SAVING A TONNE - Part 3, Budapest, Prague and IETM meeting in Aarhus, Denmark (a journey across Europe to save a tonne of carbon)
SAVING A TONNE - Part 3, Budapest, Prague and IETM in Aarhus
This is a long read, I’ve used headings so you can find the content that interests you as the journey to save a tonne of carbon and explore green transition in Europe continues. Read Part 1 and Part 2.
SPENDING A PENNY
The one thing I did not consider when embarking on this green journey is that coaches in Europe do not have toilets. You are at the mercy of the driver. This is a serious concern for a middle-aged woman. Furthermore, the small change required to ‘spend a penny’ (English euphemism for having a pee) means having local currency. In Eastern Europe, ladies guard the facilities, and you must pay cash. On a tight budget I have been trying not to convert too much cash and in these situations have been caught short. I wonder about how the cash economy intersects with the growing digital economy. Homeless people in particular seem to have been short-changed (pardon the pun).
Belgrade to Budapest is the last bus ride before I switch to trains. The countryside remains lush and green for hours as we glide by. I get two seats to myself. Bloody luxury.
Budapest is an imposing city straddling the banks of the Danube. My dear friend Aniko lives in a beautiful old apartment building in Buda. The impressive entrance hall, detailed ironwork and magnificent high ceilings indicate fancy houses, now broken up into smaller flats. Aniko takes me across town to a dance performance in a city square. I am immediately transported back to the years I spent in the UK outdoor arts sector and the thrill of incidental audiences. A boy jumps onto the fountain wall to briefly join the dancers. A man in a white coat from the hospital takes video from an open window. Magic happens when repositioning these skilled bodies into surprising locations. We wander back across the city and stop for food and drinks. It finally feels like summer here as Aniko points out local sites including the huge, spired Parliament building, apparently the biggest in Europe. Politics loom large and Prime Minister Oban cuts a clear figure of right-wing authority in Hungary. The Hungarian independent arts sector has suffered a terrible blow in the days before I arrive, with zero funding for most of the scene. This is devastating for any local arts ecology. Aniko Racz is Artistic Director for Sin Arts, one of the few independent organisations to receive some funding and these decisions are deeply painful. We visit Sin Arts offices, occupying a former community hall, so I can meet the environmental sustainability manager. Laura Tóth is a dance artist, and mindfully planting seeds of change. She’s started with a bee corridor and planning a deciduous green canopy to shade the studio windows. All the spaces at Sin are large and light. Artistic screams occasionally animate our conversation, making us giggle. Laura attended the recent IETM green school sessions and appreciated my session about Climate Justice. There she found space to feel the enormity of what we are all dealing with and is keen to find allies for her work. I love her open approach and commitment to exploring new practice, she is applying her creative curiosity and learning as she goes. Next project is an eco-guide for the independent performing arts scene in Budapest and I urge her to consider how creative practice can inform this work. Artists voices and sensibilities are often missing from the technical work of green riders and eco guidelines. We need these perspectives.
Aniko and I talk for two days. We have never had so much concentrated time together and this slow journey is enabling rich and expansive conversations. We discuss social contracts in our respective countries. In Australia, British invasion from 1788 with a convict settlement and the ongoing destruction of First Nations communities. Then the states federated in 1901, consolidating imported class hierarchies and the adversarial British legal systems. These, tinged with fierce market driven competition, that we idolise in our US cousins, has also been informed by mass migration, promising a ‘better life’, fueled by extractive mining and exploitative land use. This short history of colonisation cages our imagination into a perpetual growth mindset. Compulsory voting defines our democratic freedoms.
Hungary, of course, has a very different history. A nation defined from the 9th century, invaded by various peoples crisscrossing central Europe, Hungary joined the Hapsburg Empire in the 18th Century until it was dissolved after WW1. Following WW2, Hungary formed part of the USSR as a one-party socialist state from 1945 and was impacted by pervasive capitalist imperialism when it became a fledgling democratic republic in 1989. Jump forward to now and lack of decisive EU action has allowed current Prime Minister Viktor Oban to create hybrid regime of electoral autocracy. Apparently since the nation was downsized, many Hungarians have a strong nostalgia for its bigger self. Aniko points out a bumper sticker for ‘greater Hungary’ and explains that while Transylvania is now in Romania, some of its people have voting rights in Hungary without weathering the impact.
