Transition Exercises for a More Sustainable Mobility

A year or so ago, an invitation from Norway arrived in my mailbox: was I ‘available’ for a seminar not far from Bergen on such-and-such a day? ‘We can provide more information.’ I had already given a few lectures in Bergen, so the invitation wasn’t completely out of the blue, but I was nonetheless surprised by its laconic style.

Following a friendly reply, I still did not learn much more about the project, the specific context, other participants or remuneration. It was undoubtedly intended as an open invitation, but how on earth could I make it fruitful for my own work, and for others, with no further dialogue? It seems that this has become the status quo for invitations these days: unconditional availability for an economy of generic international exchange. What I did receive was a photograph of the beautiful fjord seen from the Hardanger Gjestehus in Ulvik. My astonishment turned into bewilderment. Unlike most invitations, this one did not even pretend to conceal the fact that a great many journeys in the arts are primarily a form of luxury tourism.

There is a slow, yet broadening awareness in the art world concerning working conditions and proper remuneration. The development of such an ethos must also be possible in terms of environmental awareness and sustainable development.

Reports and analyses about anthropogenic climate change and the socio-economic crisis that evolves from it are everywhere. In addition to everyday automobile traffic, regular air travel has an enormous impact on our ecological footprint. If we want to limit the warming of the Earth, we need to do things very differently, and do them less, because technological miracle solutions for international mobility are decidedly not close at hand. For today’s art sector, this leads to conflict, because research, production and distribution are all tuned to an international marketplace. Moreover, international mobility is supposedly an important driving force for the acquisition of symbolic capital, and this is intimately intertwined with a certain conception of freedom, which holds efficiency, flexibility, accessibility and availability in high esteem. The travelling ‘autonomous’ artist is not simply an abstract mascot of this image of mankind. No, international mobility is about ourselves, about the values and experiences that have made us who we are. Saying goodbye to these  – as individuals, as artists or as cultural professionals, as a sector, or indeed as a society – is consequently anything but self-evident. In our search for a different, more sustainable practice of international mobility in the arts, how can we think about and engage with the moral conflicts and identity crises that the climate issue imposes on us?

I did not travel to Bergen, yet I never communicated my reasons with those who organized the event. The whole issue was settled with a simple e-mail, of the ‘unfortunately-no-time’ genre. It is indeed cumbersome and time-consuming to constantly have to explain why you do or do not accept invitations, not to mention the process of actually making the decision. Nonetheless, this issue seems important to me, because of the politicizing effect that it entails. There is a slow, yet broadening awareness in the art world concerning working conditions and proper remuneration. The development of such an ethos must also be possible in terms of environmental awareness and sustainable development. To that end, there is a need for a different kind of travel practice, as well as a new language, if one wants to help shape such a practice and be able to communicate about it. What stories are we telling ourselves? What stories are we writing as we travel with our physical bodies and their technological extensions? Like a postcard, the photograph from Ulvik presented me with a question: how do you imagine yourself in this landscape? Or perhaps: when is international travelling truly meaningful?

Ulvik, panorama met fjorden en bergen (c) Wikimedia Commmons

In search of a different, more sustainable practice of travelling in the arts, I wish to pause to consider these questions. On the basis of my own experiences and conversations with colleagues, I will first look at the main reasons why artists and cultural professionals travel, including development (study trips, research, prospecting), production (residencies) and presentation (touring). I will then sketch the contours of a different practice of travel, based on a number of exercises in transition, whereby the tension between personal action space and systemic change confront questions about the responsibilities of the art world as a whole.

Travel as development

Why indeed do artists and cultural professionals travel? They travel to expand their horizons, to prospect, investigate or find inspiration, or to be able to talk about the latest blockbuster exhibition. They travel in order to network, make connections, take part in exchanges about a local artistic scene and its specific ways of working or organizing, seeing and speaking. They travel for artistic research, perhaps in the form of long-term work in the context of a local community.

