Artistic research: New pathways to new knowledge? A conversation with Dorothy Blokland

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It’s no secret that artistic research takes place at the Academy of Theatre and Dance, but what does it actually involve? In this interview, the fifteenth in a series, we take a peek behind the scenes, in conversation with theatre practitioner and creative producer Dorothy Blokland about her project The Power of Water where the ATD Lectorate is a partner. 

Part 15: The Power of Water

Dorothy Blokland: The pandemic was a massive reset for me. After eight years running around making my own theatre work, I suddenly found myself at a standstill. I had time to breathe again, to look around, to take a step back. I decided to do the DAS Creative Producing master’s programme, and I now see myself as an artistic creative producer.

What does that role entail?

What I do first is identify an opportunity for setting up an artistic project. Then I put on my fundraising hat and gather the financial resources to make it. It’s only after that that I step into the project as a theatre practitioner. I work with a collective, a team of young creatives where there’s no distinction between those who have studied art and those who are self-taught. There’s always an element of peer-to-peer learning in the process, for which I draw on Each One Teach One principles.

I graduated in July 2023 with my piece Radical Stories – it’s a ‘house’ for stories that’s built of stories collected from diaspora countries. It’s our aim to exchange stories to broaden perspectives and create an interconnected ecosystem. The Power of Water is my first major project, and I’m working on it with a range of partners in Suriname and the Netherlands.

How did The Power of Water project come about exactly?

I’d never allowed myself the luxury and time before, to focus on the climate problem. As a practitioner of colour, the core of my work has been racial injustice, institutional racism and the position of Black women. While I was at DAS Graduate School, I came across a research project titled Climate Imaginaries at Sea, which centres on climate change and rising water levels. Through that I stumbled on a particular statement: ‘Environmental racism is the new Jim Crow’ (The Atlantic, 2017). I started getting increasingly concerned about the effects of climate change on my home country of Suriname. Rising sea levels there are a huge threat – alongside the cyanide pollution resulting from illegal gold mining, and the massive quantities of waste that go straight into the natural environment.

While I was at DAS Graduate School, I found out about Villa Zapakara, Suriname’s only museum for children. The museum is also an educational centre for arts and culture, and I took part in one of their projects. It involved children tracking the consequences of climate change by taking photographs of their own surroundings. We saw how in the Coronie district the sea has already swept away metres of coastline. A hydrologist from the Anton de Kom University of Paramaribo, Professsor Sieuwnath Naipal, initiated a project to restore the original coastline that involved the planting of thousands of mangrove saplings along the coast. The roots protrude above the ground like little posts, and the clay settles around them, and in just three years the ground level rose by almost 150 cm. So it’s really working – much to the surprise of people living in the area.

It was there in Coronie that I literally saw the power of water. And at the same time I realised there’s much more for me to do in the area of climate change and raising awareness. That’s what got the fire started in me. In The Power of Water I work with children from both Suriname and the Netherlands. There are three parts to the project. For the first I’m doing a small philosophical study with children in the Amsterdam boroughs of Noord and Zuid-Oost.

Did you have experience working with children of this age?

Yes I did. In recent years I’ve taught drama at lots of primary schools in Bijlmer [in Amsterdam’s Zuid-Oost borough]. It’s so much fun to do philosophy with children, because they think so freely and out of the box. Their ideas can really surprise you. Like the time in Suriname when the kids were taking photographs of the mangrove trees and I called out enthusiastically about how wonderful it is that nature itself can offer a solution to the environmental problem, and one of the children simply replied ‘But that’s just normal Miss’. 

In that first part of The Power of Water I go back into the past, working with the Amsterdam-based schoolchildren exploring the connections between the consequences of transatlantic trade and the climate problems in a modern day in the countries involved.

The second part focuses on the modern day. I’ll be working with the children in Suriname, looking at the effects of climate change on their immediate surroundings. This work will serve as the basis and material for a play we’re going to make.

After that, I’ll return to the Netherlands for the third part, which goes into the future – in the end it’s the children who are going to be living with the legacy of the climate crisis. It’s important that parents get involved, too, so The Power of Water also operates on an intergenerational level.

What’s your biggest hope for this project?

My biggest wish is for an in-person, real-world exchange to take place between the children in Suriname and the Netherlands. I also don’t want the impact of the stories arising out of this entire experiment to stop at the children – it should reach their parents, too, and everyone else who comes into contact with it. Ultimately I’ll stage a storytelling festival where all the stories can flourish. The best possible outcome would be if everyone who has anything to do with The Power of Water – all the children and everyone else involved – stayed connected with each other for the rest of their lives.

Text and interview: Herster van Hasselt

The complete serie interviews Artistic research: New pathways to new knowledge? you can read here