H, an incident

15, 16, 17, 18/05 – 20:30

EN > FR / NL

Working for many years at the intersection of theatre and visual installation, Kris Verdonck encountered a large stage for the first time at the 2008 Kunstenfestivaldesarts. This year, he is offering an even more ambitious piece of musical theatre. To question the insidious effect our information society has on privacy and individual freedom, he is summoning the spirit of Daniil Harms, a Russian writer and dissident who was a contemporary of Malevich. H, an incident is a post-human opera performed by robotised musical instruments, a choir of Icelandic singers, a collecti on of multimedia tools and Daniil Harms in flesh and pixels. In an ambiguous area between the cold terror of reality and the absurd lightness of imagination, Verdonck confronts the Russian writer’s surreal world with the madness of our present-day world. Bodies, machines, minds…: all force their way through Harms’ fantasy universe until they are no longer there.

Concept & direction
Kris Verdonck

Marianne Van Kerkhoven (Kaaitheater)

Music composition
Jónas Sen, Valdimar Jóhansson

Creation & coaching choir
Erna Ómarsdóttir

Jan Steen, Marc Iglesias, Jeroen Vander Ven

Icelandic choir & performers
Erna Ómarsdóttir, þyrí Huld Arnadóttir, Thorunn Arna Kristjansdóttir, Brynhildur Gudjonsdóttir, Katrín Gunnarsdóttir, Sigríður Soffía Níelsdóttir

Costume design
An Breugelmans

Technical coordination & light design
Jan Van Gijsel

Marc Dewit, Kaaitheater

Valdimar Jóhansson

Direction assistant
Kristof Van Baarle

Music instruments
Decap Herentals

Robotics & system integration
Culture Crew

Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Kaaitheater

A Two Dogs Company in collaboration with Shalala (Brussels)

Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Kaaitheater (Brussels), steirischer herbst (Graz), Göteborgs Dans & Teater Festival, Spring Festival (Utrecht), Théâtre national de Bordeaux en Aquitaine

Supported by
Vlaamse Overheid, Vlaamse Gemeenschapscommissie, Brussels Hoofdstedelijk Gewest/Région de Bruxelles-Capitale, iMinds & Art&D program 

Thanks to
National Theatre of Iceland, Department of Information Technology at Ghent University (Stefan Bouckaert, Bart Jooris), Zinnema

This project is co-produced by
NXTSTP, with support of the Culture Programme of the European Union

Jan Steen is researcher at KASK/School of the Arts Ghent. H, an incident is part of his research project 'L'être et le jouant - Het zijn in het spelen', funded by the Research Fund of the University College Ghent

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The work of Russian author and dissident Daniil Harms (1905-1942) shows a miraculous balancing act between the horrible reality that he describes and the absurd lightness with which he deals with that reality. Harms had ties with the Russian Futurists and was co-founder of the group Oberiu (Association for Real Art). Like all non-conformist artists who would not adhere to the party line and its regulations regarding the social realism of art, Harms ended up in big trouble. In 1931 he was exiled to Kursk. When he returned to his hometown of St. Petersburg one year later, he devoted himself to writing children's literature for his livelihood. Of his work for adults, only two poems were published during his lifetime. In 1941 he was arrested and declared insane. He died of starvation in a psychiatric clinic a year later.

His posthumously published work consists mainly of short stories, poems, and short plays. It conveys an irresistible sense of humour and a whimsical fantasy. The fragment and the absurd ending thereof are the trademarks of his writing. In his writing for adults he often expresses his hatred towards children, while his adult characters usually behave childishly. They beat and kick one another, as if they know no other form of expression.

However, the absurdity of his lyrics is so penetrating that one gradually comes to realize that the world Harms describes does not spring from his imagination, but is a faithful representation of his reality. A recurring theme in his oeuvre is disappearances: people constantly disappear; they get lost, become unrecognizable, fall out the window or break into pieces. During the Stalinist regime of terror, all the citizens spied on each other. They were obliged to betray one another and did so. The intolerable pressure that that entailed, drove many to madness or suicide.

The disappearances in his stories link up with Harms' philosophical quest for nothingness. In the same way as his characters arise and fade away again in the same fragment, in Harms' work things grow out of nothing and then vanish into it again. Harms' nothingness is a fertile ground in which people and events can originate. For him, creation is the result of a small perturbation of the order, and he was convinced that these incidents could also happen in language. His pursuit of dislocation stood in sharp contrast to the static system of Stalinist Russia, where individuality and action could lead to punishment and death. The collective behaviour prevailed over the individual.

