Here’s to you, to the young: Ask & engage. Stay hungry, stay foolish.

At the very beginning of my time as research professor at Fontys University of the Arts, I was asked to address staff and students – the first year students in particular – at the opening ceremony of the academic year. I was happy to do so, but with the idea of staying away from typical terminology of my field such as “research” and “inquiry”, “method” or the theme of my position, “Artistic Connective Practices.” I wanted to aim for an inspiring point, which contains some of my ideas behind my work at Fontys, but would still be open enough to speak to everyone in the audience (from heads of studies to teachers to students). I chose for two main points to make: asking questions and being engaged with our work. What follows is a slightly edited version of what I said.

The spoken word performance “The Butterfly Speaks” by Jörgen Gario & Joost van Kersbergen preceded my part. Some of the performance’s images and metaphors resonated with me and with what I was about to say:

  • “necessary isolation”
  • “epic stories of freedom”
  • “getting lost between dream and reality”

These are powerful images that point at the heart of some of the aspects I think studying at an art university is about. As students – and as artists – one sometimes needs to isolate oneself; to learn, to develop, to play and to make (or, in Beckett’s words, to try, to fail, try again, fail again, fail better). Somewhere between dream and reality there is freedom to explore, which might provide the possiblities to go further, to go forward.

These resonances are not the only quotes I am using here; in fact, a part of the text’s title is a quote:

Stay hungry, stay foolish.

Steve Jobs said this in his famous speech for graduate students at Stanford University in 2005. But it’s actually not from Jobs himself, he quoted it from a publication by Stuart Brand, “The Whole Earth Catalogue”, published in the 1960s. The quote was printed on the back of the last edition of this publication, and this was what Jobs wished the students for getting into life and work: Stay hungry, stay foolish.

Another two things Jobs said in this speech were: “Keep looking. Don’t settle.” and “Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is other people’s thinking.” And although Jobs didn’t talk to an art audience that day, I think these words are just as important to us. And these words lead us to the two points I want to explore: asking questions, and being engaged and responsible. These two things. And I will do this through a few other quotes that I find inspiring and insightful.

The first year students are just about to begin a new episode – starting life and learning at an arts university. I wholeheartedly congratulate them for being brave and bright enough to choose this path. Much of our education seems to be about the future: learning for the professional field, becoming a professional artist, musician, designer, performer, maker, and so on. But as bright as we like the future to be, much of if is also uncertain: A look at the news in the last couple of days might be enough to be overwhelmed by challenges and fears. But nevertheless, let us aim to see the future not with fear, insecurity and difficulty, but with brightness and the comfort of not-knowing what’s going to come; and with the will to do good, however big or small.

So first: Questions.

In most of my work, and how I see the work of making art, not knowing is not only essential in keeping an open mind, but also a necessary attitude and way of being, of acting and doing. Being curious, asking questions and daring to not know: and keeping all this while we grow older and more experienced. I honestly believe that continuing to ask questions and working with them is what enables us to follow our path into the future, even if we don’t have the slightest clue how this future will actually look like. Asking questions and working hard in order to find answers is what enables us to shape this future. And this does not only go for the arts, but for other disciplines and sciences as well. I found the following quote hugely inspiring, from Charles Rice, 2020 Nobel laureate in Medicine:

Rice makes a few important points here: to be honestly curious and work hard to follow this curiosity with all risk and consequences; and to truly embrace the unexpected, and embrace true transformation. By being truly curious, working hard and staying open, we have the chance to transformed (for the good!) by your own curiosity and searching. But what does it actually mean to ask meaningful questions? And what can we do with these questions? First, some questions as examples (mostly coming from bachelor students I have worked with):

  • How to balance making art and earning a living at the same time?
  • Is this question of balance actually a good question?
  • How to situate oneself in the art world?
  • How do you find people to work with that think similar to you?
  • What is or can be one’s individual role in an “industry”, in a field, in the “market”?
  • How do changes in the world affect us as art makers and creative professionals? How do we relate to these changes? What are the actual tools, techniques or materials we can really use in making work that reacts to these changes in meaningful ways?
  • What kind of change do we want to initiate ourselves?

