Spaces and Voices in activist art projects in Belgium and the Netherlands: Personal reflections
Authors of the Week: Belgium
de Klimaatdichters and Poëziecentrum Ghent
In 2022, we, Will Kranendonk and Saskia Stehouwer, wrote a research paper for ArtACT about Spaces and Voices in activist art projects in Belgium and the Netherlands. We did this as core members of de Klimaatdichters/the Climate Poets, who are collaborating with the Ghent Poëziecentrum/Poetry Center in the ArtACT project. In this paper, we discussed a number of activist art projects that focus on specific spaces and try to communicate with all the living beings present in these places, including, and often emphasizing, non-humans. We also interviewed a number of experts in the fields of literature, climate and activism, who had many interesting, and sometimes surprising, viewpoints on the role of poetry/literature as an activist practice.
By means of a personal reflection on the research process we decided to exchange letters with each other, in which we focused on the embodied aspect of our research. Activism and poetry would not exist without our bodies, and the places we marked on the poetic map on the front page of our research and this reflection, only exist by virtue of the (human) bodies that have visited and witnessed those places. In our letters we addressed the dilemma of being humans trying to give a voice to nonhumans, while expressing those voices with our own human bodies. We discussed this issue by referring to examples from the projects and interviews, but also on a personal/spiritual level, zooming in on our own experiences and thoughts. In the letters, we reflected on the role of poetry as an activist practice and the different forms that this practice may take.
We each wrote two letters by hand, as this in itself is an embodied practice. For reasons of legibility and accessibility we have decided to type out the final versions of the letters, interspersing them with fragments of the original handwritten letters (in Dutch). As part of our own spiritual practice and to support our reflection, we drew two tarot cards, at the beginning and the end of our exchange, that are also included in the letters. We hope this additional reflection will give the reader a deeper insight in the importance of the body when engaging in art and activist practices, and into the many ways poetry can contribute to the awareness of, and connection with, all living beings on this earth.
20 July 2023
We took a walk through the nature reserve near your house a few months ago. We let our bodies
wander through the woods and over the moors; without a plan, without having chosen a route. I'm trying to picture us from above now. What would our path have looked like if we had marked it?
At the beginning of last year, we initiated a study on poetry and activism. We mapped projects on non-human voices and talked to writers, poets and activists about their work, fears and pitfalls, but above all, about what gave and gives them hope. I’ve often thought back to the map we made and the places we captured. It felt, and sometimes still feels, like something valuable to know where different writers and poets have tried to represent non-humans, and have attempted to make non-human voices heard (all the words here feel wrong, I prefer to focus on the attempts themselves). The makers tried. Because the way I look at it now, we humans can only imagine how non-humans feel and relate. So, every attempt to give them a voice is a kind of failure. A worthwhile loss, indeed. After all, for me the attempt is always more important than the outcome.
Before I continue, I want to explain that I believe there is no rigid distinction between body and mind. Maybe that’s naïve, to dare to know that with such certainty. I just can’t imagine empiricism without physicality, no experiences without feelings. Everything for me comes forth out of the sensations of the body.
Reflecting on the research we have done into the non-human voices in Dutch and Flemish poetry, I increasingly wonder what the role of the (human) body is within our study. I've been thinking about this role of the body, about what it means (to me) to have a (female) body. From my work as a writer, researcher and poet, I have derived several thoughts about physicality, the meaning of the (non-human) body, and the discourse in which we partly find ourselves. In this letter, I would also like to ask you questions, as a co-writer, poet and researcher, and as a shaman in training (may I call you that?), and I would also like to hear what you think about certain things.
I want to start with the writing itself. By definition, I see writing this letter as a physical activity. After all, as I wrote earlier, there is no empiricism without a body for me. And I’m writing this letter by hand for a reason. I can feel the grain of the paper under the ball of my pen. I sense the softness of the leaf under my fingers, my hand moves, muscles tense and relax. My body sits here, feels, hears and smells; it is there. I am in the now. There is no distinction, or at least not right now. My mind is on the activity, not on the dishes to be done, the washing to be hung, world politics. But the question that comes to mind is: can you ever coincide entirely with an activity, even if it feels that way? Hélène Cixious, the French feminist author, writes: ‘Censor the body, and you censor the breath and speech at the same time.’ She refers to the distance that women feel towards their bodies. I believe that gender is a construct and that alienation from the physical is not necessarily something female. Still, her vision does offer an opening to think about what writing is precisely. Do you let the body speak through writing? And my question to you is: do you believe there is a core of embodied wisdom? And if so, how does it manifest itself for you while writing?
