IETM Porto keynote speech: “How to be emerging?” by Pedro Penim


IETM Porto Plenary Meeting, 26 - 29 April 2018, gathered 651 participants from the different corners of the world to discuss how art relates to the processes of transforming centres of creation, dissemination and decision-making. Watch the video recording of the meeting’s keynote speech "How to be emerging?” by Pedro Penim, Founding Member & Artistic Director of Teatro Praga, and read the transcript below.

Is there an ‘expiry date’ for being an emerging artist? What if an artist’s career veers off the trodden paths and traditional routes, and keeps on emerging in new environments and in new shapes?

I love the term “emerging”, I am an “emerging” artist. #said_no_one_ever.
It’s true. I certainly would never use the term “emerging” to describe myself, and I certainly try to avoid using it when describing others.
An artist is an artist.
But if an artist feels that “emerging” is a useful way for others to describes his/hers/xs work, we should consider it. The word definitely suggests experimentation and adds excitement and freshness. And just saying it It´s already vibrant and playful. It’s movement and newness as opposed to mould and oldness.
Yes, “emerging” sounds much more like a process rather than a binary distinction between one thing and another. And it does gives a sense of movement in some direction… in the direction of the light: we’re emerging… we're doing it and it's a process that has begun and it’s slow, but it’s steady and it’s strong. And yet, although it’s clearly on the move, “emerging” is also something “new”.

Being emerging means to be specific. (Which is, of course, the opposite of being vague.) And being emerging can mean basically two specific things: A subject with a specific age and/or a specific background.

As age goes, the first thing that comes to one’s mind when thinking about being emerging is: a (very) young (and inexperienced yet talented and visionary) subject/artist!
And if we’re asked to draw a line, we should definitely be talking about, at least, a subject under 30. It’s a round number and it’s quite specific.

  • unless she/he/x has had work already shown at, let’s say, Kunstenfestivaldesarts…
  • unless that wasn’t exactly the subject’s first major show...
  • and unless the budget was over 50k...

As for the background, an emerging artist can be an artist you may never have heard of or... an artist you may have heard of. Or an artist that has just came out from a theatre school. (No. Not theatre. That’s too vague. The background needs to be more specific. ) Because emerging is good, but It’s important to think: emerging from where?! Because the subject must be emerging from somewhere, from something. And that thing is the thing which we should be thinking about, as much as we should be thinking about the emerging subject’s age.
This place, this background should be a place that should give the artist a mitigating factor, like:
the audience will forgive you because this is your first show and you're, hopefully, all heart and no polish, because you came from… [and now here you insert a prejudice at your own choice]. A Commedia dell’arte school is my choice...
“The audience forgives you because you came from A Commedia dell’arte school”

But if we mix the specificity of age with the specificity of the background we start getting a bit more vague… For example:

  • Being emerging can also mean being an old artist who never had a solo show; or an old artist that has been working for many years, but in theatres and festivals you’ve never heard of.
  • Or maybe even a very established old artist in… [and now here you insert a place of your sympathy at your own choice] let’s say… Iran… but that you can’t help seeing as a novelty in Europe. Being emerging can also be contradictory.
  • Or maybe even a dead artist. Being dead is very specific. So let’s imagine a dead artist coming from a geography that is really not very sexy, or just too white or just somewhere that you just tend to forget… Let’s say: from Ireland.
    “A boring pale Irish artist just died and gained momentum!” And thus became emerging.
    Gaining momentum is very specific. And gaining momentum is a synonym of emerging, no?
    But of course some programmer will say: I’ve known him for years! And my life is not counted in years, it’s counted in seasons.

And detecting an emerging artist is paying attention to this season and no other.
That is REALLY specific.
And by doing that, season after season, we become crazy collectors going after the next new market darling.
Here we all are: gazing into the future, looking at our crystal ball trying to figure out where is theatre and dance production heading to:
“I foresee that the big thing… for this season… are artists… that hate Timothy Morton… because hating Timothy Morton... is cutting edge.”
Because producing the emergence, like programmers often do, is also putting together a list that represents what is cutting edge this season.
And then, somehow, emerging art is not about the art anymore, it’s not about the age, it’s not about the background… it’s about the season.
And It’s not about the artist anymore but about the institution.
And it’s not even about being emergent anymore but about producing the emergence.

