The ‘Avoir 20 ans en 2015’ (‘20 years old in 2015’) project followed 50 teenagers in Belgium, France, Reunion and Canada on their journey toward adulthood. Chloé Colpé, a UCL doctoral student active in the entertainment world, jumped on the chance to follow the paths and progress of 20 Belgians over five years.
The 50 participating teens weren’t selected randomly. They were chosen by the theatres that co-produce the performances of Wajdi Mouawad, a 2014-15 UCL artist in residence, as well as author, actor and director, who wanted to share a unique experience with teens. Inspired by Sophocles, he followed the lives of ten teens each from Namur, Mons, Nantes, Reunion and Montreal, in line with the theme of his show ‘Incendies’: ‘Learn to read, learn to write, learn to count, learn to speak, learn to think’. It’s a unique chance for the youths to use travel as a means to reflect on themselves and their lives, experiences, doubts and sorrows.
Ms Colpé, in addition to being a doctoral student at UCL’s Institut de Langage et Communications (Language and Communications Institute), produces exhibitions and shows. With the help of UCL Culture, she created a companion exhibition entitled ‘Adolescence, la fabrique des héros’ (‘Adolescence: Hero Factory’), which highlights issues specific to the 20 Belgian youths in search of themselves. The exhibition travelled throughout the country, particularly in the context of Mons’s status as the 2015 European Capital of Culture. Ms Colpé also contributed to the documentary film that draws on frequent interviews with the teens over five years.
Travel broadens the mind
This allowed her to take on the role of researcher. ‘All these teenagers, from the age of 15, were sent to cities that are important to Wajdi Mouawad’, Ms Colpé explains. Thus they ‘learned’ to read in Athens in 2011, to write in Lyon in 2012, to count in Auschwitz in 2013, to speak in Dakar in 2014, and above all to think in seven large cities in 2015: Beirut, Budapest, Casablanca, Istanbul, Reykjavik, Tirana, Vienna. ‘Each stay lasted a week. At the end they all met back where they’d started, in Athens, to tell their travel stories and share their perspectives on these five years of their lives. I interviewed them every year from 2011, and I filmed them to see if this project changed them or influenced their relationships—peers, family, adults in general—or changed their identity. In March 2015, all these interviews were used in a five-and-a-half-hour-long film broadcast during the exhibition, which also included a large map to help tell the project’s story to teenagers who visited it, and to introduce the ensuing humanities research’. This research is still underway, because analysing the experiences of the Belgian teenagers began only in the summer of 2016.
Now, Ms Colpé believes this kind of experiment is interesting to conduct with a young audience. ‘They express themselves extremely well, yet their opinions are neither sufficiently sought nor listened to. In this project, it’s all the more interesting that we’re interviewing them outside a well-defined, regular context, using questions from an artist’s perspective. They willingly revealed very personal and profound things about their family, school, feelings, their future…And all that grew out of travel, exploring other cultures, backgrounds, histories. They felt free to talk to each other, on equal footing with the adults around them. As a researcher, in order to get genuine responses, I had to stay emotionally distant yet at the same time show empathy and understanding and prove that I could be trusted. It’s difficult to already start analysing what was said, but one thing is clear: these young people pose many existential questions about family and their future.’
They’re now 20, most are middle class, but they’re very different, with diverse personal histories. ‘What really astonished us was that not a single one of the 50 abandoned the adventure along the way!’
But why consider adolescence the stuff of heroes? ‘It echoes Mouawad’s reference to the heroes of Sophocles: young intransigents against everything, just like teenagers. But beyond this nod, adolescence is a difficult period and facing it takes courage. The “hero factory” is the personality-building process of youths in transition toward adulthood. Even if they don’t consider themselves heroes, they deserve recognition!’
Ms Colpé’s conclusions will be available in the coming months. As for the exhibition, it was a success in both Mons and Namur. ‘We’d like it travel elsewhere in Belgium. Some professors and school directors who’ve seen it expressed interest in organising an concise version in their towns. That way more teenagers could share in these experiences.’
Ms Colpé also highlighted the feedback of adults who viewed the teens’ testimonies: they had a positive, sympathetic view of teenagers and were capable of poignant intelligence and explaining complex problems. That could be a lot of help to those most afflicted during this difficult period.