Conversations in the big tent

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In his keynote speech opening the IETM Satellite Meeting in Gwangju, dance critic Namsoo Kim mentioned the travels of a 13th century Flemish monk, Friar William of Rubruck, to the Mongolian courts of the Great Khans. In his account of this journey, William talked about the conversations in a big tent, set up for representatives of different religions to meet face to face. There, they had day-long discussions about their beliefs and differences, but always with mutual respect and at the end of the talks everyone raised the glass. A remarkable story that certainly inspired a group of 120 performing artists, programmers, organizers, networkers and researchers, some of whom travelled a long way to Gwangju to get to know each other, talk about future collaborations and look for common grounds.

The occasion for this meeting was well fit, since the opening of the Asian Arts Theatre (AAT) in Gwangju might well redefine global relationships within the performing arts. It certainly opened with a bang: an ambitious inaugural festival, showing no less than 33 performing arts productions — a wide and diverse range of work from Asia and abroad, both (co-)productions of Asian Arts Theatre itself and invited international work — to a mixed crowd of local and international audiences. And this is only the beginning. The first season (2015-2016) of the AAT will present some of the most renowned international artists and their seminal productions (Robert Wilson, Christoph Marthaler, William Kentridge, etc.), next to newly commissioned work from Asian artists and community-based projects with local artists from the Gwangju region.

The Asian Arts Theatre team is clear about their goals with all this: they want their space to become a hub in the fast evolving performing arts scene, not only in Korea but for all Asia. Not only by supporting creation and presentation, but also by stimulating intra-Asian networking and the international distribution of performances. This way, AAT wants to provide backbone for an interesting grass roots dynamics in the performing arts in Asia. During the last decade, new networks of artists, producers and venues have been developing. Up till now, Asian artists and producers in need of places to network and discuss projects, mostly met outside of Asia, mainly at European festivals. To find the resources to produce their work, they had to rely on the choices and tastes of mainly Western festival directors and programmers. For Asian artists, the AAT might become a powerful tool, next to other existing and developing networks such as Arts Network Asia (ANA), the Japanese network ONPAM and more recent initiatives like the Asian Producers Platform.

Chances are indeed that global geopolitical balances in the performing arts production might shift. For the last decades, the centre of global production capacity in the performing arts has been in Europe, where a number of producing and presenting organisations — with the confident support of governments — have been able to create and develop networks for transnational (co-)production and presentation. But the pressure on this system is growing, after funding cuts by different national, regional and local governments in the wake of the financial-economic crisis. Neoliberal policies want governments to step back and are pushing the (performing) arts more towards the market.

In Asia, exactly the reverse is happening. The investment in the Asian Arts Theatre is symptomatic of an increased government interest in cultural policies. This contemporary art project is part of a wider scheme to investigate and construct a new cultural identity for the whole continent. This includes the development of new tools for international cultural policies, to promote this identity politics worldwide. Tellingly, the Asian Arts Theatre is part of the huge Asian Culture Complex, making Gwangju a self-declared ‘hub city’ of Asian Culture, featuring six different ‘agencies’ dealing with research about and the promotion of Asian culture (incl. the Agency of Culture for Children, the Cultural Promotion Agency and a huge archive and research centre about Asian Culture). This is not an isolated phenomenon. Also in other countries and cities, comparable complexes are being developed (for instance the West Kowloon Culture District, opening in 2018). Also here and elsewhere, gifted and dynamic arts entrepreneurs seek to connect these top-down initiatives to bottom-up dynamics.[1]

Where will all this go next? What will be the impact of this project on cultural dynamics in Asia, and even globally? Are all these developments — a growing Asian confidence, the rise of grassroots networks, a growing interest for culture in international cultural policies, the development of hubs making the connection between these grassroots and top-down dynamics — really the sign of a global power balance shift? Are we really at a turning point, or will these trends prove to be short-lived? For instance, it still remains to be seen how sustainable the Gwangju culture complex eventually will be: while it is an architectural wonder with huge ambitions, in the local context it seems to be an alien body. And also here, the government is stepping back. While creating and sustaining support with local audiences and local stakeholders can only be a long-term effort, the working budgets for the AAT have are already been cut.

