The Twelfth Man

Ian Mundell

For this year’s edition of Contour, Mechelen’s biennial exhibition of the moving image, Danish curator Jacob Fabricius invited artists to explore one of three sites of social interaction in the city: a church, a prison or a football club. Despite having no previous interest in the game, Dutch artist Paul Hendrikse found himself drawn to what he saw at KV Mechelen. 

“I went to a couple of matches, and I started thinking that the football stadium was quite interesting, especially in a Belgian context,” recalls Hendrikse. “A club like Mechelen has a very strong and connected group of people around it; much stronger than the whole construct of Belgium. I thought it might be interesting to look at that common identity and how it functions.”

His research led him to the concept of the 12th man, which argues that support from the stands is so important to a football team’s performance that it can be like having an extra player on the pitch. This struck a chord with Hendrikse, whose previous work has involved individuals with opaque or ambiguous identities.

“I thought it was interesting to work from the reality of these fans, boil it down to a generic figure and see what its sphere of action is,” he says. Deciding which approach to use was relatively simple. “For me it quite quickly became performative, because the fan is voice and gesture.”

He returned to KV Mechelen and recorded the crowd. From the sound of the crowd, he selected elements that had unusual or intriguing developments and asked composer Rudi Fisherlehner to set them down in musical notation. In this way the chants, calls and other sounds were condensed down into a single line, some of it abstract but with fragments of language still present.

“From there, we started constructing a piece,” Hendrikse explains. “We tried different elements together. Some worked, some didn’t. It may not seem very composed, but in fact it is hyper-composed.” The next step was to perform the composition. “I wanted to bring this 12th man, which is a generic thing, back to one person.”

He toyed with the idea of performing it himself but instead decided to return to the source, recruiting three supporters – Else, Klaas and Guy – who could read music and agreed to interpret the score. They were put into a studio and filmed performing the sounds and gestures of the 12th man.

“They have a certain set of ideas on how you support your team,” says Hendrikse. “I told them: just perform it the first time how you think it should be done. Sometimes it was very technical, sometimes it was immediately very fan-like.”

From these starting points, Hendrikse asked for variations, but throughout the process he was struck by how much room there was for different interpretations of what was on the page. “I thought the margins would not be so big, but then it happens before your eyes, and you see that the margins are actually rather wide,” he says. “I only half foresaw that it would become all about performing: How do you put yourself on the spot and how do you then act in this situation. That becomes rather personal.”

The resulting video installation, “The Twelfth Man”, contains sequences of each performer standing before a music stand, following the score and performing the calls, whoops, whistles and claps that originally came from the KV Mechelen stands. Sometimes this sounds like an abstract, avant-garde vocal performance, but then something subtly changes, and you get the strongest sensation of a botched pass or a shot at goal somewhere outside the pool of light that isolates each performer.