Date of the interview: 8th April 2021

Waterlines 2020-21: Interview with Frank Westerman (written version)

Today we continue with our series of interviews with the third guest, who has been in Venice with us two years ago Mr. Frank westerman, author of many bestsellers: The Republic of Grain (1999), Engineers of the Soul (2002), El Negro and Me (2004), Ararat (2007), Brother Mendel’s Perfect Horse (2010), Choke Valley (2013) and A Word A Word (2016). His work, which has received numerous awards, has been widely translated. His previous book, We, Hominids, has been translated into French, German, Italian, Polish, Spanish and English so far. And we are more than happy to have him online today with us again in 2021.

Giacomo: It’s very good to be to see you again, actually, since two years ago.


Elisa: So we’re going to we’re talking about this before I have a question specific about residency, what is important to you about the residency and how did you overcome the problem of residency during covid?


Frank Westerman: Actually, it was before covid that I was based in Venice or San servolo for three weeks with you for the Waterlines program, so we had, as a matter of fact, of course, no limitations, no restrictions at all. It only happened afterwards. But the residency in itself is to me was was very important, both in two ways. First, it’s it’s the usual it’s the opportunity to exchange ideas, to meet people, to change perspective, to feel the sirocco from the Adriatic, the different wind that is not the wind from the North Sea. So you need to have a change of winds every now and then. I think everybody needs. So that’s that’s that’s a given. That’s a gift as well. So the residency in for me was a gift to to be forced to change perspective and to think and look at things differently in a fresh way. And I used the three weeks apart from meeting you and having the discussions for traveling in the footsteps of Galileo. So I went to Padua, I went to Florence, to Milan was differently connected to the same project. So I had my double agenda, if you wish, working on my own projects based in being based in Venice, because my artist is Reportage. And I took the opportunity to go to places. I went to the Vajont Dam, the famous or infamous Vajont Dam with Elvis Habitant, who is the co artist for Waterlines. So we work together. We went to see the Mozart project in progress. And just after two weeks or three weeks after I left you, you had the big floods. But I could call you some of you and Elvis as well to ask what happened. And based on what Elvis and I met experienced during our visit to Mozart, I wrote a report for a Belgium and a Dutch newspaper at the time. But more importantly, the reportage I made from Venice in the footsteps of Galileo have now resulted. I included them in a book. It’s just out. It’s called The Cosmic Comedy. So it has a lot of Dante in it, as the title suggests, but also Galileo and down to was in Venice as well as Galileo. So I had this book has just been released in Holland and my publisher in Italy, everybody, I will start publishing a part of it’s April 14th, some excerpts in Italian and eventually the whole book.


Elisa: So regarding your new book, you wrote this during the pandemic.


Frank Westerman: Yeah, that’s correct. It’s because, of course, the research or the reportage and talk about was in that September, October, not two thousand nineteen with you, we were all still very happy and unconcerned and unaware of what was going to happen. Then what? Because it’s a reportage, I needed to do a lot of reportage before I start writing. But what happened in February, your famous carnival, Venice Carnival? Actually, I had one thing to do, get to visit Turin. I had been to Turin, but as part of this cosmic comedy project. I had an appointment with Thomas Alinea, which is the huge company that constructs spaceship’s it’s Italian French company. And the Turin factory, in fact, was assembling at the time, we talk about a year ago, slightly more than a year ago, the European Space Agency’s Mars probe. It’s called ExoMars, it’s a one point three billion dollar euro project. And the ExoMars two, was about to be launched last summer, together with all the other projects, I think there is an Arabic one, there’s a Chinese one, there’s an American one. And it should have been this European one. I was invited by the vice director to pay a visit to the Turin factory. I was hoping to see the ExoMars before it left Earth. And so I had already fill in a form like like a security, whatever. So everything seemed OK until you had the first 10 villages in lockdown. You had the Carnival of Venice being broken up in the middle of it and. There was no way to go to Turin anymore. In fact, as you may have noticed, the ExoMars went to quarantine itself. The probe was put into an isolation chamber for two years, which. Is a bit ironic. Because. The probe was built to detect life. And in order to. Let’s say it was so important that it had to be isolated for two years in order, in order not to be infected or affected by a virus or a bacteria or a germ so that it eventually on Mars, it wouldn’t detect the covid virus. So because of the irony of the of the of the ExoMars being putting them in quarantine, I included this story without going to Turin. Because there is a small covid line in the book, it has it’s related to the to the ExoMars not going to Mars. But but that’s just the beginning personally. It’s a different story because a year ago, my missing link was going to Turin. The missing link didn’t happen. It turned out to be a completely different story. In my personal life, my mother broke her leg. And she was caring for my father and she couldn’t anymore, and this was in the middle of March. Actually, it happened in a week that Hollonds went into lockdown, the first wave. And me and my sister had no choice but to take care of them. And I went to. My parents house and. We’re actually literally with my sister because we started living in our elderly home again, so I found myself being the traveler, going to places all of a sudden living in my old boys room where I spent the first 18 years of my life, taking care of my parents. And then I decided to start writing because I had an empty agenda . I was in lockdown, I was in my home town, an elderly house. I went on jogging in the woods and writing and caring for my parents, so that’s why the book is finished already.


