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Simon Allemeersch (°1980) is a theatre maker and doctoral researcher in the Department of Social Work and Social Pedagogy at Ghent University. As a theatre maker, he worked for a long time from the inside of the Rabot Towers in Ghent. This artistic trajectory formed the basis for a doctoral research into the lived experience and housing pathways of residents in social high-rise and psychiatry. He is a member of the artist run Lucinda Ra collective, and is associated with arts institution VIERNULVIER and the Museum Dr. Guislain in Ghent.


Good afternoon.

My name is Simon. Since a few years, I work as a doctoral researcher at Ghent University – linking social work and social pedagogy, urbanism and ar-tistic practices. Before, I have been working for more than 15 years as a free-lance theatre-maker. I have worked in some of the major theatres in Flanders and Brussels. I have a strong link with VIERNULVIER arts center in Ghent. I have also worked a lot in so-called participative projects. I’ve worked with people who have been described as (un)documented refugees, undoc-umented minors, people in homelessness, in adult psychiatry, child and youth psychiatry for children with mental disabilities, youth care and in highrise social housing.

The bulk of my research is on the housing pathways of social high-rise residents, and especially those people who combine lived experience in psychiatry, homelessness and in social high-rise housing – as formal and as informal residents. Being an informal resident means that you solve your need for housing with different sorts of squatting.

Most importantly, for now, but also for me personally, is that I’m part of Lucinda Ra, which is an artist-run platform of visual artists, theatre-makers and jazz musicians. We are not a theater company. We have no struc-tural subsidies. We have a very bad website. You should think of Lucinda Ra as a form of informal social security. It tries to be an organization without an ego. You can use it for whatever you want. It’s a collective, but we don’t see any contradiction between individual work and collective work. We make sure collectively, that members can make individual work. We are not obliged to work together but we can share wages and budget, or write and prepare individual applications together. We’re more a form of extended family, than a real company.

(One of our members is an Italian jazz drummer, that’s how the joke start-ed that we work like the mafia: family and business.)

For the next three we will be organizing our work from the oldest psychiatry and asylum of Flanders, the Guislain psychiatry and its museum, the Dr. Guislain museum. Especially, we have a strong connec-tion with the units for children, youngsters and young adults – who combine mental disability with the need for psychiatric care. Already in 2014, we worked for one year in one of these units, and made a theatre per-formance about that year.


Now, let us talk about participation and participative practices.

I was contacted because of a text that was published in this book, celebrating the tenth anniversary of the city residents of VIERNULVIER. I’m a sort of ‘original member’ of that first group of city residents. The title of that text was ‘Why I hate participation’.

I’ll try to explain this title, by giving some very practical examples of what we encounter in our work, and how this influenced our view on participation.

Perhaps, perhaps I will sound harsh. And for sure, I will sound subjec-tive. I have lived in the places I research. If you research a place, always stay for the night. Because often the night is a different world. This research has been very much about doing immersive fieldwork, and is based long-term relations. Some of the people who are part of my research I started working with in 2009. That gives a particular perspective.

If I sound harsh, remember that the research and experience is with people and families who live at the very bottom our housing stock, and at the very bottom of our welfare system.

With Lucinda Ra we have made it our way of working to live in the places where we make our work. We called it self-organized residencies, which is a fancy way of saying that we work with very little money, and try to live/work in a place before we start making theatre. First you have to have significance and be relevant in situ, in social housing, child psychiatry, a neighborhood, a village where we went to live – before you can even start communicating something about this place in a theatre.
The people we work with are very good dramaturgs. They ask: What are you doing? What is this about? What are going to tell about me? What will change? Also: are you paid for doing this? These are the important questions.


I know this is a festival more or less about Ghent.
I know and I acknowledge the fact that Ghent is a vibrant, fascinating, creative and beautiful city.
But you should know, that often from my daily perspective, Ghent is a stone-cold, neoliberal harsh city that is vengeful towards those that do not fit in that beautiful image.
Both the beautiful and the dark – both images are true at the same time. I know this is not the place or the time to do a lot of theory, but I refer to the image of sociologist Loïc Wacquant, of the centaur state – which is human and beautiful on the upper side – and a brute beast from the waist down. Brutish and hard for those who live at the bottom.

