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Thomas Verstraeten

On Nocturama

The Bourla theatre on Komedieplaats in Antwerp has an entrance for the public at the front and one for its artists at the back. The doors on either side of the building are kept shut, other than in an emergency.

On thirteen summer nights, Benjamin Verdonck and Thomas Verstraeten opened the doors of those emergency exits, turning them into entrances. Entrances to other places. Passageways to a small room, a cul-de-sac you can enter and immediately find yourself standing in the middle of it. A room you can step into to steal away from the night and momentarily take cover in the (artificial) light. Places that bring the nocturnal wanderings to a halt for a brief moment. A place to stay for the duration of a glance.

They are places of befuddlement and longing: a shop selling only the same cheap Pils, energy drinks and tobacco; another where you can phone a loved one elsewhere; a sort of sitting room where you can enjoy the calming vapours of a hookah; a place where you can try your luck with a bet, or a peep show where you can ogle a dancing female body at your leisure. Or a video rental shop that only has one film, about the delusions of the world. Emergency exits.

These sorts of shops are temporary, their future hangs in the balance. They open and close their doors without fanfare, and disappear with equal anonymity.

No letters are posted in the area to announce the opening of a night-time convenience store, a betting office or a peep show. Those things just happen and their passing is equally unnoteworthy. They have little history and little future.

Verdonck’s and Verstraeten’s little shops are not stopping places, not destinations. They are pauses, sides. A blink of the eye before venturing back out into the night. A whiff of tobacco, a swig of beer, a longing glance, the sound of a telephone ringing a long way off. Wavering wanderings.

Perhaps that hesitation is the terrain of the performance, the moment the muses set foot on stage.

But then the muses of the emergency exits.
Who are ‘the muses of the emergency exits’?
Is it they who dance around in the sun on the roof?

Maybe the little shops of 13 nights are a bazaar. A nocturnal maze of sleepless searching, of insatiable desire, or a labyrinth of everything and also lots of nothing. Perhaps Nocturama is an attempt to string together endless tales, night after night, thirteen to the dozen. As Michel de Certeau wrote in The Practice of Everyday Life, every story is a travel story – a spatial practice.

Each of the temporary shops seems to be defined by objects, the things in it: cans of beer, DVD sleeves, hookahs, a photocopier, chairs, a Chupa Chups lollipop carousel, mirrors…

A place unfolds in the world as the objects are put to use, connections established: beer is drunk, films rented, a female body ogled, tobacco turns to smoke, a voice emanates from a phone. The emergency exit becomes a place.

Toneelhuis is located in one of the city’s classiest shopping areas. In the middle of what has become one long display window of clothing by world-famous fashion houses, oriental carpets, the finest chocolates, jewellery, pricey handbags and the like. Delusions of life or life as a delusion.

By 11 p.m. theatre performances are long over and everyone has gone home. The theatre in the middle becomes a slumbering mountain once more, with sleeping muses dreaming of grand gestures and sentences to come. It is then that the doors of the emergency exits, of Nocturama, swing open. Not to conduct a disoriented audience out of the building, but to allow wandering individuals in, just for a while. Through the side. And a side isn’t much.

— by Mark Luyten