The suspension of daily routines and the development of an unfamiliar, even foreign perspective on yourself, and allowing this to question the normal state of affairs on the home front is already an initial motivation for travel. In fact, thanks to the media, the Internet, globalization and a postmodern attitude to life, that stranger’s perception of ourselves has now become part of countless everyday practices, often in a self-aware and playful manner. Travelling is therefore not a necessary precondition for cultivating that stranger’s perception or tracking down the unfamiliar. But the eye of the artist and travelling do complement one another, as Lucy R. Lippard suggests: ‘We are not who we think we are when we are elsewhere. We can even become another person entirely. Who will ever know? Travelling can be a kind of performance piece.’ Which journeys will or will not have meaning is nonetheless not something that can be immediately determined, let alone determined in advance. How far do you actually have to go in order to explore new horizons?

The promise of travel is that of transformation beyond tourism and the fleeting consumption of new experiences. ‘When people move and meet, all kinds of transformative encounters are indeed possible, but not guaranteed,’ as Taru Elfving writes. It is precisely here that we again find the undecidable and vulnerable character of travel: the majority of contacts made when people travel are indeed fleeting, and do not lead to follow-ups worthy of mention. Encounter and dialogue are therefore an important secondary motivation, even if they are not instrumentalized. Some contexts focus on exchange, or research (festivals, congresses, laboratories, workshops, summer academies, etc.), but here too, there is the issue of the conditions. Is there enough time and space, tranquillity and openness at hand to allow true encounters (intended or otherwise)? The suspicion inherent here does not go well with the speed of travel today and the philosophy of efficiency that have taken hold in the art world.

In a conversation about sustainability, an arts programmer commented, ‘I can’t do anything with pleas to encourage people to stop travelling. We live in a globalized world, and for the time being, that will remain the case. What we need to stop is cheap mobility.’ Taking issue with the economic and political context of travel is certainly justified, but for me, the comment about cheap mobility raises some uneasy questions. Well-educated cultural professionals and artists believe that the nature of their work easily raises them to a position above noncommittal mobility. Their cultural capital and opposition to petty-mindedness are such that these justify not having to consider giving up any of their privileges. Is travel for artists and cultural professionals really more ‘noble’ than the travelling behaviour of other citizens? The idea of the artist or cultural professional who engages in the production of meaning on behalf of many here conflicts with social and ethical issues about environmental justice. The consequences of the climate crisis will, after all, first and primarily affect the world’s poorer regions. In our excessive mobility, how long can we close our eyes to that?

Nonetheless, such a sociological view is too simple, precisely because it presumes a clear and detached position, one that is seldom afforded us in our everyday practice. Artists (and by extension cultural professionals) are today field anthropologists who experiment with the meanings on which a society thrives. Globalization, ecological crisis and travelling indubitably make up part of today’s complicated world. The anthropological perspective is the issue presented by the postcard: how do you imagine yourself in this landscape? When is travelling truly meaningful? Awareness of one’s own position in relation to ‘the other’ consequently also entails a potentially critical approach to one’s own practice and how it is embedded. Does the ‘development narrative’ with which we justify our travel behaviour really lead to different, specific choices? When does that travelling have a positive effect on the artistic diversity and quality of the arts in Flanders? How can the stories that we tell ourselves contribute to new forms of global and ecological citizenship?

Producing in residence

In a recent issue of (Re)framing the InternationalTaru Elfving takes an extended look at the advantages and disadvantages of artists working in residence, and the question of when travelling in that context is or is not meaningful. Some artists have made a core artistic practice of long-term working on location or in local communities far from home. They are looking for possibilities to expose themselves to unfamiliar contexts and integrate those experiences in their work. In this case, specific selected international residencies have made such research a clear motivation.

Most of the time, the motivation for producing in a residency situation is the other way around: residencies offer an opportunity to retreat, to work without everyday interferences or all too many distractions. On closer examination, travelling to distant places for this kind of residency is not useful, because the same circumstances can also be found closer to home. Choreographer Martin Nachbar notes, ‘Once the novelty of travelling and of being-elsewhere has worn off and working abroad has become a habit, then the side effects come to the fore and signs of fatigue appear. Especially when the research isn’t bound to the place of residence, there’s no reason why one couldn’t do the research at home.’ He consequently argues for production conditions that are appropriate to his artistic practice, and where possible, close to home.

In practice, producing in residency regularly serves as an economic safety net for artists working in precarious circumstances. The fact that honoraria and working conditions may be better elsewhere is nonetheless a problematic self-deception that makes this economic argument untenable. Why, here in wealthy Flanders, with its well-structured system of subsidies for the arts, can’t we do better?

