Thomas Verstraeten

A new role for football, trash and preaching

Seefhoek series, a theatrical project consisting of seven urban interventions, is an ode by theatre maker Thomas Verstraeten (FC Bergman) to the Antwerp neighbourhood in which he lives. The Seefhoek is a densely populated district in the northern part of the city that came into being around 1860 as a working-class neighbourhood during the latter part of the Industrial Revolution.

Over the past decades it has changed into a place for more than 100 nationalities. Throughout its entire history it has remained a poor and backward area. The Seefhoek became a household name in all of Flanders in 1988, when the television program Panorama reported on the emergence of the far-right political party ‘Vlaams Blok’, now called ‘Vlaams Belang’ (Flemish Interest), a party that grew big in this neighbourhood. Just a few months ago, the area again drew negative commentary in the news because of an unexploded bomb linked to the criminal drug world. (Pre)judgements aplenty about the Seefhoek. Even so, Seefhoek series was (the interventions took place this past fall on September 22-30) nothing more or less than a declaration of love: “When people talk about the Seefhoek, it’s usually in negative and pejorative terms, whereas I think it’s one of the finest neighbourhoods in the city. The whole world lives there together in a relatively harmonious way. It has a church and a mosque, a swimming pool, a psychology clinic, a Chinese wholesaler, restaurants, a video company, a place for sheltered accommodation – all of that represents a very diverse and rich community.”

Alienation and encounters

Thomas Verstraeten is part of the Flemish theatre collective FC Bergman, which has gained fame for its impressive visual stagings such as 300 el x 50 el x 30 el (2011), Van den vos (2013), Het land Nod (2015), JR (2018) and The Sheep Song (2021), stagings that more than once explored the physical limits of the traditional theatre space and the black box. Alongside his work in the collective, Thomas Verstraeten has for many years been working on his own artistic career at the intersection of visual art and theatre, focusing in particular on the city and performances in public space.

FC Bergman received the prestigious Silver Lion for Theatre for its entire oeuvre at the Venice Biennale this year: “FC Bergman flirts with the limits of feasibility, creating modern apocalyptic fairytales, often without words but with surprising plastic potency and evocative power, thus focusing on Man – torn between the existential desire to transcend his perimeters and the fear of change”, according to the jury report. Whereas in the productions of FC Bergman, the individual is constantly in danger of being crushed by the world, in his solo work Thomas seeks a dialogue with his immediate surroundings – and that can be taken literally: his street, his neighbourhood, his city. No stories of alienation and forlornness here, but of encounters with others and the beauty of the commonplace.


This is not the first time that Thomas Verstraeten has taken his immediate surroundings as the starting point for his work. The Seefhoek series is a continuation and extension of Familiestraat, a project from the weird Corona year of 2020. During that year, Thomas observed and recorded all the things that happened on his street, and explored the connections between them. Were they totally unrelated or were they somehow subtly connected somehow? How did important events and trivial incidents influence each other? He built a life-size cardboard replica of the street on which he lives, Familiestraat (Family Street), in a large hangar. Together with 200 local residents, he staged a six-hour overview of what had occurred on his street that year in both small and big ways, ranging from a brawl necessitating police intervention to the street turning into a playground as the result of Corona.

Copying the visible urban architecture as realistically as possible is part of Thomas Verstraeten’s artistic signature. For Pierre Menards Paradox (2014), he copied the interior of Tanger, a Moroccan coffeehouse in Antwerp, and placed it across the street in the buildings of the St. Lucas School of Arts. The same coffeehouse two times, and yet different each time.

Besides copying, placement in a different context is another of Thomas Verstraeten’s theatrical strategies: the Tanger coffeehouse was copied and placed in an art school. And in the DeSingel cultural centre in 2016, he replicated a night shop: it had all of the typical characteristics of a night shop – without the city, the street and the night, and the visitors were not shoppers but art lovers. Precisely because of its hyperrealism and lack of context, the night shop became an alienating and intriguing object.

Theatre as perspective

According to philosopher Bart Verschaffel, making theatre is not about performing something; theatre is perspective: “It is about determining the point from which something must be seen.” The theatre hall with its framed stage is what guides and fixes the spectator’s gaze: “The theatre transforms both the act of seeing and the spectacle. The wandering, inadequate, fleeting, casual gaze is brought to a single point and idealized.”