In H, an incident, Daniil Harms' world is confronted with ours. Under Stalin, a collective personality was sought by way of, among other things, conditioning from a very young age and an imposed communal lifestyle. In society as we know it today, the citizens' privacy and the individual freedom associated with it, are also put under pressure. The neoliberal logic of continuous growth and consumption degenerate into a scorching competitiveness, in which social ties and mutual trust are exchanged for individualism and control of our entire sphere of life. Psychoanalyst Paul Verhaeghe points to the link between advanced capitalism and a growing climate of fear. The society of control in effect today, however, works a lot more subtly than at the time of the KGB and other control bodies such as the Komsomol, the Communist Youth movement. Whereas in Harms' time, checking identity was still largely an affair of people (and printed media), the individual is now observed and absorbed via technology and new media.

In the globalized consumer society that we know today, that same individual is obscured. We buy the same products, watch the same movies or television programmes, and follow the issues of the day. This infantilization of an ever-growing group touches upon the cartoonish figures of Harms. On a larger scale, we harbour a very one-sided vision of how society should be organized. The current crisis once again indicates that it is almost impossible to think outside the dominant neoliberal model. We choose the path of least resistance, at all costs.

Nine performers interact and play with an orchestra of autonomous music-making instruments that perform a role as characters. Decap Herentals, a company with more than a hundred years of experience in the construction of automated instruments, developed these robots in collaboration with iMinds-IBCN (Ugent) and Culture Crew. These alienating half-beings perform their own choreography, whether or not in interaction with the 'living' characters.

The performers, including six Icelandic women assembled by Erna Ómarsdóttir, wander around on stage and each is identified by a problem. They get bored, play, shout, crawl and sing, always with positive and infinite energy. For them there is only one direction: forward, without memory or looking back. Throughout the performance the person of Harms himself glimmers, inseparably bound to his own creatures.

The music, created by Jónas Sen and Valdimar Jóhannsson, contains the same 'Harmsian' absurdity and combines a cheerful lightness with the terror of the Stalinist songs. The Communist Youth League, Komsomol, was founded in 1918 and was notorious for its aggression and strict implementation of the party programme. Catchy music was an important means for indoctrinating their members. Today, in Putin's Russia, the government-backed youth movement, Nashi, sings in a similar 'poppy' way about the leaders of their country.

Harms' absurdity has multiple layers. In addition to a form of humour, the breaking of the cause-and-effect relationship, and a way of representing the facts, the absurd is a protection against the harshness of the reality he describes. Harms' quest for the miracle in the little things was of existential importance. He himself 'performed' small actions in public, and played various roles, from Sherlock Holmes to a fictional professor. In H an incident, the wonderment Harms saw and wanted to bring about in the world is reflected in the colourful collection of figures, humans and robots, seeking a modus vivendi in a system that is not theirs.

"All good people, but they don't know how to hold their ground."

Marianne Van Kerkhoven & Kristof van Baarle
Translated by Jodie Hruby

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Kris Verdonck (b. 1974) studied visual arts, architecture and theatre and this training is evident in his work. His creations are positioned in the transit zone between visual arts and theatre, between installation and performance, between dance and architecture. As a theatre maker and visual artist, he can look back over a wide variety of projects, such as 5 (2003), Catching Whales Is Easy (2004) and II (2005). The first STILLS (2006), consisting of gigantic projections, was commissioned by La Notte Bianca in Rome. In November 2007 he created the theatrical installation I/II/III/IIII, while in May 2008 END premiered at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels. Verdonck often presents combinations of different installations/performances as VARIATIONS. VARIATION IV was shown during the Festival d’Avignon in 2008. In January 2010 Verdonck finished the ‘circuit performance’ ACTOR #1 which shows three variations on the theme from chaos to order. K, a Society, a circuit of installations and projections inspired by the work of Franz Kafka, premiered at Theater der Welt 2010 in Germany. In 2011 Verdonck presented two research projects: TALK sets out to explore language while EXIT, created with Alix Eynaudi, aims to tackle theatre as a medium. In the same year, his first solo exhibition was held at House for contemporary art Z33 (Hasselt), together with a new work: EXOTE. In 2012 Verdonck created M, a reflection: a theatre production based on the works of Heiner Müller with actor Johan Leysen and his digital double on stage.

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