February 20, 2018 / Leave a comment
A chat with Catastrophe: “Everything could always be otherwise”
I recently came across Catastrophe, a French performance art collective who describe themselves as “an artistic group formed in 2015 and made up of young people”. On their website I read that “From 8 to 22 February, at the invitation of the Munich City Theater, Catastrophe travels to Bavaria, where she will set up her “test station and errors”: a workshop of the imagination , dedicated to the materialization of things that do not exist yet. We will thus try, within the limits of our means but passionately, to take seriously our imagination, by concretizing things that we would like to see existing”.
I was inspired by this, and by their assertion that “All could be other”, and wanted to find out more. Unable to make it to Munich, I got in touch with them, and they very kindly agreed to being interviewed by email. So here, actually benefitting from the not-quite-perfect-English, is that interview.
Could you tell me a bit about Catastrophe? Your website describes you as an “artist group”. What form does that take? What do you do? Which media do you use?
Catastrophe was created in 2015. At first, it started with performances in apartments, we were willing to transform an apartment into a brain in a way that people would see what is behind their own eyes. After that it evolved a lot. In 2016, we published a text in ‘Liberation’ that has been read, shared and discussed a lot, maybe even too much.
But this reaction gave us the urge to continue, to precise and to imagine again and more. Last September we published an essay called ‘La nuit est encore jeune’ (‘The Night is Still Young’) (Pauvert editions). Few month after this, an album with the same name has been released on the Tricatel label. We had the chance to be able to experiment the musical and literary scene. Our goal is to create moments. Moments made of liberty, filled with risks and possibilities where we could try what we had never done before. Like biting a hot chili.
You are shortly touring ‘1968: Imagine Now’. Could you give me a sense of what happens at this? Is it a show? An exhibition? A workshop? What should people expect if they come along?
We have been invited by the National Theater of Munich, The Munchen Kammerspiele, to perform in a show called 1968 where there are other companies from Mexico, Ivory Coast, Berlin, etc. It is a big melting-pot inspired by the spirit of the 1968 revolution. For us, we have chosen to set up an ‘imaginary factory’: we have collected ideas from everywhere and in Munich we are trying to realize some of them. For example we hung signs onto statues in Munich, making them speak (or laugh!). We are also going to harmonize the street with a piano.
Facing the everyday life reality that people usually don’t tend to talk to each other in public space — communicating with the others may seem weird or inappropriate. We came up with the idea of wearing a recognition sign (such as a pins or a badge) that allow you to start a conversation with a perfect stranger. In parallel to that, we worked in schools with students around the power of imagination. And in the evening, every Friday, Saturday, Sunday, we are playing 20 minutes in the show: it’s a mix of text and music in which we try to transform people’s fears in energy and new ideas.
I wonder why you feel the need to focus your work on imagination? How would you judge the state of health of our collective imagination in 2018?
We have the feeling that today imagination is only viewed as a way to escape reality instead of a tool to change it. Very often new ideas appear to be mocked, at least in France — such as the Universal Income defended during the last presidential election by Mr Benoit Hamon, which was perceived as a really childish idea. This reaction led him to a total electoral defeat (only 6%, whereas he belonged to the Socialist party, the former president’s party). Of course, there are other conjectural reasons for his defeat, but we were hit by the mockery climate around its proposal.
Here we’re not talking about arguments (there are good arguments against Universal Income, of course) but about easy laugh — a sort of generalized ‘troll’ laugh. Internet is fascinating for that. On YouTube, under any video of something new, something fragile, you’ll have comments of people destroying it as ‘non-serious’ proposal. It is comic to see how systematic it is.
It is also funny to see that forty years ago, the President of the United States Jimmy Carter, sent a golden record in space, when now it would be totally unthinkable to do such thing. Today you’ll be laughed at only by mentioning space conquest. ‘Being realistic’ is an expression that we encounter all the time, forgetting that most of the time realism is nothing but a abuse of power.”
You are asking people to send you in their ideas for the future. Why?
Because there is no future without new ideas. Because we were invited in Munich to do something around 1968 and because ‘Imagination at the helm’. Because it was the only idea we had. Because we’re tired of the same pattern repetition – the repetition of the same. Because 1% of ideas can change 99% of the world. Because we have this magical power in us. Because imagination is a good way to sublimate our sexual urges. Because it permits one to feel one’s strength easily. Because it makes us laugh, after all. Because Einstein. Because David Bowie. Because Virginia Woolf. Because Kendrick Lamar. Because planes were invented in 1890 by a guy who wanted to fly like a bat. Because we need the ideas of others, because we’re not sufficient on our own. Because we want ideas and not fears to unite us. Because it’s an easy way of passing time. Because we are coming from Pluto and we need ideas as fuel for our spaceship. Because we like to think it was simple after all. Because people think they can’t change the world and it’s only partially true. Because a new idea is a life instinct which has found its shape. Because we wanted you to ask us this question.
