At the end of the world
"A world ends when it is no longer possible for its inhabitants to describe, influence or make sense of the things and events that surround them through language."
This is how Italian writer and theorist Franco Berardi describes the feeling of desperation in a world in which the meaning of language erodes in a post-truth era and has been largely industrialised by (social) media and other forms of information technology. In addition, our current world is filled more and more with specific, possible endings: through wars and simmering geopolitical tensions, technological developments that could make us superfluous, terror and fanaticism, the exploitation and aggression of the economic system, and climate change. The realisation that we as a species, as citizens and consumers, are an inextricable part of those endings and yet still fail to find a solution confronts us with our inability to use current frames of reference to make sense of it all. The sense of ‘deadlock’ in a situation that appears to be without end and for which there are no answers, is coupled with a sense of the end of a worldview that has long shaped that world.
Except in an ecological sense, this could also serve as a description of the world in which Russian writer Daniil Charms (1905-1942) lived, the author whose work forms the basis for Conversations (at the end of the world). He came into his own during the Stalin era of terror and died during the horrific occupation of Leningrad after the revolution had already changed everything fundamentally, including language. The apparently arbitrary use of violence and the growing rift between official communications and reality left its mark on his work, which consists primarily of short stories, letters and diary excerpts, often just a few lines, in which he creates a character or event out of nothing, only to subsequently allow it to vanish again. Something he referred to as ‘an incident’.
Conversations refers to conversations Charms had with his artistic cohorts of the OBERIU collective in dire conditions. These conversations in which playful but serious exchanges about attempts to understand the world were alternated with reading aloud from one’s own work took place during a poor type of salons. These conversations must have been important to the OBERIU, because they made an archive of these, even though they knew this could land them in prison.
Conversations (at the end of the world)
The end of humanity is the theme that runs through the oeuvre of Kris Verdonck. With IN VOID (2016), for example, he created an installation circuit that contemplates the potential demise of humanity. While the machines offer an ‘answer’ in the installations, Conversations (at the end of the world) concerns the reaction of humanity itself when confronted with its own finitude.
In Conversations, five flesh and blood performers have their last conversations. The performers on stage are only too aware of their impending end. Despite and because of the circumstances, they make a final effort to do something. A story, a joke, an absurd theory, musings about death and miracles, a piano piece, … are shared with enthusiasm and conviction. They remain positive even though the situation is hopeless, as if their certain end paradoxically liberates them from the yoke of rationalism and progression. Unhurried, waiting, almost curious, held captive on the threshold of their imminent expiration. Doing something so as not to do nothing, to pass the time as it were. They enter into a state of being in which nonsense, insanity and a strange beauty remain in the emptiness that lies ahead and which is increasingly enveloping them.
The five figures find themselves in a virtually desolate landscape with nothing but their own bodies and abilities as a final foothold. Conversations portrays how, with the disappearance of humanity, the theatre falls apart and turns into an installation. The actor disappears into the decor, which takes on the leading role. What else do we have to say during our impending demise, when the transition of humanity into something else is complete? What remains of theatre and language after the end of the world, what is the point of saying anything else after having said farewell? A thought, a memory, an attempt to create something, or even: an abstract expression that only hints at the desire to be part of a conversation? Text, silence, music, movement and visuals are woven into a composition that evolves from speaking to silence, from a human environment to a landscape created by a machine.
The demise of humanity and the world as we think we know it today is depicted in the scenography of the production. That barren landscape, the environment from whence we humans were birthed and into which we will merge again, becomes an increasingly present element. The figures, as well as the stage on which they are standing, gradually vanish beneath fine, grey snow. All that remains is a bleak landscape and the memories of what once was. But that emptiness is not just negative. Perhaps it offers time for contemplation about the endings we have already experienced or which await us. As Belgian philosopher Patricia De Martelaere once conveyed so beautifully: it is the nothingness itself that remains, and we ourselves belong to this great nothingness. Our presence, as individuals as well as a species, has always been transient, just like the theatre. The end does not have to be a bad thing. Conversations (at the end of the world) sketches a possible portrait of humanity in the face of this scenario. People who are beyond giving up, beyond hope, but with a robust sense of nonsense, in a vital state that opens up new possibilities.
Kristof van Baarle