnerable position?
B.M: Yes and no. If you give a clear opinion, say this is what it is and expect people to take it that way, you let people shoot directly at it. That is perhaps even more vulnerable.
L.V: Or when they wont cry when we want them to…
B.M: I do at times question if we shouldn’t just clearly and loudly say what we think is true. But then again, it is happening so much already… And maybe through presenting different perspectives, without judgment or external value system to them, we could relief the pressure of having to have a sharp opinion on all that is happening around us?
L.V: Maybe not in the most conclusive one liner and through more nuanced way we do say a lot, it is just not so black and white!
B.M: True, we just don’t give solutions. I think many artists now feel expected to offer it. I experience it myself. When sitting in the audience and looking at works with more political approach, I end up thinking ‘ok so what are we going to do now? what is the resolution for this big problem?’. And I personally think that this need for a conclusion often decreases the power of the work of art itself. As if the final line was the only goal of it…
L.V: There is a general need to receive this conclusion sentence as to help us understand the world. People often say: ‘I don’t feel well, I feel weak, things did not work out’ and then, if you pay attention to it, they would usually conclude it with one sentence like ‘ok I am just tired’ and then move on. I am now thinking, maybe we should practice in not giving this final sentence, a conclusion to people. An exercise in offering questions and varied ways of thinking yet not concluding it, keeping it open?
K.J: ‘Iemand die slaapt’ is the first work that you based on already existing text. How did having this concrete element affect your working process?
L.V: To have a concrete source to which we could always come back to was great, very clarifying. Usually half of the work is to figure out how to work, now that was already decided. The procedure was quite concrete from the start.
K.J: And that was?
L.V: Re-editing the text, selecting the crucial parts, cutting the blurry ones out, re – ordering.
B.M: Of course first we had to invent an approach to deal with it. Since the text is very precious to all of us, we were very careful with changing it in any way at first With time though we learned to be more daring about it. Once we learned how to deal with the text, we gained a lot of freedom which would not be there if it was not for the set content of the book.
K.J: What makes Perec’s ‘A man asleep‘ so precious to you all?
B.M: Georges Perec questions something that we all strongly relate to: how do we look at and relate to the little things, the things we have even forgotten to look at? Clouds, trees, own’s room, relationships are all elements we take for granted yet they can mean so much by themselves.
L.V: And he does not try to make those everyday things poetic, he just presents them how they are.
K.J: Do you feel we need to bring more focus back onto these every day, basic things?
L.V: I think yes, definitely in a society when only the huge events and achievements get valued.
B.M: When I succeed in something or when we for example get got a good review, I immediately want to communicate it. I feel my ego starts boiling if I don’t share these ‘praises’ with the world but maybe the most heroic thing that can be done today is not to share what you did or achieved? Maybe the biggest act you can do is not to try to become big or well known? Not to aim to leave a stamp on whatever you are doing?
L.V: I think it is true. It is also like this very cheap thing you find on a tea bag that says: ‘look at the small things’ or ‘appreciate the now’ – these are not untrue, if anything, it is the very truth itself. But see, it still feels and sounds like the stupid tea thing…
B.M: But maybe it is more about finding a way of looking at the small and the big things in equal, with an even focus and attention?