Perhaps the difference between activist writing and ‘ordinary’ writing is how the body speaks. I am reminded of our conversation with Frank Keizer about activism and poetry. He claimed he is not an activist because he does not use his body in battle, in the sense that he doesn’t go to protests, or at least not at the time. When you write as an activist, you use the physical to evoke something in yourself, and that also touches on resistance, doesn’t it? I can’t quite figure it out, I notice. And that feels good. I would like to keep thinking about activism and writing, and by extension, about poetry. There are no single answers, which makes this correspondence so valuable. A few weeks ago, I was part of the occupation of Tata Steel with the Extinction Rebellion. When we broke through the factory gates, I felt again what physical resistance is. You are standing there in your material appearance, and something is moving, literally. How is that different from writing? What do you think about that, and how does that work for you?
In my PhD research, I focus on witch hunts in Europe and colonial America. Marxist researcher Silvia Federici argues that the witch hunts were the beginning of modern society, of the capitalist system as we know it today, because, at that time, the patriarchal order was first imposed on (women’s) bodies. The body thus became (and perhaps already was) a political vehicle. How do you view the body as a political instrument within your writing? Are we (for example) also kind of forced to tell the story about the climate and the decline of nature because we find ourselves in this specific time and cultural-historical context? And what about, in your view, the writers and their projects that we’ve put on our map? How do they relate to their political bodies, the place they write, and how is that for you?
Thinking aloud or writing, I wonder how we can bridge the distance between ourselves and the non-human voices we write about. All failures are valuable, all attempts, but in an ideal situation, we find a way to reconnect, to feel one with everything. I sometimes already feel we are all one, for example, during yoga. But I dare not say I can bridge the distance, whatever that distance is precisely. I wonder how you view this in your practice as a shaman. How do you make the distance between humans and everything else smaller? Within my question, there is the premise that there is a distance, and I am aware of that, but I feel that capitalism has alienated us from ourselves and the non-human places, animals and things around us. How does that feel to you?
I often think back to the walk we took in early February, about how we roamed. Do you think the trees felt our presence then? The grasses, the moss? Do you believe there is a way to ask them? Have you ever had an experience in nature where you came to speak with trees, plants and animals? If so, would you like to tell me more about it?
Dear Sas, thank you for your time, love and attention. I hope you are well and have a good, restful week, and that your body feels pleasant.
This morning, I drew a tarot card for us, the Two of Wands. The card shows a figure holding a globe in his right hand and a stick in his other. The figure knows what it wants, how to achieve this exactly has yet to be clarified. Now is the time to find out. Appropriate, don’t you think? We still have work to do to close the gap between the human and non-humans, if at all possible, but we’ll try again together. When we have more answers to our questions and, even better, work out which questions to ask, we can (hopefully!) move beyond the anthropocentric worldview.
I’d love to hear from you.
All my love and a tight hug,
25 July 2023
Thank you so much for your wonderful letter! Your reflections and questions made me think, or at least that’s what we call it automatically, but I no longer function that way. So, your letter made me feel. It initiated a process of remembering, combining, integrating...
During the research phase of our project, we already began questioning the traditional academic/rational methods to examine things. I believe we’ve both been raised within a tradition that is always looking for certifiable facts, things you can perceive, measure, record. People mainly partake in activities like these with the left part of their brain, and sometimes it seems as if the rest of the body, as well as the creative, intuitive right part of the brain, is merely an afterthought.
I was intrigued by what you wrote about the capitalist system exerting a form of censorship of the body, as well as about how a body itself can become a form of resistance, like for example when you bravely committed to occupying the Tata Steel railroad together with Extinction Rebellion, for which I have the utmost admiration.