I am not here to ruin your party.
I do believe in art.
I’ve spent more than 15 years of my income, energy and personal life in working in theatre. I started my first regular paid job, above the minimal in-come threshold when I was 40 years old. Whether I like it or not, this made precariousness, issues about respect and capital to the main topic of our work.
But I’m not here to ruin your party.
I still believe in art practices.
I’ve seen art and theatre at work in the most difficult and precarious situations, and she was beautiful. She was hard for the powers to be, and kind to those who needed it most.


Now, what is the work about?
My work as a theatre maker, and the work of Lucinda Ra, has been strongly influenced by people who do not have an obvious relationship with housing and specialized care, and who have spent more time on the streets or in psychiatry than they would like. They are special experts. My work is based on, and is formed by working with these experts.

As a theatre-maker I film a lot, together with the people whom I work with, because for me that is the best way to work with them and do my research. I think we have to adapt everything to the people we work with. Too of-ten we do research with only those people who fit in our research.

It may seem a bit reckless to throw together the experiences of young people in youth care, psychiatric patients, residents of social high-rise buildings or people experiencing homelessness. And yet there are good reasons to look at this together. From the housing pathways and the lived experience of these people who need our help the most, these institutions often turn out to be communicating vessels.
When we went to visit the parents of children in child psychiatry, to ask permission to use the video we made with their children - we noticed that there is much more going on than just that one case of that one child. When I visited the living group of a psychiatric unit for the first time, I immediately met a lady whom I knew from social housing, and the conversation was mainly about social housing. A resident of a social housing block described her corridor as an 'open psychiatry', ‘the prison without a ward’. José, with whom I worked for three different projects, was living on the streets in Brus-sel. There, his mental disability, emotional confusion and addiction became one messy problem. Being able to see the world as separate professional fields, separate problems and separate issues, is a privilege of outsiders.

In Flanders and Belgium we are about 100 days before ‘the mother of all elections’. Our papers say that migration will be the main theme of these elections. In my opinion, if you think that migration is our main problem – then you have not been paying attention: we have a structurally flawed housing policy, a failing de-institutionalization of mental health care, a growing conditionality of the welfare state and a growing dislike and lack of knowledge, or concern, for those citizens who can’t keep up with our way of organizing society.

Perhaps you could remark that the people I work with, are only a small margin of society, that their situation is exceptional. Perhaps you are right. But the existence of the precariat is systemic. These are not just people who suffered some bad luck. They suffer systemic consequences that concern us all: labor, housing market and the transformation of our welfare state. In the end, it’s about all of us.

Is it not a bit strange that a theatre-maker is researching housing and welfare policies? My point is that our practices of solidarity and welfare badly need some imagination, badly need concrete hands-on practices, and good storytelling.


Now, the title of that text is ‘Why I hate participation’. Perhaps I have to clarify that the original Dutch version of the text said ‘waarom ik een hekel heb aan participatie’ - which is closer to ‘why I can’t stand participation’. But ok, for now: Why I ‘hate’ participation.

There is some misunderstanding about the work we do with Lucinda Ra. We often get good reactions because of our participative approach. We got a prize from the Flemish government because of that approach. Yet, we never say we do something participative. Our rule is simple: we work with the people that are necessary to tell the story. And we try to pay them. This may be a professional actor, a professional musician, a famous sociologist, a homeless man, a banker, a girl who has a mental disability and resides in a child psychiatry, or a theatre student. Ah… All the people I just mentioned were in the same project together, and we asked them to work together. That was interesting. When on a Sunday evening the project ended, the banker discovered that the homeless man was not going home. That was an interesting moment.

When you apply for project subsidies in Flanders you have to check different functions within the application like production, research and reflection, participation etc… With Lucinda Ra we never choose participation as a function. If we work with children in a child psychiatry, we only check production. If we work with residents in social housing we only check production. If we make a performance in a village in West Flanders while we also stay in that village, we only check production. We don’t do participation – we make things.