The future will show how current developments will have an impact on the work of Asian artists. But the future is now. These questions are at the heart of the AAT project: ‘What is Asian art?’, the poster issued for the opening of the AAT stated: ‘What is contemporary art? What does it mean to embrace these questions?’ For reflecting on one’s own cultural identity, it is always interesting to enter in a dialogue with ‘others’. And that is where the IETM comes in.

Since the 1980s, IETM has been an important network for the contemporary performing arts scene in Europe: as a place to find partners, but also as a platform for knowledge exchange and reflection about broader developments in the performing arts and in society. In the last decade, IETM has shown a growing interest in developments in Asia. Since 2005 (Singapore), IETM has organised seven satellite meetings in Asia. In spite of the differences, the aim of these meetings has always been to support the rise of a regional network in Asia, able to be a counterpart of IETM as a (mostly) European network. Building further on earlier encounters, the 2105 meeting in Gwangju was about ‘looking for common grounds’: because, although the historical background and current contexts in Europe and Asia remain quite different, common projects and interests have already been defined.

In the phase we are in, knowledge exchange is crucial. When developing new networks, emerging Asian artists and producers are quite keen to learn from European experiences. On the other hand, Europeans are very much inspired by the drive and sense of entrepreneurship of Asian artists and producers, who work in a context where government intervention has always been limited. This mutual learning and inspiration has a common goal: to jointly develop new collaborative models for the performing arts of the future. The meeting itself broke down into several relevant subtopics related to this: the rising phenomenon of creative producers, the benefits and disadvantages of long-distance collaboration, the impact of the digital shift in the performing arts and — last but not least — a question which has been recurring in many IETM meetings (especially Asian Satellites) and is now at the heart of the Asian Arts Theatre’s project: the questions of (Asian) cultural identity in relation to contemporaneity.

A first session dealt with the role of creative producers. But what exactly is a ‘creative producer’? Definitions seem to vary not only between continents, but also within continents and even within countries and regions… The reasons for this are twofold. First, institutional contexts differ greatly (in relation to cultural policies and concrete resources for developing, producing and presenting work). Next, ‘creative producers’ always adapt to the particular needs and ambitions of artists and companies, whose backgrounds and interests of course differ greatly… So in reality, the working models of creative producers from all over the world are very diverse. Sometimes they work mainly on financial and management issues, sometimes also on logistic tasks. In some cases, they are also artistically implied in the project. Occasionally, their work is also to create contexts for presentation, for residencies, for networking and for knowledge exchange and critical reflection…

However, when talking about the necessary qualities of a creative producer, there are common elements beyond this diversity. The arts are always artist-driven. In any case, a producer will be the one who helps artists to make it all happen, by convincing the right people of the legitimacy of an artistic venture and by assembling the necessary resources to realise a project. Therefore, a first requirement for any creative producer is to understand the artist, to track what they are doing, to know the meaning and the essence of their work. This asks for trust, respect and mutual understanding. At the same time, a good producer must also be a counterforce. A project can gain a lot from a critical dialogue between artists and their producers, where the latter can make artists more aware about the context where they will work and perform: where a piece can be staged, what it can potentially mean for local contexts and audiences... ‘Sometimes we need to tell our artists the truth,’ moderator and producer Erik Kuong Wa Fun stated in conclusion of the session.

Long distance cooperation was the topic of a second working session. With not only distance, but also differences in cultural backgrounds and funding mechanisms being barriers, how can collaboration be really a partnership on equal terms? How to prepare local audiences for artistic work from very different cultural contexts? Which more practical obstacles will you encounter? And, in the light of all these difficulties, why would we want to work on a ‘long distance’ in the first place? Certainly we are not in it for the money, because this kind of international work is quite expensive. Also, we do not do it for ecological reasons (however, there is a growing number of artists and curators thinking up new and more sustainable formats for international mobility.)

The reasons for wanting to work long-distance are diverse, but also here, there is one common thread: the need for artistic exchange. This can be very personal, for instance when an artist or a company is researching an idea and wants to ‘test’ it in another context. Or when a programmer or a curator has seen the work of artists or companies and wants to present it to his local community. But often, the personal becomes political. The choice of working with people from or within certain regions or areas might be defined by historical or societal motivations (for instance colonial history or the migration background of some communities). Today, this might be more urgent than ever. In fact, what Peter Sellars said in 1994 at Brussels’ KunstenfestivaldesArts rings more true than ever: ‘The characteristic quality of our time is: it is the age of the refugee.’ Throughout our long human history of migration flows, all global problems and issues have become local issues, Sellars stated back then. Today, this is more true than ever.