More than an economic argument, international invitations are nonetheless attractive because of the promise that they entail: meeting a new audience, being able to visit places you have never been before, etc. When is travelling with an eye to presentation truly meaningful?

The prestige of working internationally is a serious obstacle. Take, for example, the case of a dance company that works with fifteen employees from as many different countries, all of whom have to travel for a production. Can no qualified collaborators be found closer to home? Or is the supposed global perspective today’s new norm? Relocalizing production is a challenge, but the principle of cosmo-localization (following the principle of  ‘design global, manufacture local’) cannot simply be applied to the arts, because the embodied knowledge is part of the practice. Indeed, could we imagine a world in which we remain at home and appreciate producing locally again? As arts sector, can we not better tune our structures of production to such a situation?


Tours, of performances, exhibitions, concerts, lectures and so on, make up a significant portion of this international travel. Today, in Flanders, the dissemination of work is not self-evident, while inexpensive mobility actually makes a market elsewhere in Europe (and farther from home) more easily accessible. A piece that you have spent months working on is something you want to present as widely as possible, in order to place the work in the world and experience its evolution. More than an economic argument, international invitations are nonetheless attractive because of the promise that they entail: meeting a new audience, being able to visit places you have never been before, etc. When is travelling with an eye to presentation truly meaningful?

For as far as performances or presentations take place in a relatively uniform circuit of theatres and art centres, under good conditions, they can continually encounter new audiences. However, does this ‘conquest’ of new audiences always make sense for those audiences, and for the work itself? Theatre maker Pieter De Buysser brings up this point: ‘There are few works that could defend the superficial passing-through of other cities. Yet that is the standard way of touring.

How do you take the true value of the exchange into consideration? Does this observation also truly lead to a rejection of arbitrary invitations? How can you create more context around the presentation of performances? Staying in one place longer or returning to certain places is meaningful because it allows contact with a local scene and with an audience to develop and be maintained. From the perspective of sustainable development, the disadvantage is that with these relationships, you also build up ‘love miles’, and consequently travel even more.

In addition to a focus on local places, there is the issue of travelling itself. That is often all too instrumentally perceived, simply as an abstract ‘displacement’ or an inevitable by-product of the work and economic circumstances. Paradoxically enough, unthinking hopping from airport to theatre to hotel in order to place a work in the world leads to a loss of world. What would slower travel, for example by train, produce in terms of experience and embodied knowledge?

Transition exercises

The many questions and paradoxes that arise with international travel are recognizable, and more or less clear. Changing our behaviour and fundamentally transforming the production practice of an entire sector, however, is a complicated and tedious business. The transition to a more sustainable model takes place at diverse speeds and at several levels at the same time, which complement one another, but also get in the way of one another. Social psychologist Harald Welzer seeks a way out of this social paralysis by way of communities of practice’, centred on communal learning processes that have a concrete and informal character, and where diverse competencies all contribute.

Roman Ondak, Casting Antinomads (detail), 2000 (c) Courtesy Galerie Martin Janda

Seen in this light, different ways of doing and talking about things, in the arts sector as elsewhere, assume the form of exercises in transition, with diverse levels of awareness and engagement. Different forms of narrative and agency are moreover involved. From the perspective of the emphasis on international mobility in the arts sector, I will now sketch a three-part perspective. This includes improvisation and adapting to circumstances, sometimes without a clear direction. Sometimes unexpected events can generate change on a temporary and involuntary basis. There is also active shaping of one’s own practice and its conditions of possibility, permeated by a perspective that transcends the sector as such and calls for systemic change.

1. A flexitarian ethos for international mobility

In January of 2009, in the framework of the first edition of the Burning Ice Festival at the Kaaitheater in Brussels, a number of lectures and a panel discussion took place about mobility and sustainable development. At that point in time, it seemed that no conversation whatsoever about this issue was even possible. Lack of willingness certainly played a part, but so did the lack of a practice and an applicable language, a lack of experience and imagination to be able to so much as imagine another state of affairs.

