“Simon(e) van Saarloos (1990, Summit, New Jersey) is a writer and philosopher based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. They published several books in Dutch including a novel and a collection of columns. In Enz. Het Wildersproce…”(1) I visited Amsterdam in 2019, right before Simon(e) continued to work in Istanbul at the artist-in-residency program of the BMCT. Thanks to this project, I had the opportunity to get to know them. The project also offered us the opportunity to meet online when we were all under restrictions due to the coronavirus. After months, as I have just finished reading Simon(e)’s book, so many questions were piling up in my mind to make me feel that our previous speeches were not enough at all! So let’s get to know Simon(e) closely, who really has the power in their art, words and philosophy!
Diren Demir: Hello Simon(e)! I am excited to have this conversation with you! Because I’ve just read your book “Playing Monogamy”(2) and I feel that it has changed a lot of points of views that I had been strongly tied to. Your ideas and presentations in the book can create conscious relationship/understanding dynamics either in monogamous or polyamoric structures.
İn the preface, you criticise male-centered society and you also practiced self-criticism in an objective and courageous way for your “previous attachment to white male thinkers.” and you continued with: “…I feel definitely write about non-monogamy differently now in 2019 to how I did in 2015” I think it is very valuable to see sincere and truthful sentences that remind us the author is also a human being. I want to hear more about your experience as a thinker in this White-male society. What were the challenges you went through until you reached more inclusive and rights-defending perspectives? Conversely, what was the system offering you?
Simon(e) Van Saarlos: Interestingly, your remark about the need to feel the ‘human being’ in the author, points to a masculine kind of writing in which the performance of knowledge is one of static certainty.
Playing Monogamy was my first book (published in 2015 in Dutch) and my commitment to white male thinkers was not passionate, but it was present nonetheless; resulting from my educational trajectory. As someone with both a love for storytelling and philosophical inclinations, I first started studying literature at the University of Amsterdam. There, I missed a societal and justice perspective, which is when I started studying philosophy as well. I’ve learned a lot, in terms of studying – the stamina and structure of studying –, but I’ve also always felt continuously dissatisfied, because activist and artistic research and organizing wasn’t welcomed so much. Hence, I think I first noticed the problems with the white male curriculum through the absence of the body (an awareness of the body, an awareness of thinking with and through the sensorial) and the negation of our intellectual performance as simply one way of being, one way of knowing. The university is a performance, naturalized as knowledge. My way out, at the time, was through thinking with sexuality, through queer presence, through gender. Though I feel lucky to have encountered some ‘postcolonial’ theory at the University of Amsterdam, I’m sad to say that most of my intimacy with Black studies and intersectional feminism came through studying in the US. (Sad to say, because I don’t wish to reproduce the hegemony of the US.) When I wrote Playing Monogamy, my commitment to white male authors was accompanied with an attitude of refusal, but I still felt the need to engage with them. Now, I don’t feel this need. The space of imagination, of embodied thinking without being in direct response to white male authors, is where I try to dwell. This doesn’t come easy; I think it asks for very active compensation. With compensation, I mean, spending deliberate time away from what you have learned ‘naturally’. So, I consider my full educational history up to my undergraduate studies, not as lost time, but certainly as a kind of penetrative conditioning, an ongoing and growing proximity to white cis male society. Every year I spent in elementary school, high school and university, needs to be compensated with a double amount – maybe triple – of time spent with Black female, genderqueer, decolonial, embodied thinking. It cannot be compensated by spending the same amount of time ‘un-learning’, because the first years of education are naturalized; we don’t actually recognize everything the things we first learn as education, as conditioning and training – for example within the gender binary within a heterosexual, white nuclear family. All of the time we spent within an exploitative world without disrupting how these forms are pressed upon us as ‘normal’ and natural, is deep, deep, deep. We cannot really undelve its beginnings or endings. Thus, countering the attachments of our white cis male capitalist society, requires a lot of time. Maybe an infinite time, one that leads us to non-linear understandings.
D: I wonder your alternative escaping ways from the mainstream White-cis thinkers world… the ways that are created by minorities that will offer us a more inclusive world perspective. What and who are your inspirations in this field?
