Caring for fugitive imaginations. Co-elaborating with the poetics of care of former youth centre Rzoezie
In this essay, Robin Vanbesien reflects on his artistic approach of ‘co-elaboration’ with regard to the social imagination of the former youth centre Rzoezie (1978-2006) in Mechelen. As he explains, he aims to preserve the ‘Rzoezie imagination’ in his film the wasp and the weather (2019, 19’) as a distinctly sensuous matter, so that its ‘poetics of care’ can remain insurgent and fugitive.
In dit essay houdt Robin Vanbesien zijn artistieke aanpak van ‘co-uitbreiding’ tegen het licht van een welbepaalde context: die van de sociale verbeelding die het voormalige Mechelse jeugdhuis Rzoezie (1978-2006) zo typeerde. Hij legt uit hoe hij in zijn film the wasp and the weather (2019, 19’) de ‘Rzoezie-verbeelding’ wil capteren als iets heel zintuiglijks, zodat de poetica van ‘zorgen voor’ rebels en (voort)vluchtig kan blijven.
My film the wasp and the weather (2019, 19’) takes as its point of departure a collection of poems written by youngsters at the former youth centre Rzoezie (Tamazight for ‘wasp’; 1978-2006) in Mechelen.1 Youth centre Rzoezie was founded in 1978 by young people of Amazigh and Moroccan descent. Inspired by the principles of self-pedagogy and self-organization, as expressed in pedagogy of the oppressed by influential Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, Rzoezie organized and developed their activities ‘bottom-up’ and ‘from the inside’. The centre worked with youngsters on developing ‘positive identity development in solidarity with others’ – providing a safe space in the face of their many challenges at school, work, home, and on the streets.2 At the same time, the youth work at Rzoezie also exceeded the governmentally sanctioned care work by resolutely taking the lead in the civil struggle against discrimination and racism in Flanders and Belgium. Governmental policies discriminated the social and civil rights of newly arrived citizens in terms of employment, housing, school opportunities, cultural experience, and more. From the 1980s onwards, regulations and practices that instituted second-class citizenship were gradually undone, although never completely eliminated.3 The community of Rzoezie took up its civil responsibility by organizing protests and solidarity actions, marches and parties; initiating seminars, symposia, and political debates; joining strikes and occupations; filing official racism complaints; calling out postcolonial behaviour in institutional contexts; giving lectures on coloniality to the students of ‘white schools’; and so on. Eventually, in 2006, the centre was reformed under political pressure, and gave up its political activism. As a consequence, Rzoezie was renamed the Regional Open Youth Centre Mechelen (ROJM).4
In the wasp and the weather, the original authors – M’Hamed El Ouali and Abdelhay Ben Abdellah – as well as contemporary poets – Samira Saleh, Mathieu Charles and members of The Post Collective (Fatma Alomrani, Marcus Bergner, Muhned Bnana, Hooman Jalidi, and Mohamed Tawfiq) – revisit, recite, and discuss their personal selection from a collection of 28 poems from 1990 to 2000, which I retrieved from Rzoezie’s monthly print magazine.5 In so doing, the film re-enacts and revives the poems: far from being fixed in their written form, they are embodied, recited by voices that stumble, introduce, and comment on a text that someone has chosen and made their own. With this method, I intend to preserve the activist imagination of the moment in which they were written and to which they were dedicated – from 1990 to 2000 – as well as test the resonance of these poems in today’s social and political climate in Flanders, Belgium.6
Crucially, I regard the poems to stand in for the larger social imagination of the former youth centre. During my research, I was drawn to this collection of poems, covering a wide spectrum of feelings, visions, and critiques, both collective and individual, including loneliness, doubt, despair, romantic love, friendship, heritage, spirituality, solidarity, political rage, and so on. I started to consider these poems as metonyms for the shared imagination of the young people at the centre. More precisely, I assumed how the evocative polysemy of the poems was precisely tailored to the qualitative difference of the social imagination of Rzoezie as being complex, emergent, and fugitive.
My interviews with some of the former main protagonists of the centre provided me with further crucial understanding of what the social imagination at Rzoezie entails.7 The ‘Rzoezie imagination’ has to be conceptualized as an imagination of political solidarity: while dismantling the (postcolonial) doxa of ‘integration’ and ‘assimiliation’, they explored various forms of support to the intersectional struggles for equality regarding race, class, religion, and gender. Furthermore, Rzoezie started as a grassroots initiative, but became quickly recognized as an official organization, supported by governmental funding. Typically, governmentally sanctioned youth work in ethnic-culturally diverse contexts is organized in response to criminal and social insecurity.8 Such youth work inherently sustains a paternalistic view of social care work. The fact that Rzoezie experimented with self-organization, care, solidarity, and emancipation beyond the limits of what was governmentally consented to, did lead up to a political intervention in 2006 (led by Bart Somers, then mayor of Mechelen) which brought on the demise of Rzoezie’s work. Consequently, the reform to Regional Open Youth Centre Mechelen produced a closure of the Rzoezie imagination. It is one of many examples of how a cultural archive of a self-organization in the postwar civil society of Flanders and Belgium is being disabled, preventing the intergenerational continuity of emancipatory work and its imaginations.