From that moment, I personally began to travel less, and to travel differently. It was in the first place out of conviction, but it also came from the question of whether such a change was in fact doable. For me, travelling less and differently means always considering whether or not an overseas or out-of-country trip is worth the effort, actively refusing invitations, and in principle taking the train for international journeys and flying only as an exception to the rule. In addition, I seek out ways of ‘fattening out’ an engagement, in order to remain in a given place for longer and to be able to undertake different interactions (performance, post-performance discussions, workshops, being able to experience a city and so on), or expanding a tour with different performance venues.

This principled attitude is comparable to that of the flexitarian, and it does make a difference. International experiences still make up a part of my practice and my horizon, but the ecological footprint of my travels has systematically become smaller, and is today only a quarter of what it was ten years ago.

During a panel discussion about sustainable mobility on the first day of the Transitienetwerk Cultuur Pulse, in October of 2016, it was shown that a flexitarian ethos is already finding its way into diverse arts organizations and educational institutes. SPIN, for example, both in-house and externally, is engaging its partners in discussions about a different approach to touring. Within Europe, in principle, they take the train, which involves an extra paid day of travel and consequently higher cost. Beyond Europe, it is a question of expanding the tour to additional performance locations and adjusting travel plans accordingly. In the case of air travel, emissions are compensated.

Nonetheless, Ingrid Vranken (then coordinator for SPIN) noted that personal ecological conviction and professional stance cannot always be brought into agreement. The shift to sustainability is a learning process in which others do not always take part and which moreover requires support. You have to always be taking the initiative, and a gray area continues to exist around compensation and the increased workload. The change in behaviour of the few who assume responsibility for working out alternatives is often at odds with the absence of structural change within the sector and society as a whole. A kind of exhaustion looms: your personal carrying capacity is inevitably limited. How strong is the flexitarian all on his own?

The conditions are not always ideal, but making choices and developing a different travel behaviour does indeed make a difference in terms of reducing the footprint. Trying to unlearn the temptations of international mobility is an unavoidable part of this, as is learning to travel differently and more slowly. In the positive sense, all of this leaves its traces in the experience of our changing behaviour. Travelling differently does not just imply a self-imposed austerity, but a truly different way of travelling, a whole new attitude.

Travelling by train, for example, is more pleasant and more comfortable than travelling by air. There is time to think, time that we do not always know how to insist on in our daily working context or the hectic attention economy. Thanks to that one day of travel, there is, in particular, time to make the mental shift from one project to another, meaning that you can arrive prepared and in a tranquil frame of mind. Travelling by train is less abstract than travelling by air, because you can watch the landscape change (and hear the new dialects or languages at each stop). But there are limits to comfort. As soon as the train journey lasts more than a day, train travel in current circumstances is still not an acceptable alternative to flying.

This example makes it clear that, once seen from the perspective of a different experience, the embodiment of knowledge and imagination can indeed grow, a foundation that strikes me as crucial in order to achieve a shift to a more self-aware practice. It is not an ideological programme or the silencing of one’s own conscience, but experimentation with different experiences that delivers the stepping stones to hone our sense of possibility and redirect our actions. Recharging unthinking travel behaviour with stories and narratives is a part of the learning process and the exercise of imagination – adapting ourselves to changing circumstances and consequently creating a new world.

That ‘small ethnography’, which pays attention to the heterogeneous, affective register of experiences, to my mind also includes the dullness, boredom and restlessness that we also do not always know how to find a place for. These are the inconveniences of travelling itself, of high expectations of meaningful meetings that do not come to pass, as well as the unfocused tinkering, the not quite knowing, and the search for alternatives that are not always successful. Perhaps this is the more philosophical side of slow and sustainable travel: you literally spend more time in that gray area of an experiential space in which not everything takes place efficiently, is immediately usable, or seems to be meaningful.

2. Enforced transition and regulation

In April of 2010, the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano caused significant disruption in European air traffic. Numerous cultural professionals who had come together at the IETM meeting in Berlin were suddenly stuck and had to look for alternative ways of returning back home. It is an example of an event that forces a large group of people, unexpectedly and involuntarily, to undertake a transition exercise. Elsewhere in the world, dealing with the concrete threats that go hand-in-hand with climate change are in fact not a voluntary exercise, but everyday reality. The event undoubtedly generated a folklore of strong stories, but has it actually had any influence on the way in which cultural professionals see their travelling habits? In no way has IETM taken advantage of that situation in order to think about their Plan C, to speak about environmental justice and connect the notion of crisis to carbon reduction or climate care.