S: I name a few inspirations in the preface of Playing Monogamy, such as Cathy Cohen, Gloria Wekker, Saidiya Hartman. Since I mentioned non-linear time, I’ll add a few of my favorites to that, such as Denise Ferreira da Silva, Black Quantum Futurism, Tina Campt, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson and Kim TallBear, absolutely. Denise Ferreira da Silva’s work shows up in a recent exhibition I curated together with Vincent van Velsen, concerning Abundance. We cite from Da Silva’s work to contextualize the way
abundance refers to a different kind of thinking, one in which we do not value and validate through categor
ization, hierarchy, comparison, linear growth, competition, singularity and isolation. Da Silva states: “We must bring about the end of the world as we know it.”
D: İn “Playing Monogamy” you give as a statement “Age is not a measure of capability and doesn’t signify a person’s desires or material position.” and you also state that polyamoria is not a “new trend”: “Time has been used to categorize people as backward and others as progressive. Non-monogamy is not progressive, multi-love is not new. It has always been practised…”
These statements made me wonder about how new generations could open the way to non-monogamous freedom in revolutionary ways? Should we look at this through generations, or is the idea that the youth “do it better” is just a matter of ageism?
S: Interesting question. The idea that youth does it better is probably ageism, yes. I would say it is not about young people doing it better, but about ceasing the possibilities of a certain time. That doesn’t simply refer to human time, more so to a tapping into ‘the times’ as a virtual presence – something that’s not concretely present but possibly present. If we consider the current moment as 2021, as ‘now’, solidarity and relationality can happen within this now, unbound by human age. So while this current time isn’t more progressive than previous times, I don’t think that thinking against progress and progressive, linear time should lead to a kind of paralysis. Maybe it asks for a different understanding of mobility, movement, change? We don’t necessarily need ‘new’ ways to do non-monogamy in more revolutionary ways. It might just be about old ways, former ways, ways that we classify as past, traditional, historic because colonialism has erased many forms of intimacies. But they still live. A lot is alive and present but not necessarily recognized. And, as it is now, that is probably for the better, because most things that have to become visible, most people who have to show themselves, reveal themselves, are violated and exploited. My obsession, if you will, with ageism and thinking against ageism, points to thinking about time in a way that doesn’t centralize time as bound to matter; it unhinges the relationality between matter and representation.
D: At Writers Unlimited’s Winternachten 2021 Opening Night event(3), you said in your speech “care is never a waste of time”. You care about careness, maybe that’s why you also work on “queer forgetfullness” and critical “whiteness.” İn your artistic skills/perceptions and activist practices, what kind of ways have you found to express these issues within the framework of performance, installations or curatorship?
S: I’m not sure about implementing queer forgetfulness, but when it comes to care, and caring for care, performance art, installation and especially curatorship are completely drenched with it. I think queer here does come in, in the sense that I’m trying to learn from practices of care beyond the conception of care that is related to femininity in a heterosexist context. Art is completely a practice of care, of attentiveness. The Abundance show, for example, proposes that abundant care and attentiveness is possible. That we don’t need to hierarchize issues and people in order to grant them our attention. That we don’t need a priority list to direct our attention. That we don’t need ownership and possession to care for. This is present both in big and small ways – and in disrupting this differentiation. Many might judge that I lose perspective, because I have very little sense of this normative differentiation between big and small –it’s all so fucking important and all at the same time.
When it comes to whiteness, for me, at this current moment, making and creating as a white person is very much about having access to funding and (re)distributing this funding. It’s a constant shift between either ‘letting go’, of disorganizing yourself and your inheritance in spaces where you’re simply not necessary. And constantly interrupting, being a full-blown killjoy in white spaces.
“Biz. Alive at the Gezi Park trial.”
Written by Simon(e) van Saarloos, Illustrated by Ken Krimstein
D: You are a civil right defender and a researcher as well, as I understand from your visiting Osman Kavala’s court, which you also wrote a detailed article about it(4)… Since i was born and grew up in Turkey I’ve seen the anxiety that the authority loaded on artists, thinkers and right-defenders back. And for me, your attempt to observe that court is just like going and researching a black hole from the center of it. I felt a deep respect!
I was wondering which instinct has made you research this situation and what happened after your article was published? Perhaps we cannot expect any concrete change in the face of such intense cruelty and despotism. But what has it created in people’s lives and in their activist practices? And maybe in the Netherlands?
