Job Reuten / Artist
“Repress nothing, embrace everything.”
Blessed with a happy desire for the unconventional, the actor, artist and event organiser Job Reuten channels his energy into freeing people from the confines of their everyday reality. The same desire to shake things up by means of the unexpected characterizes his involvement in green initiatives, all of which are underpinned by his conviction about the obligations of an artist: “I think artists should make stuff happen,” says Job. “While politicians blow hot air, we can generate buzz.”
Interview Daphne van Langen Translation Siji Jabbar
Photography Jerome de Lint
Keith Haring’s motto was: "Art is for everybody". What’s yours? I don’t have one single motto. I think everyone’s capable of making art, except that some don’t know it yet. A bricklayer is an artist, too, in my opinion. I see art in really broad terms: it’s not all painting; there’s art in cooking, photography, interior design, making love, talking, observing ... Life is full of art, and everyone’s an artist.
Where did you grow up? I was born in Zutphen, but we moved to Maastricht when I was one on account of my dad’s new job. He’d spotted a vacancy for a petting zoo keeper and, being a biologist, it had caught his interest. Thus my older sister, younger brother and I all grew up around animals. And since the zoo attracted lots of visitors, I learned to get along with people from all walks of life from an early age.
What were you like as a child? I was a rebellious outsider. I’d occasionally turn up at school in a dress, for instance. I was also severely dyslexic, and often the culprit in any mischief. That’s why I ended up attending three different schools. I always got along with the school principals, but could never see eye-to-eye with their underlings. People who don’t speak for themselves tend to rub me up the wrong way. I always stuck up for victims of bullying, too. If I saw another kid being shoved, I’d immediately drop to the floor to draw attention away from him. I’m still always on the lookout for things like this, and will step in immediately if I spot someone preying upon a tourist, for instance. I can’t stand injustice.
What did your parents teach you? Dignity, honesty and keeping your word: "you make your bed, you lie in it". I was allowed to stay out late, provided I kept my appointments the next morning and helped in the flower shop that my parents set up after the petting zoo. I was given lots of freedom, but was expected to be responsible, too. Neither my siblings nor I became rebellious teenagers.
Why do you think that is? It had to do with our upbringing. Our parents always took us along to the pub and to parties, and there’d often be as many children at these places as adults. So we grew up seeing adults more as friends than as people to oppose or rebel against. You need to treat children like adults. That’s what my parents did and I’ll be forever grateful to them for that. It’s how I treat my son, too.
You’re quite creatively versatile. When did you first take an interest art? It began quite early on. There are quite a few artists in the family: actors (Jeroen Willems and Thekla Reuten), an opera singer, a gallerist, so it was always in the air. I took classical ballet class as a kid, the only boy among all the girls. I tap-danced, acted in youth theatre and did a year of drama school in Norway after high school. By the age of 12, I was already painting window panel displays for our flower shop, and was soon doing the same for other shops. I’d also paint patterns on old shoes for 25 guilders. My parents always maintained that we should explore whatever held our interest.
And what held your interest the longest? Acting. I discovered quite early on that my parents would allow me to stay up even later than usual if I put on a show for them and their friends. And that you could actually make people laugh by acting. I am a serious flirt; with men, grannies and disabled people, too. I think it’s important to brighten people’s day and make them happy.
And thus drama school. My plan was to break into the industry via stage design. My mum knew Sjef Tilly, the course coordinator for theatre design at the drama school in Maastricht, so I contacted him and he asked to see some of my work. I began by showing him some crappy stuff, to his palpable disappointment. He had no idea that I’d be taking him on a tour of my real work, through rooms filled with all sorts of stuff, with people with made-up faces posed theatrically on painted benches. I was immediately admitted into the second year of art school, which wasn’t really what I wanted; I wanted to act, but my parents were so thrilled by the news and so proud of me that I enrolled and did it anyway.
I was soon bored, though, and found most of the other students timid. So I switched courses, but decided after three more years in Maastricht to enrol at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. They allowed me to go straight to the final year, which I found so odd and irresponsible that I thought, All right then; consider this admission your graduation.
What did you do next? I went travelling. I’ve visited more than 50 countries to date. I hitched-hiked across the Netherlands and Europe as a teenager, and travelled for nine months across South America, Africa and Asia with my brother, Joris-Jan. When we were eleven, we saw a film featuring two brothers who were really close as well as working partners, and decided there and then to do the same. And that’s what we did.
We had little money, so we bartered my painting skills. I’d paint a restaurant wall for a meal, for instance. When you do something like that, or lend a hand in similar fashion, you’re immediately accepted as a local. Here’s my advice to anyone that’d like to go travelling: pick a date and buy a ticket. Even if you can’t afford it. In the weeks leading up to your departure, you’ll find a way to raise what you need. You’ll find odd jobs to do, and once people hear your plans they’ll lend their support, maybe even help you out with a bit of cash. That's how things work, especially when you're young.
Is that why it says ‘Life’ for place of education on your LinkedIn page? Yes. Ultimately, you learn the most simply by living. By meeting people, experiencing things and being open. Attending different schools taught me that it’s important to relate to people as individuals — I relate differently to my gay friend than to my Hells Angels friend. In addition, we have to let ourselves experience all of our emotions, and even to enjoy things like crying and anger. Repress nothing, embrace everything, and start each day with a “what's next?” It’s the best way to learn.
So you learned by doing, an autodidact through and through. What’s that like? You need to be self-confident, do what you want to do, and have at least three different functions on your business card — you’ll always get requests for one of them.
And which three are on yours? Improvisator, inspirer, change-maker.
