On a possible Culture of Hope



Trigger of Happiness © Didier Crasnault

Maria Rößler – May 2017

The cover image of Vooruit’s season guide 2017-2018 is taken from Ana Borralho & João Galante’s new theatre production Trigger of Happiness (2017), a deadly game in search of happiness that raises more and less existential questions about the human condition today, such as: “Why didn’t you call me?” And: “Wouldn’t the Earth be a happier place without us?” The image shows a young man who shoots himself in the head with colour dust. It arouses fearful associations with darkest moments of resignation and at the same time reminds us of the possibility of joy and that things can be different. In one of her reflections on theatre, Flemish essayist and dramaturg Marianne Van Kerkhoven writes that, when we have to proceed from a feeling of powerlessness and the future is uncertain, we hold two cards in hand: hope and despair (“… there is no rescuing joker”).1

Writer and activist Rebecca Solnit assures us that now is not the time to despair, but to act. To Solnit, hope is not a passive belief: Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope. With her book Hope in the Dark,2 first published as a “Never-Surrender Guide to Changing the World” in 2004, Solnit encourages us that change is possible; it may not happen immediately, but gradually – thanks to continuous social engagement, solidarity and perseverance. She bases her optimism on the (sometimes invisible) achievements of political protests and activism around the world over the last decades. Solnit’s Hope is itself an inspiring work in support of persistent activism that has been described half-sarcastically as “the ultimate ‘feel-good’ book for exhausted campaigners and activists who, while remaining convinced of the importance of their work, can't help occasionally asking themselves whether they really are making a difference.”3

In 2016, Hope in the Dark once again resonates strongly with the impression of ‘living in dark times’ and the various contemporary experiences of being lost – not only among radical activists. Recurrent metaphors of dark and light characterise the public debate. Rebecca Solnit republishes her book with a new subtitle: “Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities.” Quotes and references to Hope keep popping up in social media feeds as people are looking for a glimmer of light – or a sense of orientation. “Hope is a​n embrace of the unknown,” answers Solnit. “Our hope and often our power," she writes, "is in the dark around the edges, not the limelight of centre stage.” After the US presidential elections, she decides to give her book away for free, hoping to help work through the despair and powerlessness many are feeling.

In a recent article on hope and the progression of social change, Solnit points out that “the true impact of activism may not be felt for a generation” and that this is precisely why we should not despair. Political engagement and protest actions do matter even when failing at their immediate goals as they may pave the way for broader change to come. Resistance is also a “battle of the story,” she writes. “Building, remembering, retelling, celebrating our own stories is part of our work.”

2017. “Climate change, peak oil, mass migration, wars in the Arab world and beyond, destabilisation within Europe, financial instability, the rise of nationalism and the erosion of human rights.”4 The future isn’t looking hopeful. – Or is it? Artists Jessica Huber and James Leadbitter (a.k.a. the vacuum cleaner) invite us to put the hope card on the table anew. This upcoming season, they will visit Vooruit’s Stadsatelier and Museum Dr. Guislain to further develop their project The art of a culture of hope in Ghent.

“It’s difficult to look into the future without fear,” they write. But knowing that art can counter the politics of fear and help to see through and beyond today’s mind-numbing narratives of disaster and crisis, Jessica and James will engage with local collaborators and the public in performances, provocations, presentations and discussions about experiences and possible consequences of fear and hope. Throughout a series of workshops, in A Space for Hope, potentials of shared creativity will be tested and an ‘Archive of Hope and Fear' will evolve.

Today, a genuine involvement with the possibilities and challenges of a culture of hope requires careful attention. It has to resist the appropriation of the concept of hope by the language of corporate capitalism into yet another empty meme. The art of a culture of hope offers ‘tender provocations’ and space for the unknown to occur. Rather than providing prefabricated answers or definitions, the artists ignite an on-going international conversation of multiple voices around what hope may be and what a culture of hope can do. In her most recent article, Rebecca Solnit proposes one possible definition that may or may not enter this conversation and the Archive of Hope:

“Hope is a belief that what we do might matter, an understanding that the future is not yet written. It’s informed, astute open-mindedness about what can happen and what role we may play in it. Hope looks forward, but it draws its energies from the past, from knowing histories, including our victories, and their complexities and imperfections.” 

 The art of a culture of hope © Nelly Rodriguez


About Maria Rößler 

Maria Rößler​ is a dramaturge and a producer, living and working between Amsterdam and Berlin. She has worked for various performing arts productions, festivals and conferences such as Transmediale, the Dance Congress, and programmes of the International Theatre Institute and Wikimedia Germany. From 2013 until 2016, she was part of the artistic programme team of the international performing arts festival Foreign Affairs at Berliner Festspiele. Her independent artistic projects include an on-going collaboration with technologist Nathan Fain, exploring how new technologies affect social intuition. Together they developed the performance Right Is the Might of the Community. A lecture on future democracy, commissioned by HAU Berlin. Maria is currently completing her Master’s in International Dramaturgy at the University of Amsterdam.


1 Marianne Van Kerkhoven (1992): “Van de hoop en de wanhoop,” SARMA.
2 Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: The Never-Surrender Guide to Changing the World, Edinburgh: Canongate, 2004.
3 Caroline Lucas, “Hope for the best,” The Guardian, July 2, 2005.

4 From the project description of The Art of a Culture of Hope on www.theartofacultureofhope.com

Written on 09.05.17