Pleasant Island

    10/05  | 20:30
    11/05  | 18:00
    12/05  | 15:00
    12/05  | 20:30
    13/05  | 20:30

€ 16 / € 13

Hidden in the Pacific Ocean lies the small island of Nauru, once called Pleasant Island by European explorers. Its history appears to be a metaphor of our current day and age, in which colonization, capitalism, migration and ecology are on a collision course. After the exhaustive exploitation of the island’s vast underground phosphate deposits, both under British-Australian rule and afther its independence in 1968, the island was left in economic and ecologic ruins. Today Nauru is hosting dead-end refugee camps in return for a large amount of Australian money. Meanwhile, the island risks to be swallowed by the ocean as a result of the rising sea level. It is in this post-apocalyptic setting that documentary theatre-makers Silke Huysmans and Hannes Dereere encounter the limitations of a world that is intent on endless growth. Drawing on interviews and conversations with residents and refugees on the island, they search for new perspectives. What future is there in a place that has been exhausted in ecological, economic and humanitarian terms? And how do we deal with the gloomy predictions that appear to await all of us?

See also: Talk: Nauru: a microcosm of capitalism
11/05 – 19:30 (after the performance)
EN, free entrance
With: Silke Huysmans, Hannes Dereere
In collaboration with: rekto:verso

Door: Silke Huysmans & Hannes Dereere
Sound mixing: Lieven Dousselaere
Thanks to: all conversation partners

Presentation: Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Beursschouwburg
Production: kunstencentrum CAMPO
Coproduction: Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Spring Festival Utrecht, Beursschouwburg, Kunstenwerkplaats Pianofabriek, Veem House For Performance, Theaterfestival SPIELART München & De Brakke Grond
Residencies: Beursschouwburg, De Grote Post, KAAP, Kunstencentrum Buda, Kunstenwerkplaats Pianofabriek, STUK, De Brakke Grond, LOD & Veem House for Performance

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Pleasant Island

When everything around you has been destroyed, your mind is also affected. You get the feeling that you can see the future there.

Nauru. The navigation app on your smartphone shows you a small oval island in the Pacific. Yellow with a green edge. When you zoom out, you see nothing but blue around it for a long time, then a few other tiny islets, then the Solomon Islands, and only then Papua New Guinea, with Australia beneath it. At that point, Nauru has in fact already disappeared, but it must be there, somewhere underneath that red pin that indicates its location.

‘Vanishing Island’ is now one of its nick-names. So are ‘Sacrifice Zone’ and ‘Australia’s Dumping Ground’. But in the past it was called ‘Pleasant Island’. Nauru was once a beautiful green island of roughly four by four kilometres, peacefully inhabited by the Nauruans, a nation of fishermen. That the ground beneath their feet was full of phosphate was something they ignored, but once this discovery was made in around 1900 by the British, the looting on the island began – and from the end of WWI onwards, New Zealand and Australia entered the fray. The situation continues to this day. When Nauru gained independence from its colonizers in the late 1960s, it was one of the richest countries in the world thanks to this phosphate mining. It could never end … until it suddenly did. Today every millimetre of the island has been excavated, nature has been ravaged, other countries have become rich while Nauru itself is poverty-stricken. Today it even needs the migrants that Australia transports there and holds in detention centres to prevent the economy from sinking completely.

Pleasant Island is the second chapter in the ongoing artistic research of Hannes Dereere and Silke Huysmans into mining on the planet – and therefore into the socio-economic depletion of everything and everyone. In their previous work, Mining Stories, they showed the disastrous consequences of mining in Brazil. Now, on Nauru, on the other side of the world, the economic blueprint of the story remains virtually the same: a pattern of destruction that fits in a neo-liberal political mentality in which there is no room for an alternative way of thinking that advocates a reciprocal relationship with the world. Naomi Klein calls this phenomenon ‘extractivism’, a system that cannot think outside the mechanism it runs on – exploitation. Nauru is a miniature version of how dilapidated the Earth might be in a not too distant future as a result of of the extraction monster that destroys itself in its hunger for more. Silke: ‘You get the feeling that you can see the future there.’

