Notes and reflections on «How to Be Together?»

by Marta Keil


The temporary, affective community created around a festival is one of its most fascinating political constituents. A community that is vivid and unceasingly transforming, that is based on a particular festival context (its location, the rhythm of the program, the diversity of perspectives, the sound of the streets, the humidity of the air, the constellation of the publics etc.) and that consists also of the experiences, ideas, desires and urgencies brought by its international participants and guests. I strongly believe that the festival can become a condition for gathering otherwise, for getting together in unexpected ways – even if only for one evening, even if in a form that might be difficult to grasp the following day. Something that cannot be fully planned, but for which basic conditions can be created. Sometimes the affective, intangible form of the festival community becomes an inspiration for imagining new dimensions of the political, albeit only temporary. It allows more voices than usual to be heard and enables encounters that are both public and intimate. These relational political layers might not be easily visible at first glance; often they resonate and grow along and beyond the edges of the festival, taking the shape of concrete alliances, actions and initiatives months and years after.

This very aspect of the festival has been challenged by the pandemic outbreak. The intimacy of a human encounter has come to be experienced as a danger, while social contacts have become linked with the risk of infection. All of a sudden, the other became a threat – be it the neighbor or someone met for the first time. The countries closed their doors quickly, supporting the perception that the virus was coming from abroad and could be kept out: only deepening the disastrous cliché about a «dangerous stranger». Physical distancing requirements and travel restrictions is affecting international festivals severely, challenging their composition and redefining the methods of conceiving and organizing their programs.

First and foremost, the professional and personal situation of performing artists and art workers worsened under the new conditions. However, while the pandemic highlighted structural problems, it did not create them. It was rather a catalyst that made the inequalities and precarity of the field more visible and more painful. For many independent performing groups, festivals are indispensable coproducers and crucial platforms to encounter audiences and peers. Under a geo-political lens, opportunities to make and present work transnationally might be essential to sustain artistic work and expression – especially when artists are being endangered or marginalized in their local context. Sometimes an international tour is the only way to continue their work in the local context and to keep going without abandoning one’s own practices and goals. When national regimes become oppressive based on nationalist, homophobic, misogynous and xenophobic political agendas, reaching out to allies beyond borders can be a way to regain agency, also in the local community.

On the other hand, international festivals have long been playing their part in the boosting of hypermobility and cultural tourism which need to be questioned given their disastrous ecological impact and the superficiality of many rushed encounters and exchanges. How can a festival develop its transnational dimension in more sustainable ways that would give the invited artists time and space to actually observe and engage with the complexities of local and trans-local realities? Reaching out to others and across borders is needed more than ever before. At the same time, while the ways we used to work are now not possible anymore, it is a good moment to reflect about the goals and assumptions of our work and see whether there might be new paths unfolding.

This was the aim of the digital conference «How to be together? Conversations on International Exchange and Collaboration in the Performing Arts». Organized by two European festivals – Tanz im August in Berlin and Zürcher Theater Spektakel – from 27 until 29 August 2020, it gathered worldwide perspectives of contemporary performing artists, curators, art operators and researchers from a large diversity of contexts, some who have been to one or both of the organizing festivals as well as peers who have been observing the field carefully. The conference curators, Maria Rößler and Ana Letunić, created a welcoming and amazingly inspiring space where a large multiplicity of voices was heard and where an extraordinary diversity of views and circumstances were freely articulated and discussed. It is thus a rare example of an online event which brings a real joy of getting together, which offers time to reflect, to exchange urgencies, to listen and to shift perspectives.

The aim of the conference was to open up time and space in order to understand where we actually find ourselves at that very moment. It thus resonated with a strong need, expressed by most of the conference participants, to refuse premature answers and rushed solutions. Many noticed the desire to take some time to mourn who and what was lost; to acknowledge what has changed, what is still transforming and what the consequences could be for the wider field of international performing arts. Although new initiatives and new modes of connecting were discussed, the prevalent need was to hold on to the moment and to understand it better. The pandemic appeared here not necessarily as an obstacle to overcome, but rather a time or condition to go through.

«We have no choice but to be international.»

