Interview with Jan Fabre: insects are the oldest computers

September 23, 2008

Jan Fabre is an example of a renaissance man… it’s hard to catch all fields of contemporary art he had influenced over the last three decades…

His performers are ‘true blue’ oriented towards ideas and processes he’s creating with them. It’s a mutual interaction above all, an interaction which creates new physical, emotional and mental spaces. The idea of kinetics or techniques makes no sense in his world, because his dancers are creating new laws of movements and physical comprehension. Sometimes, it even looks like Fabre is creating a glossary for understanding how the world is essentially built up.

Photo: originally uploaded by skipling (c)

Jan Fabre introduced his latest dance piece Another Sleepy Dusty Delta Day with remarkable Croatian performer Ivana Jozic at the World Theatre Festival in Zagreb. It’s created as a solo piece which was inspired by a classic and cult song from the sixties ‘Ode to Billy Joe’ by Bobby Gentry.

As Theatre Troubleyn announces it with the following wordz: ‘Ode to Billy Joe tells the tale of a suicide. A teenage girl is having dinner with her family. Her mother announces that Billy Joe jumped off a bridge to his death. While the family members dish up memories of Billy Joe, discuss day-to-day worries and pass the food, the mother happens to notice that her daughter has lost her appetite. Gradually, and against this backdrop, curiosity about the untold part of the story gets the upper hand. What did the young teenage girl and Billy Joe throw off the bridge together? Were they secretly seeing one another?

Photo: Theatre Troubleyn (c)

A swelteringly hot, dusty kind of day. A story about loving and letting go, about jumping into the endless unknown.

Jan Fabre opted to write “Another Sleepy Dusty Delta Day” in the form of a letter from a man to his beloved. The outcome is a truly personal text, which emphasizes the right to dispose of one’s own life, specifically the end of one’s life. A text that bears witness to empathy and respect for live, love and death.’


Mr. Fabre kindly gave me rather comprehensive interview on Sunday, fulfilled with his thoughts on arts… ideas… processes…

Your two last dance pieces ‘Requiem für eine Metamorphose’ and ‘Another Sleepy Dusty Delta Day’ are dealing very directly with the issue of death? It is a kind of a brutal but poetic voyage based on your personal artistic and life journey? Death as real and surreal fact… What have you learned from the whole process?

JF: As an artist: visual artist, writer and director being busy with this work that I’m doing, being busy with the beauty is always a preparation for saying goodbye; it’s always a preparation for dying. So, it’s an ongoing process I think…. You know, the reason I create is, because probably I do not understand well the outside world. Because I’m curios to understand the outside world, I’m researching and creating, asking questions and sometimes giving to myself answers.

Photo: JP Stoop (c)

You have an organic relation with artists you collaborate with… You have explained your technique in the book. There is no question that you always try to explore the edges of human physical endurance, but never only as a technique but as a specific theatre language? How did you achieve such devotion from your performers? They are vulnerable and strong at the same time…

JF: It also came out over the thirty years that I’m busy. It’s worth to read ‘Corpus’, a book with my working methods and exercises. I’ve developed a kind of guiding line for actors and dancers through different exercises. So, let’s say it’s about the experience that I know what people have to go through, to reach something… what I call biological acting. It’s a combination of classical acting and the idea of what performers have to be; and this creates a kind of biological acting. It’s a research of knowing how your body works in different ways, particularly in a biological way: to know how the blood is pumping, how the heart is pumping, how the livers are reacting, how the kidneys are reacting. Because, sometimes we think it’s emotions, but it’s only about a chemical reactions. By being aware of these chemical reactions and by being an actor or dancer we can play with it.

They interfere and it’s strange that people don’t except it as something logical…

JF: Yes, it’s basically logical, but many people, maybe 99% of all people are not aware of this. They are not busy with it. (laughs)

Unfortunately, yeah. (laughs)

JF: They think that emotions are something from the outside world. No, emotions are happening inside of you, not outside of you.

Photo: andrefromont/fernardomort (cc)

Your fascination with insects was the initial drive for many of your sculptures and choreographies. I like your idea that insects are the oldest computers on the planet. Can you please tell me what lies behind the whole story?