Elisa: And do you feel like this has changed the way in which you work? Apart from very practical ways, but in the process of writing as a change during this personal situation?


Frank Westerman: In a way, I think. It was the right thing to me was was a lifeline. I was worried about my parents. they actually they had to go to an elderly home. But this was out of the question because there was a full stop. Of new admiteness, so there was no way because of covid, there was there was no way that could be placed anywhere and we didn’t wish to because as we can see them anymore. So in order not to get mad to lose your sanity, to lose your minds, to me, the writing was so important. I was so happy that I had collected the material, the research, the interviews, the encounters, the material, I could lock up lock myself up. So the government did it, the lockdown. But I had enough mental stuff to to to chew on. It was my lifeline. Did it change the way I write? It was more condensed. it was more intense in a way. Because, usually I need to do the writing. I also want to have the concentration, of course, but it’s more. It’s not so compact. It was a pressure cooker. I think I enjoyed it, but it was the it was the most bizarre year of my life. Yeah, I came out with a book, but otherwise I don’t want to do it again.


Giacomo: OK, actually, I would like to ask you this question, because since we started to talk about Art and reportage, this can be considered as your art actualy, mostly speaking about the arts in general. So not only reportage, but also music or also actually paintings, for instance, or other types of art. Let’s say, how do you think Koelie does change the perception on art from people? And if so, do you think this change will be more positive or negative? Because since we cannot go to museums, for instance, or going to call a huge concert for sure, this has changed our habits. You know, just to go, for example, to go to a concert or go to a museum, I mean, this also talking about different types of art. A change is also the answer. I know. But, yeah, I wanted to see your opinion on this, actually.


Frank Westerman: Well, I think our two general is always an encounter, it’s always an exchange, even a painting. If it’s not seen, it doesn’t exist. If it’s hidden. It has no meaning. Well. A book, I think is a dialogue, once you open it, you have a reader, but also an author, but some reader, it’s maybe not a direct. Dialogue like we are having now, but in a way, it’s a dialogue. Of course, there is the good thing is that we have we all had to rethink a lot of things, the way we behave, the way we talk, the way we meet each other. I don’t know. But personally, the way you greet your colleagues, where do you shake hands or kiss whether it’s twice on the cheek or three times like in France. My goodness, since we stopped doing this, it’s much more easy to be to meet people without the inconvenience of do we kiss and kissing terms or are we shaking hands only or so did the social code of meeting. I think it’s but it’s more relaxed now. So there are always good things. The things that you have to rethink. Are important, it’s it’s like the change of winds. So to have to adapt to to a new reality, to relate to its. Change is good, especially for an artist. Come on, you don’t want to write the same book every two years with a different subject, but the same book.So, yes, that’s good. On the downside, I think, will be what we really miss is the encounter, the exchange, the dialogue in a more direct way. And so art has become in many ways, in many aspects, more sterile. it’s behind glass. it’s so poor. So did the the real the liveliness of it. We have been deprived of that. And I think that it’s a big loss. So on average, I think I think the arts are suffering tremendously without the audience. Art is nothing. The audience is part of of a piece of art because without the audience, it doesn’t exist. It has no meaning.


Giacomo: And actually served regarding actually to change the fact that Covid, brings change is actually a really good thing to think about, actually. And my question would be, since also your last work was based also during covid. So it’s so it’s like a process, you know. So do you think that your future work will change afterwards? So I have a sort of how can I say post pandemic change? So what do you think about it?


Frank Westerman: Yes, I think it’s it will affect I it’s not it’s not at all clear, crystal clear, but I think everybody but let’s speak for myself. I’ve changed. I’m changing my views on authority and power and also on sociology in the sense of loss, behavior, crowd management. I think it’s it’s amazing because I used to be a correspondent in Moscow for a newspaper I wrote about the Soviet Union, about censorship, about repression, about Stalin, a lot of books about it. And now we are. I don’t compare it because it’s not a dictatorship where we have democracies that prevent people from going out at night, week after week, we have the famous Fondo party in Amsterdam being evacuated because too many people gather and it’s against the gov covid rules. So you go to a picnic in a park and the police comes. What country are we living? So the basic questions about what can a governments impose on you, even democratic governments that you all we’ve just had elections and we all voted for the same, more of the same. And we approved the measures of the government by majority. Most people are perfectly happy. I think it’s also a wise thing to do. But but wow, we are as individuals. We have we accept so many restrictions on liberty. It’s amazing, I don’t have the answer yet, but I think this will resonate in my work later on.


Elisa: I we very much hope that we will read your future work in and see how it’s going to turn out. We thank you very much again for being here. I think this is the end of our interview and we’ll see you again. Probably not in Venice, but we hope so.


Frank Westerman: I hope so, too. I really hope so. I’m actually fantasies of at the top of my list once restrictions are lifted. I’d love to come and contact you. I mean, the waterlines program, once I’m there, I hope that you could come back as well. And while you are based in Venice, Jacomo, that you will be there. I hope we have we have the streets or capital streets or. Yeah. Definitly.

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