In a conversation titled «Cultural Policy and Funding in Times of Multiple Crises», Marie Le Sourd (On the Move) asked about the relationship between art and internationality and whether we actually are (and still want to be) international, to which Heba Hage-Felder (Arab Fund for Art and Culture) immediately answered:

«Our space, the space to freely express, to shock, to provoke, to question, to narrate is dwindling. We have no choice but to be international. I think it is not an issue of where do I see myself in relation to the pandemic or to this or that crisis, it is a question of mobilizing the efforts that as artists, as institutions, as policy makers in our different spheres we speak up, we speak together and we create the movements that are needed in order to challenge the current situation. If I focus on the Arab region, I don’t even know where to begin to list the names of the countries with repression and where people are more and more restricted in how they behave, and how they express. […] How do you do that without partnering across borders, across geographic boundaries, across the very lines that are being taught to our heads?»

This powerful statement points out that no matter how exhausted and frustrated we might be by the ecological and political failures of transnational cooperation within the arts field, it remains impactful as a space for artists to resist oppressive regimes and for allies to enable artists and art workers to continue their work. It also resonates with the context from which I have been observing the conference. As an independent curator and researcher, based in Warsaw, I have been operating in a constant emergency mode during recent years since the populist government of Poland introduced a nationalist policy combined with extreme neoliberal economic principles. There is a rising fear of getting isolated, as there are less and less international festivals and opportunities to meet and exchange perspectives with artists and peers from other contexts. For many of us, working transnationally is the only way to sustain our creative practices.

The pandemic outbreak strengthened nationalist discourses. As Sibylle Peters said in a conversation on «Distance & Assembly», during the first wave of Covid-19 a kind of renationalization happened: the uncertainty and fear caused by an unknown disease created a perfect condition for national regimes to develop their isolationist narratives. Quickly, national borders became materialized again within the EU, also for its privileged residents, who did not have to worry about them for quite a while. In that moment, it felt urgent to reach out to our allies beyond borders while also building new alliances and strong connections within our own local community. Who can we reach out to in such a moment and who do we consider and take along with us on our pursuits of alternatives?

New artistic strategies

As physical encounters with audiences and travels to festivals are impossible, new artistic strategies have been emerging, many of which respond to experiences of absence: the absence of physical bodies, of a broader context, of a beloved person, of a freedom to move as we like, of privileges that we took for granted, of peers, collaborators; of a multiplicity of voices.

New dramaturgical strategies and solutions were discussed in a conference session on «Distance & Intimacy» where New York-based choreographer Faye Driscoll spoke about the aesthetic production of intimacy: «When we lack physical intimacy, we need to produce it.»

For her audio performance «Guided Choreography for the Living and the Dead», her goal is to turn the bodies of artists and spectators into «sensorial machines», enabling them to feel and to understand. «Guided Choreography for the Living and the Dead» is being performed simultaneously by the artist and her spectators who, guided by the voice of choreographer, receive instructions through headphones. Another work relying on the intimacy of orality is the newly developed at-home version of Samara Hersch’s «Body of Knowledge», a performance based on a number of simultaneous phone conversations between teenagers and adults. The original version of the performance took place as a of physical gathering inside a theatre; there was a moment of entering a party, jointly prepared by the audience in one location and the group of teenage protagonists elsewhere. Guided by the teenagers, the unfolding of the evening depended also on  how the audience members chose to get (or not) together. After getting stuck in a months-long lockdown in Melbourne, not being able to re-enter the EU after the pandemic outbreak, the artist and her transnational team re-developed the piece so that the performative encounter happens entirely in the framework of phone conversation, while both the protagonists and the audience are situated in their homes.

Practices of listening, especially as a voice is directly plugged into our ears, seem to be indeed effective in building a sense of intimacy. During the conference session, performance researcher Kyoko Iwaki pointed out the sensual dimension of somebody else’s voice in one’s ear: it forms an intimate contact that is rarely achieved through the visual sense. Listening is also crucial in the international radio ballet «Zerstreuung überall!», prepared by the German artist collective LIGNA who invited 13 choreographers from around the world to send their scores and share them with the festival publics. The project experiments with alternative forms of getting together and forming dispersed collectives in times of physical isolation. While the contributing artists, many of which had previously presented work at the festivals remained physically absent this year, their voices choreographed hundreds of bodies in public spaces in Berlin, Zurich and other cities. Public outdoor spaces were thus reclaimed by the dancing audiences as sites for gatherings and common actions.

