STUK kunstencentrum, Naamsestraat 96, Leuven, Belgium

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They Are Here: Witness: Ladeuzeplein, Leuven
STUK kunstencentrum, Common Ground
Text by They Are Here

Witness: The beetles, 2013, (10 mins 37 secs), HD Video from They Are Here

Witness: Passers-by, 2013, (8 mins 3 secs), HD Video from They Are Here

Witness: Observation, 2013, (8 mins 2 secs), HD Video from They Are Here

Witness is part of an on-going series of works by They Are Here, exploring re-enactment and human memory in relation to digital video and group dynamics. It can be thought of as a choreographic version of the game variously called ‘broken telephones’ or ‘zinnetje doorzeggen’.

The work usually involves us identifying or devising a site-responsive set of movements with four people, which is then video-recorded. Four members of the public are then invited to watch the recording. They are challenged to re-enact the video live. Their re-enactment is recorded - a new group of four is invited to watch this new version, re-enact it and so on. Up to seven re-enactments are made per day. In the evening, the videos are shown back-to-back in a ‘chain’ to participants and a wider audience. The videos are later distributed online or shown in the context of exhibitions or festivals.


We call the first video-recording in the chain the ‘starter film’. We ask ourselves: How difficult will this be to re-enact’ Is it too easy’ What is the potential for these movements to deviate’ If it changes too much between re-enactments, is that less satisfying’ How might interpretations of these gestures change depending on the gender and age of the participant’ Are these gestures engaging to physically perform, as well as to watch’

We also think about the relation between the proposed movements, where they originate from and the site where they will be subsequently re-enacted. We think about how our constructed realities visually overlap with what’s happening beyond the game, in the background or periphery, in real-time. When the live process takes place in open view of passers-by, it has the potential to generate a spectacle of its own.

For STUK, we decided to use three different methods to produce the starter films…

1. The beetles, 2013

In reference to Jan Fabre’s Totem sculpture, we created a choreographic sequence based on the movement of real beetles released in Ladeuzeplein. Performers traced the beetles’ movements with coloured chalk. These trails were then expanded to human scale, with the devisors repeating the beetles’ paths.

2. Passers-by, 2013

We positioned our video-camera to frame the square and let it record, inevitably capturing the movements of passers-by in Ladeuzeplein. Rather than translating this into a more formalised choreography with devisors as in previous versions, we identified a section of the footage that we felt was playful and replicable.

3. Observation, 2013 & Observation (Translation), 2013

We spent a day with our devisors observing everyday movements and gestures in Ladeuzeplein. We worked together to assemble the observed gestures into a single sequence. This collection of everyday movements is made unfamiliar again through being re-presented in a single frame. Uniquely, there are two versions of this chain emerging from the same ‘root’. One was filmed indoors due to rain and one was later completed outside as originally intended.

What do you not see’

Although the videos inherently record a process, what we don’t document is the interaction between the participants debating with each other or deciding who plays which role. In a future version, we would like to find an unobtrusive way of documenting the interactions between participants as they rehearse and recall the sequence they have just watched. We have often found this as interesting as the recorded sequences.

Other thoughts

Witness can only exist through ‘mutation’ and ‘deviation’. These words are often used negatively, but they make the work possible. The game is dependent on the failure to replicate what came before. Change is embraced as a productive element rather than a means to improve or become something else. The videos at their simplest map a series of related changes over a discrete time period.

One definition of witness is to have ‘personal knowledge of something’ at first-hand, something experienced through your own eyes and ears. The participants are witnesses, as is the video camera. Their accounts may vary. Witness enjoys this conflict.

Witness can be seen as a microcosm of the shifts in societal patterns that would usually take decades or generations. Taking one dictionary definition of ‘tradition’ as ‘an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought’, participants in the game ‘inherit’ a sequence of action that has occurred only an hour before their arrival, rather than a century.

This heightens an awareness that we are all born into the middle of things, never at the beginning. Things that have happened before we were born influence our current situation. Things that have happened before we existed are repeated ritualistically, sometimes enforced by the state or other power structures. People before our time have changed the pattern of repetition intentionally (and unintentionally) in big ways and small, new repetitions have been made, just as we ourselves are all doing things now (or not doing things now) that will affect future patterns.

Watching a screening of Witness, participants are able to see the full impact of their own behaviour within a discrete number of situations. Not only what they inherit, but what they bestow i.e. their effect on future generations. It becomes a microcosm of the on-going flow of life, which is usually hard to see because of life’s complexity, simultaneity and its continuation beyond our own individual life spans.

These thoughts overlap and embody the notion of the ‘meme’ - a repeated, imitated, circulated parcel of information or behaviour, as coined by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ Not to mention an increasingly relevant aspect of online popular culture.


They Are Here is a collaborative practice steered by Helen Walker & Harun Morrison since 2006. They are based in London and Birmingham.

Other References:

Augusto Boal, Games For Actors and Non-Actors (London: Routledge, 1992), Hans Haacke, Chickens Hatching (1969), Ten Turtles Set Free (1970), Bowery Seeds (1970), Peter Handke, The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other (first performed 1992), Pawel Althamer, Realtime Movie (2008), Siobhan Davies, various works, Trisha Brown, various works.

Witness: Ladeuzeplein, Leuven is part of the STUK Common Ground Programme 2013. In this context, STUK invites artists to work in and with the city and its inhabitants.

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