At the time of writing I have not experienced – have not seen, have not heard – Sarah Vanhee’s Lecture for Every One. I haven’t even read the text of the lecture. To this extent I am in the same situation as those who might invite Vanhee – or accede to her offer to invite herself – into their annual general meeting, their monthly sales conference, their weekly support group, or their once in a lifetime investiture, or wedding, or leaving do. As such, her performance comes onto the horizon as a sort of promise: but a promise of what? I imagine how it might be if Vanhee were to bring the lecture into the kind of environment I am familiar with, a university committee meeting, say, where – whatever else we might be to ourselves and each other in the rest of our lives: thinkers, teachers, writers, activists, friends or opponents – we focus here our otherwise chaotic and multiform selves into forms of distributed and coded rationality, more or less identifiable interests, and modes of burocratic capability. Who, or what, would Vanhee be there? A stranger in the room? A representative of some other part of the institutional apparatus, proposing her strangerness as an item on our agenda? What would she say? How might she act? And how should we respond? Would we do what such gatherings are supposed to do: debate the issue – whatever the issues turn out to be – make a note in the minutes, and commit ourselves to an action point? What sort of action – what sort of decision – might Vanhee’s intervention call us to, if any?
What I do know is that Vanhee has been working already in this territory of the carefully measured – but at the same time radically uncertain – promise of the human encounter. Her 2010 book The Miraculous Life of Claire C recounts a series of meetings with strangers, conducted through emails and then on park benches in Amsterdam, with the intention of re-populating an unfinished novel with the ‘real life’ that the novel evokes. The book is self-consciously clever. It is also touching in what it says about the quality of accidental intimacy that is part of the texture of life in any of our cities. Like much of Vanhee’s work – for example the ongoing project Untitled, which involves individual members of the public visiting another individual’s home for a personal tour of the self-accumulated art that is kept there – the book speaks of the hopeful but also uncertain ways that the fictions we carry around with us, and carry ourselves around in, can slip in and out of reality at any moment. As if, indeed, the promises we make only to our imaginations, might at any moment be called to account by the world those promises are drawn from, with who knows what consequences.
My own first encounter with Vanhee’s work was in the theatre, for a performance in 2011 of Turning Turning (a choreography of thoughts) where Vanhee and two fellow-performers present a particular virtuosic practice, a way of speech to put it simply, which involves the performers in turn speaking as quickly as they can whatever comes to mind for a fixed period of time. It is a performance in which words and images – a countless number of both – swirl and refract randomly like oil splashed onto the pool of thought. It is a work that has the strange effect of seeming to promise us everything and anything, while leaving us with something else, that is also more than that everything: the singularity, the fragility, of the individual person, the bare actor as it were, attempting to think, attempting to speak. If, though, Turning Turning was about a very particular provocation of attention, putting the activity of thinking itself into play and having it acted out in public for spectatorial consumption, Lecture for Every One promises a different sort of relation to thinking. Indeed I imagine the Lecture more as a coaxing to action – or at least a call to activity – which it does by functioning as a sort of place-holder: for other people’s thought, for other people’s considerations, or just for other people’s fifteen or twenty minutes of stopping-time, of rest from the machine, and of ethical recuperation. Something ‘for’ every one, however we take it. But then, what is at stake in that ‘for’?
When discussing some of the ideas behind Lecture for Every One, Vanhee talks about the ancient Greek concept of parrhesia; or ‘free speech’, in the sense of words spoken in public in a way that puts the speaker at risk, speech that takes on the fear of truth-telling – in relation to power, in relation to strangers – speech, we might say, that puts the truth itself at risk. It goes without saying, there is nothing simple – and nothing too direct either – about free speech conceived in this way. As Foucault remarked in his late lectures on parrhesia, what is at stake is not ‘the disclosure of a secret which has to be excavated from out the depths of the soul’, but rather ‘the relation of the self to truth or to some rational principle.’ That indirection is only likely to be exacerbated when Vanhee translates her lecture, conceived largely for non-arts spaces, to the rather particular public space of the theatre, as she will do at Kunstenfestivaldesarts this Spring. Perhaps, though, the peculiar promise of Lecture for Every One has to do also with driving a line between a gesture conceived on the one hand very simply and directly indeed – ‘It should be possible,’ she tells me, ‘it’s basically just a person who says some things, a person who speaks to other persons’ – and on the other as something altogether difficult. As Vanhee herself points out, the very title of her lecture – leaving aside the self-evident element of hubristic ambition – is an equivocation: can a lecture for ‘everyone’ be at the same time a lecture for every ‘one’? What kind of relations, between individuals and collective, between citizens and strangers, between natives and foreigners, between oneself and one’s several other selves and all one’s significant and insignificant others, would be at stake in that distinction?
