Interview with Silke Huysmans & Hannes Dereere about their upcoming new documentary theatre piece Pleasant Island

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Some call Nauru the island of the future: once flourishing in beautiful nature, today its landscape looks much like the moon. After nearly one hundred years of phosphate mining, the ground has been completely deprived of its resources. From one day to another, its inhabitants went from riches to rags. Nauru now sustains its economy by taking in refugees in exchange for a large sum of money from Australia. For their new documentary theatre performance Pleasant Island. Brussels based theatre makers Silke Huysmans and Hannes Dereere visited Nauru.

Pleasant Island is the continuation of the research on natural resources they started for their successful Mining Stories: the documentary theatre performance about the Bento Rodrigues’ dam disaster in the south of Brazil. Hannes: “It’s not as if we finished making Mining Stories and were like: ‘Done!’ This is a research that never ends. We want to see what comes after the mining of resources in a finite world.” Their research took them to Nauru, the island of the future: a worst-case scenario.

Silke and Hannes are still in the middle of their research process, as I meet them during their residency in Veem. As they share their experiences of travelling to Nauru, the island sounds like dystopian fiction, a gloomy episode of Black Mirror. “Yes,” Silke says: “it almost appears to be dystopian. Nauru implies a certain kind of future. We wanted to find an extreme example of what it could be like, if we continue as we are doing right now.” And it is not a pretty sight.

Phosphate mining on Nauru

Silke: “Nauru is an island that was ‘discovered’ 220 years ago by the British whale hunter John Fearn. He named it ‘Pleasant Island’ because the island was so rich and beautiful. And its people so friendly and generous.” In the beginning of the twentieth century another British man called Albert Ellis discovered phosphate. Hannes adds: “Superphosphate is phosphate of the highest quality. It’s used as a fertilizer for agriculture, and makes everything grow really fast.” It was the perfect answer to a fast-growing population in Europe with a big appetite. Under colonial rule of Great-Britain, New-Zealand and Australia, the phosphate was mined in a fast pace. When Nauru declared its independence in 1968, already 80% of its ground has been exploited. With their land exhausted and no other choice left, the Nauruans decided to continue with the mining. They quickly became one of the richest people in the world per capita because they got to keep the profits. Until in the 1990’s their phosphate reserves ran out, the money was spent, and the ground was left completely bare. From one day to the next, they became one of the poorest countries in the world. This precarious economic situation lead to the chapter that Nauru is now most famous for: the taking in of refugees.

 “Australia puts refugees in detention centers in what they said was an ‘uninhabitable country'”

Silke: “In 1962 Australia claimed that Nauru was uninhabitable. Back then; they proposed the Nauruans to resettle to Australia. Their master plan was that they could mine the land without having to consider its people. Now 50 years later Australia puts refugees in detention centers in what they said was an uninhabitable country.”

Since the detention centers were put in place, there is a ban for journalists to visit the island. Silke explains: “You need to pay 8000 dollars for a visa and there is no refund if they disapprove it. So it’s useless to apply for those.” Fortunately, Silke and Hannes’ regular visas were approved. Silke: “We could go there under strict conditions. It doesn’t happen often that people can walk around for three weeks with recording material on Nauru.”

“Don’t forget it was not them who started mining in the first place”

The voice of the Nauruan is often not heard. Hannes: “The native population of the island is always portrayed as the one to blame. ‘They are responsible: they destroyed their land, they take in the refugees.’ But in fact, they are part of a bigger system. And that whole system came from somewhere else. Don’t forget it was not them who started mining in the first place.” While Hannes and Silke have collected over more than 60 hours of interview material from their conversations with the Nauruans, they want to focus more on the position of Europe in Pleasant Island.

Silke: “We want to start from a European context. That’s where the capitalist system came into being.” Hannes: “Much in the same way Mining Stories was about a mining disaster in Brazil, but also about more global themes; Pleasant Island should be a performance about an island in the Pacific Ocean, but also about a more universal system. Because the system at work over there is the same system that’s at work here. The island functions as a kind of lightning rod to see the bigger things that happen on a global scale.” Silke: “The complex structures that are at work in the world, are compressed on a small scale. They become very visible in Nauru: a tiny island of 4 by 5 kilometers.”

“While we are imagining the future, the big companies are writing it”

For Pleasant Island Silke and Hannes want to focus on the people who are determining the future. Silke: “While we are imagining the future, the big companies are writing it. We want to focus on the people who are pulling the strings.” With the help of multinationals, Nauru takes a new step into the future. Nauru’s government is partnering up with big deep-sea mining corporations. Hannes: “The way the future is imagined is not to change the system, but to search for ways to keep our current model of living in place. We will need deep-sea mining, and will even need to consider moon mining to continue our current ways of living. To supply for all the batteries, solar panels and electric cars we need for the so called green transition, we will need to mine a lot more.” Silke adds: “We sometimes jokingly say we are thinking of sending the system to the psychologist. Out of curiosity: ‘what is this addiction with wanting more and more?’”

“What we saw there changed us”

In Mining Stories there was a clear personal link between Silke and the mining disaster in Bento Rodriguez. Silke: “Since I grew up there, I personally knew the people involved,” Nauru too has gotten under Silke’s and Hannes’ skin. “What we saw there changed us. It is becoming quite an intense research.” Silke explains: “We are in daily contact with a lot of people on the island who became close friends of ours. The people who seek asylum find themselves in a situation that is utterly hopeless. We receive messages every day saying things as: ‘I am scared I cannot go on.’ The Nauruans on the other hand are proud of their island, they try to continue life with how it is.

On Nauru, we learnt that pretending as if nothing is going on is a luxury. To close yourself off, go to Nauru for an interview and then fly back. To be able to make a performance about it.” Hannes adds with a grim tone: “In that sense we are living on our own island.” Silke: “Apart from making the performance, we are researching if there is something we can do.” Being confronted with a worst-case scenario changed Hannes and Silke for good. Silke: “Somehow I feel I was more cynical and ironic before we went to Nauru than afterwards. You see something that is so terrible, that while you cry on the inside there is a part of you that thinks: ‘we cannot let this happen!’”

“Our responsibility lies in the present”

Hannes: “The way we think about the future impacts how we relate to the present. Our responsibility lies in the present. Not in endlessly postponing that responsibility and having faith that it will ‘resolve on its own’” Silke and Hannes stay with the trouble. Silke: “By talking about the future, we do not act in the present. The world already is post-apocalyptic, let’s think from there. That’s why we went to Nauru, there the future is already happening.”

The creation of Pleasant Island is produced by CAMPO and co-produced by Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Spring Festival, Beursschouwburg, Kunstenwerkplaats Pianofabriek, Veem House for Performance and Vlaams Cultuurhuis de Brakke Grond in Amsterdam where Hannes and Silke will perform on 24th and 25th of September 2019.

Text| Lies Mensink

Photo | Bart Dewaele

Commissioned by | Veem House for Performance

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