And then, we put a lot of effort in making sure that we also perform for specialized audiences of the people that are involved. I showed the first Rabot performance on social high-rise for the police and justice depart-ment of the city of Ghent, and that was one of the most tense moments in my work. Their reactions were very positive. But also, often very honest. When I left Vooruit, the venue where we performed, a police officer who was smoking outside, came to me and said: ‘I really liked the performance, you really made great work – but from our perspective, these people are scum (‘voor ons is dat crapuul’ in Dutch).

So, our work is done in environments, and on relations between lifeworld of individuals and institutions – that are very much polarized and under heavy tension. E.g. the relation between a psychiatric patient or survivors of psychiatric care; and the psychiatric institution itself. This may be a very positive and rewarding relation, but also the complete opposite. Or the relation between social tenants and their landlord, the social housing company, which is very often very difficult. Or between informal and illegal residents on the one hand and the housing company, police and justice department on the other hand.
Ethically, and personally, this is challenging. It takes time to figure out how to handle these issues.

Often, the people we work with have been severely harmed in various ways. Symbolically harmed, with a violated privacy. Or very often they experiences and witnessed severe physical and sexual violence. If you are in between psychiatry, homelessness and negative housing solutions (which are for instance, housing solutions offered to you by your dealer, or an abusive person) most likely you will not be able to guard your physical and sexual integrity. A lot of our participants are victims of physical or sexual violence, are perpetrator, or are both. This goes for men and women.

Just to give you an idea what the systemic side of these stories is about: Our housing, psychiatry and youth care system is organized in that way that we are housing victims next to perpetrators. So, part of the solution we have for you as a survivor of sexual violence is that we oblige you to live in a forced proximity to past offenders. This is not a good idea.

A person with whom I worked, after a long time got rid of his addiction, got out of the trafficking of drugs, and the whole network he was part of. Finally, he found a privately rented studio that he could afford. Together with his social worker he went to great length to find decent furniture and equipment. Finally - a new start. Only to discover in his first week that the neighbor who lives right above him, is one of his previous dealers. With all the clients, and the old network constantly passing in front of the door of this studio.
That’s how bad housing and spatial relegation works. You may do your utmost best, but this works as a funnel and will bring you back to your problems – and then multiplies them.


I’m sorry, this talk is not about housing issues. I got dragged along.

We show in our performances how we work together with people. Working with the lived experience of people does not mean that ‘they’ are always right, it’s my responsibility to make something out of the differences. We try show the negotiation.


One example comes from the book I made together with residents, and artists about social highrise of the Rabot neighbourhood. We asked the residents what images should be in the book. One of the people we worked with chose a picture for that book, on which he injected himself with heroin, while he was with a photographer with whom I worked together. We had a long discussion on this, and finally this was our solution. We decided to explain the discussion, and the story, rather than only showing the image. It’s not just about either what residents want or what we want, but about the negotiation between both.

But sometimes the audience doesn’t notice or see what is actually going on.


This lady in one of the performances, explains on video how she was a social tenant in social housing, but moved out of the social housing to be-come a home owner in a private housing project - and how she then witnessed how her new neighbors in that private housing project put a lot of effort in discriminating against people who do not have the right social profile, class or color of skin. She also explains how this makes her physically sick, and how she anxiously hides her previous address for her new neighbors.


In the same performance, there is this professional, seemingly from a social housing company, who explains how social housing has developed in Flanders, how he looks at his job, and how the function of social housing historically is mismanaged and underfinanced.

Are these the people that participated in the project? No, both are professional actors, who are paid to perform an anonymous interview in this theatre show. The real people behind these stories were too afraid, or had other reasons why they would not even consider an anonymous interview. Social housing is politically very sensitive topic. The stigma is very real. The audience never notices this – but in this way, I could work with the real people involved, discuss with them the exact content of the text beforehand, agree on how we would mystify the source, then suggest professional actors and let them choose ‘their’ actor. It’s never just about participation, it’s always about power and authorship.


Sometimes this leads to funny situations. I worked with this man who had been homeless for years. He told his story in one of the performances.

