Every scheme, all at once, forever

23Nov21

This past weekend was the memorial service for Jan Ritsema: director, performer, publisher, and social engineer extraordinaire who founded PAF (performing arts forum) – a convent turned art residency that is now collectively cared for nestled in the French countryside. Jan often talked about PAF like self imposed exposure therapy: ‘I don’t like people, or nature, or work, but I did this to myself!’

It is often difficult to convince others of why PAF is worth the trip or at least worth going to without sounding like an evangelist or an outdated hippy. It is tricky to explain why a building, filled with semi-tumultuous groups of people, can feel like something radical on its own.

But it has always been this bubbling sociality fused with lean formal structures and self-organizational capacities that can so effectively corrode one’s social dispositions: you can go to PAF and have your city-habits slowly unwrapped. To be in a place where one could drop academic, or professional, or artworld pretense is an incredible unexpected relief. Having organized or co-organized some half a dozen philosophy events at PAF many of us would see people used to being defensive or ‘knives-out’ suddenly realize they didn’t have to be vicious to impress or ladder-climb to win points for a future career. You can in fact have a wonderful but serious conversation about politics or hermeneutics while cleaning a soup pot the size of a baby cow.

It’s sometimes difficult to sell people on what might sound like communitarian (or sociocratic as Jan preferred) brainwashing summer camp. But the reason many don’t want to leave is that it is singularly difficult to forget how the building nests in your brain as a place of productive proximity. We are so used to sitting around with our friends and saying ‘hey, we should start a reading group,’ or ‘hey let’s make a ‘zine’ or what have you. And we smile and nod even while being very much aware that this will not happen. We will go home, and to work, and the proposal will evaporate by week’s end. But at PAF every farcical idea has a real chance at life: a wrestling royal rumble, daily newspapers, dance parties, spontaneous jelly workshops, nudist lounges, tattoo parlors, lectures during a dawn-lit meteor-shower, and on and on.

But it is not utopia nor ‘a youth hostel for artists!’ If it’s utopia then utopia involves a shitload of meetings. And it is an endless game of changes and disagreements. Dani mentioned during the service how in the early days Jan was the invisible cat: even if they mice didn’t see him he was sure to let them know the cat was still around. And Jan was always busy with one thing or another: lefty crypto-currency dreams, setting up sister pafs, ordering questionable international goods, or delivering copious amounts of (often brutal) life advice. The last two summers I was fortunate enough to spend several weeks with Jan and he interrupted my first day saying ‘hello, how are yo-‘ with ‘why haven’t you published another book!?’ all while surrounded by work clutter in his sick bed.

There are too many intense memories with Jan over the 8 years I knew him but one of the strongest is the following which I relay because, given how he died, it seems like the right one. I lived on and off at PAf for years and after submitting my dissertation I fell into the worst depression in a decade. I sat in my room and tried to think of a way to kill myself without making too much of a mess (‘don’t leave traces’ being a principle of the house). Then, one day, I heard the thunder of doors flung wide and from the other end of the hall Jan bellowed: “Ben Woodard!’ As I scrambled out of bed my first thought was ‘what have I done to anger the gods?’ And then Jan was at my door and said calmly ‘we talk for a bit?’ And then we went to a studio and laid on the floor and he must of spoken with me for almost two hours while staring at the ceiling’s peeling paint.

Jan gave me advice but mostly tasks and work, he gave me things to do and never belittled my screwed up brain. Jan was a pragmatist – not in the deflationary sense of ‘let’s just focus on the basics of what works’ but rather in that ‘when something basic works it generates a new environment or mode.’ Jan’s pragmatism was not one of breaking the abstract into little tasks but understanding how the tasks, when askew in just the right way, generated a different context, a non-typical picture. Even the arrangement of tables at dinner should ‘make people feel alienated when they walk in but welcoming when they sit down.’ Once, just for fun, Jan had everyone give a standing ovation to anybody who entered the ballroom one night simply as a way of raising spirits.

When Jan chose to die I told him about when he pulled me out of my depression and how crucial it had been for me then. He looked honestly surprised and said ‘ah yea? Well you just needed some time.’

PAF has always had a haunted quality, a kind of soft spookiness, no doubt a result of all its past lives: as a convent, a boarding school, a military hospital, and (most infamously) as home to a Jungian-Franciscan sect. I’ve capitalized on this – I’ve given scary tours (sometimes in higher dimensional space) of dimly lit attics, and gestured towards rooms favored by particular ghosts (a little boy there, a murmuring nun here) with any old wooden door holding the potential to be a portal to nowhere good. But now Jan has drifted into the building itself and the hall to his apartment with its window now seldom lit is too haunted for me to enter. It seems that even the cat’s smile has vanished in its place. But for Jan, and even more for us, the building stands.

You are right, my child, I responded, but don’t forget that your point of view on the subject can’t be the one that is generally held, at least not in the wild times we are facing now. Of the significance that these institutions once held, they have perhaps kept only the picturesque. However, one will find it easier and more agreeable to close down the institutions altogether than to restore them in accordance with their original aim in a way that would be appropriate for our times. When I see such a quiet cloister down below in the valley, or go past one on a hill from which it looks down, I have often thought to myself: if one day the time should come for all these monuments of a bygone time, please let at least one of our princes think to preserve one or two of these sanctuaries, to keep the buildings and their goods together, and to endow them to the arts and sciences. -Schelling, Clara (1810)



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