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Portrait of a wet country II DasArts Master Proof

The birthday party

Miguel Angel Melgares


A project by Miguel Angel Melgares

Produced: DasArts. Master of Theater // KijkRuimte Text: Boris Gerrets // Karin Spaink Advisors: Boris Gerrets // Sanne van Rijn

Voices: Karin Spaink // Boris Gerrets Curtain management: Merel Willemsen Decor, graphic design, and party host: Miguel Angel Melgares


My dear guests//

Hans Diemel as Hans Diemel Maria Kefirova as Maria Kefirova Mark Jansen as Mark Jansen Stephanie Pan as Stephanie Pan Tabitha Kane as Tabitha Kane Teresa Borasino as Teresa Borasino Vera Korman as Vera Korman

The following text is a compilation of e-mails between Karin Spaink and Boris Gerrets, in request of the project ‘Portrait of a wet country II: The birthday party’.


// Ha Boris First of all, Boris, allow me to apologize for my rather abrupt response earlier. I was proofreading a book and had to write a column, and the next day I was going abroad for a brief vacation. I was rather pressed for time when I received your mail. Secondly, shouldn't we conduct this discussion in English, so that Miguel can follow it? And I'm not fully sure how were supposed to do this. As far as I understood, we are to discuss birthday parties or are we supposed to have the kind of discussion one could have at a birthday party? Or, perhaps, should we draw and discuss our own portraits of a wet country? Thirdly, and totally unrelated but this is what one does at birthday parties, isn't it: catch up with each other's life, so it's fitting. I got a kitten this afternoon. Tweety, my previous cat, to whom I was devoted almost as much as he to me, suddenly died last October and there has been an insufferable lack of cats in my house ever since. There's one remaining cat: Michael. Last night I heard that I could pick up the kitten today. A name, it had to be named! It needs to be a two-syllable name: sometimes I need to yell in the garden to make them come home, and two-syllable names are better suited for yelling. Further, it needs to be easy to distinguish from 'Maaaaiii-kel!!', it should have a different pitch, otherwise the two cats might get confused when I call one of them. I wanted a proud name for the new kitten, a slightly tough name. And suddenly I thought: Boris! (Might have been because yesterday, Miguel and I talked a bit about this e-mail exchange.) Boris turned out to be tough, indeed, so the name fits. So now I have two cats, Michael and Boris, and I'm writing to a human Boris at the request of human Miguel. Funny :)


Now, onwards with the debate. Let me start by saying that I never feel 'Dutch'. When somebody asks me where I’m from, I invariably answer 'Amsterdam', never 'Holland' or 'The Netherlands'. I feel quite connected to Amsterdam and I have actively chosen to be ‘from Amsterdam', precisely because it's more open-minded than the country itself. Me being Dutch is a coincidence, a matter of chance; me being from Amsterdam definitely is not. While taking an extreme stance does indeed precipitate a discussion, the ensuing debate often lacks everything that makes a debate memorable or worthwhile. So let me discard your voorzet (Nederland is niet tolerant en is het ook nooit geweest) with an irrefutable statement: Nonsense. A country that legalizes euthanasia and abortion is tolerant especially when considering that religious parties have quite a strong footing and that they're the ones protesting such practices rather fiercely. A country that's the first in the world ever to expand the definition of marriage to include same-sex marriages, is not 'niet tolerant’. A country that legalizes and enables sex changes, is not intolerant and it's especially interesting that the internationally renowned clinic where these operations are performed, is part of the VU, a protestant university. If you say that Dutch tolerance has always in part been motivated by the wish to trade, I'd agree. But I wouldn't think that that makes it a bad thing, or something that undercuts the importance of that tolerance. Many virtues are, at least to some degree, also selfish. And then also having a monetary motivation doesn't means that they are 'thus' superficial. Most good habits are acquired through imitation meaning: not for their own sake or because their are 'innate'. Many good habits and practices are learned through exerting constraint. So instead of discussing tolerance, we should perhaps discuss restraint, education and etiquette?