JF: I mean, look as for example a scarab beetle and look human beings: in the 40 thousand millions of years we have developed and changed a lot; and scarab beetles almost didn’t change. So, it means that they had a kind of intelligence long before us. They were, for example, first warriors; the first chemical warriors in the world were the scarab beetles. They contain an old knowledge that we have even lost in our development. So, that’s the reason why I call them the oldest computers, the oldest memory in the world. Don’t forget we are in that sense quite vulnerable; because we live in our inner skeleton and scarab beetles live in their outer skeleton. Scarab beetles survived a lot of catastrophes on the planet that we could not survive. I think animals are the best doctors and philosophers in the world. We still have to study them well to give ourselves again progress.

The idea of the metamorphosis takes a significant place in your work… either your personal metamorphosis… performers’ metamorphosis … and the audience feels like being a part of an essentially changing process…

JF: I hope so! Only what you can wish as an artist is that your work triggers ones mind, ones brain and by triggering the mind and brain a person or individual spectator changes. I mean, I hope that we artist, we can cure the wounds in the minds of the spectators. At the same time I hope I can do that. The spectator is sometimes like an animal, it is like an awaking its instincts, because through civilisation sometimes insects are very under control.  Yes, as artist you hope that you can change people, you are looking their behaviour, their thinking, the way they feel their body. Yes, it’s a wish of me, yes! And I think it’s also an essentially strong wish of beauty.

Photo: Iguana Jo (cc)

The architecture of space plays an important role in your installations and theatre artworkz…

JF: People usually miss use the terms theatrical and theatre today. Theatrical is the point where you look things from. Theatrical can be used in installation or the way you present your sculptures, because you make public to look from an uptill distance or uptill points. Of course, in my theatre, I’m very aware about the theatrical aspects on how the public looks at things, the lines of looking and the definition of space. And of course, I do the same as visual artist, in the same way I create an exhibition. There is always a kind of mizanscene that I’m making. This is the link, but they are at the same time two different things, two different mediums.

They each have their own dramaturgy and narration…

JF: Yes, of course.

Your career has started in the fields of visual arts and performance art. You had a successful collaboration with Marina Abramovic at Palais de Tokyo in Paris four years ago. Abramovic is a performer also known for pushing the social boundaries … what was the initial hint for your collaboration?

JF: It was her wish to work with me for a long time, it was her dream to do with me a kind of a duo performance; and it took me a couple of years to say yes, because she is a very strong artist, very good artist and I respect her. It needed time; we had met regularly in different cities: Antwerp, Amsterdam, Rome… So, it took us several years to really develop it. And it was nice because when I was a young artist I was influenced by her work, what she did in her performances. Later she came to see my stage works and she said that I influenced her. So, it was beautiful in a sense because we belong to two different generations, two different backgrounds. Different cultural backgrounds. But at the same time we made something beautiful. Because, I think we are two virgin warriors who believe in beauty. We do not believe in destruction of art. We believe in the force of art and the vulnerability of art. I think we are two artists who like warriors are trying to defend art. So, that connects us, I think. That was a topic of the performance we did.

Photo: Gerard Rancinan (c)

You find drawings and dreams essential for the process of creating…

JF: Yes! I’m working on different drawing projects for years. More then 25 years I’m putting my dreams on paper, but also for more then 25 years I’m making drawings from my blood. More then fifty years I’m making drawings of my own tears. I’m making drawings from my own sperm for more then ten years. So, it’s an ongoing research in drawing and research of human body.