Lately I find that my shamanistic studies have caused me to reflect a lot on knowledge and truth. (By the way, I would never call myself a shaman because I was not raised within a shamanic community, and I’ve only just started on the path.) For me, capitalism mainly represents a system that denies and represses the wisdom of the body, the intuition and the mystery, in exchange for a so-called ‘rational’ model of growth that currently is running headfirst into a brick wall.
I believe that witches, druids and other sages knew and used these more embodied forms of wisdom, among other things, to communicate with the non-human species that inhabit the world. The way they did that was not by rational thinking, but rather by opening themselves up, by trying intuitively and through ceremonies and rituals to get into contact with all that is bezield. Their basic attitude was one of reverence for all living things, instead of the ludicrous idea that humans would somehow take a superior position in the world.
Therefore, I do not think it is impossible to communicate with non-humans, or that attempts to speak on their behalf are doomed to fail from the outset. I do believe it takes reverence, discipline and humility to become a kind of vessel for these non-human voices, and that we should see this communication as a perpetual work in progress that will never reach its definitive form but will continue to change and evolve.
To me, an artist is someone who practices a form of magic. Artists are prepared not to insert themselves into the traffic jam on the highway, but rather take a secondary road through the countryside, or even a completely different destination. Artists, especially poets, are like the bards of yore, said Geert Buelens in our interview with him. They can bring a community together because they can give words to what other people feel but cannot express. I find this a beautiful example of art as activism, literally activating people to come together.
I would be interested to know what you think of this, and what you have learned from studying witches and your own practice as a witch (or do you prefer not to call yourself that?) about the wisdom of the body and intuitive knowledge. I think that, like shamans and witches, artists make use of a different, more embodied kind of knowledge. They, too, can open themselves up and to connect to a world that is larger than the one we see around us. How do you relate to this as a writer?
In our research, we focused on spaces, on specific sites. There was a reason for that. As it turned out, many of the artists we included in the research, made art that was strongly embedded within a specific place. In some cases, like Miek Zwamborn’s Mull-based project Knockvologan, life on, and with, the island, became an embodied art practice in and of itself. The artwork consisted of collaborations with parts of the landscape, for example, the changing tide, and was informed by the landscape. The same holds true for Language for the Future, the project about giving a voice to the North Sea.
To me, these projects testify to a form of belonging, of feeling at home. By fostering relationships with a place, with all the beings that together create that place, we as humans can start to remember that we are part of nature too. Art that is capable of rendering this feeling of oneness, to me, is a form of activism, albeit less direct or striking. If the artwork manages to convey the feeling of oneness or belonging to the readers/viewers, they in turn will recall or remember that they themselves are part of the web of life. And it is this sense of belonging that will give them the urge to take care of the web of life, and to build a relationship with it that will continue to evolve.
So yes, when we were taking a walk in the forest around my house, the trees did see us, and the animals did notice us. I now have complete faith in that. I also believe that they are all willing to communicate with us and to teach us, or explain again, how we can live as an integral part of the whole. If we are open to their knowledge and prepared to broaden our perspective, we can certainly continue our attempts to give them a voice and to mingle our voices with theirs.
I would like to ask you what role activism plays in your own work. How do you express your activist stance in your work and in what form? Is it a conscious choice or does it also happen unconsciously?
The paragraph you wrote about how current artists are almost ‘forced’ to take on climate issues in their work, fascinates me. Can you tell me a little more about this?
I have become much more hopeful now that I feel more connected to all that is alive. My optimism is nurtured by poetry as well as shamanism and the kindred spirits that I meet. I still believe that we can turn the tide and start to develop a new, reciprocal and sustainable relationship with the earth. How do you feel about this? What motivates you to take part in activism or to express it in your work?
This morning I looked up the Two of Wands you had sent, and it was literally the very last card in my deck, which I found peculiar. We clearly have different decks, because in mine this card consists of six flames and two ‘dorje’, the Tibetan symbol of a lightning bolt. The card shows the unbridled power of fire, the will to create, even if the old needs to be destroyed in the process. Clearly it is a no won race. But let’s continue to be committed and to try and communicate with all living beings.
Thank you for your words and for your attention and time. I love the fact that we can continue on this journey together! Looking forward to hearing from you, have a wonderful week.