How will we, artists and organisers, deal with this? If you believe in the power of the artist’s voice, it becomes very relevant to confront or infuse local communities with the highly individual, singular view of artists from all over the world on issues that we read about in the newspapers everyday. After that, it is the responsibility of presenters to become the hyphen, linking these artists with local audiences, to develop formats for presentation and communication which are both clear about the societal urgency of programming international artistic work, while protecting the artists from instrumentalisation of their voice by reducing it to its origins or cultural context. Because, very much in parallel to what has been said in the first session, participants agreed that the artistic drive and personal connections should remain the starting point for long-distance collaboration. As moderator Stephen Armstrong (Melbourne Art Center) put it in his conclusion: ‘No more f***ing arranged marriages!’

A third session dealt with the impact of the digital shift in society on the performing arts. In what way do new digital tools impact the way we work, create, share, experience (performing) arts? During this session, a number of concrete practices, perspectives and opportunities popped up.

First, digital tools changed the ways we reach out to and communicate with audiences. There are a growing number of increasingly successful experiments with live streaming of performances, allowing companies and venues to reach out to new audiences, also internationally. Next to that, digital tools are increasingly used to deepen and enrich the relationship with audiences, for instance by providing additional information and context during streaming, stimulating interactivity, the streaming of rehearsals to prepare audiences for a show.

Second, the digital shift opens up new horizons for artistic creation and production. Sometimes digital technology is purely instrumental, even a way of cutting costs. But increasingly, digital techniques are at the core of artistic projects, when robots become performers, actors interact with holograms and new formats for interaction with the audience are being researched… At this point, we are not only talking about the impact of digital tools on the arts, but also the reverse: the arts become a critical driving force in the digital shift. Increasingly, the (performing) arts reflect on and raise critical questions about our place as humans in social networks and virtual realities. At the same time, through collaborations with engineers, scientists and companies, artists are pushing forward technological innovation with their creativity. We see this happen more and more with the younger generation of artists. They are digital natives who freely use and combine old crafts (such as theatre and dance) with new, digital possibilities in artistic practices which can no longer be explained in terms of traditional artistic disciplines. At best, their work might be labelled as trans-disciplinary practices. 

Finally, the concluding session dealt with the questions at the core of the inaugural festival of Asian Arts Theatre. What is Asian art? What is contemporary? ‘There is clearly a shift,’ moderator Kee Hong Low (West Kowloon Culture District, Hong Kong) stated in his introduction to the session, ‘an increased desire for multiple Asias to gaze at Asia. Our gaze used to be defined by looking at Europe. But the last ten years this gaze has shifted towards Asia, because of cultural, political, and economic reasons.’ The idea of the session was to address this shift: how will this intensified interest in research and writing about Asia impact transnational collaboration in the performing arts? The aim was not so much to reflect theoretically on these questions, but rather to push the practical answers forward. What are the areas of interest shared by the participants at the meeting, whether they are from Europe, Australia, or Asia? What practical conditions can everyone put on the table to make joint collaborations about these issues possible? The topics popping up where manifold. There were brainstorms about the development of concrete new channels and instruments for networking and collaboration, suited to the ever-changing needs of artists and companies. There were talks about different research topics, such as the role of art and culture in cities and the issue of global migration flows, religion and identity. ‘All this is mammoth,’ Kee Hong Low stated in conclusion, ‘but it is not impossible: there are already lines in the making and things happening.’

Indeed, the IETM Satellite meeting certainly was a next step to look for common grounds for future collaborations, with open-minded discussions already leading to concrete proposals. On the common grounds explored at the meeting, there might not be that many solid structures and buildings yet. But Namsoo Kim was quite right to talk about a tent as a metaphor for the meeting. A tent is not only a place for gathering, a hospitable shelter and a place to have a drink. At the same time it is a lightweight, flexible and mobile structure. Where will it move next?

[1] For an overview of the structure of the Korean cultural sector, see the EENC report EU-South Korea: Current Trends of Cultural Exchange and Future Perspectives published in 2012: http://www.eenc.info/news/eu-south-korea-current-trends-of-cultural-exch...

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