‘Rolando Vázquez Melken: ‘Theatre is a space where we can face our vulnerability collectively’ Interview with sociologist Rolando Vázquez Melken on decoloniality and the arts in times of corona


Theaterkrant interviews philosophers, artists, and critics, and asks them to reflect on the corona crisis. For sociologist Rolando Vázquez Melken the crisis is a moment that calls for thinking: ‘This crisis is revealing things that have already been there, but that we did not see…’

Vázquez Melken is a Mexican sociologist and decolonial thinker based in the Netherlands, where he organizes the Middelburg Decolonial Summer School. His research revolves around decolonizing institutions, epistemology and aesthetics.

In what way does your theoretical background influence the way you look at the corona crisis? What do you pay attention to?

‘This crisis is a moment that calls for thinking. In my PHD studies I worked on Hannah Arendt and her notion of the event is very important here. For Arendt the event is something that breaks the continuity of history and at the same time reveals things that were there but that we did not see. We see the corona crisis as having the nature of an event. It is not producing a new world, it is actually revealing the world in which we live, but did not see.’

‘In the beginning people were very hopeful that this crisis was putting an end to an oppressive system, a system of overconsumption that is consuming the life of Earth and the life of impoverished people around the world.  This initial hope of seeing the system stop is now shifting gradually to despair. Some people are realizing that instead of stopping, this crisis is accelerating and intensifying the logic of the system. What worries us a lot is the conformity of people accepting this system. We have a sense that there is a desire to be governed. In the literature on authoritarian systems it is well known that the desire to be governed sometimes overtakes the will to freedom.’

‘This desire to be governed shows how ready we have become to be oblivious to the suffering of others. I think we are divided in two: there are people that are in undergoing deep suffering and danger, and there are people that carry on with their lives as usual. They feel that by complying to social distancing they will be okay, and enter this numbness that creates a barrier with what is really happening in the life of others.’

‘Being governed is also a way of avoiding the realization that this individualized and isolated life is meaningless. Maybe the desire to be governed has to do with the fear of not being able to face one’s own fragility and vulnerability.’

Do you see a role for the arts in the Corona crisis?

‘I see a very important role for the arts. The scenic arts, like theatre and the performing arts have been crucial in sustaining a reflection on the fragility of the body, and a reflection on togetherness, on the importance of togetherness in society. This crisis is endangering togetherness more than ever. We have been experiencing the undermining of togetherness since the start of the modern system and its focus on individualism, on the consumption of earth, and on the consumption of the lives of others. We think that the arts have allowed for critical spaces where people can stop and reflect on this. Where they can warn us about and also mourn the loss of the body and the loss of togetherness. These reflections encourage a critical engagement that is quite urgent to counteract the movement towards a more senseless and indolent way of being. This type of reflections and contestations is what I would ideally see happening in the arts, instead of going with the flow of being governed into separateness. Instead of focusing on adapting choreographies for social distancing, how can we make of the scenic arts a place of critical engagement, to worry, to question, to contest the loss of togetherness.’

‘For us the arts are one of the few places in the individualized consumer society where we still carry the possibility of fighting indolence and the loss of the relational body. In this crisis people are finding it normal to be body-less, philosophicaly speaking, we would speak of the condition of distancelessness of the screen. It is not that we are distant we are even withoutdistance. When you are distant you are still in a relation. In theatre you can be in distance from each other, but this distance has a tension, it is a relation and produces something. The screen creates a distanceless separation; the event of the corona crisis is revealing how this mechanism functions almost without any awareness and resistance.’

‘This condition of distancelessness takes very serious expressions, for example in relation to death. I think what we are seeing with the governance, for example, here in Europe is a tremendous effort to hide death. An effort to produce a death that is just a number, a statistic, a graphic. It is a curve that we need to flatten. But death is something that calls for mourning, something that calls for healing. When we speak of healing we don’t mean the hospital, the intensive care or the ventilators, we are speaking of the need of collective healing of the suffering that our communities are going through. I see theatre as a space that can be fundamental for reflecting and experiencing this kind of collective healing.’