The qualitative difference of a given social imagination is expressed through the many sensible ways in which it challenges the so-called ‘integrity’ of the world. Within the governmental ‘vision of society as a bounded discrete system’ there is no place for social imaginations such as that of Rzoezie, at least not on their own terms.9 Consequently, the Rzoezie imagination faces up to what is killing it. In the words of writer and filmmaker Toni Cade Bambara and relayed by sociologist Avery Gordon, these social imaginations have always been ‘unavailable for servitude, back stiff with conviction’.10 We can think of this unavailability in terms of resistance and struggle, but we can also think of it in terms of care. More precisely, we can think of the Rzoezie imagination in terms of what I call a ‘poetics of care’. Rzoezie reminds us of the various dimensions of the unfulfilled possibility of what care can be, when not paternalized and subject to abstraction, regularization and individuation. The political solidarity imagination of Rzoezie urges us to imagine care as a notion and practice beyond the limits of what is already understandable. This is because here, in the Rzoezie imagination, care is lived, felt, and imagined in relation to its absence. A haunting emanates from the troubles of social violence and passes within, across, throughout things. In the light of Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of racism as ‘the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death’,11 the shadowy grip of the ghostly matters that haunt the Rzoezie imagination can be understood ‘as a partiality to […] the deadly and not to the living. […] Because when ghosts appear to you, the dead or the disappeared or the lost or the invisible are demanding their due.’12 This unsettling encounter with the ghost enacts a social debt. It is this debt that, on the condition that it is collectively dealt with (as was the case at Rzoezie), can produce the conditions and possibilities for acting, for a something-to-be-done. This is where refusal or revision resides, where new formulations and calls for change, shifts, readjustments, or even rupture, might begin. This is where, ‘bottom-up’ and ‘from the inside’ of the Rzoezie imagination, various dimensions of the unfulfilled possibility of care appear.
Artistic work, as a critical and sensible entity for assembling (or breaking up further) the traces of the social imaginations it is interdependent with, is fit to attend to a poetics of care on the condition that it can preserve it as a sensuous matter. As an artist and filmmaker, I see it as my task not to ‘capture’, nor to ‘represent’, but to ‘co-elaborate with’ a given social imagination via the means of film production. Consequently, to co-elaborate in film with a poetics of care such as that of Rzoezie implies a couple of decisions.
It starts with taking a standpoint from which you make common cause with the given social imagination, in the sense of what anthropologist Michael Taussig’s calls ‘sympathetic magic’: to be more surprised by social construction, the making and making up of social worlds, thereby giving it the respect it deserves.13
As an artist and filmmaker, I see it as my task not to ‘capture’, nor to ‘represent’, but to ‘co-elaborate with’ a given social imagination via the means of film production.
Secondly, in terms of method, a collaborative-based encounter unfolds, which is a lived, relational making, forming, and composing, which results in something quite messy, very rich in experience, and somehow more precise than what signifiers such as ‘co-creation’ and ‘participation’ usually entail. To make the wasp and the weather, I wanted to retrace how the creative act itself and its circumstances can’t be considered separately in these poems – back then, when they were originally written, but also at the time of revisiting them for the film. So, when I asked the speakers in the film to choose two poems each from the collection, to recite these, and to explain their choices for the camera, my principal method was one of slowing down, and keeping it as simple as possible, in order to hear, see, and feel more, indulging in a sense of sheer presence. The film attempts to transfigure this sensation by interweaving the voices and their surroundings, and, in doing so, attends to the given that the lived experiences and imagined poetical figures are to some extent entangled. It is the film’s suggestion that the poems gain in importance precisely because they give rise to form in the way that they were written and in the way that we, as an audience, connect to them. If we manage to feel with and through them, it is perhaps because we realize that there is an inseparability between them, the daily social and activist work of the young people at Rzoezie and, eventually, those of us who have been given the chance to listen.
Finally, the filmmaking process becomes sensuously regrounded in the audiovisual. For me, making a film is the work of attending to these social resonances at these particular frequencies – already there but often unheard, overlooked, or unacknowledged. How I use film grammar and texture is a work of care: to preserve the Rzoezie imagination as a distinctly sensuous matter, to try to hold it up in this way so that its poetics can remain insurgent and fugitive. For the wasp and the weather, I composed with all the coincidental elements and materials in the space and in the picture frame, as well as composing a kind of parlour, a sense of time and forms of presence in the montage. The composing of the film develops in the process of making the film, which in return informs and influences the composing itself. In so doing, I became interested in how, as the verses of the readers in the film subside, a certain thickness of images appears, composing a troubled landscape layered with past desires and current doubts, overturning Mechelen’s peaceful but indifferent landscape. This conflicted landscape, which recounts the continued sufferings and struggles of racialized people in Flanders and Belgium, is eventually what the film proposes: a crucial milieu for us to enter and study.