// Hey Karin, this is exciting. I already love your cat. He will have to put up with his fellow cat-folks and fend for himself as I think Boris is more of a dog’s name. So he better be a tough cookie. Your email caught me in London and it would have been much better to conduct our conversation about NL from , with the benefit of distance. But as it happens I am travelling back to Amsterdam on this year’s koninginnedag, which I think is probably Amsterdam’ s worst day. But I can see your point about being from Amsterdam and I feel the same. To me it always seemed to be more of a republican refuge within the monarchy. So, celebrating the queen’s birthday –which isn’t actually her birthday, but just the idea of it – is a paradox of sorts. One day of controlled anarchy and uncontrolled consumption and hedonistic infantilism, but the next day there is hardly any trace of it thanks to an exceptionally efficient Dutch clean-up operation that – it has to be said – is mainly manned by our Moroccan fellow citizens. Thanks to them NL stays proverbially proper and clean. This brings me to the question of tolerance. You are right, I was wrong. General statements foment general conclusions. Some wonderful things have happened here, even though I had read somewhere that 51% of the Dutch population has a negative view of Muslims against respectively 14% in the UK and 21% in the US. But statistics can be deceiving. We will have to wait for the people to speak in the upcoming elections. If my statement sounded harsh, it is because my view is informed by personal experience. I grew up hiding my identity. The German, Bulgarian background of my family was a liability of sorts in the postwar years. But I hold no grudge about it. Only it makes me have a skewed view of all things national. Seen from a personal perspective, national narratives are carefully crafted fictions carrying a highly emotional charge. They exist by pitching the ‘us’ against ‘them’ and


freeze in time some ideal version of our collective self. But just as most of our body cells regenerate every seven years, fortunately, not much is left of the NL of the 50’s. I hate nationalisms. Can we really not do without them? I am reading John Reader’s ‘Africa: A Biography of the Continent’. He claims that during tens of thousands of years of pre-history, Africans were coexisting peacefully without the need for nation states. Meanwhile I arrived back into my Amsterdam Studio. It's raining cats and dogs now. The last remains of Koninginnedag are being washed away. With the rain hammering on the glass roof I wonder what this portrait of a wet country is going to look like. Ha Boris // I've changed his name, sorry : ) The first evening that he was here, I noticed it felt awkward, contrived. The next day, two friends showed up and both didn't like the name much. So we tried a few other names and ended up with Max. It's more fitting: somehow Boris sounded too big, too massive. Max is terribly interested in Michael, but Michael isn't too happy about Max; mostly because the door between kitchen & hall is now closed; he suddenly feels locked out: the kitchen has become a dead end. So last week, Michael decided to mark the kitchen as HIS and his ONLY and sprinkled drops of piss in various places. The smell was, eh, breathtaking. Max meanwhile has settled in. He's become really affectionate, he doesn't seem to


miss his family at all, and he's becoming a proper writer's cat. He loves the screen and watches the mouse pointer with interest, he enjoys sitting on my lap when I'm behind the computer, and he's taken a fancy to paper. Going back to the debate, if you keep up appearances, you can do a lot. Appearing to be compliant, bourgeois, well-behaved, etc suddenly gives you so much room to move, you can actually be actively perverse, anarchistic, rebellious, and/or libertine, and people won't mind much. The Dutch do believe in personal freedom, esp. when compared to the English. We don't mind if a priest has an enduring relation; we only dislike it if he publicly denounces celibacy. We don't mind if a part leader attends s/m parties, as long as he's decent in politics; we don't mind if a minister is gay, as long as she doesn't flaunt it. If you subscribe to the common notion of publicly acceptable behaviour, you can do lots in private. (Another reason why this idiocy of 'nothing to hide' is ridiculous and dangerous.) Btw, I'm not sure that the city cleaners are mostly Moroccan. I see quite a mixture of backgrounds: Suriname, Moroccan, Dutch lower class. Class, not ethnic background, might be the common denominator. I agree that the statistics are unnerving: the Dutch that is: the Dutch who've been here longer take a harsher view of Muslims in their country than in the case in many other countries, and it’s worrying me. On the other hand: while we tend to have strong opinions about this, in practice we're doing better. Again, there's a difference between the idea and the actual behaviour. Cheers! Karin


Hi Karin! // How nice to have met Max, the cat, thanks to Youtube. It looked like he was trying to turn the page but didn’t succeed. Yes, it is definitely something I subscribe to, about personal freedom in the Netherlands. The English, within their rigid class society have invented the idea of the ‘eccentric’ as a means to escape normative behaviour without threatening it. But it is more an upper class phenomenon. A working class ‘eccentric’ was hard to imagine, perhaps the Punks changed all that. Funny, yesterday, in a sound installation by Justin Bennett, I was listening to a recording of an event that happened in the Concergebouw in 1996. It was a disturbance caused by the audience during a concert by Karlheinz Stockhausen’s piece ‘Stimmung’. Apparently some audience members felt the urge to start humming along quite conspicuously, much to the dismay of others. In the ensuing lengthy discussion the question came up about personal freedom, that is: the right to be able to hum along against the right to be able to listen to the performers. It was a very 60’s discussion. Stockhausen had already furiously left the concert hall when someone said that he should understand that this is Holland, it’s how things work here. But I am not quite sure if Holland has always been a bulwark of personal freedoms on the level of daily life experience. In the 50’s Dutch intellectuals artists and writers admired the bohemian freedoms of Paris and left stuffy Amsterdam to hang out in the Rive Gauche. But then again: Parisians in turn left for New York, Americans left for Casablanca or Havana and so on, in order to nourish the dream and (re)invent themselves. Is it that ones own culture can appear to be too stifling because you know it too well? What is going on now is that the idea of personal freedom and freedom of speech