You teamed up with your brother to launch What is Happening Here. Can you tell us about this? Our dad fell ill when I was in my early twenties. He developed a neurological condition that affected his balance and progressively robbed him of his cognitive functions. His health slowly deteriorated. We took care of him: fed him, showered him, dressed him — everything he’d done for us when we were kids, we could now do for him. It was an amazing experience. And when he died, we arranged the funeral ourselves and built his coffin. The ceremony was so special and moving that my brother and I ended up organising ten funerals after that, and making the coffins. So we set up What Is Happening Here as an umbrella company for all of our projects. And for the past twenty years we’ve organised dance parties, weddings and funerals. We recently opened an eclectic pop-up store, too, because my mother moved to a smaller place and we needed to sell what she no longer needed.
How does a boy from Maastricht end up organising parties in Amsterdam’s club scene? I simply approached the guy that owned Club Mazzo and told him that I could do better than the boring, mediocre experience he was offering. He gave us a free hand to stage parties for a month. We called our residency Party Blue. The first week’s party was themed around water; the next, air. We gradually reintroduced colour in the final week. We turned everything blue, including the indicator lamps. We nailed the bar shut, leaving only small openings, and sawed off a larger piece each week. We built a haunted house and drove a bath across the dance floor. It was a huge success. We began organising lots more parties after that. One party concept was called Acapulco Nights, which we staged all over the country and at festivals. Then in 2006, we added an annual party concept, Cirque Excentrique.
What makes Cirque Excentrique unique? It’s always themed, the decor is always magical, there’s always a dress code, and we paint everyone’s faces when they arrive to free them from their everyday identity and create a sense of belonging. It attracts all ages, from 18 right up to 93; people even bring their parents. It’s more of an experience than a party in the traditional sense of the word. You may find yourself milking piña coladas from a cow, or shooting porcelain figurines with an air gun. But the key to its success is our incredible bargain of an entry fee. And our awesome toilet facilities.
Any rookie mistakes? Turning a profit was quite hard in the beginning; then again we didn’t consider it important at that stage. At one point, we felt we’d grown popular enough to stage two parties on the same night: Cult in the Club and Cirque Excentrique. That was a mistake: leave in the middle of your own party and you lose your audience.
You’re involved in several initiatives, such as The Tipping Point, ilovebeeing and Raintrust, a worldwide platform for rainforest conservation. What’s your role in these? I think up ideas and, thanks to my network, get well-known Dutch people to lend their names to green projects. For instance, we had thirteen actresses painted as bees for ilovebeeing. And sometimes my role is that of an actor or presenter. My goal during Raintrust board meetings is to use the first half hour to set the tone, by telling a personal story, for instance, or by moving things along to ensure that we cover what needs to be covered without wasting time. Once we get to the numbers, I give the floor to David Plattner, the founder, and switch off.
Social involvement is a key part of your projects. Is this one of an artist’s tasks? Yes, I think artists should make stuff happen. While politicians blow hot air, we can generate buzz. Significant change is possible and within easy reach, especially in the Netherlands; we’ve got computers in every school, we all have passports and are free to travel. I can’t stand apathy. As I said at the start of this interview, everyone is an artist, so this applies to everyone.
For museum night in 2017, you painted the Stedelijk Museum’s glass facade, covering it in an abstract pattern of animal and human shapes. How do you prepare for a project like this? They invited me to do something and I suggested painting the facade. They had no idea that I could do the entire facade in seven hours. I’ve got lots of energy and work really quickly. I don’t do much preparation for things like this; in this case, I just made sure I had a ladder and some beer. We had a DJ perform while I painted, and drew a crowd of about a thousand. Brilliant! It was more about the performance than about the finished piece.
You do lots of different things. What’s your main focus, and how do you stay focused? My focus lies precisely in the fragmentation! I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learnt to date? I’m now 43, yet I feel no different from how I did at 18. I remember that I used to doubt the accuracy of older people’s memories whenever I heard them reminiscing. Surely, that happened far too long ago for you to remember things that clearly! But I now know that it doesn’t work quite like that. Age has nothing to do with it, and the realization has made me understand why it’s possible to remain in love, or to fall in love again. A 70-year-old woman falling in love glows with just as much joy, or is just as nervous, as a 20-year-old. It’s come as a pleasant surprise, that insight.
What does your work say about you? I want to make things and inspire people, and do so on a project-by-project basis, along a broad spectrum of activities: from organizing parties to drawing to running a store. Everything must be rooted in playfulness, and nothing must be seen as a mistake. Everyone’s welcome at our pop-up store, including junkies and alcoholics. Treat them with respect and they won’t take offense when you ask them to leave. I find genuine connection so important in everything that I do.
What advice would you give recent art school graduates? You won’t encounter anything in the real world that you haven’t already dealt with during your studies. The tutor that criticized you is no different from a difficult customer. In addition, get as many flying hours as possible, and keep learning.
And what advice would you now give your younger self? “Relax already.” [Laughs.] I can lighten the mood in a room, but I can also affect the mood when I’m angry. And I have a temper. It doesn’t bother me that I do, since I love to experience all emotions, but it might have been nicer for those around me if I’d learned to take things a bit easier on occasion. From a business perspective, my advice would be, "Keep it up, young man!”
You’ve got so many labels: actor, artist, event organizer, father, partner. But what do you call yourself, and who are you when no one’s looking? I was named Job, so each day feels a bit like a birthday. Job also means “work”: your destiny is in your name. Nothing changes when no one’s looking.
Given a free hand, what would you create for the Binnenhof [old square in the Hague bordered by the Dutch parliament buildings]? I’d make four slides that disgorge people into the middle of the square, enabling people to meet up quickly when they need to. It’d give civil servants an adrenaline rush, and shake them awake. Chute art! I can also envision a fountain with laser lights. Well, at least that’s what I visualise now. I’ll probably see something completely different tomorrow.