Robbert&Frank Frank&Robbert « Humor is a major part of what connects us »

How did you meet and how was born the desire to work together?

We met in high school when we were 16. We became good friends and shared an atelier in school. Later on we decided on following the same course at KASK in Ghent. We completed this course as the official artists’ duo Robbert&Frank Frank&Robbert. Since then, we’ve been taking every step in the arts as a duo.

What is the history of your pseudonym Robbert&Frank Frank&Robbert ?

Our collaboration has come about gradually and naturally, Frank&Robbert Robbert&Frank is literally who we are. We also try to make every effort to create work that stays very close to who we are. This symbolises our equality and is a playful rule which makes sure our individual ego’s don’t take over. We consider our collaboration as a snake biting its own tale – Robbert is Frank is Robbert is Frank… Together we are a much stronger and bigger whole then the sum of the parts. We’re building towards a mutual brand. In the contemporary arts scene, the name of the artist is of so much importance that we consider our name almost as an experiment. To what extent can you apply a marketing strategy of a multinational such as Coca Cola or Apple to an artist’s name?

How do you work together? How do you approach each new creation?

The core of Robbert&Frank Frank&Robbert is friendship, humor and play. The works we create come together through a some kind of ping pong game. We bounce ideas back & forth and challenge each other continuously to question our own beliefs, knowledge and technique. We see the creation of new work as a way to get to know the world better and to get a better grasp on it. The dialogue with each other and with the audience is key in each work. This is why we don’t limit ourselves to one medium, one art form. Each work demands a new approach and a new learning process. This intuitive and sometimes naive mode of work creates unexpected insights and surprising results.

In parallel to your theater shows, you also make videos, visual artwork, performances… What are you interested in this different medium?

We strongly believe in Marshall McLuhan’s adagio ‘The medium is the message’. The way you say something is at least as important as what you’re saying. It relates to the way our collaboration has evolved. At the start, we made short videos for which we were the only available actors. We were performers back then already. Next to that, we were building mainly space-filling installations as visual art works. Later on, we started filming our own expositions, and used our installations as décors for our videos. In this way, we stumbled quickly from one medium into another. The transformation taking place when you change one work, in a specific medium, into another, is still important to us. What starts off as a sculpture in an exhibition can turn into a piece of décor for a theatre performance, and later on become a part of a multiple or a video etc. We embrace the idea that a work is never finished, it just knows different temporary stages in different media.

What analogies do you find in your work methods from one medium to another?

The most important aspect of every performance is the development of a specific visual language. The reinvention of a vocabulary of images and sounds. Text is used very scarcely and is always employed as a visual mean, never as a story or a lead. Every theatre performance starts in our atelier, never on stage. The start of the creation process of the performance is similar to the start of the creation of a visual work of art. The dark and secluded safe space of the theatre is a little black cosmos where we can build our own universe. Every performance starts from the emptiness, and during the course of one hour, we make the audience accomplice to the creation and discovery of that new world. Transformation is an essential theme in this, as are humor and play.

Indeed your work is impregnated with humor. What interests you in this form of address?

Humor is a major part of what connects Frank&Robbert. Humor is a game. And play is central in our work. As human beings, we learn everything by mimicking, playing. Humor usually comes from what’s wrong, the false note. It’s the alternative. This way you will soon find unexpected things through humor. In addition, humor breaks the tension. People are more open and more receptive when they are in a happy humorous mood. We like to use this to pull people into the work, and to invite them subsequently to discover the deeper layers.

What were your first lines of research in beginning the rehearsals of your new performance Don’t we deserve grand human projects that give us meaning ?

As with each work, we were investigating two trails at a time: substantive philosophical questions and concrete formal ideas. These can exist separately and may even clash. It is the friction between content and form that pushes the creation forward. For Don’t we deserve grand human projects that give us meaning? we got started with the confusing insights of contemporary physics, just think of the string theory, quantum mechanics, new concepts around time / space, teleportation, etc. What used to be science fiction is now more and more becoming reality.

What were materials did you start working with?

We were strongly inspired by the book Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? by Dave Eggers. Herein a drifting young man kidnaps an astronaut to present him with the important questions of life: why do we live? What are we living for? One of the things the main character struggles with, is the fact that the world has already been built. Everything already exists, and there seem to be no more major projects for which a new generation can/wants to engage for, unconditionally. In form we literally started from the white canvas : the stage is a bright white square platform which seems to be floating above the ground and some small white doors are used to make objects appear or disappear.

How does this performance fit into your artistic research?

With this performance, we think we managed to take a next step towards an autonomous Robbert&Frank Frank&Robbert visual language. An artistic research process is in fact always an almost utopian activity where you strive for something that is almost impossible. Nevertheless, I think with this theatre piece we came one step closer to what we want to achieve. People tell us they’ve never seen something similar. When we manage to incite the inner imagination of the audience, and to do that in a way they’re not used to other than known formats as TV-series, films or texts, then we’ve succeeded in our goal. Everyone carries his own baggage, what he or she knows, what intrigues, what inspires. What we investigate as artists is how we can trigger this unique source of imagination in our spectators individually. This is why we search for universal images.

This interview is also available in french 

By & with Robbert&Frank Frank&Robbert. Dramaturgy Pol Heyvaert. Sound design Boris Zeebroek. Movement coach Charlotte Vanden Eynde. Voice over Jonathan Beaton & Anna Stoppa. Technique Korneel Coessens, Bart Huybrechts & Maarten Van Trigt. Thanks to Arne Wastyn & the Keys family.