None of these questions have obvious or easy answers. And what is necessary to work with such questions? As I discuss with students regularly, it is important to not just let these questions circle around in one’s head – we need to do something with them. What is necessary to know, what kind of information do you need and where can you get it; what can you do practically; who can you talk to? Going back to Steve Jobs: Keep looking. Don’t settle.

And to be clear: Clear-cut answers are not the most important thing to find. To some of these questions it is possible to find answers, such as to questions about materials in creative work, such as the right colours, places, inspirations, texts, harmonies or sounds. Some questions are not possible to be answered with language, but through doing: one might find a “way to do things”, and this is the answer to a question – wordless. But actually it is the act of asking questions itself that matters, to keep asking meaningful questions, and keep looking for possible ways to answer them – which might lead you to new questions, to new puzzlement, confusion – to more “getting lost between dream and reality.” Honestly asking questions keeps us on the edge of what we can do, brings us to new discoveries, keeps us moving, and keeps us on the side of the not-knowing.

And that’s the inspiring journey. Keep looking. Don’t settle. Stay hungry, stay foolish.

So second: Engagement.

We are artists, designers, makers, teachers. With this comes a huge amount of freedom and possibility, – “epic stories of freedom” – but also responsibility. We cannot choose not to do something meaningful with what is given to us. But responsibility for whom? For ourselves, our talents and abilities; our audience; our students, younger and older people? Society – what can we give, or give back? Responsibility for the work itself, for the case – for what literally matters.

Dear students: Within the programmes you study are loads of requirements. But I urge you, don’t just fulfill these for the degree, or even just for your personal development. Obviously you are all here to learn, to train yourself, to be trained, to practice, to make, to develop yourself. And that’s all fine, all great: You really need to become such great designers, amazing performers or wonderful teachers. But we need to keep in mind that on the long run, it’s not about us; not about our own names or genius ideas, or great accomplishments – our work is about the other person.

It’s the audience you are performing for or with, if you are a performer. If you are an architect, it’s about the people inhabiting your designs and live in your buildings, parks or other kinds of architecture. If you are an actor or dancer, it’s also about the others on stage, the ones with whom you are creating moments and encounters that the audience will experience. And maybe this work of yours will look like one of these images:

And this idea of “for the other” is not limited to persons. Our work is also about the city we live and work in, or the cities we travel to. The country we live in, or where we come from. It can be about experiences we have on the streets, the experience of being in a global lockdown, missing the encounters and hugs with our friends and sometimes families.

And just as a very short example from my own city, Rotterdam: a video with text from Rotterdam-based poet Moses Roffa, from the time during the first Covid-lockdown.

At this moment, this video already feels like a memory from quite far away, now that everything starts to being more open again, at a moment in which we can do education physically and live again rather than only from laptops in our homes. But the poetry, the sounds and images in this video moved me about 1,5 years ago, and brought some kind of hope and comfort in a time when the streets were still empty.

So our work can be a reaction or a reflection on what happens in society in the world. Or it can be an effort to bring change. And this is what American writer Toni Morrison means with:

“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

Toni Morrison (1931-2019)

This quote comes from the time of Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States, and was her reaction to the further upcoming drift towards the political right, to racism and white supremacy.

I think at the end of the day, there is only one thing we actually cannot do among the “epic stories of freedom” – not relate. We all have a gifts, talents and an enormous power – each of us in her or his own way. I believe we shouldn’t use them just for yourself. We have these gifts and talents and have not only the right, but also the responsibility to develop them, to use them, to work with them, to bring them into the world and do good with them.

Jörgen en Joost are right when they mention “necessary isolation” during the time of studying – as this also means safety to develop one’s work & ideas, to experiment, and to look for the right questions. But this isolation only works to some extent, and at some point it needs the outside world. Without the outside world, isolation is nothing.

The same goes for “getting lost between dream and reality.” Please do get lost! And enjoy the experience of getting lost. And then, when the time is right, use the dreams, and reality, to do something good in the world. And at that moment, I wish that to everyone’s work will happen what happened to the butterfly in the spoken word performance before:

It will be heard.

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