‘A space where we can engage in the task of mourning that is being taken away from us in this individualized experience and the production of a deathless death. Can we use the scenic arts and theatre as a space where we can perceive suffering, where we can address it instead of hiding it? Can they be a space to counteract the condition of distancelessness and engage in reflections that weave togetherness and contest the numbness of traversing this alone. We think that the individual is afraid of facing his or her own fragility, which is expressed in the desire to be governed. We think that theatre can be a space where we can face our vulnerability collectively.’

What would facing that vulnerability in the theatre look like?

 ‘We think we can learn from the non-western vernacular traditions that are about mourning, and keeping memories alive. First-nation’s dances and theater forms in Abya Yala [America], African dances they all have resources to engage with memory and loss. We can also think of Butoh dance in Japan and the Islamic relation to testimony. There are so many resources in these performing arts to deal with communal suffering and with the task of healing that is being somehow taken away from us. I think even the most standard psychology of the West would say that hiding suffering is not healthy. You need to see it in order to go through it, and I think we have a possibility to build a better society if we go through this. But this does not happen in our forms of governance and the condition of separation and individuality in which we are made to live. We think that in our consumer societies the arts are one of the few places where togetherness can be activated.’

‘Right now, there is worry about the collapse of economic growth, but we are unable to see that that growth is based on the destruction of Earth. The economy has to be transformed: it needs to move away from a destructive economy based on extraction and the destruction of Earth.’

‘The arts could have a role in bringing other non-dominant knowledges. In many non-western philosophies people have a different idea of what the human is, a non-anthropocentric idea. An idea where we are first Earth and then human, not the reverse. We can’t seem to remember that everything, everything in our body comes from the Earth. We live in an image of an individual that owns Earth – which is very absurd.’

How do you as a sociologist and decolonial thinker relate to the cultural field?

‘In decolonial thought we have been engaging with what we call decolonial aesthesis, that iswithdecolonizing the canon of Western aesthetics.We connect with the cultural field in our engagement with the question of decolonizing the museum, dance, contemporary art, etc… We find that the canon of Western aesthetics has not been properly questioned: we know that it is critical within itself, but it fails to understand the ‘colonial difference’ and engage with the critiques from other traditions. The decolonial brings the western canon into the mirror of other ontology’s, other forms of aesthesis, other ways of being and experiencing the world, that have been displaced outside of the ‘contemporary’. The West continues to hold the authority over the ‘canon’ and the authority to determine what gets validated as contemporary. Though western institutions might invite people from other parts of the world, they do so within the aesthetic and temporal framework set by the West.’

‘The question of decolonizing has brought us in conversation with many different art fields, but also with universities. How can we move from a western centered university system of knowledge to a more open decolonial system? The decolonization of the university is very focused on decolonizing knowledge. The West affirmed itself as the center of the world through the control of epistemology and aesthetics. The debate on epistemology is very advanced, the need for decolonizing epistemologies is well established, whereas the debate on aesthetics is something that has been emerging in the last ten years, initially in Colombia and Argentina. In Europe it has also been taking place at the Middelburg Decolonial Summer School and Black Europe Body Politics.’

In the Decolonial Summer School you explore ‘the decolonial opening towards the communal’ what do you mean by that?

‘The decolonial is not projecting a utopia of the future. We think that the task of critique is to recover alternative worlds, alternative ways of being. Communal societies are crucial to imagine a way out of these processes of destruction of the Earth. Researching the worlds of others is not for creating a new universal or a projection of futurity, but for somebody that Arturo Escobar would call the ‘pluriverse’: a communal world in which many realities are possible, but all in relation.’

‘Instead of pretending to be in a world stage that is speaking universally for everybody, we learn from them that the meaning of somebodies’ life, somebodies’ work has to do with how it weaves a relation with others. We think that we need to ground our practices in relation to others. How can we work from a position or a location in relation with others, instead of being in separation? Complying to be governed is to be in separation, whereas engaging in critical reflection and speaking with others while allowing other voices to come in would be a weaving towards the communal.’

How does this crisis influence the communal?

 ‘In the communal the task of healing is very important. The task of mourning and the task of togetherness are fundamental for the communal to exist, to survive, and to grow. The corona crisis is showing all those powers that have been undermining the togetherness that makes the communal possible.’