When artistically co-elaborating with a social imagination like Rzoezie’s, we attend to a poetics of care, but also to the processes of making power. Those practices of care, which are non-compliant and experiment with self-organization, alternative approaches to social reproduction and the commoning of tools, technologies, and knowledges, do not take, but make power. Or, in the words of Ruth Wilson Gilmore: ‘When the capacities resulting from purposeful action are combined towards ends greater than mission statements or other provisional limits, powerful alignments begin to shake the ground. In other words, movement happens.’14 After reading his poem In a world for all of us! (1990) for the camera, M’Hamed El Ouali comments in the film on how it’s been a long time since he wrote the poem and how he would formulate it differently today. His comment is pertinent, as it confirms how, in order to preserve the poem, its composition is always incomplete, ever to be formed – like a gift in the expanded present.15
Images: Stills from the wasp and the weather by Robin Vanbesien, 2019, Courtesy of the artist.
is an artist and filmmaker. He is currently working as a doctoral researcher in the arts at Sint Lucas School of Arts and University of Antwerp. At the former, he is also the coordinator of the Master programme Art, Design & Image in a Socio-Political Context. His work has been presented widely internationally.
- Vanbesien, Robin. the wasp and the weather (2019, 19’). Commissioned by Contour Biennale 9 ‘Coltan as Cotton’, curated by Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez. ↩
- ‘Met open oren’, in: Rzoezie – Colloquium: In de ban van de wesp. October 1993, p. 15: ‘positieve identiteitsvorming = identiteitsvorming in solidariteit met anderen’. ↩
- Colloquium Racisme. Verslagenbundel. October 1998; KifKif in Rzoezie. Indymedia.be, 9 oktober 2003. http://hdl.handle.net/10796/9328186E-7469-4C1C-A5F0-7229B45F0D45. Last accessed on 19 March 2021; Debruyne, Pascal & Benichou, Hakim, ‘Het integratiepact bouwt luchtkastelen’. Sociaal.net. www.sociaal.net/opinie/integratiepact-bouwt-luchtkastelen/. Last accessed on 19 March 2021; In the historical process of undoing second-class citizenship for immigrants, the Flemish Government Agreement of 2019 is a startling regression: Debruyne, Pascal, ‘De Vlaamse regering wil vooral streng zijn voor nieuwkomers’. Sociaal.net www.sociaal.net/opinie/de-vlaamse-regering-wil-vooral-streng-zijn-voor-nieuwkomers/. Last accessed on 19 March 2021. ↩
- Rzoezie: ‘Stadsbestuur wil jeugdhuis ontmantelen’. Indymedia.be, 24 February 2006. hdl.handle.net/10796/4DA850C8-6144-4EEB-9B02-4C63B479E2DD. Last accessed on 19 March 2021 ↩
- This collection of poems has been retrieved from the issues of Rzoezie’s monthly print magazine in the archives at Amsab Institute for Social History, Ghent www.amsab.be/. ↩
- Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke University Press, 2016, p. 205: ‘In what we can call the weather in a “white world”, antiblackness is pervasive as climate’. ↩
- Based on interviews with Rudi Possemiers, M’Hamed El Ouali, Abdelhay Ben Abdellah, Saïda El Aissaoui, Abdeslam El Jaouhari, and Tjhoi Ng Sauw (March 2018 to February 2019). ↩
- For instance, think of the deradicalization programme related to Daesh/Isis fighters for Flemish youth centres. De bijdrage van jeugdwerk tot de preventie van marginalisering en gewelddadige radicalisering. www.vlaanderen.be/cjm/sites/default/files/2020-05/20200515_toolbox_vertalingVlaamsecontext_clean.pdf. Last accessed on 19 March 2021; Cools, Pieter, Wouters Ruud & Oosterlynck, Stijn. Casestudie: Wie speelt er mee? Vier casestudies over etnisch-culturele diversiteit in/en het jeugdwerk. www.middenveldinnovatie.be/sites/default/files/2020-02/Case%20study%20Jeugdwerk%20en%20diversiteit%20Definitief.pdf. Last accessed on 19 March 2021. ↩
- Robinson, Cedric J. The Terms of Order. University of North Carolina Press, 1980, p. 201. ↩
- Gordon, Avery F. The Hawthorn Archive. Letters from the Utopian Margins. Fordham University Press, 2017, p. 48. ↩
- Wilson Gilmore, Ruth. Golden Gulag. Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. University of California Press, 2007, p. 28. ↩
- Gordon, Avery F., Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. University of Minnesota Press, 1997, p. 182. ↩
- Taussig, Michael. Mimesis and Alterity. A Particular History of the Senses. Routledge, 1993. ↩
- Wilson Gilmore, p. 248. ↩
- Lorey, Isabell. ‘Presentist Democracy: Reconceptualizing the Present’. the documenta 14 reader. Quinn Latimer & Adam Szymczyk (eds.), Prestel Verlag, 2017; Lorey, Isabell, ‘Preserving Precariousness, Queering Debt’. Recerca. Revista de Pensament i Anàlisi, vol. 24, no. 1, 2019, p. 163: ‘to take off in a leap of time, Benjamin (On the Concept of History, 1940) says, to prepare for the leap into the open sky’. ↩