Another format that might develop in the conditions of restricted mobility, is the small scale, sometimes solo performances, that are easier to travel and easier to re-enact, if needed, when the artist is not allowed to enter a particular region. Another strategy that has popped up recently and that seems to answer not only to the Covid-19 crisis, but also the issue of hypermobility and its ecological implications: temporary artistic collectives or working groups, consisting of an initiator in one geographical location and an implementing artist in another, who prepare new, local versions of the performance that could not travel or who work remotely on a completely new material. This was the case for the audio walk «Una muerte de la que nadie habla», created online in collaboration between the theatre makers Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol (Mexico City) and Isabelle Stoffel (Zurich). The entire transcontinental collaboration happened through video calls and emails, as the travel from Mexico to Zurich was not possible. Here, the local artist was to co-create and to add to the script according to her embodied knowledge of the local context, becoming a translator of an artistic concept that was prepared somewhere else.

Actually, the questions of translation will remain crucial for new possible formats of transnational collaboration. Acts of translation happen on multiple levels, including translation from one language into another, translation between the localities (its concrete physical spaces and their specific, geo-political, economic and cultural contexts), translation between artistic practices and translation between assumptions, made from an outside perspective, and on-site material conditions,  between clichés and complex realities. Such multi-layered artistic translation processes require trust and thus careful contextualization of views and perceptions.

Many new presentation formats happen exclusively online: Re-connect, one of the first online performance festivals ever, took place in the spring of 2020 and was co-curated by a transnational group of theatre makers to be streamed on Instagram Live. The organizers invited artists interventions to create specifically for this medium. Another example is the National Arts Festival in Makhanda, which, in the light of the strict contact restrictions in South Africa, decided to transform into an all-virtual festival in 2020. Performing artists around the world have been producing artistic video projects this year, that can either be shared online or broadcasted live at a festival venue. «Brasil Secuestrado/Brazil Hijacked», for instance, is a special program of videos and conversations, curated by Eduardo Bonito and Isabel Ferreira, addressing the current situation of artists in Brazil. During the conference we had the opportunity to watch two video works of this project: a powerful, poetic and political statement of Calixto Neto, who read out in front of the camera a letter written to his imaginary son, and a video documentation of Alice Ripoll's artistic work, problematizing her own position as a white, privileged woman and director of a dance company in Rio de Janeiro, working with performers of Color.

Sustaining performing arts practices 

While discussing possible artistic strategies and alternative formats in the middle of multiple – pandemic, ecological and political – crises, important questions have come up: What and whose artistic practices will be able to develop in today’s constantly changing circumstances and with restricted mobility? Who will actually get visibility, attention and support? How will the current situation change artistic formats and influence aesthetic choices? What about choreographic and theatre practices that are centered around the physical presence of bodies, where the potential to touch each other is a crucial element of composition?

From the various conversations that I have had with performing artists over the past few months, I know that it is not always possible to continue one’s practice in the midst of this pandemic by simply switching the medium or translating one’s embodied real-life practice for a digital environment. For many dance and performance makers, this would mean to change completely the core language of their work and, in consequence, to abandon unique and well-developed artistic languages in order to now learn to create from scratch. One of the main questions for the upcoming months thus seems to remain: What are the strategies (also the curatorial ones) that cherish, support and sustain these kinds of practices in and through these difficult times?

International relations and mobility

The outbreak of Covid-19 also transformed the working conditions of festival makers and curators as was discussed in a conversation on «Performance, Publics and the Pandemic». Hong Kong-based performing arts curator Kee Hong Low referred to newly emerging curatorial collectives as an answer to the decrease of travels. These kinds of international collectives would consist of small groups of colleagues, who meet regularly online, and who, since reaching out to the artists in another location has become more difficult, would rely on their professional peers’ recommendations, their knowledge and their relationships with artists in their local or regional environment. The immediate question appearing here is how not to risk closing oneself in with already existing networks of friends and acquaintances? How to make sure the group remains open for a diversity of perspectives and for the not-yet-known? Could collectives of curators challenge the notion of solo authorship when it comes to artistic programmes and selection? Is it a chance to dismantle the overcome power structures that are still dominating the field? 

It is interesting to observe how the currently prevalent modes of communication challenge dominant power relations and hierarchies within the global art world. In the conference session «Distance & Imagination», Iranian dance maker and researcher Maryam Bagheri Nesami shared her observation, that thanks to the shifting of professional gatherings into digital spaces that do not require any visa, she has been able to connect to and attend many more networks and meetings: «There is a kind of weird equity now as we all have more or less same possibilities to connect (if we have an access to internet and devices). I see myself being more part of the professional community than ever before.»