The EU cultural project strives for unity by insisting that member states collaborate. Their highly bureaucratic governance system is inquisitorial, trying to find agreed points of shared interest across a continent with many fractured histories. These are my rough impressions. We have been colleagues for many years and with Arts Manager Barbara Pocek from Slovenia, and Artistic Director Grzegorz Reske from Poland, now living in Utrecht, have spent many IETM meetings navigating our differences. Aniko shares a game with me she has developed with Dorota Ogradzka, and Doreen Toutikian entitled Values of Solidarity, beautifully designed to help teams and collaborators explore and develop their shared values. It is made with a creative commons license, co-funded by the creative Europe program and forms a part of the RESHAPE project. It captures the spirit of inquiry and values led collaboration that I admire.
Budapest is well known for its natural springs with special healing properties. Until now I failed to appreciate that Hungary is also a proud nation of swimmers and water polo players. I am a passionate swimmer, so the chance to visit Alfréd Hajós National Swimming Stadium on Magrit Island in the middle of the Danube is such a treat. The entrance is lined with marble plagues honouring Hungarian Olympians including from the 1956 Melbourne and 2000 Sydney Olympic and Paralympic Games. After a leisurely swim in the deep open-air pool, the skies open with torrential rain. At least for the moment, Budapest seems to be OK for water reserves and power in the underground thermal springs could enable Hungary to meet its renewable energy targets.
On Friday morning I leave the spacious comfort of Aniko’s home and catch an early train to Prague, reveling in finally being able to travel by rail, with toilets!
PRAGUE - PQ23
It’s raining as I arrive. Moving west, the wealth of Europe emerges. More familiar brands, more advertising. When I first came to Prague in 1992, soon after the velvet revolution, where lack of advertising on quiet streets was striking. Now the train station and streets are teeming with travelers. I only have a few hours to taste the Prague Quadrennial, a global celebration of theatre design that takes place every 4 years. I am eager to see the Australian participants. In the exhibition halls, Australia’s contribution is by First Nations artist, Jacob Nash with his award-winning design for Bennelong, a work by Bangarra dance theatre. This show was about Woollarawarre Bennelong (Baneelon), a senior Aboriginal man of the Port Jackson area, Sydney, at the time of the first British settlement in Australia in 1788. A black tent recreates the theatre with a soundtrack in Aboriginal language and a large beautifully lit hoop structure suspended in the space. The strong male voice reassures me, I am moved and somehow grounded by the familiar yet unknowable content.
Jacob says: ‘This is a space that speaks to the ancient stories held within First Nations culture in Australia and how they exist in a contemporary form when not on country. The work I am exhibiting at PQ23 comes from Bangarra’s production Bennelong. When designing Bennelong, choreographer Stephen Page asked me this question: “What does the land feel like before there were people?” It got me thinking about how land relates to identity – it defines you; it holds you and nourishes you. The design is my response to that question.’
I was sorry to miss the conversation between Stephen Page, Jacob Nash and Wesley Enoch and wonder what others, with no connection to Australia, make of this work.
At Scenographic Futures, a talk moderated by Australian Tanja Beer and Canadian Marianne Lavoie, I hear inspiring insights and innovative performance design solutions as climate activism. Silje Kise, is a freelance scenographer and seems to have successfully disrupted main stage practices in Norway with dedicated passion. She too has traveled to Prague by train. Singaporean Ang Xiao Ting uses food as a lens to navigate the complexities of southeast Asian ecological practice and has a strong social conscience in her work. Food brings all people together; and Finnish Lighting Designer Vespa Laine, founder of Art and Science collective Fern Orchestra, works with plants and microorganisms. Her uncompromising call to action is that we all simply have to change. The central provocation is imagining that Eco Scenography will transition to be the only approach to scenography. From a Climate Justice perspective, there is a missing self-awareness in this call to action as all people on the stage are from wealthy parts of their regions. Once again, I long to see recognition that many designers in poorer places have always been careful with resources – for them eco scenography may seem a luxurious conceit AND the only option. I chat with another Australian designer Suzon Fuks about how dominant cultures get to claim, define and elevate their own framing. This in no way undermines the brilliant work and vital disruption in these artist's settings. I want to notice systemic inequalities.
