Thomas Verstraeten

Give the public the spectacle of itself

“I really don’t understand why we are applauding”, said a man on the tiered seating bank, from where several hundred of us were looking at the wide, empty avenue on the left bank as the sun set on a beautiful Saturday evening in May. We had just cheered as several of the first groups filed past in Thomas Verstraeten’s orchestration.

The man was right. There was nothing to see. Nothing was performed, no story was enacted, no character portrayed. What we had seen were people, most ‘playing themselves’ in silence. A group of primary schoolchildren. A group of (real) politicians and a group of (real) Flemish celebrities. A group of dog owners with dogs. Young footballers. Firemen. Exhibitionists in Mercedes and BMWs. White van drivers. Couples. Women wearing headdresses. Girls on racing bikes. Football supporters. Tourists. There was so little spectacle that the spectacle was uncanny. There was no musical accompaniment or speaker’s voice telling the audience how to read the sequence of ordinariness. In short, it was a spectacle without drama.

Yet there was no hint of disapproval in the man’s comment. He didn’t mean that is was all just ordinary and unworthy of applause. There was just a smidgen of theatricality. For example, there was nothing random about the sequence of the groups. We could clearly hear a group of roadworkers approaching with their heavy equipment, but it took them an age to reach the tiered seating bank, as they were held up by the group of senior citizens with rollators in front of them. The poetry and hilarity of the contrast between the fragile, elderly walkers and the massive steamrollers and diggers was not lost on the spectators on the seating bank.

Ourselves as the spectacle

Thomas Verstraeten’s spectacle De parade used a minimum of theatrical codes, while addressing the widest possible audience. That audience was emphatically a ‘we’ that looks. Not I, the spectator. The tiered seating bank was a living collective, just as it is in a sporting competition. There was always someone somewhere in the audience who recognized one of the many participants. The audience’s reactions were collective too. There was the sentimental poignancy of the mothers and fathers carrying babies and of people with Down’s syndrome. And the applause-less disapproval of the flashy 4x4 drivers. But there was also unease and recognition when a mirror was held up to a section of a traffic jam on Antwerp’s ring road, to happy families, ladies who shop, street litterers, etc. So the spectacle that Verstraeten presented is ourselves-as-the-spectacle. Artistically-speaking, this was nothing new. Since the 1990s (following on from the happenings and performances of the post-war period), artists have been rediscovering the social fabric as artistic material. Terms like ‘relational aesthetics’ (Nicolas Bourriaud) and ‘participatory art’ (Claire Bishop) are bandied around. This overlaps partly with what is described in Flanders and the Netherlands as ‘sociaal-artistieke praktijk’ – social practice in art. Certainly the parade as a form of artistic expression is very much in evidence today. For example, in March artist Gery De Smet organized Waregem and surrounding area. Led by (among other things) three brass bands, each of 306 participants carried a little sign bearing the name of a Flemish municipality ending in “-gem”. And this was not De Smet’s first such venture. On May 1st 2015 he had held a Maypole parade in Wieze with forty flags bearing made-up proverbs, such as ‘Are they misled who mislead you?’ And even before that, in 1999, he had created Dedication, an artistic procession to the Campo Santo chapel in Ghent.

A kindred spirit of De Smet and Verstraeten is the British artist Jeremy Deller. For the Manchester International Festival in 2009, the artist organized Procession, a parade of fictitious and real organizations, each of which marched behind its self-designed banner. Deller’s focus was also on the minimal theatricalization of ‘found material’ from the social space. (In his words: “It was mostly a celebration of public space and the people occupying it.”) A year earlier, the Dutch curator Anna Tilroe had the tenth Sonsbeek exhibition in Arnhem open with a procession of twenty-four guilds made up of local residents carrying the artworks through the city to Sonsbeek park, where they were installed.

National pride

This artistic movement bears little resemblance to the mass spectacles of former times, such as those staged by Soviet Russia in the 1920s, or to the party meetings of the NSDAP in Nazi Germany. Between the wars, there was also an important tradition of mass spectacles in the Low Countries. There were Communist speech choirs, theatrical trade union meetings and nationalistic parades. Even the Catholic pillar produced countless texts for speech and movement choirs in the 1930s. The often very simple texts served as scripts for mass happenings on an unprecedented scale. Credo, performed at the Heizel stadium during the Congress of Mechelen (1936), attracted over 150,000 participants and spectators. The spectacle was prepared months in advance by scores of Catholic societies and broadcast live on the radio. As everyone in the stadium reeled off the Creed, church bells rang out all over Belgium.