S: Thank you!! I have followed the trial of the right wing, racist politician Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and wrote a book about it, trying to counter what is normatively seen as important. I intently focused on the details, on color schemes, on smells, on gossip in the room. It seems that the juridical rhetoric can not get close to the structures of racism it tries to judge. As of now, I’m not convinced my observations add much practical activism in response to the limitations of the current justice system, but in writing, I do hope that addressing ‘the world as we know it’, to speak again with Denise Ferreira da Silva, in relation to the juridical system, can support an epistemological shift when it comes to justice. I learn so much from transformative justice activists and thinkers such as adrienne maree brown, Mariame Kaba, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Syrus Marcus Ware, to name only a few. With my heavily descriptive, embodied writing on the trial of Geert Wilders and Osman Kavala – two very different trials but also similar in their performances –, I try to get to some rhetorical roots of our conception of justice. I’m especially interested how these conceptions are heavily dependent on performance. And as a queer person, I see the court as a drag stage – on which the performers pretend that following certain rules and protocols culminates into justice –, and I’m amazed these performances are conceived as real. Sharing this amazement might help us leap toward different possibilities.
Cruising Gezi Park, audio installation at the Refresh Amsterdam exhibition at the Amsterdam Museum. December 10, 2020 – March 28, 2021.
Photo: Monique Vermeulen
D: In the same term of time you were also working on a sound installation, this time with Kübra Uzun, called “Cruising Gezi Park”. Gezi Park, Taksim, many places around Beyoglu and especially Cihangir have been ‘’fluid’’ places for people who want to have fun. As we look at the LGBTİ+ history and memory places in İstanbul, there have always been unspoken (or unwanted to be spoken) parts about the real atmosphere. You reveal this and also describe the pressures that come with the recently changing regime: “Uzun’s stories are both nostalgic and full of present-day fire: gay and queer sex is still happening, resistance is still happening, people are still gathering. But the public toilets are monitored by cameras and the few standing trees are not enough to create dark spots—big lights illuminate all corners of the park.” This artwork was exhibited in the Amsterdam Museum. How did the audience respond to that?
S: I don’t know yet! The Museum was open for less than a week, then it closed due to Covid! We plan to bring it into public space with stickers, where the work might belong more than in the museum. I did a walk with film students through Amsterdam’s Oosterpark, while we listened to Kübra’s narration of cruising in Gezi Park. The walk with the film students was aimed especially at questioning oral and audio storytelling, the need to withdraw certain stories from sight, questioning the film maker’s ‘right to look,’ countering the demand for visibility and spectacle. Kübra’s story(5) is a lovely, juicy spectacle, celebrating for example, “The biggest dick I’ve ever seen”. It’s redefining, reclaiming our own kind of spectacle, our own formulation of entertainment, our own obsession with grandeur, flamboyant, big, without following capitalist and gentrified conceptions of entertainment and pleasure.
One of the students shared that they, for the first time, made a connection between the cutting of trees and surveillance. I think this connection between ecological or sustainable concern and gentrification and racism, is deeply important.
D: Since there is a pandemic, online projects have attracted attention everywhere. You are one of the curators of “Through the Window” Project(6), which aimed to bring together Dutch and Turkish queer artists. How do you think art projects should progress in this digital time when we are confined to our homes?
S: Here again, I’m not sure how many new ways we need. I’m keen to learn from disability arts organizing and disability activists who were already creating online spaces as spaces of intimacy and partying, while not giving up on demanding access to public, physical space.
D: Are there any other current projects that you are working on? Are there more upcoming events and projects?
S: Of course, I’ll mention the Abundance show again, which can be visited at the edge of Amsterdam till the end of October. You can read its introductory essay online(7) and we’ll also be hosting a school program around transformative justice and prison abolition in the Dutch and European context.
Other than that, Kübra will hopefully join me for the Architecture of Sex symposium I’m currently planning online at Amsterdam Museum. Speakers will include amazing thinkers and organizers such as Tracian Meikle, Jeanette Chedda and Failed Architecture in Amsterdam, as well as Full Surrogacy Now author Sophie Lewis about the architecture of family abolition. The symposium will be available online for free from June 10 onwards, at Amsterdam Museum.
Lastly, I’ll share the podcast The Asterisk Conversations(8), that I’m lucky to be making with Writers Unlimited. So far, I’ve spoken with sci-fi writer Nalo Hopkinson, poet Pamela Sneed and author Claudia Rankine. For each episode, a maker responds to the conversation by making a new work. We had contributions by the amazing Tirsa With, Jolyn Phillips and Rosabelle Illes.
(2): “Playing Monogamy” by Simon(e) van Saarlos:
(4): “Biz. Alive at the Gezi Park trial.” Written by Simon(e) van Saarloos, Illustrated by Ken Krimstein
(5): “Cruising Gezi Park” by Simon(e) van Saarlos and Kübra Uzun
(8): The Asterisk Conversations