has become a battleground for the sinister plans on the nationalistic right across the Western world. (luckily the BNP suffered a humiliating defeat) The local variety here is, as we know, called the Freedom Party. Their idea of Freedom is banning things, a bit like saying let’s abolish freedom so we can save it. And beware! This is how Nederland will soon look like! Much love, Boris // Hi there! Isn't it weird how much he's focusing on the edges of the paper? In another instance, he was trying to catch the headline on a magazine page. Scratching at the letters, trying to lift them off the page. Max turns out to love the tube, too: both television and the computer screen. I've put a small box for her between my keyboard and my monitor, and often she gets up to watch the screen. Earlier this week, I took Max to the vet for his first inoculation and general check-up. Max was healthy and got applauded for being feisty and beautiful. But she turned out to be female! Good thing that I moved from Boris to Max, because now she's formally Maxine and thus, in practice, still Max : ) You did a nice observation: the eccentric as a safe haven from normalcy, and because he - eccentrics are by definition male, and by definition heterosexual: precisely because they are perceived to be a weird but acceptable exception, they can't be


female or gay: that's taking it 'too far' - is upper class, much is forgiven. Somehow, the upper class bit takes the danger away, makes it less of an attack on normalcy. Add gender or sexual orientation and suddenly it is dangerous. Or subtract class. Same result. If you have money, you can get away with lots... I have plenty of grips with NL, but this country's take on personal freedom is most definitely not why I sometimes am exasperated. If personal freedom only was the criteria, I'd still be rather happy here. But it isn't, and I am not. I hate how we think that reaching a compromise is a matter of coming up with a middle way solution, while forbidding all parties to state what they gave up and what they held on to in order to reach that compromise. I vehemently believe that you have to accept that others might not like your opinion, nor your behaviour, but that those same ‘others’ have to accept your behaviour and opinions, too. You don't need to accept one another, not tolerate: but you need to let them be. I vehemently believe in the notion that one can agree to disagree, but both before and after, one needs to do the utmost to try and explain what you believe and why, and to understand the position of your opponent. Agreeing to disagree doesn't mean that one should retreat. It means that we agree to not try to persuade or convert one another, but instead try to listen and understand. The rhetoric is wide spread, alas... Sometimes I am really scared. We are depleting the planet; the monetary system that has fallen apart is supported by making citizens who suffer because of that downfall pay for it, while those same banks are reporting


profits; governments are being supplanted by supra-national organisations that are being supplanted by supra-national organisations that are utterly undemocratic; by law, citizens are becoming transparent to governments that are becoming less & less transparent themselves. Hacking is becoming a survival tool. // Dear Karin, With my apologies for my long pause in communicating. Max turns out to love the tube, I understand him very well, even though I had thrown my TV on the rubbish heap years ago. Fortunately he is in the privileged position not have to make sense of it and probably he experiences it as pure poetry and motion, like the Futurist loved war. I entirely sympathize with you when you say how you: ‘hate how we rate and support politicians: not by the quality, scope and direction of their ideas, but on the basis of their personality or image. It is a worldwide phenomenon. Ever since TV made politics a visual spectacle, sound and image bites are ruling public consciousness. As we know it began 1960, when in the glare of TV studio lights, a sweating Nixon lost the first election debate to a cool looking Kennedy. A new profession was born. PR management and make-up artists joined the legal team and the speechwriters into every aspiring politicians calculus. Politics turned – if not altogether into fiction – into a new form of storytelling where the private / public differential itself became politicized. Before it was different. I remember my utter surprise when I learned that one of the greatest American Presidents F.D. Roosevelt was paralised from the waist down. It had been kept a secret. Only two photos are known of him in a wheelchair


