Although Michiel Vandevelde only graduated from P.A.R.T.S. in 2012, he has already developed a rich body of work. His archive contains dance productions as well as lecture-performances, participative projects, interventions in the public space, installations and essays. Consequently, choreographer appears to be just one of the roles fulfilled by Vandevelde. He is also co-curator of the Bâtard Festival in Brussels (a platform for upcoming international performance talent), a publicist and he sits on the editorial board of the theatre periodical Etcetera. Like many young artists, Vandevelde skilfully moves between different practices and artistic personas, yet there is something that connects them all: an activist impulse. Vandevelde developed a distinct interest in politics from the beginning of his career, in the ruling ideological systems that define our society and in the alternatives we could swap them for. From his teenage years he danced with the Leuven youth theatre production house fABULEUS and was part of a collective, with scenographers Menno Vandevelde and Jozef Wouters. 'Creating' and 'doing' are closely linked as far as Vandevelde is concerned.
Like many young artists, Vandevelde skilfully moves between different practices and artistic personas, yet there is something that connects them all: an activist impulse.
Being an artist-activist, to Vandevelde the theatre represents the ultimate antagonistic space, a term he borrowed from the political philosopher Chantal Mouffe, or in his own words: a 'negative space', a dark room of society in which one can experiment with other models of society. “It is a space that offers room to opposite parties, ideas, groups, individuals. It is an important element of democracy (...) that affords a voice to other ways of speaking, presenting, producing and organising. Each proposition in theatre is thus a political proposition, there is no apolitical theatre.” These were words he uttered during a speech titled 'De Stand der Dingen' (The State of Things) given at the request of the Leuven company Braakland/Zhebilding (now Het nieuwstedelijk).
Any theatre may refer to the political sphere, yet Vandevelde often strives to break out of the black box of the theatre by taking direct action. Like a guerrilla farmer, in 2015, he planted fruit trees in Antwerp city centre with the ultimate goal of reclaiming the 'public' in the public space and establishing a self-sustaining network of citizens that harvest and distribute fruit. As an urban resident of Vooruit arts centre during the season 2012-2013 he focused on setting up a new European political party, based on ideas he amassed during public think tanks. The party manifesto of The Political Party – which via its generic name does not want to be categorised as left or right - is currently being developed (several drafts can be found on www.thepoliticalparty.eu), but Vandevelde also continues to criss-cross Europe with his van and mobile library to engage in dialogue with the citizen-spectator. What if no constitution or political organisational forms existed? How should a political party be shaped from scratch?
Art and politics, black box and public space, high and low culture, theory and practice: these are the tensions that run through Vandevelde's work, sometimes abrasive, sometimes harmonious. To date, his most ambitious attempt to link them can be found in Antithesis, the future of the image (2015), a critical study of the status of the image in our mass media culture. The starting point, Vandevelde explains at the beginning of the performance, is a commercial by Levi's, in which the jeans giant links images from everyday life (from couples in love, concerts, protest matches) to economic slogans. The depolarising power of this commercial, in which an anti-establishment demonstration is recuperated for commercial purposes, encourages Vandevelde to reflect on how images are hijacked by the system to manipulate citizens.
The production is entirely constructed out of found footage, with which Antithesis continues to work on the track that the choreographer laid, together with nine youngsters in Love Songs (Veldeke) (2013). In the first part 'Thesis' Vandevelde presents choreography that exists entirely of mangled pop songs and canonical dance movements that belong to the collective MTV memory, from Michael Jackson to Rihanna, Kayne West and Miley Cyrus. Vandevelde repeats the choreography three times, alternated by moments in which a long, academic text is projected, which describes the ultimate criticism of the transition from a word to image culture using a compilation of philosophical quotes. The slowness with which you have to read the text conflicts with the rapid flows of information that we are used to and this is precisely the unruly effect that Vandevelde seeks.
It is precisely this untenable but inherently provocative combination of political diagnosis, stubborn stance and utopian idealism, which demonstrates that Vandevelde's work springs from a serious commitment.
If one compares the two clips, one notes that the choreography evolves throughout the repetition. In a first phase Vandevelde separates gestures from their entertainment value using a neutral performance. The literally naked embodiment conceals an already critical gesture: the virtuoso, construed, hypersexual bodies of Beyoncé and co are humanised. By applying classical choreographic principles (expanding, accelerating, slowing down, reducing) Vandevelde goes on to increasingly control the dance, until its origin virtually disappears. The increasingly unrecognisable gestures flow into each other and acquire a sculptural, almost vulnerable quality. We shift from an ABC of the popular dance culture to an autonomous choreography. You could say that, by using the strategy of re-appropriation (removing it from the original context and reassembling it from existing material) Vandevelde symbolically reclaims Levi’s stolen images and becomes the maker instead.
In the second part, 'Antithesis', Vandevelde lets go of the analysis of the digital image to a certain extent and shifts to a radical social criticism. From the virtual world of digital manipulation we jump to the concrete reality of the violence of war. Via a voice-over we hear filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard heckle the cowardly policy of Europe against the background of the Yugoslavian civil war; Vandevelde obtained this story from the documentary producer Adam Curtis, a story of how the Kurds in Rojava, in the middle of the war with IS, are experimenting with a new model of society based on ideas from an old revolutionary thinker. This form of direct democracy is organised on a small, non-hierarchical scale and based on face-to-face contact. Read: without the mediation of an interface that installs an alienating remoteness between reality and experience, as does our digital image culture. Antithesis ends in that respect with an appeal, which you may feel is naïve and a rather old-fashioned analogue, but which is also highly activating: “If you want to see the world, close your eyes.” It is precisely this untenable but inherently provocative combination of political diagnosis, stubborn stance and utopian idealism, which demonstrates that Vandevelde's work springs from a serious commitment.