Thomas Verstraeten

Looking in a different way at what surrounds us

In Familiestraat (2021), Thomas Verstraeten examined the little and bigger things that happen on the street where he lives. Two years later, he zoomed out to his whole neighbourhood, the Seefhoek in Antwerp. In the seven-part location project Seefhoek Series, he again works with local residents on his ‘quest for the theatrical in the city’.

With the first intervention in the series, 21st Century Portrait, Verstraeten does this literally. A public square in the area, the Jos Verhelstplein, becomes the stadium-lit setting for a street football match, replete with supporters, live commentary and advertising billboards, while local youth teams Visé and Damvers compete against each other. A camera crew records their every move. During halftime, anyone heading for the cafeteria of the Oude Badhuis will see live footage of the match on television, broadcast by ATV.

In the Seefhoek, one of the poorest districts in Antwerp, public space has an important function. For the kids and young people in the neighbourhood, it is often the only place where they can play. Now, for one evening, their daily game is treated as if it were professional Belgian football. All this interest turns the loitering youths into local heroes. Verstraeten elevates what happens around the corner – he lives a few streets away from the little square – into something significant. He does not do this alone; the neighbours join in and support the youngsters’ hidden talent. The banal little game they walk past every day suddenly turns out to be of substantial value.

Two days later, the neighbourhood residents assemble for Looking for Harmony, the third street intervention in Seefhoek Series. Two hundred residents carry loudspeakers playing their own favourite music as they walk, bike or drive through the neighbourhood along a predetermined route. They unexpectedly encounter passersby who want to see the performance. People on the streets near the swimming pool in the Veldstraat who happen to be walking by become spectators in their turn. The distinction between those who are part of the performance and those who are not falls away. Each street becomes a crossroads of favourite tunes from every possible music genre, with the speakers blaring the characteristic polyphony of the district with its more than 100 nationalities. A multilayered soundscape resounds throughout the Seefhoek. Amongst all the disharmony, Verstraeten invites (very) young and (much) older residents to get to know each other better while singing, moving and dancing.

The word of God

With Urbi et Orbi, Verstraeten takes the opposite approach: what goes on in the city gets a place on the Bourla’s stage. Music from a live string orchestra ushers in the unveiling of a meticulously replicated Koningin Astridplein in perspective, to then give way for the impassioned oratory of Ernest Xulu. This preacher plucked from the streets preaches the word of God three nights in a row. He is not acting; he really means it, just like he does every Saturday on the square in front of Antwerp’s central station. Extras of all ages make their way across the replicated square as bicyclists, travellers, people walking their dogs, youths hanging about, strollers, tourists or shoppers. Live footage of all this activity can be seen on a screen hanging above the stage.

Surrounded by all of these play-acted passersby, Xulu’s sermon on God’s miracles creates a distance. Yet he convincingly sings to the contrary: “I decided to follow Jesus, because for me he was behind me.” Grounded in his faith, he is standing on the spot where he belongs. While his listeners walk in a big circle around him, he has the full attention of the audience in the auditorium. By literally being given a stage, he finally gets a hearing. When Xulu suddenly turns to the ‘real’ listeners, the message that he has been proclaiming on the streets for years resonates more passionately. With the accompaniment of the string orchestra, his words gain further momentum. On the screen, meanwhile, an audience can be seen listening to his fiery stories about unconditional (self) love. In a shaft of light, he pronounces his blessing on all the people of Antwerp.

Mythe van Sisyfus
concludes the series. For the ‘trash choreography’, as the artist calls this final intervention, Verstraeten again gathers some one hundred local residents. They are lined up in a long row at the side of the Stuivenbergplein. Each of them has a trash bag full of trash assorted by colour in front of them. After the start signal, they sling the trash into the air according to a fixed pattern of movement – ‘take – throw – get’. They walk in a single line, past climbers, swings, slides and other playground equipment, to the other side. With each movement, the colourful litter descends gracefully in the air. Behind the marching residents, a pictorial composition of trash spreads across the ground. Verstraeten reveals the hidden aesthetics of what we dump or throw away.

As soon as the square is strewn with colourful pieces of paper, cardboard, plastic, tin cans and beverage cartons, the entire group makes an about-face. Then they roll up the sleeves of their bright orange and florescent sanitation department uniforms in order to tidy everything up and get the place looking clean again. Meanwhile, the onlookers begin to wonder whether they will ever manage to do it. Once they are back at the starting point, the dance with the now jumbled-up trash starts all over again. The choreographed illegal dumping loses its lustre after the second cleanup. The square again looks like it did at the beginning

Like a seismologist, Thomas Verstraeten picks up what is vibrating below the surface of the city, rewires that network aboveground and turns it on. As a result, what we habitually are indifferent to in our surroundings – whether that be strangers, practices, or places – takes on new significance. Besides being an artistic ode to the neighbourhood, this site-specific project cracks open the customary viewing codes. In Seefhoek Series, Verstraeten’s attempt to theatricalize the city firmly shakes up the relationship between viewer and performer. Antwerp's most diverse city district takes on a new role. Different generations of local residents from different backgrounds meet each other for the first time. These encounters run through the seven interventions like a connecting thread. Together, they form a tapestry that is shared with the whole city.


— by Liesbeth De Clercq