Lots of love, Saskia
28 July 2023
Thank you very much for your wonderful, thoughtful letter. You have written so many valuable things that it took me a few days to let it all sink in.
You start by saying that you no longer want to work from your head but more from your body, which appeals to me. How could one think that there is a perception without the body? I keep asking myself that, and it reassures me that you want, and dare, to move beyond the provable facts or the mere framed thinking. Or maybe you already do! Or at least, as you write, you want to combine and bring together the two hemispheres (the rational one and the creative, sensitive one) again. That is precisely why I find your practice as a shaman in training so interesting. You write about how the capitalist system suppresses mystery, embodied intuition and wisdom. Your metaphor of the empty, blank wall is powerful; that’s exactly how it feels. There’s no wisdom there, for me consuming is just a distraction from what life is about. A friend of mine says: ‘People who consume endlessly are not concerned with the core of life.’ I wonder what you think about this and what the center of life is for you. Would you like to tell me more about that? And also, about your shamanic practice?
You are right when you write that the attempts to connect with non-human voices are not necessarily doomed to fail, and that it is still possible to communicate with them. I think my previous letter was embedded in the provable facts, the academic standpoint. Funny how my head looks for the safe lane again and, in that way, ends up within the rational way of thinking again. All that while I am also involved in spirituality and witchcraft. I think I will continue to be ashamed of those ideas. Afraid to be dismissed as a fool (I do not mean to ignore your thoughts because I find them valuable. This is my piece.) Do you have an example of a ceremony to contact non-humans?
I like how you mention respect, discipline and modesty as conditions for contact because those are the things that we as a Western society (as in, a large part of humanity) have lost or at least forgotten. Perhaps that is indeed the role of the artist or writer, as you say. Someone who can, and dares to, look at the world, himself, the other, and art itself with modesty, respect and discipline. In this way, art becomes detached from the ego. In my opinion, the capitalist system is built on egos: more stuff, more money, feeling less, less fear (as long as I have a house, car, a good salary, I no longer experience how insignificant I am and I do not have to think about how special, and often frightening, life on Earth is). The artist can move past this and then meet the ‘core’ again, which means, for me, the deepest ‘being’, one with everything that is alive. Indeed, like Miek Zwamborn on Mull. I am now reading her book Onderling about the island, and she is pre-eminently the activating connector that Geert Buelens also talks about. She cites different stories about the island and its coastline and combines them with poems by other islanders, landscape photos, anecdotes, letters and nature notes. Together, all these pieces form a mosaic of Knockvologan. She combines the rational with the sensitive, the landscape with her inner world. Is that the kind of research you long for?
In our research, we focused on artists and their spaces and places. Do you feel so connected to a place, like the North Sea project you mentioned? Is there a place where you feel at home? Where can you become deeply aware of the unity of everything?
I hope you’re right that we can start feeling more connected again. I yearn for a world in which I feel less alienated from nature. Fortunately, there are also plenty of times when I feel it, for example, when I’m wild camping and singing mantras by a large fire on the evening of the New Moon. Miek’s book also proves that we can learn to live together with the land, which gives me hope.
I notice from your writing that you are more in touch with your embodied knowledge than I am. How did you learn to feel and read that way?
What a lovely idea that the trees and animals were with us during our walk. What would the trees, plants and animals have wanted to tell us then? And how would our voices sound if we could reconnect them with all living things?
As I wrote in my last letter, I struggle with the difference between activism and writing. These topics and their differences are essential because I want to feel that what I do is meaningful. During the actions of XR, I feel useful. I feel that I am committed to something fundamental to me. While writing, I also feel that need, but sometimes less so. I think they are two different things, but they can meet. I’m interested in that overlap. I believe something special can happen there, something magical. A magical moment when things come together: the writing that flows, a specific resistance from which I draw strength, feeling a strong sense of unity... How does that work for you?
And yes, when I write about the ‘forced’ story, I think of Greta Thunberg, who said during a speech: ‘You have stolen my childhood with your empty words.’ The world leaders she addresses have taken away from her a carefree childhood without fear of the climate crisis. Therefore, she is forced to make the story about the environment her story. I don’t want to say it’s a bad thing that I write about the climate, but sometimes I wonder how different my artistry would have been if we weren’t faced with these huge questions.
