Beyond the Black Box: ritual, iconography and scripture

Beyond the Black Box is a festival that explores the boundaries of the theatre and its overlaps with other realms such as literature, music, film and visual arts. A mission that is all the more relevant in corona times. When we can’t bring together our bodies inside the black box, the screen becomes the mediator of not only the work, but of the entire experience of visiting that work. From 10-13 February, festival organisers Vlaams Cultuurhuis De Brakke Grond and SoAP Maastricht used the screen to convey a hybrid sense of ‘communion’.

This review is old-school in the sense that it contains one person’s thoughts on one day of Beyond the Black Box: Saturday 13 February. Not that the idea of a jointly written document, the hybrid critique experiment that was conducted during the festival, isn’t intriguing. But let’s pick up on that subject some other time. The festival website allowed plenty of scope for free association inside a single mind.

Saturday’s programme was bookended by two works that, as a set, drew clear parallels between religion and art as ways of seeing the world, or as providing tools to process life. Ritual, iconography and scripture feature in Paulien Oltheten’s live video essay Lourdes, named for the catholic place of pilgrimage. The same goes for Robbert&Frank Frank&Robbert’s virtual tour around their exhibition BREADCRUMBS. Both works also express a reverence of certain dedicated spaces; the cave and the exhibition space are presented as temples.

At Lourdes, pilgrims light candles, attend mass with its ritualised gestures and texts, and drink water from the blessed well to become cleansed of their sins or diseases. Oltheten, a close observer of physical human behaviour, captures the movements and attitudes that go with her subjects’ mission: coming closer to God. A woman juggling her possessions as she tries to hold up her hands in prayer, people lugging jerrycans of holy water, and a woman inching towards the sanctuary on her hands and knees.

Similarly, Robbert&Frank invite their viewers to a purging ritual. Their mission: to cleanse the world of sorrow. To achieve this, the two have devised a range of iconic images and objects, texts, and an invitation to viewers to partake in the ritual burning of a bad past experience. These become loaded with significance by their patient, amusing exegesis. Suspend your disbelief, though. This attribution of special value to objects, images, spaces, text and physical actions is not so different from the way the pilgrims view the water at the cave where the Holy Mother appeared to St. Bernadette. Religion and art are similar mental exercises.

Between these bookends the day unfolded as a series of religious episodes. I partook in several other works in which I tried to find clues about life, such as Charlotte Bouckaert’s intriguing animation Still Life with Chair and buren’s funny Computer Song, a clever comment on how in our online lives, work and private become blurred, complete with dick pics and appetizingly packaged cookies. I missed out on an opportunity to break bread with Sien Vanmaele, but I hear the Spirulina fell like manna from the skies. I read the scriptures (see above), went to confession, and had a near-mystical experience.

In a virtual space called De Tussenruimte, visitors were invited to join in a conversation. It was a Zoom meeting, but with the cameras turned off. The effect was that of a confession box, that in-between space where you enter being sinful and exit knowing you can be absolved. More importantly, this space to get together formed a welcome break from the insistent focus on the visual that typifies the screen-mediated art consumption we are currently confined to. Just talking to each other, listening purely to voices joining in the sing-song of a conversation, is a relief.

The near-mystical experience was provided on the exhibition page of Beyond the Black Box. Ezra Veldhuis, Benjamin Cools, Bosse Provoost & Oshin Albrecht created a short sculptural film, Even a Sun Disintegrates Now and Then, which viewers were asked to watch in a darkened room, underneath a blanket. Inside the pitch-black movie frame, a writhing object or creature appears, and after an initial silence its song (by Joris de Laet) sounds: it creaks and sighs and scratches its way through a dark cosmos and the endless expanse of time out in the universe. Gazing intently into the darkness beneath my heavy blanket I travelled with it, witnessing a cosmic death and resurrection.

To mark the end of the ceremonial in true catholic style, balance came in the form of a celebration: a cocktail-making workshop where the congregation gathered to imbibe a ritual potion before returning to a mundane context and close the laptops just in time for the nine o’clock curfew.

Photo: Alex Heuvink

Beyond The Black Box