‘When you turn deaths into statistics, you make the task of healing that is fundamental for the communal impossible. Mourning partly heals suffering, it acknowledges the relations we have with others, it is a confirmation that we are weaved in time. We have people that precede us and that have made possible what we are today; that have made the language we speak, and the food we eat. This consciousness of relational time is something that is erased in the governance of the screen and the individualized present. The governance of what we can identify as ‘the contemporary’.’

In your work on decolonizing you stress the importance of listening, why?

 ‘In our decolonial work we have found that listening is central to move from a logic of enunciation to a logic of reception. The history of Western aesthetics has been the history of the control and power of enunciation, the power of designing experience. For instance in its power to decide an image of future, what new aesthetics look like, what the contemporary is. Decolonial aesthesis asks for the ‘humbling of modernity’. It seeks a re-orientation from the power of enunciation to the movement of reception. In the movement of reception, listening is as a fundamental way. Listening is not a passive element as it is treated within the logic of enunciation. The way of listening, brings us to the capacity to receive the other, to receive alterity, instead of always reducing the other to our own field of enunciation. Decolonial aesthesis is oriented towards hosting the diversity of the world instead of trying to enact a design, a pre-conceived.’

‘For us receiving is the capacity of becoming more than the individual subject, the capacity to escape that enclosure of the subject as a sovereign-self. What if instead of consuming the other like in the old ethnographic exhibition, ethnographic theatre or today’s exotic tourism, we would receivethe other so that we can become more than one-self.’

You are often invited to speak on ‘how to decolonize the museum’. Does this question translate to other art institutions? For instance: How to decolonize the theatre?

‘‘What has been quite puzzling for us is that in the history of Western institutions – and particularly  in the Netherlands – there is a clear separation between the black box and white cube. It is as if the institutions are having very different conversations, but the questions are so similar and belong to singular genealogy’s of thought. In our conversation with dancers such as Amanda Piña and Fábian Barba, we do not find that separation relevant. The black box and white cube have similar theoretical backgrounds, but for some reason there is this separation which is more sustained due to an institutional history than to their relations to the problems of our time. The conversations are running parallel, but in our opinion they could talk to each other much more.’

‘The conversations on decoloniality that we are engaged with in dance conferences coincide with those in museums and universities. The questions we ask are questions that we have to grapple with socially, they belong to our time and exist in many different fields. That is why we see that the performing arts and theatre are more and more engaging with the question: how to decolonize?’

Earlier you spoke of a desire to be governed. In the Netherlands the arts are in a position of dependence, complying to criteria for funding and dependent upon that funding. How can we cope with that? 

‘In our work we are first focused on what is being asked by social groups, particularly those that experience exclusion and injustice. We listen to their reflections, to their histories, like the history of enslavement and colonialism that have been silenced. These social and historical experiences guide our doing. When we realize that something is needed we start doing it and then as a second step we work on the funding and other material requirements. In a way we invert the logic, we do not work for the funding, we do not align our projects to the funding, we first start working and understanding our horizon of action and then we look for the material resources.’

‘When our Decolonial Summer School started eleven years ago it had a topic that no one cared for at the time: decoloniality. But we thought: this is important, also because of the almost forgotten history of slavery of the city of Middelburg. It became self-funded, through participant fees, because there was a real interest on it, not in the funding agencies but in the students that were already asking these questions. But it did not start by a call from an institution. That is one way of doing in the decolonial, a very counter intuitive logic to people thinking in the finance of things. We first produced our own vocabulary and ideas and then found institutional spaces that could host us. But the institution and its funding structure was not deciding what we did nor was it involved framing the content. I think administrators of institutional spaces could work in a coalitional way, not determining the form and content of the projects, but offering spaces and resources for the voices, the bodies that have not been heard, that have not been at home in those institutions, that have historically been excluded as artists and as publics. In a way, institutions that recognize their modern/colonial genealogy could engage in a a politics of hosting the worlds of aesthesis they have historically been excluding.’

Text: Lies Mensink

This text is published in a shorter version in Dutch on Theaterkrant.nl

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