Bruges welcomed the Reiefestival from 18-20 August, an eclectic mix of players and artists and audiences bringing radical life to the ancient spaces and artworks of this beautiful city that is intimately connected with the very history of itinerant performance.
The wealth and political importance of Bruges in the Middle Ages meant there was always a networking event or party to cater for with guests that needed impressing and entertaining by players’ hanging out and waiting for a gig at the Players’ Chapel. These days things are way more democratic: it is the city’s residents and tourists who enjoy the show – and indeed are invited to become it.
1. Rip it up and start again
The inaugural Reiefestival programme 2023 was a brave one for a city whose fabric and reputation appears sometimes to rest on people’s appreciation of its past and its relationship with Old Masters and ‘canonical pieces’. The festivals’ creators took those pieces and reinvented them, digitalising them, and even ripping them up. It’s exciting. There’s a tangible feeling of punk in the air, a sense in which Bruges seems to be rebelling against its frequent characterisation as a “living museum”. These days the pendulum is swinging more towards modern life than the dead.
Take Riccardo Santalucia and Gloria Dorliguzzo’s Myein and Enter the ❤. An “immersive audiovisual experience” exploring among many things, gamification. It involves a live – and deeply intense – dance performance from choreographer and dancer Dorliguzzo. She wears a helmet, dances for her life, and waves a baseball bat, apparently involved in some kind of virtual game. It seems violent. Ahh, gaming is so violent, we might think. Dorliguzzo peels off her helmet and her clothes. She now seems vulnerable.
2. “A different gaze on cultural heritage”
All this is set against a multimedia backdrop by Santalucia: the violence portrayed in certain Old Masters is thrown in our faces from the screen. A beheading. A creature ready to swallow us up. The landscape on fire. And, suddenly a swinging, turning, burning, multi-coloured, multi-pointed ball on a string (or is it a modern-day chain mace?).
One thing we hope for is a different gaze on the cultural heritage that is so well-known as part of the city.Riccardo Santalucia
“It’s very interesting to connect with this archive,” Santalucia explains. “There are many ways to animate these paintings. In a way you lose control of the shape and the sense and that detachment makes space for new ideas. Just enter into the colours. Look at them. So it’s all about, how do we contain images and how are we contained by them?”
“Sometimes it’s fragments, sometimes it’s fluid,” adds Dorliguzzo. “I tried to keep that quality in my choreography, directly connected to the video. And I’m playing a character where I’m both watching the video but” – she gestures – “I can also start melting the colours. That’s the connection.”
Indeed, one of the wonderful things about a city-wide festival is how the city itself “melts” and reveals itself to us differently as we move across it to find the various venues and performances. Bruges has so many bridges of course. And squares and gardens, where pop-up cafés have appeared. Past the iconic Grote Markt where the combination of clopping horses and carillon bells and buzzing tourist chatter all take on new qualities. The city seems like a puzzle or a game now.
We arrive at Joseph Ryelandtzaal, formerly the Theresian Convent’s church: the perfect venue for a festival whose theme is Faith, (but fear not, it’s a theme developed very generally, subtly and inclusively).
Here in this dark, calming space, Benjamin Verdonck, actor, writer, visual artist, theatre-maker and more, has installed a miniature, mobile theatre. Again, the performance draws on history – specifically the Baroque theatre and its use of ‘flats’ to develop the illusion of depth and perspective. Verdonck has taken this idea and contained it in an abstract form of about 4 cubic metres.
3. Freed from meaning
Pulling on strings that control layers and layers of wooden panels and shapes, he watches his own performance in a mirror – and is watched in return, not only by his audience, but by his accompanist, an organ player. They improvise and synchronise and the audience looks on, transported by this “looking box”, freed from meaning while invited by the music to create a narrative. For me it was sci-fi influenced, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, or perhaps Blade Runner. Abstract images of geometrics floating in space, doorway upon doorway opening; shadows throwing themselves upon ancient pyramids while the rich, eerie tones of the organ played on.
Verdonck has discovered a new language or poetic, and not just in terms of the “show”. The way he interacts with his “string controls” is a phenomenon in itself: dozens of them dangle at the side of his “looking box” each marked up with a code, so he knows what “string to pull”– useful knowledge indeed for anyone in the performing arts world.