You talk about “concretising things that we would like to see existing”. Once you’ve gathered ideas, how do you step over into doing them? What follows your workshops that helps make these ideas a reality?
To be honest, we can’t concretize all the ideas we are receiving; we’re just around 6 or 7 working on that, and we don’t have an unlimited budget nor unlimited technical capacity. In the future, we would love to work with people who are masters in their own practices, such as architects, scientists and artisans, …finding the right partners takes time. But in Munich, the Münchner Kammerspiele has helped us concretizing simple ideas: we have harmonized the street with a piano, in order to show that reality is the best show you’ll ever see.
[Editor’s note: I did ask them what “harmonized the street with a piano” meant. They replied “Harmonizing the street with a piano mean people are sat on chairs in front of a front window, looking at the everyday life of the street, and we are playing piano behind them, and doing some choirs, to harmonize the reality. The street become the best show you’ll ever see (and for real, it is !)”].
We have collected fears of people and erected a wall of fear. We have made the statues speak out loud in the street. We have talked with a class of sociologists and have proposed them to help us realizing ideas.
But that’s an interesting point here; we really need others in order to go further. By our own, we are very limited. We know how to do music, texts, events, we try to create moments. But to think a bit further, imagination is a political issue, it’s a collective need, we do our little and limited part of the job, hoping others will help for the rest. In the French newspaper Society, last year, Frederic Lordon, an economist, told to a journalist something we are sharing :
“It is not reasonable to ask from someone that they could so to say hold the two sides of the discursive chain. It is too much to ask from one only man, personally I wouldn’t be able to. More than that, the irony is that people who are claiming that, are without realizing surrendering to the providential, omnipotent man’s figure (…) but it is to forget that political action is a collective concern. Which means a labour division.
It feels to me like in 2018 there are less and less spaces for people to come together and imagine the future, to imagine together, to dream. Aside from what you are doing, what other things have you come across that serve that function too?
Many things. The more we do, the more we discover that we are surrounded by people looking for the same kind of things — with their proper aesthetics and sensibility, of course. It’s one of the most exciting aspects about creating things in public. You meet people you would have never talked to and who are, amazingly, exactly like you (in a totally different way).
Among them, we have met people from European Lab — a lab of ideas with more than 250 European actors that are lighting up, supporting and helping initiatives that will define tomorrow’s culture. We also feel close to the French group Aquaserge, that is making music but not only; they have lived together, they are close to the Tarnac group, they try to think and imagine their lives (recently we read an interview of Jean Luc Godard where he said “People are brave enough to live their lives but not brave enough to imagine it” – how true it is).
We also enjoyed the creation of DIEM 25 by, among others, Yanis Varoufakis and Brian Eno (!). On a more artistic level, we liked the initiative of Michel Gondry at Beaubourg in Paris, ‘Usine de films amateurs’, a factory where everyone, from kids to old people, can share an idea of a movie and concretize it with Gondry. Of course, we were interested by Nuit Debout, which happened in Paris in March 2016 and was considered at the French Podemos. People were on the Place de la Republique, sharing ideas, doing music, throughout the days and nights. It was of course chaotic, not very clear on a political aspect, but exciting, fresh and creative. Like a uncertain poetical agora. And that is all that matters in life for us.
If you had been (collectively) elected President of France in the last election on a ‘Make France Imaginative Again’ platform, what might you do in your first 100 days in office?
First of all, we would launch a global reform of the public medias, focusing on innovative, bold and demanding contents. We have the feeling that it is the role of the state to defend culture in the age of the mass medias. Not only because we like culture, but because it changes minds. The responsibility of public medias is enormous regarding political changes, we have seen it well with the election of Trump. 40 years ago, in France, there was this incredibly poetic generic in public television, today it would be unthinkable when everything has to be entertaining, nervous, in one word, bankable.
In parallel, we would initiate a reform in education, by creating lectures devoted to imagination: workshops about precise problems that are dependent of us, and how to imagine solutions to solve those, on an individual level for the first step. Scientists, workers, artists, everybody could do some masterclass in these workshop, propose and find ideas elaborated by students and teachers. It would be a collective approach of education: the contrary of the individual competition logic.
After that, we would probably take a big rest, realizing that running a country is not an easy task and that things are more complicated than we thought. And we would finally make some music. Have you heard of that ?
Do you have any last thoughts about why imagination is important and why we need to focus our attention on it ?
In 1890, Clément Ader was fascinated by bats. He wanted to fly like them. He brought gigantic bats with 1 meter long wings from India and studied their morphology by letting them fly in his private garden in a way to create a flying machine that would look like them. At the end, the product looked like a huge, pink, completely non-proportioned, made of fabric machine. People surrounding him were constantly making fun of him and this non-sense project while he kept believing in it. His first try out happened in the Gretz-Armainvilliers’s castle’s garden, where this construction flew for 50 meters but only with a height of 20 centimeters above the ground. This attempt was like an imaginary fantasy, it was absurd, it was nothing. It was the start of aviation.