Keeping up with Julian Hetzel is a challenge. In conversation, the Belgium-based theatre director and visual artist skips freely between philosophy, geopolitics, chemistry and esoteric legal concepts. These topics all collide in his Adelaide Festival show Schuldfabrik, but right now he’s smiling broadly and gesturing towards a bar of soap. Imprinted on one side is the word “SELF”, and in smaller font “HUMAN SOAP”.
Hetzel says the 2000-odd handmade bars that he has produced “all have individual character” before pausing and laughing. “And not only because they have people in them.” Though he describes the soap as vegan (“no animals have been harmed in the production”), each bar does indeed have its own “individual character” in the form of fat taken from liposuction patients, along with a range of plant-based fats and oils.
It’s a concept familiar to anyone who’s read or watched Fight Club: taking the most literal product of Western excess and selling it back to the society that produced it. But as Hetzel points out, “The history of artists making soap out of human fat dates much further back – soap and other cosmetic products have actually been made for hundreds of years using human ingredients.” And while Fight Club’s soap was a sardonic middle finger to consumerism, Hetzel’s critique is more subtle, exploring late capitalism from within rather than trying to destroy it from outside.
Schuldfabrik translates literally to “guilt factory” (or “debt factory”), but he is not manufacturing guilt – he is attempting to commodify it. “Today the indulgence trade happens through capitalism, where you buy the right products and it tastes so much better,” he says.
The knowledge that our fair-trade coffee has been sourced and packaged ethically does make it more palatable, allowing us to put rampant global inequality out of our minds (at least temporarily). So what if guilt itself could be turned into a tradeable commodity? Working within the mechanics of capitalism, Hetzel proposes treating it as a vast untapped resource ripe for exploitation. “Let's say that fat is a form of guilt,” he begins. But it is also energy – “So what if we can make use of this energy that is usually being thrown away?”
Schuldfabrik has two parts: a sleek concept store on King William Street that’s open to the public and the “factory”, a ticketed installation. In the store, performers work as shop assistants, explaining the soap’s origin and selling numbered bars. All profits from the sales go to a charity providing safe drinking water in the Democratic Republic Of The Congo, completing the circle of Hetzel’s guilt economy.
The choice of recipient is significant – Hetzel is based in Belgium, a nation still grappling with the atrocities committed by King Leopold II in the Congo Free State during the 19th century.
When the shop assistants perform a cleansing ritual for customers, it acts as a metaphor for absolution, but Hetzel knows that nothing can be erased. Instead, positive change can only come through acknowledging and reflecting upon our own place in society. It’s here that his true aim becomes clear – the shop is a Trojan Horse using the tools of neo-liberalism to critique it.
The factory, in a mystery location in the CBD, consists of six connected rooms with different themes. Some parts are guided but the audience can also roam freely at points. “It’s not a theatre show where you go and sit,” says Hetzel. “You walk through rooms, you meet people, you enter situations. You can see a live liposuction, you meet the surgeon who explains to you about plastic surgery and beauty ideals, you meet an economist who explains what we do with the money. You can ask questions at any moment.”
Other rooms allow audiences to explore the concepts of guilt and debt, see how soap is made and even discuss the legal implications of sourcing human by-products (it falls under property law, but the patients had to anonymously donate their fat).
But one thing Hetzel is definitively not doing is trying to make audiences guilty. We’ve been born with privilege and he wants us to examine that – to ask, “Why do you have freedom to travel around to study, to work, and why do other people not have that?” From there, it’s up to the audience what they do with the emotions he provokes.
“I think it's important to reconsider and negotiate your own position in this world and sometimes you need to jump right into the mud to get your hands dirty,” he says. Sometimes, you can even wash your hands clean afterwards.
Schuldfabrik runs from March 1 to 13. Tickets are available online.