And suddenly the idea of being emerging is a synonym of being relevant.
And if that’s the case then suddenly I desperately want to be emerging. Even if I’ve been around for long enough. Because I need to be relevant.
I need to be coproduced. So... even if I’m not considered to be emergent anymore I suddenly act emergent!
And then... being emergent is no longer an adjective but it becomes my method of work.
And I start to fulfill criteria instead of creating art.

And suddenly being emerging is exactly like being established:
people know you and they know your work, and you have offers coming in, and on a practical level this is actually your primary source of income, or at least something you see as a job, not just something you do.
And there's a shift between 'this is what I want to be doing' and 'this is what I am doing.

And the landscape of emerging artists (that fabulous idea of movement and newness) results in a very stable landscape.

My two cents on this issue is that no matter how hard we look into our crystal ball “Emerging Art” does not exactly predict the future but it rather proves the transitory character of the present and thus opens the way for the “new”.

And to think of the transitory character of the present is to acknowledge that there are very well established and stable power systems, aka “our theatres and our festivals”, that were the result of struggles and political, geographic and demographic changes, but that are now representing somewhat preponderant modes of expression; and that what was previously disruptive and alienating gave way to neoliberal nonsense.

Frie Leysen said this a couple of years ago at the Australian Theatre Forum:

“we have built theatres and arts centres, and we created festivals to produce and present art works and to welcome audiences in the best possible conditions. But, during the years, most of these structures and organizations have become rusted and sclerosized. They became dinosaurs.”

Originally meant to support the artists, they got organized very well, often too well, and so lost the needed flexibility to respond to the specific needs of specific works. The artists now have to follow the policy and the rules of the houses instead of the other way around.

“We urgently have to reconsider the role of theatres and festivals, as instruments to facilitate and valorize artists again. And we need more flexible structures, production houses that can work and deal, but for real, with emergence.” she said.

Because if we don’t listen to her… this is what we are hosting here, inside these walls, this list:

  1. the linearity of time: past, present, future while what is emerging are multiple realities and contexts living in the same planet at the same time (with multiple definitions of time);
  2. an endless love for the simplistic narrative arch with a finality when a complexity of reasons impel and compel to other types of creativity;
  3. power systems organized in oligarchic ways while other realities are emancipating and trying to find a space for their own expressions;
  4. a stabilized discourse that in a condescending way “embraces difference” when difference doesn’t need your charity or being patronized by normality or mainstream;
  5. promoting the idea of a globalized and uniformed artistic discourse based on mobility when some works are only possible in certain contexts, languages, etc.;
  6. the idea of taste as a matter of aesthetics rather then ethics that should be operating a redefinition of values (how many trans people are among us, or working in this place?);
  7. the sheer inability to deal with anachronism;
  8. tons of issues with terminology regarding subsidies, much of which implies that the artists are lucky to be receiving the generous support of paternalistic venues and institutes;
  9. the artistic place as a sacred place with authorship, copyright control etc. while we are living in an hypermodernist era of where the object that is consumed is the person itself;
  10. the idea that being inclusive is having genderless toilets or wheelchair seats when inclusive is also allocating space for drug addicts, sex addicts, non-humans, safe spaces for neurodiversity; etc.

And for the ones among you that think that nothing of this applies to the theatre or festival or company you direct I congratulate you but tell you: we can still do better.

When we’re thinking about emergence we just have to keep on thinking:

what do we do on a regular basis in order that the emergence, that has been around since the Big Bang, becomes a phenomenon of singularity?

And if you’re not doing anything, If you’re one of those theatres that thinks that they can’t afford the risk, If you’re one of those that think that “Emerging Art” is bound to be less accomplished or less valuable… I have to deliver some bad news for you: the paradigm has shifted for good.

Emerging artists are now truly emerging. And not just for the pleasure or concern of cultural institutions. Because we live in an era of fluidity and proliferation, they actually emerge despite the existence of theatres and cultural institutions.

We are watching the emergence of a proliferation of problematics; different politics of identification are emerging; truly equalitarian contexts are emerging; value is being attributed to things that didn’t exist before; solidarity is emerging; non anthropocentric values are emerging;

So take Frie Leydsen’s advice (or is it a threat?) and open up.

“Don’t put yourself in the position of someone who wants to please everybody: the audiences, the subscribers, the sponsors, the press, the colleagues… a big mistake!” Take the risk!, I would add. Because it’s your only option.