When the performance toured, he went on tour with us as a technician. Paid. And we also went abroad. And when we performed in Amsterdam – af-ter the show in which he is anonymously appearing in video explaining how he was homeless and how he squatted – after that show the technician of the venue in Amsterdam said to our technician that it was a great show, especially that part of the homeless man. And our technician only smiles and says ‘mh mh’. Then it’s up to him to decide if he wants to be at that moment the theatre technician, or the man who was homeless.

My point is: you can’t work with people only because they are homeless, because they live in poverty or because they are psychiatric patients, while this is exactly the position they want to escape. We have to create other possibilities, and other identities.

A so-called important Flemish theatre producer once told me very with great enthusiasm ‘our next production will be great, it’s about being blind – we found a great director, a great team, we got the money – the only thing we need now is five blind people.’ Imagine what it feels like to be contacted to be ‘one of the five blind people’.

Another example is from the fieldwork in youth psychiatry. I was film-ing and working outside with the youngsters, when we noticed that there were a lot of apples hanging in the small orchard next to the building. So, without thinking I said: shall we make mashed apples tonight? Appelmoes! They were like ‘Yesss Appelmoes’. They all like Appelmoes.

And one of the kids said: With sausages! ‘Worst and Appelmoes’! What a great plan for tonight. We will make worst and appelmoes. Quickly one of the staff members came to me and said: ‘I’m afraid that’s not possible. Be-cause the cooking therapy is on Monday, and today is Wednesday’.

This is what happens in psychiatric care and social work: we think we are helping people when we organize these specialized awkward superficial circumstances to help ‘those poor people’, but these places isolate these people only as the special person that needs help, and constantly remember them that they are the ones with a problem.

We are constantly organizing shitty club meetings for the people who don’t want to be a member of the shitty club.
And then we are surprised if these so-called vulnerable people say: ‘fuck off and leave me alone’. I think ‘fuck off leave me alone’ is the perfect and right answer to your o-so-special participative ideas.

So, the whole crux of our work lies not in what those ‘difficult other people’ do or not do, but it is about the credibility and organization of our own professionalism and institutions. It’s about us, and about how we organize our work and the institutional circumstances that we create.

(And let’s be honest: If you have succeeded in finding and gathering 20 amateur actors for your show, who come to your venue and your theatre in the centre of the city, voluntarily doing rehearsals and performing in your participative project, with your director, as you have imagined it beforehand, and they really like it, and are amusing themselves – then you have organized a beautiful project but also a very efficient selection mechanism to find the right participants. And then in what did you participate? Did it fundamentally change the way your institution works? Was it not just business as usual, only with a larger and a little bit a more diverse group – and with the benefit in press and communication strategy that you can now play the card of a participative project?

The Marxists in the room will remark that the only way to make performances with large group choreographies on stage is doing it via a participative project, simply because theatres can’t afford large groups of profession-al actors.)

The lack of knowledge with this institutional side on the realities and life-world of the people involved is staggering. This goes for what the police know before they intervene (nothing, so they go in with full force), and for the addresses (it takes them 50 minutes to find a front door, when they are al-ready on the premises).

One of the critiques we got on the performances about social housing is that our stories were too negative, too dark. That’s not good, because we al-ready selected the lighter stories.

If we don’t take a stance, and make the structural analysis of what is happening, our art, our theatre is only sugar-coating social issues. Then the nice middle-class people may consume and digest these stories with good taste. Look, how nice this old lady is, she has to move out, look how brave she is. Look, she has no front door left and she is scared.

I’m not here to ruin your party.
I only hate participation, because I think we need more participation. But the participation we need is the reversed idea of participation.

The only meaningful use of the word participation goes like this: How do institutions and governments structurally participate in people's lives? Why is it that throughout history they have accumulated so little knowledge about these lifeworlds? What is lacking in the participation of governments and institutions and policies? That is the only form of participation that interests me.

So, to end - my humble suggestion is the following:
If you have an office, close your office. If you have a beautiful venue, close your venue or lend it to another organization. If you have an income, share you wages. Go and work in a place you know nothing about, and where you don’t feel at home. Do this without having a clear plan before-hand, or without knowing what the outcome will be. Do so, and then you are participating.

Thank you.

Espoo, Helsinki, 05/03/2024