Frits Bolkestein inspires DasArts student:
Julian Hetzel supports poor African girl in pursuit of personal success

‘Yes, I am a parasite!

Who benefits more from a subsidy: a European artist, or a poor African child? Both can profit according to DasArts performance artist Julian Hetzel (30). He donated € 2.000 of ‘art money’ to a starving African girl. Thus raising painful questions about the current budget cuts in both development aid and cultural subsidies. And all thanks to politician Frits Bolkestein…

Explain, how did you acquire the € 2.000?
‘At the end of a DasArts block in which we researched the  Conditions of Success,  we received a gift of € 2.000. Everyone had to develop a plan on how to invest this money in his or her own individual success. A number of people used it to buy music equipment, some spent it on developing their website and others paid to undergo psychotherapy in order to become better artists.’

Why did you donate the money to a starving child in Africa?
‘First I thought: What does success mean to me? I reached the conclusion that success is not only the achievement of self-set goals. It’s something more general: to have the freedom to do what you want. For me, this means to work in the field of art, the only field where this freedom is the basic condition. And due to the fact, that I'm not yet there, because as an upcoming artist I have to invest into my future success, I decided: I need to create visibility with this money. I want to appear on the map of arts. But, although 2.000 euro is a lot of money, it is hardly enough for an advertising campaign. That lead me to the origin of the money: where does it come from? Basically, the money comes from DasArts, but DasArts receives it from the Ministry of Culture, Science and Education’

Then why use cultural money for development aid?
‘During the protest manifestation against budget cuts in the arts last year - Scream for Culture in Amsterdam, the famous Dutch politician Frits Bolkestein, representing the right-wing of the government party VVD, gave a surprising speech. He stated, he supports the new government, with one exception: there shouldn’t be any cuts on culture or arts budgets. The budget should be raised, he said. And then he made a remarkable statement: ‘I think that we can pay for culture by cutting back on development aid. By saying this, Bolkestein equated Art with Life: it’s better to spend money on culture and arts, than on saving lives in the poorest countries of the world. It really set me to thinking. The money, the 2.000 euros I received to invest in my success as an artist, , could mean the difference between life and death in a third world country. I wanted to turn the situation around. I decided to waive my gift and donate the money to a needy child instead.’

Is that art?
‘Yes, by framing it as a performance, it becomes art. I consider the child as the main performer. She is my artist. She performs life. In this respect, it is a ready-made artwork. Meanwhile, the child lives on, nothing has changed, except that someone is investing in her future. But she doesn’t know she is a living work of art.’

Your lecture performance is called ‘The Benefactor’. Is that you?
‘Yes I am the Benefactor. But in fact it’s not about benefaction. By doing this, I address the morals and ethics of success in our society. Donors hardly ever donate for purely altruistic reasons. They expect something in return. Either a good feeling about themselves, gratefulness or money.’

And what do you expect in return?
‘If my undertaking works, it will bring me success, I will succeed in stirring up a debate, a cultural discourse about whats possible and impossible in arts – and gain prominence in the field of performance art.’

Don’t you feel you are exploiting the child in this way?

‘That question is often raised. My answer is: no. I am quoting the mechanisms of the system. I donate and I want something in return. She is the star of this enterprise, the main character. But she doesn’t know she is an art personality performing live in my piece. So she is absolutely free. This makes it a game played on equal terms.  Art and life come together in this project. Life as art, and art as life.’

In doing this, which issues do you want to raise?
‘I use it to trigger various debates. First, there is the economic debate. I quote the neo-liberal approach of rational cost-benefit calculations: how can I invest € 2.000 in such a way, that my career benefits optimally from it? Secondly, there is the cultural debate: what is art, how does the art market work, how do you achieve success in this market? And thirdly, I refer to the mechanisms of charity and benefaction. I parasitize all these systems. A parasite uses the host to nourish himself, to gain power and grow. Basically I am ‘attacking’ three systems at the same time.’

So, you see yourself as a parasite?

‘Yes, I am a parasite! Parasites can change the system.’

Is your gift commenting on the political situation in The Netherlands?
‘Yes, it’s impossible not to. I have been politically active from a young age. At some point I withdrew from that type of activism. I was at a WTO Conference in Mexico, when a farmer killed himself. I suddenly realized I was a protest tourist, part of the young, beautiful international crowd that likes to gather and feel good about themselves, empathizing with the poor, while listening to Manu Chao. 
In my art work I still comment on politics. At this moment in The Netherlands there is an intense debate about the big budget cuts affecting culture. Of course there are cuts everywhere in Europe, also in Germany, but here the debate is very specific. The cuts are clearly politically motivated: they do not involve the area of cultural conservation, but mainly fields that are critical and subversive, arts that fundamentally question existing structures and thoughts. In this respect, the cuts are a direct attack on critical thinking.’

So, what can we expect in your ‘lecture performance’?

‘The performance consists of two steps. The first step was finding the best organisation to spend the money on, and the whole process I went through. The second step is the lecture: me on stage talking for half-an-hour about what I am doing and why. It’s not just passing on information, it is based on a well-considered dramaturgy. I know exactly what to say, which words I can use to bring about certain effects. Background images add a second layer to the words. They contrast, illustrate or enhance statements.’

Will you show pictures of your poor foster girl?
‘No, definitely not. There will be no literal imagery. I will only show the certificate of donation I got from the development organization. But I'll do not show the picture I received of the child, or the letters she writes me.’

To protect her privacy?
‘Yes, but I also think the project should function without it. If I used this type of ‘poor and helpless African child’ imagery, it would serve to endorse the interpretation that the project is about exploitation of a powerless individual. Or the interpretation that the work concerns the mechanisms of charity. And that’s not it. I’ve added an extra layer: I use the mechanisms of charity to comment on the culture of success.’

Does this live-performance end when the girl’s life ends?
‘I really don’t know what the future will bring. I consider it an ongoing performance. For the time being, I’m investing a euro a day, which means there is funding for 2.000 days, more than 5 years. That’s the intention. After that, it will stop. But who knows what will happen in the meantime.’

Last question: will you invite the man who inspired you, Frits Bolkestein, to the premiere?
‘Certainly. I’m writing him a letter, to sincerely thank him for the idea he gave me. I hope to start a conversation with him. I think he is a smart person. So I'm curious if he will be able to grasp the idea on an artistic level.’

Text: Petra Boers

The Benefactor, a lecture performance by Julian Hetzel
Festival aan de Werf in Utrecht