What happens when a convincing optimist and a committed pessimist decide to work together? An optimist and a pessimist walk onto a stage? No it’s not the start of a joke, but rather the theatrical presentation of the quirky social research project An Anthology of Optimism created by Belgian writer, philosopher and theatre-maker Pieter De Buysser and Canadian writer and maker of eccentric performances Jacob Wren. Paul Andrew chews at the bones of philosophy together with Pieter De Buysser.

Jacob Wren and Pieter De BuysserPostmodernism was steeped in melancholy, what do you feel this production says about where are we are right now in philosophical terms?
I’m not sure if this singular production is enough to say something about where we are right now in philosophical terms, but of course I wouldn’t mind if our show could contribute to taking a step beyond postmodernism.

I agree with what you say, postmodernism was steeped in melancholy, a melancholy and sort of sometimes cowardish confession of weakness, but at the same time postmodernism brought probably a profound insight and understanding of tragical essence of human behaviour. An important and very often repeated concept in postmodernism was the idea of an era of “mourning”. I’ve always been very sensitive to that as well as to the undeniable tragical character of human beings, not in the least because it’s in the experience of the tragic that the best slapstick can emerge.

But I want to tell other stories then simply touching “ecce home consolation tearjerkers” or funny disasters. I consider myself more as an inventor, and if my work helps to finally leave postmodernism behind in a clever way, I mean without betraying the fact that 20th century stories brought us reasons to mourn, It would be great but it’s not my starting point. I’m not in the logic of revenge of a new era on the old era, because that results mainly in the repetetion of the same logic that structures the old era’s.

I’m maybe more fundamental: I try to invent another logic, I aim for a more radical shift of paradigm, one with humour, imagination and where sharpness of the mind doesn’t exclude a certain wisdom. And the end of that all: to realise that there is no end. There is just the continuous call for rebellion, creation and invention. Maybe if I was asked to describe how I see the next step after postmodernism, I would use words as vitalistic mourning, sunny disasterknowledge, and yes, the concept we propose in the show: critical optimism.

Is this anthology a series of artful adaptations on philosophical tenets - skepticism and idealism perhaps?
No not at all. I think the contributions we receive seldom start from an explicit philosophical point of view. Of course they are philosophical, but not in the strictly technical sense that works with notions like skepticism and idealism. The contributions are almost all of them very personal, imaginative texts, drawings, pictures or whatever. So they are certainly not philosophical in an academic sense.

I have the feeling they found their origins more in the daily practice of the contributors. And even the question if they are art or not is not relevant to me. I think it’s more an anthology of testimonies, of objects, stories, songs, in which people from all different kind of backgrounds testify about their view and way of dealing with the question of what critical optimism in the 21st century could mean to them, knowing that it was very often optimism that was the cause of the biggest catastrophies, and knowing at the same time that it’s impossible to continue without a certain spark of optimism. And this counts as well for the bigger historical/political scale, as for the most initimate personal level.

Somewhere in between optimism and pessimism is a paradox, it this where hope resides?
Indeed there is a paradox, but I hope it’s not hope that resides there. I work on it for that’s where action can start.

I hope we can do without hope. Hope is dangerous drug. I like Kafka in one of his letters: “there is hope, but not for us”. I don’t consider that famous quote as just an other black joke, I see it as very liberating: let’s do it without hope. It’s hard. I work on it. To avoid hope is not so simple. Still every morning I can catch a glimpse in myself and then I have to say to myself “Kill it!”, and once that job is meticulously done, finally I can start to work.

'Tender' is a word that appears in media responses to this production - tell me about two examples of the tenderness you perceive in this production, and how this tenderness is revealed to us?
Difficult, so often as with the most precious things, they die when you try to name them.

I’m afraid these moments are resistant to words but yes maybe they are crucial in the show. It’s something that emerges with the audience, we can feel that very well, when every single person is thinking and doubting and thinking about themselves, that’s where it happens. I think Jakob and I come unprotected on stage and maybe that vulnerability is contagious. But honestly I don’t know and it’s difficult to speak about.

Tell me about the original letter you sent inviting artists to participate in this production?
Jakob and I had very, very long talks and the letter was the first thing we did together. We really wrote it together, so that was a long process at the beginning of the creation of the show, a period in which each of us have deepened our positions, doubts and wishes. The writing emerged really from the the meeting between Jacob and I. We are more or less the same age, we have more or less the same experiences in theatre and we have more or less the same political and aesthetical concerns, but knowing that we are very, very different. I probably have a more natural optimistic impulse, Jacob a more pessimistic one, and at the same time we both refuse to be caught or pinned down by that primary inclination.

What do you love about anthology as a form?
It’s a simple and straightforward way to document a practice or a way of thinking. It gives an audience and an artist room to wander and to freely use it. “An anthology of optimism” consists of two things: the show and the website, the website www.anthologyofoptimism.com is the anthology strictly spoken, it presents all the contributions we received until now. The performance is a performance in which only a few contributions from the anthology are integrated, these can change from night to night. To make a performance, simply presenting the anthology would miss the essence of making a performance in theater.

The website can present the documents of the anthology better than any book, show, video or whatever. But we are making a performance and we have our reasons to do this in theater. The documents we received give us the occasion to think, tell, wander, play and discuss out loud together with the audience, live - and open for who’s there every single night. That's what singles theater out from film and literature. The anthology in terms of the collection of contributions and documents is for us once on stage simply the instrument we use to play, think, invent and try every night again.

How did you go about ordering this anthology?
The contributions we use in the show we select them on purely theatrical/rhetorical reasons: we switch from text, image to music contributions in order to make a good show. With a good show I mean a show that hasn’t done all the thinking for you. We make a composition that displays different ways of thinking and invite people to interact instead of to lay down and let it roll over you.
On the website we put simply every contributions we receive, as long as it is an honest contribution and the result of some thinking.

How would you describe the dance between a pessimist and an optimist?
A dogflight. Certainly not a candidate for a beauty-contest, but it has the wisdom of doglike cynics, and the lightness, imagination, and sense of danger and exploration of a pilot. A dogflight.

Is this a show where optimists and pessimists can find some common ground?
Refusing all hope I can say that we work on that every night - again this show paves indeed the way for dogflights.

AN ANTHOLOGY OF OPTIMISM opens at the Arts Centre, Fairfax Studio, Wed 20 October 2010. Further details»

Image Credit:-
Top Right - (l-r) Jacob Wren and Pieter De Buysser. Photo - Phile Deprez

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