and they are in a private setting. At that time photographers would respect the private nature of his disability, as it did not impinge on his capacity as a leader of the nation. Today this would be unthinkable: journalists are out for blood. It is why single-issue populist politicians like Geert Wilders can dominate the news with a few one-liners and use the dynamic of provocation to feed the news spectacle. I call it football politics. It gets the crowds moving, tribalises society and reaches into the guts and emotions of the electorate, it is sad, it is scary and it is playing with fire. Before the elections I ran through the ‘kieswijzer’ website, where politics are reduced to a few simple questions, 26 to be precise. It felt a bit like choosing a life-style for myself. There was no question on cultural politics except one about the desired number of public TV stations. For those who think that a society that apparently is living through a crisis of its national identity (exemplified by the rise in popularity of nationalistic simpletons like Geert Wilders) would somehow be interested in the number one signifier of identity: art and culture, this must have been a huge disappointment and a final blow to independent thinking. Where the culture of zapping rules, we scramble around the remote control! It is at this point where the hacking comes in: disrupt the controller, tear down the grid, demolish the narrative of power! We better get used to living in continual crisis and the recurrence of catastrophic failures. It’s pay-time now, and it’s global. The hard fought for personal freedoms in this corner of the world seem to have been build on borrowed prosperity and the torture chambers of our far away dictators. We had forgotten that the people we thought we were borrowing to had actually been borrowing us and now they all want it back. Btw, I saw Miguel beautiful installation models, especially the one that I believe inspired this whole project, namely the continuously opening and closing curtains of Dutch public psychology and a thought came to my mind: The Dutch habit of showcasing oneself in the privacy of one’s home has its antagonist in the red light district.


It is the ultimate logic of the open window culture. In the case of the latter however they do close the curtain while the transaction takes place. Business leads to a temporary closure, quite unusual if you think of it. Best, Boris. // Dear Boris, Our dialog is reaching the end. While rereading this conversation with you, I suddenly noticed that that's precisely how we approached the debate that we were expected to have. Weaving in personal stories, sometimes to create some lightheartedness, sometimes to challenge a blanket statement, sometimes to bring across nuances or complexities. Earlier, I wrote about keeping up appearances, and said that 'appearances' are often a screen behind which we hide and cultivate our personal freedom. If you appear to be normal, you can do lots. Let me add that keeping up appearances is a Dutch fetish. The open curtains (at most, semi-covered with glass curtains) are terribly Dutch. And it matches our culture: we're open, but closed. No dropping by unannounced; very friendly and forthcoming but diďŹƒcult to get really intimate with. And somehow, we always expect to be inspected: we need to show the outside world that we, sitting inside our own homes and living our own lives, are 'acceptable' and 'decent'. Did I ever tell you this anecdote of 'Haagsche bluf'? I believe I did, but since it's so ďŹ tting, here goes anyway.


Den Haag was famous for it's open curtains. The city boasts many genteel houses: two or three floors all occupied by one family. People would walk the streets and peek a glance inside, assessing the inhabitants and trying to fathom their status. 'Oooh expensive furniture. Must be a diplomat.' 'You can really see that while they're of noble blood, their money is running out.' Etc etc. I'm not sure - and I've certainly never read this - but I've always had the notion that keeping one's curtains closed was a sure sign that you had something to hide: i.e. that your actual situation fell short of your aspired (or expected) status. Apparently, it was all the rage in the 18th century to dress the table and serve the plates well before dinner. With the open curtains, that meant that dishes were actually on display. Passers-by could see what you'd have for dinner. And since some people wanted to (or had to) impress outsiders, they worked on their image: the impression that a glance through their window would create became important. And of course many people aspired to a status that they could not actually afford, so they honed their image too. The result: wooden hams. In certain areas of the city, people actually had wood carved to resemble big chunks of ham and displayed them: the wooden hams were the centrepieces of their tables, visible for all the world to see, showing of their richness: big juicy hams for dinner, ah these people must be well-off!


Portrait of a wet country II The birthday party

Dear Guest, I would like to invite you to a birthday party. This 'birthday party' however, is not just a 'birthday party', it is also the second part of a work in progress titled 'Portrait of a wet country'. The 'party' is actually a performance that is taking place on July 1st and 2nd at the KijkRuimte in Amsterdam Noord. Birthday parties illustrate on a cultural level one's own associations with the self and relationships. It is an annual ritual reminding us of our connection to each other through the passage of time. In my native Spain, birthday parties are a thing of childhood and the event as celebration diminishes as one gets older. However in Holland the celebration continues into adulthood, yet carries with it the adult weight of social obligation. I look forward to seeing you there! 1st-2nd July 2010 22.30 h KijkRuimte Van der Pekstraat 34 Amsterdam Noord

With the collaboration of


Portrait of a wet country II. The birthday party.