Several IETM colleagues are at PQ23, and we share a rush of excitement in anticipation of the meeting. Walking back along the River Vltava, I bask in glorious sunset and fairy tale spires. The crowds are intense as I steel myself for the drunken chaos of Central Prague. The final match of the 2022–23 UEFA Europa Conference League match was played at the Fortuna Arena in Prague, on 7 June 2023, between Italian club Fiorentina and English club West Ham United. West Ham won the match 2–1 for their first UEFA Europa Conference League title and many UK fans were still in town celebrating. Even though street drinking is banned in the old city, there are too many revelers to enforce the law. I’m reminded that this cities tourism agenda is indiscriminate and that culture, whether scenography or football is fueled by cheap flights and bed nights, all helping to drive the Climate Crisis.
This my second night in a hotel and a week since I arrived in Europe. I buy fancy CRAZY tumblers from the lobby and laugh at myself, adding Czech glassware to my luggage is asking for trouble. Let’s see if I can get home without breaking them.
Another early start to get the train to Aarhus, in the North of Denmark, via Berlin and Hamburg. Since Budapest there haven’t been any passport checks. The Schengen agreement applies to the EU passport-free zone that covers most European countries. Australians can travel freely for 90days in any 180-day period. From 2024, Australians must get an ETIAS, the new entry requirement for Europe, which will add to the growing cost of travel. This overland journey has cost considerably more than if I had flown direct to London and onto Denmark. The Sydney to London route is well worn and seems subsidised, embedded in colonial histories and current international trade deals.
The rail connections work well, and I arrive in Aarhus mid-afternoon. After a week on the road, I’ve covered 2800km. Aarhus streets are clean, with mix of old and new well considered architectural design, with a lot of interesting public art. The light is arresting. Days start at 4.30am and get dark around 10.30pm. I find the sea and swim in the free harbour pool. Its 15 degrees Celsius, pretty cold, and I am revived. The next days will be busy.
IETM AARHUS MEETING
My first IETM meeting was in Bratislava 2009, when I was living in the UK. Then I wanted greater connection to Europe, baffled by attitudes on both sides of the Channel and wanting to learn. Back then, IETM was a more exclusive club for big organisations. Soon after the membership opened to include freelancers and we now boast host a lively mix of the performing arts ecology. IETM was once an acronym – Informal European Theatre Meeting, but a rebrand in the 2010’s dislodged the organisation’s descriptor from these initials, yet they persist.
The International performing arts network - IETM - is one of the oldest and largest international cultural networks, representing the voice of over 500 member organisations and individual professionals working in the contemporary performing arts in 50 countries. There are, of course, 44 countries in wider Europe, where the majority of members come from.
An IETM project called Global Connect started in 2021 supporting artists and cultural workers from other places, specifically the global south, created with the support of IETM’s Associate Members which includes the Australia Council for the Arts amongst several other major arts funders. The goal of Global Connect is to make our network more inclusive and diverse. There is also much work to be done for culturally diverse peoples already in Europe to be included in the performing arts field. Such is the complexity of the times we are living in.
I am very proud that during the pandemic IETM undertook a rewiring process where the membership determined 3 themes that are driving our current strategy until 2024. These are; Fairness, access and inclusion which of course speaks to the exclusion of so many; Green Transition – the theme of the Aarhus meeting that is being informed by First Nations perspectives and Climate Justice. Then next year will focus on trans locality, reimaging the International from local perspectives. These are three crisis areas for the performing arts and I stay connected because these themes are still emerging as critical interrelated change agendas in Australia.
My Aarhus IETM starts with a board meeting, first one ever for me in person after 15months on zoom, followed by an advisor’s meeting the next day. Given the themes of our strategy, we are navigating complex agendas together and it is sweet relief to be in the same room with colleagues, rather than beaming across so many different time zones and realities. Technology is certainly helping us connect but can never replace IRL (in real life).