The theatre is an invention of Italian humanism, which drew inspiration from ancient Roman writings on architecture. After all, in medieval times theatres did not exist. Performances took place on street corners, market squares, pageant wagons or wooden scaffolds that the audience would gather around; the whole city was part of the show. The Renaissance saw the advent of private court theatres, which later transformed into the public (municipal) theatres we still find in the centre of our big cities. The transition from the street to the theatre, says Verschaffel, also had to do with the rise of the monarch’s absolute authority over the rebellious cities: “Theatre begins with the Joyous Entry, the reigning monarch’s first official visit to the city.” In contrast to the diffuse gaze of the medieval spectacle, the theatrical gaze is, in other words a ‘royal’ gaze, a perfectly focused perspective gaze. Over the past centuries, this royal gaze has dominated and shaped theatre. For some time now, theatre makers have been trying to free themselves from the compelling grip of that gaze. To do so, they leave the traditional theatre or the black box. They go into the city in search of a new form of communication and a participatory community. In Seefhoek series, Thomas Verstraeten turns his back on theatres and works in public space, albeit not to restore a casual and scattered way of looking. He uses the theatrical perspective to steer the viewer’s gaze and re-evaluate the commonplace.

Looking long enough

Seefhoek series is not a participatory project in the narrow sense of the word. Although it could not have been realized without the participation of scores of local residents, it is not a bottom-up initiative. The general concept, the ideas for the various performances and the way in which they are specifically worked out, came from Thomas himself. In that sense, his individual artistic autonomy remained unquestioned. The stage itself, on the other hand, was completely taken over by local residents, who basically remained themselves within a framework provided by the artist and a scenario directed by him. The performances were preceded by a long period of talks and meetings with neighbourhood residents, community workers and local organizations, in which the project as a whole was proposed. Now that the project is over, follow-up talks and evaluations with the participants are still going on, and next year Thomas is organizing an exhibition that will bring together traces (photos, videos, reports, reviews) of the project.

Unlike Familiestraat, Thomas does not reconstruct his everyday surroundings in Seefhoek series but he does explicitly explore them. He does not move them, but transforms them. Or more correctly, he places them in a different light. Heiner Müller writes somewhere that if you look at something long enough, everything becomes revolutionary. Revolution in the military sense is not what Thomas wants to bring about, but a different way of looking at everyday reality. Your own neighbourhood is pre-eminently the place of everyday reality, of that which you do not notice or barely notice as you walk by. It is precisely this everydayness that Thomas is interested in. In this regard, he likes to refer to the writings of Georges Perec. In his essay ‘Approaches to What?’ Perec says: “What we need to question is bricks, concrete, glass, our table manners, our utensils, our tools, the way we spend our time, our rhythms. To question that which seems to have ceased forever to astonish us.” In another essay, ‘Species of Spaces’, Perec is even more explicit: “Note down what you see. Anything worthy of note going on. Do you know how to see what’s worthy of note? Is there anything that strikes you? Nothing strikes you. You don’t have to see. You must set about it more slowly, almost stupidly. Force yourself to write down what is of no interest, what is most obvious, most common, most colourless.... Force yourself to see more flatly.... Read what’s written in the street: Morris columns, newspaper kiosks, posters traffic signs, graffiti, discarded handouts, shop signs.” And Perec goes on for a while longer, suggesting practical exercises for seeing anew and experiencing ‘being in the city’.

Bloedworst en fladder

The starting point of Seefhoek series is the personal observations and experiences of the artist during his daily walk through his neighbourhood: the boys’ football game on the Jos Verhelstplein, a Surinamese food stand on the De Coninckplein, a game of cricket in Park Spoor Noord, kids hanging about listening to music, sanitation workers sweeping the Stuivenbergplein, an African preacher on the Astridplein. The artist then ‘alienates’ (‘questions’ in Georges Perec’s parlance, ‘theatricalizes’ in Thomas Verstraeten’s vocabulary) these ‘banal’ events. He subjects them to a number of artistic manipulations – the most important of which are the introduction of a new framework, multiplication and relocation – and then places them back in their original urban context.

  1. The street football game – 21st Century Portrait – is filmed in a professional way and broadcast live by the Antwerp channel ATV: with stadium lights, drone shots, Steadicam and slow-motion shots for reruns, and with comments and analysis by two local football commentators.

  2. Under the title Bloedworst en Fladder, Thomas has a small caravan of nomadic food stalls travel from the De Coninckplein to the Bourla Theatre. They are copies of a little red Surinamese kiosk that stood on the De Coninckplein and sold Surinamese bloedworst (blood sausage) and fladder (tripe). As such, these little food stalls become a neighbourhood export product that grows into a multinational on the urban level.

  3. In Looking for Harmony, scores of local residents walk, bicycle or drive along a designated route through their neighbourhood, equipped with a small portable loudspeaker playing their favourite song. The Seefhoek is transformed into a live DJ set, an eclectic, individually choreographed soundscape representing the area’s cultural diversity.