Photo: Troubleyn (c)

Can you please describe me a little bit your working process from the very beginning, for instance the working process while your were working your latest dance piece with Ivana Jozic ‘Another Sleepy Dusty Delta Day’… from the first sketches to the final artwork…

JF: Performance with Ivana Jozic was growing for 5 years. When she came the first time to audition, she did a very good audition in Paris –  then she came to a workshop, did a very good workshop in Antwerpen for three weeks, passed tests and she was excepted in the company. At first she had small roles, and then she developed more.  I liked her as an artist and we talked a lot over the months. Ivana gave me music – the song ‘Ode To Billy Joe’ and this happened on the bridge in Avignon, because we were working there in that period. So, this was almost four years ago. We analyzed together the song and why we like the song. She told me her story. So, it’s a slow process in a sense. Then things happened in our lives and because Ivana is a fantastic performer, actress and dancer, she inspired me to create this work for her. Then something happened in my private life, my mother died and that inspired me to write something. Sometimes things come together, so this is the history of our way. As for the working process, first I write the text and it took me six months to write it, then we go into working process for three months and then it’s a daily, almost like breathing research about everything I’ve said previous: movements, language, and music. In a practical sense we start at 11 o’clock: Ivana is starting to exercise, sometimes she does yoga, sometimes Kendo. Then we start to work with text, analyzing the text for three hours and she works on the text with a text trainer for French and English. After that, we work on the stage: first four weeks researching the language of the movements, articulation of the movements, so it goes through different steps. It’s an intense process.

And it has to be mutual…

JF: Of course, of course. As a director you want that an actor or dancer wants to work with you. They have to be very hungry, because the hungrier they are, the more they reveal from themselves, the more excited they are as artists: what’s across them. Because when you have an actor or dancer who is not giving themselves completely to you, it’s uninteresting. It’s like having a relationship, it’s like having sex or love, how big your concentration is, how deep you can go.

Photo: Laurent Paillier (c)

Some performers / dancers are using technological devices as extended parts of their bodies. What I’m interested in is what do you think how will future look like in performative arts in the context of technology? Do you think that dancers will come back to the essential body?

JF: I think so, because what I see often now with the younger generation is that they are so old fashioned. Don’t forget, computers are very old instruments; it’s invented in 1940’s. So, for me it’s like an old fashioned tool, I’m already over this. I think real Avant-garde is again going back to the body, to the material of the body. For example, in all my sculptures I refuse to use biotechnology. I refuse it; because I think the new step is to go back to the essence based from our own material. What we can do with the skin, what we can do with our human bones, what we can do with our blood. I think, it’s much more instinct based plus the fact that… I’m going to tell you that in a different way. I got a lot of invitations through computer and internet to my office for exhibitions, performances and usually I say NO, because when people don’t have time to visit me and talk to me, to discuss with me and to look in my eyes… I mean, it is a kind of a smell that I need as an artist and, again, it’s like having sex. Having sex to a virtual thing, to computer is not so interesting. Feeling and doing the real thing physically and mentally is much more interesting I think. I think we live with the best computer in the world – our brain. The sexiest part of the body is our brain, the sexiest that computer can find. So, I think that’s a real Avant-garde.

Photo: Marc alias willy whopper (cc)

Well, I have to admit that it’s a negation of the body. Sometime we all look like apes while staring in the screen for hours. It’s the easiest way to transform your cat-body type into monkey-body type.

JF: Yes. Sometimes it happens with the curators that they are doing everything in front the computer, and when I meet them, they don’t have enough energy that I’m looking for. Because, you don’t need so much energy while you are behind the computer, you don’t need a charisma for that. I believe in the energy of people, in the charisma of people.

Mr. Fabre, Thank You Very Much…

p.s. Jan Fabre’s next exhibition ‘From the Cellar to the Attic I From the Feet to the Brain’ opens on 27th September in the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria.  The exhibition will be staged as five new installations where ‘he will create a mythical world of horror and beauty, of dream and metamorphosis, using new room-filling sculptural tableaus on five exhibition floors’.

May 29, 2009 @ 9:37 pm

oh, dear deedee, your cyber botanica is so bountiful i only now
discovered this nice interview. Thank you, pleasureful insight it
is. 🙂

May 29, 2009 @ 11:37 pm

oh, dear deedee, your cyber botanica is so bountiful i only now discovered this nice interview. Thank you, pleasureful insight it is. 🙂

May 30, 2009 @ 10:31 am

olala.. you missed it before?! 😉 tnx… plug in for some energy,
that was very inspiring talk with him… take care…

May 30, 2009 @ 12:31 pm

olala.. you missed it before?! 😉 tnx… plug in for some energy, that was very inspiring talk with him… take care…

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