Day one, I attend an artist working group addressing working conditions, Can Artists Sustain Sustainable Art? about issues of power within many cultural systems that disaffect artists. Run by Dalia Kiaupaite, Freelance artist, Lithuania, Meagan O’Shea, Freelance artist, Canada/Germany and Silvia Ribero, BILOURA Intercultural Arts Collective, Italy; this participatory workshop prompts personal anecdotes and challenges us to follow threads to broader shared issues. The group I was in talked specifically about motherhood and specific discrimination against working mothers, the impact of Covid and concerns over Climate Change. It was a great lens through which to start the meeting.
I also dropped into the end of the Who’s Here? an introductory session where a series of questions help the group get to know other strangers in the room run by another Aussie Bek Berger, Artistic Director at the New Theatre Institute of Latvia. I was at the far end of the line-up when asked the length of time it took to get to Aarhus and delighted to hear many stories of people traveling by train and bus. One woman was even cycling back to Germany, an inspiring contribution to limiting her carbon. Anecdotally, there is growing environmental stress, a drought in France with severe water restrictions, recent floods in Italy, city trees suffering in London and alarm about food and farming from several artists living in rural places.
The meeting officially starts with an opening keynote provocation from renowned Danish academic and wunderkind Nicolai Shultz. His thesis is framed by class, something we pretend we don’t have in Australia, so seldom discussed. He starts with Karl Marx, still considered an authority on class struggles, who argued for working people to own the means of production. Nicolai argues that it is this very production that is destroying the planet, and this defines a new class of environmental activists advocating for degrowth, circular economy and decrying green growth that is embedded in productivity. He suggests that ecological concerns are everywhere in our current media and yet nowhere when it comes to transition policy and responsible action. During this time of relative peace since WW2, we have been at war with the natural world, and that this will lead to greater division between people. He concluded that we must move from individual concerns to a strong united mission that culture is critical to and he called for artists to help facilitate this process. You can watch the speech here.
Our opening reception is at the City Hall, designed by architects Arne Jacobsen and Erik Møller and opened in 1941, with outside copper features, signified by the characteristic green verdigris and inside oak parquet floors and a large open hall with balconies, suggesting a ship. We are welcomed by Rabih Azad-Ahmad, of Palestinian origin and Minister of Culture, specifically attentive to the diversity of our international guests, having been an outsider in Aarhus himself.
As you might expect I followed the First Nations thread in this meeting. I was a little surprised that there wasn’t a First Nations person in the opening plenary. We have a First Nations first policy in Australia and protocol of a formal Welcome to Country is standard for all official events. However, IETM is all about deepening sensitivity to intercultural relations, where I am constantly reminded that people are at very different points in their journeys. We have many different local perspectives. Decolonisation is a live topic everywhere and something that the Global Connectors hold space for at this meeting. I learn more about the truth and reconciliation process in Norway, with a recent report about the treatment of Sámi, Kvens and other Indigenous groups; and the reconciliation commission of Greenland started in 2014 to establish further independence from Denmark.
The first Indigenous Ecological Knowledge session offered insights; Kimaren ole Riamit, from Indigenous Livelihoods Enhancement Partners, Kenya and Pratima Gurung, Indigenous Persons with Disabilities Global Network, Nepal sharing experiences from their local places. Then Liisa-Ravna Finbog from University of Oslo, Norway and Kirstine Eiby Møller, Greenland National Museum and Archives, Greenland. All of these strong activists spoke clearly about the persecution of 400 million Indigenous peoples around their world, their unique responsibility for 80% of the worlds biodiversity and the 'fortress conservation' that does not yet respect interconnected approaches. Liisa specifically rejects the idea of sustainability, saying it denies intangible cultural values. While there are many treaties and conventions in place for Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights, there is still an ethical failure to act in accordance with these values. The session was caringly held by British Iranian colleague Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh. I found it moving, hearing similar stories of injustice that I already know. I asked what we, non indigenous people, could do to support this struggle. The answer was consistent with my expectations - develop your awareness, educate yourself, be open to change.
