Interview Tom Bonte speaks about Brussels and the EU

The Goethe-Institut in Brussels is helming the Freiraum (“Free Space”) project together with the Kunstzentrum Beursschouwburg, whose director, Tom Bonte, is looking forward to this collaborative undertaking. In this interview he talks about the very special spatial freedom enjoyed by an art center, the widely diverging perceptions of Brussels and the alarming situation in Europe, which make empathizing with and talking to one another more than necessary.​
Interview by Uwe Rada

What did you think when you heard about the Freiraum project for the first time?
The project might sound a little artificial, but its core idea is interesting: can we still engage with issues affecting other European cities, can we collaborate with and show solidarity for other European cities, even when those issues may not – at first sight – seem to be of any interest to us?

Portrait photo of the author Tom Bonte Photo: Caroline Lessire © Goethe-Institut What does the word ‘Freiraum’, or ‘free space’, mean for you personally, and for your Beursschouwburg arts organization?

A free space, for me, is not just a place you can do whatever you want in. Freedom ends where it limits the freedom of others. And this free space is not passive. We must actively shape this space and, as citizens, try to help others enjoy that freedom too. People with less money, less education, and less skills might, in theory, have the same freedom as everyone else, but that does not necessarily mean they can use that freedom in the same way as I can. Freedom is a word, and it is something we need to work on in order to make it happen for everybody. Otherwise, freedom becomes a place that is reserved for the quickest, richest, luckiest few – a minority.

I think our Beursschouwburg art center really is a free space, a space where the limits of freedom are questioned, where people who need help in being able to exercise their freedom can meet and spend time together. I believe that is an important task for any art center. To not only be a center for art, but a social space where debates are conducted, and where people can create their own active form of freedom.  

How would you describe the Beursschouwburg’s work?
In order to break the mold, you have to stretch the idea of what an art center should do as far as possible. That’s why our whole approach is multidisciplinary: visual art, theatre, dance, music concerts, lectures, parties, workshops, reading groups. Everything is included. It all begins with art, but can end up being anything: a bike ride, a city game… 
Did you immediately agree to working with the Goethe-Institut in Brussels when they approached you about the Freiraum project?

Yes, we got to know the Goethe-Institut Brussels team in recent years as they have already supported a number of our other programs. We were delighted to take part in this project and were curious to see where it would lead us. We like stepping into the unknown, if the unknown is a ‘free space’.
In September, you developed the project’s key question during a workshop and a General Assembly. Do you think that other partners in Europe, for example in Bratislava, understand why you picked this particular question?

Well, I’m pretty curious to see what they will come up with after reading our question. We are aware that the issue is very specific to Brussels. But, actually, the way our capital is perceived should concern all of us in Europe. For us, who live here in Brussels, we are constantly confronted with the contrast in how others see this city and how we, as residents, experience it. From the outside it might look like this grey, Kafkaesque, managerial hub that keeps generating new rules and regulations, but from the inside it is a vibrant, energetic city with so many different nationalities all living together. It is a city with a visible artistic and cultural life, driven by two communities that try to open up to all newcomers, whether they are permanent or temporary citizens. I am fascinated to see whether we can bridge this gap between perception and reality. 

I’m sure you’re curious to know what country you’ll get and what question you’ll be asked. Do you have any wishes?

We’re just curious, and open to whatever comes to us. Personally, I am curious to hear what kinds of concerns other regions in Europe have, what their struggles are. And how, in this European context, we can try to help find some answers. Although, for me, the project is not necessarily about finding answers. It is about renewing the mutual understanding that once existed at the very beginning of the European Union, an understanding that seems to have been lost. In my opinion, the European Union can only survive if it makes a radical shift from being an economic union to a social one. It should not be a union of states, but a union of people. 

What kind of project would suit the Beurrschouwburg best? Theatre, dance, video?

It doesn’t matter if it’s a project that involves theatre, dance, video, music or something else. For us, the important thing is that it challenges us, and the artists we work with. How can we relate the question to the situation here in Brussels, and how can we get people interested? 

The idea behind the Freiraum project is dialogue and empathy. Do people in Brussels have this empathy when it comes to countries such as Greece, Spain or the Baltic States?

You can only have empathy for things you know about. You don’t have to understand it, but to develop empathy you at least need to be able to imagine the circumstances. Unfortunately, over the last few years, I think our politicians have seriously damaged our ability to engage in dialogue and feel empathy for other European countries. If politicians sell ‘good news’ as their own achievement and 'bad news’ as decisions made by the European Commission, that sets the tone. In such an atmosphere, dialogue increasingly becomes reproach, and empathy becomes disrespect. We are seeing this happen all over Europe. In order for the nation state to rise, there needs to be an external opponent. We urgently need to talk about this dynamic.