“I wanted to create a space where you are liberated from choice, from dialectics, from yes or no. It’s an open, meditative moment where you can lose yourself. It’s an endless opening of the curtains and possible spaces, which is why it’s called ‘Locus Iste’ which means ‘this place’ which comes from the Latin phrase to celebrate a new chapel or space and means ‘oh how beautiful is this place.”
Verdonck is also particularly interested in relationships and connections. “In our media-dominated time it allows you to calm down and it’s analogue”.
You see that I’m pulling strings and people can relate to it, which is totally different to our devices that we don’t really understand and we throw them away when they are broken.Benjamin Verdonck, visual artist
4. Radical, inclusive art
In the evening, it’s time to enter the world of Nocturnes for a Society, at what some say is the oldest gymnasium in the world, the Turnzaal Houwest. It’s an immense, two-floored, wood-framed, balconied sports building, where the line between artist, performer, observer and voyeur is about to be blurred. Instead of exercise drills, an immersive experiential soundscape concept by Myriam van Imschoot and Lucas van Haesbroeck takes place.
There’s a sense of hush, even though the audience are “gifted” objects with which to make sounds: among which ball bearings in dishe, crushed paper and of course the sounds of the creaking venue. Microphones are suspended alongside gym equipment like ropes, ladders and parallels bars, against a backdrop of Gothic and rose windows.
Blankets are suspended too, felted over the preceding months by community groups with whom the artists have worked and which participants are invited to help make if they can’t sleep. They twist in the imperceptible summer evening breeze, on pulleys that can be raised and lowered like a sail, and indeed are throughout the evening.
A couple lie back on a mattress like a yacht’s deck. The soundscape clinks and moans, like a marina or an asylum as the audience and performers take their gifts and begin exploring“. A woman walks across the space twirling a ball bearing in a plate, rocking herself slightly. Someone ties a bandage, or perhaps a heroin band around his upper arm.
We are somewhere between the homeless, the drifter, the Tibetan mountain village, the hospital, and radical, inclusive art.
Participant Malik tells us he’s an Afghan refugee, barista, filmmaker and photographer. It’s his first time setting foot in this historic building, though he’s been in Bruges ten years. As the evening goes on, a bond is formed among the group. Our “sounds” are played back to us, sometimes recognisable, sometimes not, but everything we hear is a sourced here, this evening. The musicians use Ableton software and modular synthesisers.
We are given supper and, later, we harmonise (or don’t), vowel sounds, which are transformed and played back as we settle to bed on air mattresses, with pillows and cotton sleeping bags. I don’t expect to sleep but I do – one of the deepest, most restful sleeps I’ve ever experienced.
5. Electronics like brain signals
Van Imschoot tells me they’ve studied and trialled the process for over a year, to complement the 90–minute cycles of natural sleep. For her, the “way the musicians use electronics to process and transform what’s gone on here this evening, follows the way our brains use electronic signals and process what we’ve experienced during the day.”
Malik tells me he slept and dreamt wildly, “like flying through the jungle.” Another participant, Nikolaas Boucquey, tells me it was “surprising. Something happened there,” he said.
When it starts, it’s like a noisy thing, clank clank clank, but the more it evolves, the more it becomes coherent. And at the end of the night, you start to recognise the sounds you’ve made.Nikolaas Boucquey, participant
“The visual aspect was strong, and the place, which is a place of fragility, is carefully taken-care-of. I watched what was happening for hours, during the music. I wrote a poem about being there and spent some time outside too and shared that in the morning with someone.”
After such a powerful listening experience, I feel renewed. I’ve come together with so many new people and everything in the city sounds like music to me the next day, even the sound of the air conditioner in a bathroom. At Burg Square, Wensen voor de Wind, a steam-punk listening and wind machine is in situ, receiving “wishes” written on ribbons that are read out later near the city’s proud Concert Hall. “I wish to be a footballer” says one and I’m suddenly reminded it was Women’s World Cup weekend. I haven’t missed it a bit.
All I wish for is another chance to come back to Reiefestival another year.
If you want to know more about other events happening in Bruges, stay tuned to What’s in Bruges.