Evolving the artist

Richard Murphet

DasArts

DasArts

A unique event coincided with the latter stages of the 2005 Amsterdam Arts Festival. The DasArts Festival was organised to celebrate the 11th year of DasArts. For the first and possibly only time the festival put on display in a public venue (the Frascati in downtown Amsterdam) work from this year’s graduates as well as from a number of previous graduates invited to participate. The work itself, whilst never boring, varied in quality from startling to obscure, from disturbing to interestingly pretentious, from media-savvy to simply human. But the energy that drove the festival and that elevated it above the familiar collection of student work was the dynamic energy of DasArts itself—the school, the program, the congregation of artists committed to a way of developing.

Ritsaert ten Cate, the former Director of the Mickery in Amsterdam, created DasArts in 1994. His aim from the start was, as he said to his daughter in a letter written in 1993 when he was still in the preparatory stage, to “design a practical model that (as far as I know) does not yet exist.” The focus was not to be on “training” but on “evolving an extremely select group of participants who are given the opportunity to develop themselves as persons.” The school would offer “a large number of tools that he or she will be able to start using as desired.” But the basis of the contract with the participant would be reciprocal: “Call it a different sort of professional mentality mainly aimed at developing an awareness that you yourself will in the first place have to be able to offer something if you want to be interesting for the contact with specialists we will be providing for the program.”

The focus, in other words, would be on the development of the artist rather than on the work that the artist produces. In the words of the statement of purpose that ten Cate and his associate Marijke Hoogenboom wrote in 1995: “DasArts is a unique laboratory for development, wherein the artist is the product…and the work the artist creates in this laboratory period is only a signal of the development of the artist him/herself.” They summed up the objectives of DasArts as follows: “First, it is always about what is brought to it, and never what any one person can get out of it; second, each student is listened to and talked with by specialists with an eclectic range of knowledge and experience; third, although it is a full-time program, the rhythm of this program will be adjusted on an individual basis in such a way that each student may immediately apply his or her own findings; fourth, the program uses theatre as we know it now only as a tool to define what our students, the artists of the future, may make out of it; and, fifth, ideas executed are not considered valuable unless the consequences of those ideas are understood as being of first priority.”

The strength of DasArts, its success and its reputation as a leading international school of performance practice, lies implicitly in this clearly provocative list of objectives and explicitly in the unique way in which it puts them into practice. What I wish to do here is to outline aspects of the program that may stimulate thought in our Australian training centres.

Size

DasArts is a small school and seeks to keep itself that way, despite increasing governmental pressure to increase numbers. It is affiliated to the Amsterdam School of the Arts but works with complete autonomy in its beautifully but simply adapted buildings in what was a school for handicapped children on the outskirts of Amsterdam Centraal. Permanent staff are kept to a minimum so the focus can go onto the “extremely select group of students” and the “specialists” who run each Block. Currently the school is headed by performance artist Moniek Tobosch; the administrator is Lieve Baert who worked with Ritsaert ten Cate at the Mickery and came to work for DasArts a couple of years after it began; and the key advisory role of Dramaturg has been shared until recently by Jan van den Berg, Director of Theater Ad Hoc, and video artist Harko Haagsma. There are 3 other administrative and technical staff, integral to the operations of a school that never stops working. But the money is spent not on a large support staff but on the program that is the truly unique aspect of a DasArts experience.

Program

The participant enters a 4 semester program. The first 2 semesters each consist of a 10 week Block of work guided and curated by a mentor and guest teachers. Then follows 6 months of an Individual Trajectory (IT), an individual research project arising from prior artistic development. In semester 4, the Final Project (FP) is an autonomous work created in collaboration with a co-producer or venue. The IT and the FP are guided dramaturgically by the artistic staff of the school and additional mentors are chosen by the student. The focus in the FP is upon individual projects rather than collaborations. A student graduates with a diploma.

