Depot Donderen – opening weekend, December 2009

The Cold War was not a war of guns or steel. It was a contest for power and a battle of ideas, ideas that made people across the world live in constant fear; the fear that a war to end life on earth could start at any time.

For The PeerGrouP, moving into Depot Donderen, a vacated ammunition depot built in the time of the Cold War, signifies a new point of reference for their coming projetcs, a new setting for their investigations. The PeerGrouP provisionally adopt the history, the stories and the features of their new surroundings. And on this particular freezing winter night, they bring their audience through a series of presentations and tableaus on a roundtrip back to an era, when children regularly covered under their school desks.
It starts enjoyably, as we are welcomed into a large, warm and well-lit room with rows of seats in one end and a bar and a record player in the other. Along the walls, coloured lamps are hung, and in the middle of the room big green and pink lamps are adding to the festive atmosphere. The entertainment is provided by a DJ dressed in a red t-shirt with CCCP-print, fur coat and ushanka, flanked by a cowboy dressed in white with an American flag worn as a cape around his shoulders. The row of seats are filling up as more and more expectant guests enter the room and sit down in either East or West, as black sticky tape letters on the floor indicate. I happened to take seat in the Eastern part.

Five minutes later, the party is over for us inhabitants of the East, and we are asked to leave. As the big iron door closes behind us, I hear the cowboy telling the West to enjoy themselves and that the bar is now open. Now excluded and standing in the freezing, dark cold with a group of equally homeless people, I am surprised to realise how quickly a feeling of alienation and polarization between “us” and “them” can occur.

A stern voice asks us to follow, and we make our way down the broad road towards another building in the complex, accompanied by the repeated metallic sounds of objects banging together in the hands of severe looking young people. The sound is haunting and follows us, as we stop in front of the next building, where two women are waiting outside, their breath billowing in the cold air. With a harsh look at each other, they spin around and stride towards two seperate entrance doors. Hesitant, we follow.

Dressed in white robes and slippers, the two women enter a circle on the floor of the big, empty room. The atmosphere is tense and cold, as if they brought some of the coldness from outside with them. They keep a close eye on each other, as they start doing what seems to be little everyday tasks within the female realm; boiling water to prepare coffee, removing dust from the table top, brushing their hair. As slowly curling towers of steam rise from the boiling water, the tension grows between them, and I wonder why these two women – neighbours, maybe even sisters – are in such a state of suspicion, boardering hate, towards each other. Not a word is spoken, but their body language and their eyes say everything. They mirror each other, take clues from each other, but constantly watching, if the other does better – or worse. Suddenly one of the women makes a mistake; she spills water, as she waters the plants growing above their shared living quarters. This ignites the anger of the other, and her self-protection strategy is to build yet another wall between herself and the transgressor. The other woman responds by hastily constructing a wall of her own. The building blocks of the walls turn into weapons, spray cans containing some sort of deadly poison. Slowly and on guard they reapproach each other, shaking their weapons, the only sound in the room is the rattling of the spray cans and the soft thread of the womens’ feet.

The silent and freezing war between them rages, until the transgressing woman puts an end to it by dropping her robe and revealing her naked body. Is this a show of humanity that the other’s weapon cannot defeat? Is it the ultimate sacrifice or the ultimate victory? Whatever it is, it makes her adversary hastily back away.

This performance plays out a war within a domestic space inhabited by women. The constant monitoring and the mutual mistrust, the arms race between them and the freezing cold atmosphere sketches the chill of the Cold War as an internal struggle and examines some of the human costs of a raging war.

As our walk around the complex continues, we are presented to the wide range of the PeerGrouP’s skills, interests and different backgrounds, and to the unique setting provided by Depot Donderen.

We move from the retrospective view on the Cold War-era to a contemporary worst case-scenario

- what if it happens today? Do we actually have any idea how to survive without things like mobile phones and computers with Internet access anymore? Probably not, which is a good reason to the take necessary precautions or at least reflect upon the hypothetical situation, assuming we can call it hypothetical.

A soon-to-be-taxidermist welcomes us into a room, dominated by the sight of a dead fox hanging by its hind legs above a plastic tub. Carefully arranged animal bones and skulls, furs and teeth give associations to a primitive hunter-gatherer society and mystical nature religions. Maybe this is what is in store for us, if we are bombed back to the proverbial Stone Age and have to start over?

Through a narrative he takes us back to October 1962, but this time with a horrifying, alternative outcome: the Bomb has fallen, and we, the group of bewildered Easterns, might be the only ones left to sustain life on Earth. How will we survive? Can any of us fish or hunt or make fire? By a show of hands it is established that we might be able to survive for a few weeks in the bunker, but the outlook is dire. Fortunately, it is just a game and we can walk out the door again into the calm, starry night without fearing radiation exposure or contaminated water.

It was said of the Chicago stockyards that they used every part of the pig except the squeal

– The PeerGrouP top that, in that they record the squeals and let them pierce the night, as we reach the next building and walk into a space converted into a kitchen and eatery. Everywhere rows of drying sausages are draped and big hams are salting in buckets on the floor. It is obvious that every inch of the pig has been brought to use. In lean times and in the right hands, nothing goes to waste.

On the stove, blood sausages are cooking, and the smell of frying meat fills the room and the noses of us Easterns. From behind the counter, a man reads a passage by the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal describing the slaughter of a pig with almost excruciatingly vivid depictions. After the reading we are offered slices of freshly fried sausage with bread and chutney, and in this way all of our senses have been activated. And manipulated. Sinking our teeth into the warm, well-cooked and tasty meat, after the sounds of what was probably the last cry of the pig and Hrabal’s tale from the slaughterhouse, is an emotionally charged experience.

My head is buzzing with impressions, as we return to the starting point, where the music is still playing and the cheerful cowboy is selling beer and Peer-juice. The black letters on the floor now devide the room into ‘Ost’ and ‘Woest’, and everybody seems happy to be out of the cold and back in the warm indoors. Safely returned, we can let out a sigh of relief and push away scary thoughts of shelter areas, battery radios and vital skills in fishing and hunting, and have a drink.

However, this feeling of relief might only be a brief respit. Although the end of the Cold War seems to have removed the threat of nuclear annihilation, it has not left a world without dangers. During the last decade we have seen a wide range of difficult definable enemies and threats, from natural disasters, the spread of infectious diseases, civil wars to terrorism. Devastating forces of nature can rip through a landscape as if it were layers of tissue paper, and what about human nature? There are people in the world today for whom death has no meaning and the destruction of entire nations even less - and that thought sends ice cold chills down the spine.

Bones and skulls