Another writer who addressed, as she put it, ‘the difficulty of the difficulty’ around the question of ‘how to represent the aporia between everyone and every “one”’ was the philosopher Gillian Rose. Rose’s concerns – not unlike those of Vanhee, who speaks to me when we meet about the Rousseauian social contract, or the challenge of engaging the ‘rational egoist’ identified by Hobbes in the interests of the common good – are with the politics of citizenship, or as Rose puts it questions of ‘love and the state’. What distinguishes Rose’s thought is the way that her critique of what she calls spurious universals – ethical, religious and legal values that tend to be imposed and maintained through violence and exclusion – leads not to an outright rejection of such values, but rather the ever-to-be-repeated, ever-to-be-renewed performance of an ‘aporetic universalism’, an indefatigable trying again – at love, at justice, at truth, at care – that takes place in the ‘broken middle’ of all of our equivocations. Rose’s own examples are the likes of Rosa Luxemburg and Hannah Arendt, and for Vanhee also, Arendt’s thought on the potentiality but also the fragility of the ‘space of appearance’ that comes into being wherever people ‘are together in the manner of speech and action’, has been crucial to her work on the Lecture. It is the sort of thinking that seems to borrow something from a theatrical way of understanding the world. And the sort of considerations – practical considerations, we might say – that Rose discusses in relation to the performances that take place in the broken middle – philosophical, artistic, and political performances – have to do with dilemmas such as those of authors and actors: what it means, for instance, to speak with one’s own voice, or to act or perform in one’s own name, when one is heard by others as a stranger, or when one’s own name is at the same time a sort of pseudonym. The work of love, and the violence of the situation tend to go hand in hand.
Vanhee takes up the thread of love and violence when we meet to talk. ‘For me,’ she says, ‘this problem of the stranger is very important, the stranger not as something that should be repelled or embraced, but something that fundamentally changes us, something viral that cannot but transform you. It has something brutal almost, and I like this brutality.’ She speaks also, when discussing her own role – as an actor, a persona – in the Lecture, as another sort of aporetic performance, a way of registering – alongside the simple ‘possibility’ referred to earlier of a person speaking to other people – accompanying degrees of ‘impossibility’ inherent in the project. She is there, she suggests, in the places she is invited into, as ‘the clown, the stupid one, maybe a “nobody” or an “everybody”, as one element of this “being amongst”. It’s a tricky role,’ she continues, ‘because I cannot speak about “we” at that moment, there is no we I can speak of. And at the same time I cannot speak about “you” either, because there is no you that I know. Consequently, I can only speak of myself. But I cannot speak of myself as an example.’ If not an example, I suggest to her, perhaps then in her role – as an intruder, as a guest, a messenger, a parasite, an analyst, or as a visiting functionary from some other, worldly reality that in its very existence draws attention to the contingent structures and boundaries of the situation into which she arrives – she brings also a potentiality to the situation that was always already there. A sort of elasticity: not quite in the sense of a situation expanding of its own accord, priding itself on its capacity to accommodate – and it may be tame and incorporate – the foreign element, the stranger, but rather the lecturer herself, as part of the situation for as long as she is there, bringing that elasticity herself, and then… taking it away. An elasticity of the imagination, call it, which takes perhaps its most telling risk – to recall the earlier topic of parrhesia – when it takes on the banality, the everydayness, the ubiquity of fear. ‘A great deal of our imagination,’ Vanhee says to me, ‘is being filled with fear. Fear asks so much of the imagination. How, then, to address the imagination in another way than by filling it with fear? I think about the society we live in as a fiction we decide to believe in. One of the questions I put to myself for this project,’ she says, ‘is what kind of other fiction would I find interesting to believe in? What other images comes with that? What other languages come with that?’
So much promise; so much that could be promised, and imagined. But promising can also be a sort of trap. As Vanhee herself allows: ‘It is not the lecture for everyone; it is just a lecture, for every one.’ It makes a difference. ‘I think it will anyway not be enough’, she says, ‘because when I say “lecture for every one” to you, you have a dream about it. I also do. But this can never be that. It’s not a dream speech, it’s actually quite unspectacular’. I say to her I was imagining it might be unspectacular. Something, in the absence of the event, is taking shape. We return to the question of the performance as place-holder: for the imagination of the stranger element, for something yet unspoken, unthought, undone; for something yet to come into appearance; if only some fleeting contribution to the struggles of the broken middle, and the work of love. ‘It probably has a lot to do with love,’ Vanhee says, ‘where love is keeping that space open for whatever comes in, even if you never know what it will be. The perverse thing is of course that people don’t “give” me that space, basically I take it. I put them in the situation of giving me that space, so there is something very forceful about it. I don’t know if it will stay this way but in the text as it is now I also say thank you for giving me this time to speak and the coming fifteen minutes. But they didn’t decide to give me that. There’s something violent in it.’
Professor Joe Kelleher
Head of Department: Drama, Theatre and Performance, University of Roehampton