This brings us back to that problematic question of inexpensive mobility. To date, there are no political or economic restrictions to cheaper air travel, with the result that alternative options (better international train service) do not take place. As citizens, we do not have the easy comfort of free choice, due to our personal socio-economic circumstances, and because the sluggishness of the current system forms an obstacle. Nor is there a political framework that imposes emissions quotas on citizens and organizations, compelling them to make choices within a limited ‘climate budget’. ‘Our efforts are tokenistic,’ as journalist and climate activist George Monbiot soberly notes. ‘By and large, whatever our beliefs might be, we consume as much as our incomes allow. Environmentalism is for other people.’ Without regulation that limits citizens, we will be unable to achieve any systemic change. ‘The role of government must be to establish the limits of action,but to guarantee the maximum of freedom within those limits.’ He is convinced that we as citizens must force our governments to jettison their policies.

In the light of climate change and the socio-economic crisis, the call for systemic change and global citizenship has a crippling effect where it comes to individual behaviour change.  On the other hand, it is not immediately clear how, say, travelling by train allows different practices to develop that encompass the promise of a different identity, view of mankind and of the world. Between the extremes of the individual and the Leitbild, there is still a cumbersome system with powerful lobbies and failing governments that rarely let themselves be moved by citizen collectives or sectors that develop alternatives. What plays tricks on us is a problem of scale. The stories that we tell ourselves are at the same time both too large and too small.

In all cases, it is true that it is easier to stick to familiar models and practices than to sweat out the confusion and the boredom. The difficulty therefore lies in unlearning old habits and saying goodbye to the current social model. That model has for time already been in a ruinous state, but as a society, we still take from it a sense of strength and direction, even when it no longer meets the realities of the day. At the individual level as well, this mechanism of attachment, which is actively driven by the neoliberal system, is at work: attachment to (lease) automobiles despite traffic jams, to international travel because of its status and its symbolic capital. This dependence is often so great that we are also blind to our own affective attachment to ‘regimes of injustice’ and the toll that they demand of us – one good example is the problem of personal carrying capacity and burnout. Lauren Berlant analyzes how the neoliberal system actively maintains that nostalgic self-deception, which leads to a form of self-denial that she calls ‘cruel optimism’.

Between that all too large a world and individual action, there is consequently a system that on the one hand seems too large, cumbersome and powerful, but on the other hand can also have an unburdening effect. The arts sector as a whole finds itself caught in that in-between area. The question is how we want to give it shape: as a reflection of the old system, or as a sector that experiments with practices and citizenship in the light of contemporary social challenges?

3. Towards a different practice in the arts sector

How can you convey and pass on your individual enthusiasm to your colleagues, to other organizations and ultimately to the entire arts sector? Change does not only work from the bottom up and will have to take place at several levels at the same time, but it is in the negotiation between those different levels that the discourse takes on a political dimension. To conclude, I mention a number of aspects of that discourse, which together ought to make a different, more sustainable practice in the arts sector possible.

Travelling differently, and more slowly, staying in one place longer and framing programmes differently, relocalizing production: it all demands work and time, and consequently means that are not immediately visible or available.

In the arts, people work in collectives, or in organizations, in other words with colleagues who also travel and who are not always keen to engage in the discussion about it. Nonetheless, our citizenship resides precisely in that discussion about choices and behaviour. It is through that path that the flexitarian ethos can find a wider inroad and, by way of protocols, also become the norm within and between organizations. At the same time, the exchange of advice and sharing of experiences means that these principles of sustainable mobility are also supported by the learning process of a community of practice within the sector.

As a means of providing greater visibility to initiatives that are already taking place, a charter for sustainable mobility could provide an interesting instrument. This would undoubtedly meet with resistance, but it would have specific advantages: it would allow negotiation about invitations with formal support from colleagues or organizations, which at the same time would have a politicizing effect. It would offer engaged individuals and the sector’s many freelancers a focus in their discussions with organizations. Such a charter would moreover allow the arts sector, or at least a significant part thereof, to act as a citizens collective. That, in time, might make a discussion that goes beyond the arts field possible. Think, for example, of the academic sector and travel on the parts of students and researchers. It would also encourage a different dialogue with governments and authorities. Consider, for example, the Europe-wide responsibility for accessible international train connections.