Next day the keynote was delivered by Aili Keskitalo, Former Sámi President, Sápmi (Norway) who set the scene of the Thundra in Finnmark, where now trees are growing out of season. She shared stories of how green transition is destroying Saami homelands just as mining has done in the past. The situation for Sámi people is not improving. She talked about the power of art to help process ongoing trauma, to raise awareness, find humour and help heal. There was once again an appeal to the arts. You can see this powerful speech here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nw32grvDSB4. Aili is interviewed by Maria. They discuss a new colonisation taking place. Interestingly they don’t discuss the structure of the arts, mostly led by wealthy countries is also colonising, where Indigenous arts are a relatively new ‘flavour’ but, to my mind, rarely impacting dominant values or behaviours. There is great hope for change.
This was followed by a performance and sharing with Hásstuheaddji/By The Collective; Beaska Niillas, Sápmi /Norway, again Liisa-Ravna Finbog, Sápmi /Finland and Timimie Märak, Sápmi /Sweden. They were joined by two inuit artists; poet and Kuluk Helms and HH - Hans-Henrik S. Poulsen from The National Theatre of Greenland. The ‘stage’ is set with Lavvu poles used to create a tent, which Timmie explains helps bring a sense of home and safety. There is a clear barrier of hazard tape between the performers and the audience, other First Nations people were invited to sit on the performers side of the barrier, a salient reminder of the divisions between cultures and the need for cultural safety. They all speak about connection; to the land, to culture and community, to each other.
Much of the messaging aligned with Australia’s First Nations leaders. Here are my interpretations of the key messages:
‘Never about us without us’
‘Stop killing us! – because with such high suicide rates and systemic destruction of communities, the main objective for us is to keep First Nations people alive.’
‘You are destroying our culture by making us fight for our culture. There is little time or space to practice culture.’
‘There is no way we could have survived in the arctic if we were a primitive culture. It takes sophistication and innovation to live in these conditions.’
‘We are always being careful, always thinking twice, always adapting and interpreting between two worlds, with strong principle of carefully managing scarce resources.’
This session packed a punch, some found it uncomfortable. I was grateful. It confirmed my sense of responsibility to continue decolonising and help create space for First Nations people to indigenise. I continue to reflect on the individual exceptionalsim that is deeply entrenched in both market values and artistic training. It stands in the way of the collective action Nicolaj Shultz was calling for and the inter-connectivity that First Nations leaders live through their cultural practices. These are clues to how mindsets need to adapt as we transition.
One of the successes of this Aarhus meeting for me, was a sense of tangible action. As one colleague suggested, we are in danger of being the chattering classes, where conversation rather than artwork or focused endeavour becomes the purpose, with crises converging all around us. However, the IETM secretariat are leading projects and activity demonstrating progress. They have joined with 15 other EU cultural networks to draw up the SHIFT eco guidlines for networks and a green transition strategy with ambitious targets to reduce carbon emissions and waste. I am on the IETM green team led by dedicated staff. IETM members voted to adopt our environmental policy and the next stage is to engage members in pledging further action. A member initiated green working group led by Hungarian organisation Pro Progressione will see a charter for members developed by the end of the year.
Certainly, Aarhus, the city of smiles, was a wonderful place to host this meeting and the local team did a wonderful job. I missed many sessions I would have liked to follow. It’s impossible share all the highlights. I saw extraordinary artworks by Fix and Foxy, Linh Le and Wired Studio, had great informal conversations and felt both challenged and inspired to keep working. With a strong climate justice agenda, it’s really clear that we need to really reimagine the way we live, how we work together and how we share resources and cultures. We cannot sustain flying across the world to join other wealthy people just to trade cultural production or make conversation. This network, led by Asa Richardsdottir, is trying to lead significant change and learning as we go.
As a parting gift, I am whisked away from the closing party by local artist Christine Fentz to visit her Earthwise Residency space near Eberfolt on the Djursland peninsula of Jutland, 50km from Aarhus. We arrive around 1am and I wake up early the next morning in the most idyllic spot overlooking water and surrounded by nature. Christine and her partner Chris have several buildings carefully furnished from recycled materials and can sleep 20+. There was a pre-meeting trip for IETM participants that I could not attend and having this opportunity to see the space and feel their generous hospitality is truly special. Back to Aarhus, some fond farewells and then off to navigate transport out of Denmark and the dreaded news that no one ever wants to hear - replacement bus service.