  4. In Park Spoor Noord, youngsters from the Afghan community have long played cricket, a sport introduced to England by Flemish weavers in the 17th century. In Met de krik ketsen, the cricket match is transformed into a theatrical event, with dramatic lighting, a mesmerizing soundscape, choreographic patterns of movement and a large painted backdrop that gently glides by, using three different landscapes (from Antwerp, England and Afghanistan) to depict the game of cricket’s journey around the world.

  5. Speaker’s Corner on the Schoolplak is a public meeting about the beauty of the Seefhoek. Led by Thomas Verstraeten, local residents use their own photos to talk about the hidden but nice sides of their neighbourhood.

  6. Mythe van Sisyfus is a choreography of trash. In a long single line, local residents walk across the Stuivenbergplein. They throw pieces of trash assorted by colour onto the ground, creating a huge abstract trash drawing as they do so. After that, they put on the fluorescent garb of the sanitation department and pick up all the trash again. Then the cycle repeats itself. The throwing and picking up of trash almost becomes a dance, like the ebb and flow of the tide.

  7. While these six activities are going on in public space and being theatricalized in various ways, the seventh activity moves in the opposite direction: Thomas brings the street into the theatre. He asked the African preacher who proclaims the word of God on the Astridplein every week to preach in the Bourla Theatre. With the help of Renaissance theatre techniques, he recreated a corner of the Astridplein in perspective on the stage.

The drama of the street

Thomas turns commonplace occurrences on the streets in his neighbourhood into the 'drama' of his project. It is not that he establishes a royal, ‘perfect’ way of viewing the Seefhoek – quite the contrary: he is more concerned with the ‘flat’ view that Perec talks about. But he does borrow the format of theatre spectatorship for this purpose: we watch the cricket match and the trash choreography as if it were a theatre performance. Together with local residents, he appropriates public space –for the duration of the performance – by theatricalizing it, by creating a fixed perspective, a clear framework around the event. He focuses the spectator’s gaze on something ordinary (a football match, a food stall, a street preacher) for just long enough and intensely enough to look at it effectively – because of the framing, the multiplication, the choreographed patterns of movement: all strategies of alienation, which momentarily cancel out an existing alienation (habit, custom).

In 1977, Richard Sennett published his by-now classic study, The Fall of Public Man, in which he describes how the idea of public space as a theatrum mundi on which everyone plays a role and thus functions as a social actor, had since the early 1960s been replaced by a narcissistic stage on which individuals are only ‘themselves’ and are no longer capable of assuming a public, social role. Public space, especially because of television, is invaded by private space and private space is in turn invaded by public space (working from home, for example). The pessimistic analyses of the now unfortunately rather forgotten philosopher Jean Baudrillard go a step further: we have long since lost sight of the boundaries between political and economic, private and public, intimate and pornographic, fictional and factual. The many so-called reality shows on television and social media (fake news) are the best example of this. We have ‘degenerated’ into passive consumers.

However, I myself prefer the stance of Dutch sociologist René Boomkens, who presents a more nuanced picture of these developments. He makes the important observation that Sennett started from the ideal of an intellectual cosmopolitan culture. Yet such cosmopolitanism is only one of many possible urban cultural practices. Urban publicness has become ‘de-intellectualised’, argues Boomkens, and the ideal of distancing and neutrality has been replaced by a complex game of diversity, competition, spectacle, voyeurism, corporeality, seduction, consumerism and so forth: “The transformation from the centre of civilisation and intellectual exchange, from the idealized humanist conception of publicness, to a chaotic marketplace full of dissimilarities and opposing interests; from transparency to obscurity: that is the recent history of modern urban publicness in a nutshell. Not a story of mere decay ... but of radical and hard to cope with changes.”

Thomas Verstraeten responds to these changes in public space in his own way. Not, to use the terms of Peter Sloterdijk, in a militarising but a socialising way. Not critical and pointing up tensions and conflict, but community-building, however small and temporary. It seems as if he wants to give participants and viewers a ‘role’ once more, namely that of participants and viewers who are aware of their own participating and viewing; the young football players on the Jos Verhelstplein know that they are being professionally filmed and broadcast live; the participants in Familiestraat very consciously role-play as themselves. However, Thomas Verstraeten does not do this with the classic strategies of distancing and intellectual reflection, but with all the techniques of theatrical seduction. And social roles can also reshuffle as a result: “This production may not be a long-term participatory process; but something meaningful does happen on that one day. The neighbour who would normally be calling the police to complain about the noise youngsters make is suddenly performing with them.”

Seefhoek Series was created under the auspices of Toneelhuis and is part of a three-year project supported by European universities and theatres in partnership: UNLOCK THE CITY! (2023-2025).


— by Erwin Jans