These may be empty thoughts, but for me, they might touch on our lack of connection to the nature we are part of. If we didn’t live in a world dominated by greed, fewer people, animals, plants and trees would suffer.
Maybe I’m just writing this to mourn all that is lost and has gone. Fortunately, your letter gives me hope, so I'm happy to hold on to that. I am hopeful at times, like after reading your words, and those moments give me the strength to keep going, fighting with the Extinction Rebellion, researching and learning.
I think the question of whether it will be ‘right’ is not that relevant to me, because ‘right’ looks different to everyone. And when I say I don’t think it will work out, it seems like I’m absolving myself of my responsibilities to at least try. How’s that for you?
If I see correctly, you do indeed have another Tarot deck, the Crowley Thoth. Nice card. And it is also interesting that it expresses a will for revolution. Would you like to draw another card for the following letter?
Hopefully, you had a lovely week and regularly felt one with everything. Do you have any nice plans for this weekend? I’m going to read and continue writing my book.
All the luck in the world to you, and a tight hug,
2 August 2023
Thank you very much for your beautiful and candid letter. I understand the struggle you describe between hope and despair, as well as around the idea of activism. It reminded me of Joanna Macy’s process of ‘active hope’, which starts off with ample space to mourn what has been lost, and from that space develops a new story that offers guidance to stay hopeful and come into action to clean up the mess at the same time.
I believe poetry can accomplish a similar feat and play a vital role in all the stages of this process from despair towards hope. In their interviews, both Mahlu Mertens and Maartje Smits mentioned that it is also important to just write about feelings of despair and confusion, because expressing them means we can share these feelings and mourn together.
Subsequently, poetry can help make the invisible visible and show us what is possible when all the registers of the imagination are opened (from de Klimaatdichters’ mission statement). And as Dominique Groen states: you can only change something when you can imagine it. I find that a wonderful assignment for artists: stretching, enriching, revisiting, fine-tuning and bending the language to such an extent that other connections and options become imaginable.
I completely agree with you that the culture of limitless consumption provides a way to avoid the essence of life. It seems to be a form of sedation, which makes it possible to avoid having to relate to a larger whole. For me this is the essence of life: to embody your place in the world and to contribute in a valuable way to the greater whole, in whatever manner you choose to. I believe that the way to do this is closely related to seeing all living beings as sacred, and cultivating an attitude in which you depart from awe and gratitude for all the wonders around you.
Another thing I really liked about the projects and interviews from our research was the idea of the power of the collective. How we can re-establish poetry as a communal practice, like we are doing now with the drone-project for example, as well as with the performances around threatened species. By regrouping ourselves around the fire, so to speak, we can share our feelings and start creating a new story for the coming era. A collectively shared experience also adds an extra sense of connection and can lead to being more open to different voices with opinions and backgrounds other than your own. I find that working together with other artists, next to my own practice as an artist, makes me feel more creative and open. It helps me to see more possibilities and experience a nurturing form of solidarity.
As for coming into contact with non-humans: since I’ve only been on the shamanic path for a very short time I do not claim to have any definite ideas on the best way to do this, but for the moment, I find the metaphor of the tracker very helpful. Real trackers do not only put their brains on high alert, but engage their entire bodies, in order to pick up and process all possible impressions and clues. All their senses are involved, as well as an extensive knowledge, gained from years of observation, about the weather, plant life, animal behaviour, water, coupled with an anchored trust in their intuition, which you could define as the sum of all their knowledge and skills, topped with a solid faith in a benevolent universe, or whatever you prefer to call it. God, Great Spirit, Gaia. A benevolent power that helps you when you are aligned with it and trust in it. Living like a tracker, spending a lot of time in a wordless state, is the best way I’ve found so far to connect to non-humans.
I wrote a couple of poems for my new book by trying to imagine, to the best of my ability, what it would feel like to be a river, for example. To visualize how my body would move like a stream, how it could sense what water feels like when it meanders between rocks, or a single drop of rain that is falling down. And, at the same time, to remain open to whatever words may come to describe the experience. So far, words always come :) Of course I do not claim to have discovered the ultimate voice of the river, but I do believe that by trying to embody the sense of being a river, I can create a deeper connection between that river and myself.