And you won’t be even making a huge favor to yourself or to your community because, let’s face it, this openness is how the whole world is functioning nowadays while experiencing the internet (that’s our Industrial Revolution y’all!). And theatres need to be exactly like Youtube: wild safe spaces. But on our lilliputian scale.

To turn a theatre into a safe space cannot be just a slogan. Let’s not do “emergency washing”. Because when you do it it’s visible and it’s ugly. And you avoid all the ongoing accusations of exploitation and tokenization that many institutions are now facing with regard to artists that, independently of being emerging or not, are less savvy and more vulnerable.

Welcoming the emerging is letting go.

It’s not even about welcoming... or hosting: it’s about losing. Privilege. It’s about sharing conditions. It’s about destroying invisible dictatorships. If you own a garden there are things you plant, that you carefully pick according to your tastes, and that you trim if they get a bit out of hand. But owning this sort of garden is also about opening breaches to some unknown forms that are not yet on your guest list. It’s real risk.

Theatres are working under a too complicated net. And they don’t seem to make an effort to include diversity and emergency. The only emergency that is usually taken good care of is the Emergency Exit.

I am part of a federation of artists called Teatro Praga. We have been a company for more than 20 years now. It’s the sort of stage that a lot of companies just fade into nothing. I think what has enabled us to continue is a mixture of  having lots of ideas and the support of partners. But it’s true that after 20 years many theatres are still doubtful of how to deal with us. They still see us as a threat to their calm and comfortably predictable work environment. And they still consider us “off”.
That means we’ve been successfully riding the emerging wave for years and with no complaints because there are still opportunities and it’s a nice comfy title. And because we fear that the day we're no longer considered emerging, we will be left out very suddenly.

Recently in an interview to a Portuguese newspaper I said that the only thing that people cannot call me anymore is “an emerging director”. I was perhaps tired on that day but It was actually used as the headline for the interview. I wasn’t specifically thinking about myself, but about the fact that if I’m labeled as an emerging director (and I’m 42 and I don’t consider myself either young or coming from an unknown background anymore) there will be very little space and attention for other people. Portugal is so small that we always have to be alert that everyone is getting a bit of a share of what is available.

I thought I was being generous but in fact I was being extremely naive.
Because it had little or no effect. Because here I am, invited to speak of… emergency.
So perhaps it's time to reclaim the term, as more companies and artists are using the term “emerging” for longer periods of time. And make of it what is it: a vague concept about specificity. And a claim for experimentation.

A few years ago Praga (my collective) decided to open a space that we felt Lisbon needed. Of course with the help of many partners and a lot of support from all sorts of institutions, from political to toilet seat makers.

Teatro Praga’s scope of activity has always surpassed the borders of theatre. We have never pictured ourselves as mere creators of performances, but above all as a constellation of people who are looking at the world.

Rua das Gaivotas 6 follows a project that has started 20 years ago and that has dodged definitions through continuous changes. Today, we are at that space. The space is not Teatro Praga, it’s a building that we established as a place for performances,  residencies and readings… It’s a former school, that is now open to the neighborhood and to the city.

Rua das Gaivotas 6 is a small scale space where we hope that artists can devise freedom and spend time looking at theirselves and at the world and not feel subjected to normalization. And it’s a space where we try to show what is considered “emerging” and “established” work alongside each other without openly distinguishing between them.

I don’t want to present it as a perfect example of all this I’ve been saying. It’s not. It’s most of all “tentativeness”, if I had to describe it in one word.
It’s a space with many flaws: the budget is ridiculous, we struggle everyday...
And we also don’t feel that we’re doing any sort of charitable work, but we do feel we’re somehow giving back, giving space (or rather losing) in the same way that so many other artists did with us.

We also like to think about it as a pretty space.
The divisions are pretty multipurpose.
The construction is pretty collaborative.
The organization is pretty horizontal.
The identity is pretty fluid.
The performances are pretty emerging.
And even though everything looks pretty, it’s also pretty hard to manage.
Again: tentativeness.

Rethinking structures should not only be about peripheral gestures like this. It shouldn’t be only about small venues in Lisbon or elsewhere. Rethinking structures and systems should apply to all structures: to festivals, museums, Art Cinemas, National Theatres...

And if we do that… we don’t have to worry too much about the emergents, because we will be emergent.
We will all be emergent… if we stop sanitizing.
If we guarantee that the movement doesn’t stop.

with special thanks to André e. Teodósio

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