Artistic Encounters

Each Block encountered in the first 2 semesters has a theme proposed by the mentor. The workshops, lectures and presentations therein emerge as a response to that theme and the students’ interaction with it. The mentors chosen are all professional artists and have come from many different countries and continents. Past artist mentors have included John Jesurun, Anna Koos, Anne van Delft, Stuart Sherman, Moniek Tobosch, Richard Gough and Janine Brogt. Ong Ken Sen was a mentor in 2004 and earlier this year the Dutch group Discordia ran a Block. Needless to say, the drawing power of particular mentors is huge. To ensure that students enter the program and do not come simply to encounter a particular individual, it is a rule that the mentor and theme for a Block will not be publicised until after students have applied and been accepted.

Focus of the Learning Encounter

At DasArts they are not bothered about the acquisition of technical skills; the student should already have those when he arrives, or else they can be learnt elsewhere. The emphasis…lies entirely on the individual student’s personal artistic development.
Marianne Van Kerkhoven

The Student Body

DasArts is an international multi-disciplinary program. It is conducted in English to deal with international diversity. Although there is an informal understanding that there be some Dutch students each year, in fact the majority of participants are always non-Dutch. In the graduation I witnessed, there were students from Mexico, Japan, Germany, Lebanon and the Netherlands. Up to 75 applicants apply from all continents. This year, 12 were accepted for commencement over 2 Blocks. The usual number of ongoing students involved is around 30. Artistic background ranges across theatre, dance, video, music, visual art, design and installation art. Applicants have to travel to Amsterdam for their interview but once they are accepted the program is free and they are supported with an allowance that sits just above the poverty line in the Netherlands. For many international students this is a real incentive.

These facts are but a poor indication of the human, humane, interrogative, risky, brave power of DasArts. Two factors need to be mentioned in relation to this: humanity and interrogation.

Humanity

In his letter to his daughter in 1993, ten Cate wrote: “Insight into the self in relation to the other, also to read the other as though from a different culture, should always be highly esteemed.” This emphasis on the quality of humanity, implicit too in number 5 of the list of objectives, is reflected in the comment of a past student published in What is DasArts, a book produced during the recent Festival. “Block 1 to me was RESPECT, respect that was threatening…It made me think that art, no matter what the object or event, is about human relations and interaction…”

Interrogation

In his reflection on the program in 1998, quoting Plato’s dictum that “an unexamined life is not worth living”, ten Cate commented: “An unexamined institution is not worth the powder it would take to blow it to hell…The basic structure of DasArts enforces ongoing examination.” He is right. The Block structure ensures that a new curriculum is introduced every 6 months. That curriculum is completely the responsibility not of the permanent staff but of the guest mentor(s). This in its very form places the entire system under constant scrutiny.

But once this spirit of interrogation is allowed in, it turns in a healthy way upon its host body. In an inspiring address at the recent festival, Marijke Hoogenboom, in her paper, “Who is afraid of (art) education? Undecent proposals for an uncertain future”, put up for questioning not only the base structure of DasArts but the very concept of an arts education itself. (This from one of the foremost contemporary arts educators.) I don’t have the space to reproduce her argument here (it is something I wish to return to in a future piece on the challenges facing arts education in Australia), but will conclude with one of the opening salvos in her act of deep self-interrogation: “One of the crucial starting points of DasArts was and is, to suggest that with every new Block the school would be questioned and reinvented; but after 11 Blocks that I have been part of, I started to wonder if we really had kept our promise. Or—what was really needed to not just expand our system once again, but knock us out of our own territory forever.”

Quotations in this article are from: DasArts, edited by Jan Brand and Ewan Lentjes (Amsterdam 2000); What is DasArts, collated by Hein Eberson (Amsterdam 2005) and “Who is afraid of (arts) education?” by Marijke Hoogenboom.

With thanks to everyone at DasArts for their hospitality.

DasArts Festival, Frascati, Amsterdam, June 14-18

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 42

© Richard Murphet; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2005
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