Is this activism? I suppose opinions will vary, but that is a good thing. To me, the connection has value in and of itself. Apart from that, I believe that any line or verse that evokes a sense of connection in the reader, or a feeling of sacredness, or a willingness to take care of the earth, could be considered activist. In my view, there are merely different forms of literary activism, both on paper and in the public space. From describing the beauty of a tree to performing on stage during a protest meeting, all of these can be valuable ways to use your words for a good cause. Some forms may require a different commitment, or more bravery (to show up physically), but all can contribute to creating ‘the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible’ (the title of a great book by Charles Eisenstein).
You mention Greta Thunberg’s accusation. I understand her anger, and that of many other activists, very well, and I can see that this anger propels them forward to do what they want to do. I admire their courage and clear viewpoints, but I do not feel the urge to accuse people, or point at a dichotomy between us and them. That does not mean that I disagree with the way they take action, on the contrary. I just know that’s not where my power is. I want to be gentle, without being weak. I prefer pointing out the miracles and the beauty that still surrounds us, and the possibilities to deepen our relationship to all wondrous things.
I think any era has its own challenges, and that artists will always meander between their artistic freedom and their urge to contribute their voice to a good cause. This creates tension and is certainly not always comfortable, but I think that it also holds great potential in that it forces you to be on the top of your game in order to create an equilibrium between the two. At its best, literature manages to convey a message without losing any of its artistic brilliance, which is not an easy feat but definitely something worth striving for.
Having arrived at the end of our research and reflection phase, I drew a final tarot card this morning, after asking the following question: how can we reinforce our intention to create space for non-human voices? The card I got was the Star (card XVII, Thoth Tarot deck), ‘the sensitive understanding of cosmic coherence, the intuition that everything is in balance and harmony. The Star keeps the balance with feeling and imagination.’ Beautiful, isn’t it? It feels to me like the perfect summary of what we hope to achieve, through this research, through our own work, and through collective activist practices.
Even when our research ends here for now, I hope that we will continue to exchange ideas, together and within the wider community of de Klimaatdichters, and that we will sometimes gather around a fire (be it real or virtual) to come up with new stories that do justice to the magical and beautiful world around us.
I wish you a wonderful day full of conversations with trees, animals and other living beings!
Lots of love, Sas
Will Kranendonk (1994) is a writer, poet and screenwriter. Last year Van Oorschot published her debut novel De Geliefden, which was well-received in the press. Her previous work has appeared in Tirade, DW B and Liegend Konijn. She has recited at many literary festivals and has won several prizes with her poems and stories, such as the Turing Poetry Competition. She is currently working on her next novel, for which she received a grant from the Dutch Foundation for Literature, and is pursuing a PhD on witches in children’s literature at Tilburg University.
In October 2023, the graphic novel Vis will be released by Uitgeverij Menlu, which she made together with artist Irene Schiphorst.
In her spare time, she cycles, brews witch potions, and practices yoga.
Photo by Wouter le Duc
Saskia Stehouwer (Alkmaar, the Netherlands, 1975) studied Dutch and English literature at the University of Amsterdam.
Her first volume of poetry, entitled wachtkamers (waiting rooms) was published by Marmer Publishers in October 2014 and received the prestigious C. Buddingh’s prize for poetry in 2015. Her second book, vrije uitloop (free range) was published in October 2016.
In July 2017, Iets anders/Something else was published by Dutch Poet Press. The book contains translations of poems by Ingmar Heytze and Saskia Stehouwer by poet/translators Joel Katz and Robert Perry. Katz, Perry and Stehouwer continued their collaboration to publish Vrije uitloop / Free range, the English translation of Saskia’s second book of poetry together with field notes, in April 2019 through Dutch Poet Press.
In that same year, Saskia published the compostable poetry book bindweefsel (connective tissue) on handmade paper from kitchen scraps and plants. The book can be thrown on the compost heap after reading so that it can return to the cycle of nature. Translation of the book is underway.
Saskia is one of the founders of de Klimaatdichters (Climate poets). Her most recent book of poetry is called wonen op de rand van het wonder (living on the edge of the miracle, Marmer 2023).