In the summer of 2018, Silke and Hannes themselves spent a few weeks on the island. After proving that they were really not journa-lists but theatre-makers, they obtained a tourist visa, being strictly forbidden from interviewing asylum seekers. They were free to ask the Nauruans questions, but because of a media ban in force on the island – which intended to make any criticism of the asylum agreement between Australia and Nauru impossible – the islanders themselves were highly suspicious of prying visitors. (‘Mute Island’, another nickname …) Hannes and Silke nevertheless managed to gain some trust. They met local residents and migrants, made friends, drove along the coast with them, collected different perspectives, left their ‘suspicious’ recording device in their bag and recorded interviews – with their permission –using the smartphone they purchased specially for the trip.

The smartphone proved to be not only essential for them to gather knowledge and material on Nauru. For the people there it is a survival instrument, the Internet is their only connection with the world. Our perceived sense of dependence on this device refers rather to an illusory connectivity with everything, in relation to which we prefer to maintain a safe distance from it all: migration, mining and destruction are things we prefer to keep out of sight, on a tiny island thousands of miles away. At the same time, the smartphone also cancels out the ‘here–and–there’. It makes it possible for Silke and Hannes to stay in touch with Nauru after their return to Belgium and to record the stories of a number of asylum seekers through text and voice messages. The migrants want to be heard, just like the indigenous inhabitants whose story has always remained underexposed in the media. The smartphone can bring those voices to us and make them heard in different ways. As a bearer of the knowledge that they gathered on the island and that forms the raw material for Pleasant Island, this instrument (inevitably) becomes the device of the performance that jointly determines how the story is told.

Given the thorough documentary way in which they explore their theme, Silke and Hannes themselves are also mining in a sense. But then in a way that doesn’t erode. While Nauru is a story about our Western mentality of negligence, Silke and Hannes take care precisely by deepening the different perspectives and details and by bringing them to the stage in all their complexity. Although in doing so they honestly explore where they stand precisely in this story, they have no doubt that they are an integral part of the phenomenon they are observing. In the process they adopt what Eve Sedgwick calls a ‘reparative attitude’. The situation is not further drawn apart, criticized or destroyed, but different parts are assembled ‘into something like a whole’. (1) Not a whole that already existed or that restores what has been destroyed, but one that shows the possibility of an alternative way of thinking – beyond the extraction urge.

In their awareness of their own ‘entangled position’ and the question about the responsibility involved, the sharing of knowledge in the work of Hannes and Silke is not about facts, but about making worlds. They re-count the story of Nauru in a way we have neither heard or seen yet – as a ‘nova historia’ in which we are confronted with our ignorance about, and our role in, the history of colonialism and how it continues tirelessly today. As spectators, watching Pleasant Island, we become part of that world and we too are asked about our position. If we as Europeans are just as much a part of the story, if we too, in a sense, ‘are’ Nauru, then what is our attitude towards such ‘sacrifice zones’ (2)? While plans are being made to exploit the seabed in, among others, Nauru – and, why not, on the Moon – it is becoming clear that the Earth itself may already have become a ‘sacrifice zone’. It is then no longer possible to keep watching critically from a distance. Pleasant Island shows us ‘the specific configurations that make worlds’ (3) – and that we are all co-makers.

Nienke Scholts


(1) Eve Kokofsky Sedgwick, ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid You Probably Think This Essay Is About You’, in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, Duke University Press, 2003: 123-152.

(2) ‘Sacrifice zone’ denotes areas and people that are sacrificed for the purpose of economic gain.

(3) Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, Duke University Press, 2007: 91.

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The work of young theatre-makers Silke Huysmans and Hannes Dereere is based on concrete situations, events or places that stand for a broader theme. What characterizes the duo is the way in which they carry out research by means of scientific examination, interviews and fieldwork. Silke completed the drama programme at the KASK School of Arts in Ghent in 2013. Hannes obtained his degree in theatre studies at Ghent University one year before that. Since then, they have been a developing a strong interest in documentary elements in theatre. Their first piece, Mining Stories (2016), represented a next step in this research, as they explored the impact of a recent mining disaster in the south of Brazil, the region where Silke grew up. Silke and Hannes collected witness accounts through field recordings, and brought those together on stage. It resulted in a theatrical polyphonic analysis of the destruction caused by the disaster. Mining Stories premiered at the Bâtard Festival in the Beursschouwburg in Brussels, was selected by Circuit X and is currently touring in Belgium and abroad. At present the duo is working on their second show, Pleasant Island, which will premiere in May 2019. Silke Huysmans and Hannes Dereere took their first steps at Kunstenwerkplaats Pianofabriek (Brussels) and at the Bâtard Festival. In the future they will create their work under the wings of CAMPO, but will continue to be supported by Pianofabriek and the Brussels Beursschouwburg.

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