This remark refers to the biggest problems in the world of contemporary performing arts festivals, which are its accessibility and openness for diverse artistic practices, contexts and perspectives and its capacity to welcome artists whose mobility is restricted by geo-political conditions. To what extend have the programs of European international festivals been reproducing the inequalities imposed by the hegemonic relations of the global political order? The growing inequalities in terms of freedom and access to mobility on the one hand and forced mobility on the other were identified as a key problem for transnational artistic practices by the group of art practitioners that I had the pleasure to work within the framework the Reshape research and development project: «Which were the dialogues and non-dialogues between nomadic artists and the temporary communities they inhabit? In our search ort he other, were we achieving the encounter? Or were we rather constructing otherness to respond to certain expectations? Wasn’t this othering the continuous flattening and homogenizing of aesthetic expressions? To what extent were the artistic practices actually shaped by the festival trends? How did the canon of most successful (or, rather, most often presented) performances shape basic aesthetics and production frames? And who was given the possibility to travel? Who was or wasn’t invited? Who remained excluded?»[1]

These questions resonate with the ones brought up by Marie Le Sourd at the conference: «Do we choose an artist because of interest in their practice or because we have at the moment funding for the project with a particular region? Do you choose me because now you have a funding related to the Middle East region and you need now an artist from this or that country? Do you appreciate me because of what I do and what I can contribute or because of what I represent?»

Imagination and exhaustion

Several conference participants referred to imagination as the tool that helped them get through the experience of lockdown. Poetry and fiction were mentioned several times as ways to cope with feelings of loss, loneliness and uncertainty. Arundhati Ghosh (India Foundation for the Arts) named imagination as one of the tools that gives her the strength to keep standing and to continue her work despite difficult political and economic circumstances. In order to create and experiment with new forms of encounter, to gather anew, we will have to hold on to artistic imagination. 

But what about those artists who do not have the time and space to imagine? Because their health is in danger, because they are mourning, because they are completely exhausted by their everyday struggles; because every day they risk to be left with no support, because they worry about the members of their community being attacked on the streets during demonstrations or their mere presence in public spaces? What about those of us who are expected to imagine new possibilities and solutions and who are then left alone, without resources?

South-African choreographer Mamela Nyamza warned us that a dream, when it transforms to an unfulfilled promise, can keep haunting us. During the conversation on «Distance & Imagination», she confessed that her imagination had been crushed by the harsh reality of everyday life and the horrors of constant emergency and uncertainty. The precarious conditions of many independent artists, curators and dramaturgs (often not assisted by any state support) mean that, without paid projects, there are no resources to survive and continue one’s practice. Mamela took part in the digital conference from Paris; she had just travelled to another continent, exposing herself to a higher risk of infection, because she felt that she had little choice: as she explained, accepting an offer to participate in a theatre production in France was the only way at that moment to continue her work and pay her bills.

What if, instead of taking for granted our colleagues’ power of imagination, we first ask: What do you need in order to imagine? Do you have enough time and space to think? How can we as curators, producers and art operators provide proper conditions for imagination to be freely practiced and cherished?

We do not have to start this conversation from scratch. The conference happened in the framework of two international festivals that made the effort to look for possible ways to fulfil their commitment to the artists they had invited and to support their practices even if they could not be physical present in Zurich and Berlin. Experimenting with hybrid presentation formats, from digital live performances to radio ballet and listening pieces to video work, they were both taking risks while setting up new possibilities of supporting artists, of reaching out to audiences and of continuing transnational exchange and collaboration. As a result, even though happening on the flat surface of the screen, this conference created conditions so that a sense of solidarity could be felt.

What I missed the most during the lockdown was the possibility to grasp the specific contexts from where my interlocutors were speaking: to listen to the sound of their neighborhoods, see their spaces, feel the temperature and humidity of their streets. I felt again how difficult it can be to carefully listen and understand without having access to the environments that shape the speaking voices. I have always thought of imagination as a political tool. It can be a powerful tool still and especially in this time, but it can be utterly exhausting to exercise it in isolation and deprivation.

[1] Observations noted as part of the research process conceived by Martinka Bobrikova and Oscar de Carmen, Pau Cata, Petr Dlouhy, Heba El-Cheikh, Gjorgje Jovanovik, Dominika Święcicka, Marine Thévènet, Ingrid Vranken in framework of the working group «Transnational/Postnational Artistic Practices», being part of the Reshape Project. The text has not been published yet.