Even older in terms of mass stagings were the political and national festivities of the nineteenth century. At a time when monarchs and aristocrats mourned their depleting power, theatrical displays were jacked up. People poured onto the streets in their thousands for the coronation of Queen Wilhelmina and tsar Nicholas II.

In Belgium, too, there were numerous celebrations of national pride. Take, for example, the many Hendrik Conscience commemorations in Antwerp from 1893, and the Battle of the Spurs festivities in Bruges and Kortrijk. At the large-scale ‘July festivities’ in Brussels in 1856, the twenty-fifth anniversary of Leopold I’s oath-taking was celebrated with a grand historical procession. As well as tableaux vivants, which brought important historical events back to life, there were nine floats, each depicting a Belgian province. Contemporaries talked of people coming together in their droves, greeting and cheering themselves from the floats.

“Gather the people together there”

The first to see the gathering together of the masses as an artistic phenomenon was the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In 1758 he wrote a now famous essay, known as the Letter to d’Alembert on Spectacles. It is undoubtedly one of the most vigorous philosophical critiques of an art genre. Rousseau did not believe in the civilizing and educational power of the theatre, as his fellow authors of the Encyclopaedia did. What is more, the establishment of a new theatre in a small city by the introduction of metropolitan gallantry (and associated costs) could even prove corruptive.

So did Rousseau believe that theatre in all its forms should be abolished? Not at all. Only that theatre should not be an exclusive prerogative, as it was known to be in his day. For Rousseau the public celebration was the true spectacle that a city needed. He was thinking of large-scale military events and sporting competitions, but in fact the simple coming together of the city was sufficient. Here the community became the spectacle of itself, for itself: “Plant a stake crowned with flowers in the middle of a square, gather the people together there and you will have a festival. Better still: let the spectators become an entertainment to themselves; make them the actors.”


So the starting point of Europe’s social history of theatre brings me back to Thomas Verstraeten’s The parade. He, too, gave the public ‘itself as the spectacle’. Moreover, the quote from Rousseau reveals the extent to which today’s new social practices differ from earlier mass spectacles. Not only from the ideological stagings from the period between the wars, but even from the exuberantly protesting crowds in the sixties and seventies. In Antwerp on that beautiful Saturday evening in May, there wasn’t a trace of ideology and protest. In fact, there was no content at all. Purely the filing past of new group identities as an image of the city, brought together by one subjective perspective: that of the maker himself.

That difference also distinguishes Verstraeten’s parade from the other parades, processions and festivities which took place on that same beautiful May day. The Belgian Pride in Brussels, for instance. In Antwerp itself thousands of visitors turned out for Borgerrio, a parade of brass bands, murgas and exotic female dancers. With those sort of set-piece events, the content is established in advance. The musical traditions of a brass band or a group of players of folk music. The story of the saint for whom a procession is held. The history of a famous folkloric figure who is depicted as a giant. There was not a hint of that sort of content in Thomas Verstraeten’s parade. Other elements were also notable by their absence. No brass bands and very little music. Only the songs of the students’ club, of the street singers and of the football supporters. But those sounds were part of their ‘social uniform’. It was not a musical performance. There was no dancing in De parade either, nor groups in fancy dress.

Sense of community

These days the content has been removed from the artistic mass event. Verstraeten (and Jeremy Deller for that matter) did not bring citizens together en masse to convey a message. The mere act of getting together with minimal theatricality while looking at themselves was the entire content of the event. For the artist himself, it was about presenting the diversity of the city in a single social sculpture. The rest was left to the spectator. The people seated all around me derived the greatest pleasure from seeing their family members and acquaintances in a theatrical context. Unhindered by critical impulses, I allowed myself to be carried along by the sentiment of the crowd.

But I also felt unease at the Congolese group who portrayed themselves as a wedding party. Their exuberant singing showed a living community – while the majority of the (indigenous) people on the tiered seating bank had to look to a theatrical event for that community spirit. Complete with stadium lighting, camera team, drone, and countless smartphones and selfies. While The parade of men, women and those who look from a long way off like flies was not looking to impose content, that certainly does not prevent anyone from reading into it or extracting from it his or her own content. Contemporary mass spectacles have become artistic in the modern sense: they want to question us as individuals rather than convince us of their collective rightness. They leave their completion to the spectator.

On the inside wall of deSingel (which coproduced The parade) are the letters ‘MAAR IK DE WERELD IK ZIE JOU’ – BUT I, / THE WORLD, / I SEE / YOU - by the Swiss artist Remy Zaugg. It captures perfectly the tension in Verstraeten’s parade. To find out which community we are today, we must see it staged in a theatrical setting.

— by Thomas Crombez