When world-renowned Israeli thinker and bestselling author Yuval Noah Harari sits on the couch watching Game of Thrones, he nerdsly sits down to improve details that he (he’s a medievalist) thinks don’t fit the show. Harari and his husband are also fans of the HBO series Succession, which centers on a dynasty of media moguls. It’s those details about the domestic side of famous people that, according to Janine Abbring, you only get to know if you interview someone like that on the basis of fragments. “I asked him, ‘Are you a binge watcher?’ No, he said, ‘My husband is more of the bingy type.’”
Abbring has just landed in the Netherlands after finishing the last interviews in New York for the interview series Wintergasten. At the initiative of Abbring, the VPRO took that format off the shelf after ten years. She does lengthy interviews based on TV and film fragments, such as with Zomergasten, but on location with foreign speakers. The conversations will be broadcast on NPO 2 from 27 to 30 December. In addition to Yuval Noah Harari in Tel Aviv, Abbring visited American writer Colson Whitehead and Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic in the US, and British eccentric potter/TV creator Grayson Perry in London.
The pandemic has also stopped time for the great people of the earth. “And they also start thinking very cliché about what is really important in life,” says Abbring. Right after the recording with Harari, he went on a sixty-day retreat, meditating in complete silence. He does that every year, then hardly talks for two months. With him, it was also a lot about that, says Abbring: about how nice it is to still your thoughts. He referred to the Disney movie Inside Out: in it you look inside the head of a teenage girl and then you see that all her behavior, her characteristics and identity are controlled by different dolls. A personality is not one defined thing, one look, but an amalgamation of different characters, voices, influences. “According to Harari, there is not one true I, he even thinks no free will.” That has become clear to him, especially in those moments of silence and seclusion that almost everyone now has to deal with.
Harari is the author of the worldwide bestsellers Sapiens, Homo Deus and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, but Abbring does not want to be burned by such ‘lessons for the time’ from the conversations she has had. “When I get a question like that, it feels like I have to take an exam. Making connections or reflecting, I often don’t get around to that right away. I think it’s too big to do that.” She remembers the little things, the striking moments, more than all kinds of big thoughts.
Wandering through New York
Her conversation with Colson Whitehead, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning American author of books like The Nickel Boys and The Undergroud Railroad, talked about how he roamed the streets of New York alone during lockdown, seeking inspiration there. up for new books. He talked about why he became a writer, precisely because he can stay in his pajamas all day. “Stay inside and make up beautiful stories.” One of the clips that Whitehead most resonated with during shooting was from the zombie movie Dawn of the dead. He showed a scene where people are trapped in a shopping center and a horde of zombies wants to enter. Abbring recalls: “One person in that scene says, ‘They’re coming for us!’ Then another says, “No, they want to come here because they seem to have the strongest desire for this place.” So Abbring asked Whitehead, “Where would you walk back if your brain was only functioning at the zombie level?” His answer: “I would zap on the couch like a zombie.”
When he’s watching Game of Thrones Yuval Noah Harari nerdy to correct all the details that he thinks are inaccurate. Photo Wiro Felix
The great thinkers and artists of the moment are now just like everyone else sitting on the couch, lounging around and baking cakes. Grayson Perry, one of the most famous British artists of the moment, has become famous for his pottery art and the fact that as a straight man he likes to put on a dress, as well as thanks to his popular TV program Grayson’s Art Club. He is a striking voice in the social debate in the United Kingdom, on major themes such as polarisation, Brexit and inequality. But sitting next to his pottery kiln in London, Perry especially “sweetly told how happy he was to have a happy marriage, and his fine bourgeois life.”
Blindfolded in the woods
And what about that other Winter guest? Performance artist Abramovicć is not someone who is easily mentioned in the same breath as homeliness and cosiness. She makes provocative, raw, sometimes bloody performances that revolve around confrontation, discomfort and a lot of nakedness. She has a big house outside New York. There she sometimes drops her guests in the woods blindfolded as part of an introduction to the ‘Abramovic method’. Abbring was first given a tour of the depot built next to the country house: “Great sheds, huge really.” In those sheds there is an enormous archive, all her books and works are stored there. “Then you suddenly saw a box with a whip from a performance. A coat with her blood still on it.” Intimidating, Abbring thought.
“But then she’s so sweet. She called us “kids” all the time. “Hey kids!” she yelled constantly to me and the crew. And she went to make us pots of tea in her house.” In her work Abramovićc strongly opposes the normal, the bourgeois. “Well, maybe that’s a common thread running through many conversations after all,” Abbring says. ‘Apparently, the artists who push themselves off like that often have a need for that: that small, normal, homely thing.’ Because Marina Abramovicć also seems to enjoy cooking a nice meal with her boyfriend.
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