Travelling differently, and more slowly, staying in one place longer and framing programmes differently, relocalizing production: it all demands work and time, and consequently means that are not immediately visible or available. The fact that meaningful encounters with different contexts are never guaranteed is hard to reconcile with the current system, in which growth, efficiency, speed and saving time are central objectives. The arts sector in no way escapes this, and becomes especially vulnerable now that subsidies are stagnating or decreasing. The smaller the margin, the more difficult it is to offer the desired quality. When are we going to set limits? Can we apply the available means in a different way?

The call for systemic change therefore goes hand in hand with the making of choices in valuing that which we do or do not find important. In the arts sector as a whole, how can we achieve structural change? This means thoroughly rethinking and giving new shape to our ways of producing, distributing and working together. A different culture of consultation and collaboration is necessary, both with one another and with governments. That dialogue cannot be anything but political, permeated with artistic and global citizenship that also has an outspoken socio-ecological component.


1 See George Monbiot, Heat. How we can stop the planet burning, London, 2006, pp. 170-188. For recent updates, see http:// Air travel is still a rapidly growing industry, but investments are also being made in research on high-speed trains and electric aircraft. See the VPRO Tegenlicht documentary broadcast: ‘Groene vliegtuigpioniers’, 3 Dec. 2017,
2 See John Urry, The Tourist Gaze: Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies,
London/Newbury Park/New Delhi, 1990, pp. 1-15, 82-103
3 Lucy R. Lippard, On the Beaten Track: Tourism, Art and Place, New York, 1999, p. 5
4 Taru Elfving, ‘Residencies & Future Cosmopolitics’, in /Re/Framing the International, #1, Nov. 2017, p. 25
5 On the artist as field anthropologist, see Bart Verschaffel, De zaak van de kunst. Over kennis, kritiek en schoonheid, Ghent, 2011, pp. 7-8, 37-47
6 See op. cit., note 4, Elfving 2017
7 Martin Nachbar, ‘Travelling, fleeing, passing’, ‘’Dec. 2006, This text was written ’’in the framework of B-Chronicles, a research project by Sarma about the impact of international mobility on the performing arts:
8 Pieter De Buysser, ‘Hello Aunt Cécile, Hello Police Officer: Welcome and Join In’, /re/framing the international, #1, Nov. 2017, p. 16
9 See op. cit., note 1: Monbiot 2006, ibid.
10 See Harald Welzer, Selbst denken. Eine Anleitung zum Widerstand, Frankfurt am Main, 2013, pp. 185-8
11 Anthropologist Kathleen Stewart offers intriguing reading about the role of affect and everyday experience in the practice of cultural politicization. See Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects, Durham/London, 2007, and, ‘In the World that Affect Proposed’, in Cultural Anthropology, 32:2, May 2017, pp. 192-198
12 That does not mean to say that a plea for slowness can be generalized, just as a philosophical approach cannot replace our desire and hunger for the world. See Ignaas Devisch, Rusteloosheid, Antwerp/Amsterdam, 2016, pp. from 182
13 Op. cit., note 1: Monbiot 2006, p. xv
14 Op. cit., note 10: Welzer 2013, p. 12
15 For a striking philosophical analysis of mobility, efficiency thinking and problematic mechanisms for change at the broader societal level, see Eric Oger, Nachtoog. Schuine wegen van de filosofie, Kampen/Kapellen, 2007, pp. 179-259
16 See Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, Durham, 2011, pp. 184-185. ‘Neoliberal interests are well served by the displacement of so many historical forms of social reciprocity onto emotional registers, especially when they dramatize experiences of freedom to come that have no social world for them yet.’ (p. 222) Berlant also writes in this regard about transition exercises at times of impasse. (from p. 199)
17 Economist Kate Raworth’s donut model takes account of the ecological capacity of the planet, as well as the social minimum to reduce the burden on personal, individual capabilities. See Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist,


Jeroen Peeters

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