We still have dreams

On the first day of The Return of the Fantastic Institution we asked Nathalie De Boelpaep to reflect on the many questions and possible answers raised during the symposium. How do institutions take responsibility towards the context in which they operate? Read her report below.

In addition to a leaner and more flexible administration, a new working culture must be created, in which transparency, vulnerability, doubt and the daring to colour outside the lines are regarded as qualities and trump cards, not as flaws

When asked by Kunstenpunt to join the Return of the Fantastic Institution to reflect on the content of the first day of the symposium, the first thing that crossed my mind was: “She must have sent this e-mail to the wrong Nathalie.” Somehow, working at Zinnema – an open talent house in Brussels – for almost 6 years now, we’re not used to receive questions like that from the so-called ‘in-crowd’ of the art world, by lack of a better word. At Zinnema, the doors are wide open for amateur artists looking to flourish within the rich and diverse atmosphere of a big city. We encourage artists to explore their inner selves and find inspiration in both familiar and unfamiliar places. It is a professional home for their creations, but also a platform for support and collaboration. Although we receive a lot of validation from our artists, audience and the organisations we work with, we never really belonged to ‘the scene’. It’s a kind of underdog position from which we’re changing gears since a few years.

Back to the future

At Zinnema, we are well placed to reflect on and unravel some of the ‘normalities’ of the art world. Take for example the way ‘amateurs’ are perceived differently than ‘professionals. I know a lot of professional artists who have a day job to pay their bills, hence who don’t earn their living by making art, but still are considered professional. At the other hand, some of the creations made in Zinnema can pass the artistic quality test with flying colours, while still considered to be amateur work. (Later, I come back to the idea of artistic quality, as it seems to be an important, yet quite undefined parameter). Amateurs are just as, maybe even more, passionate about their art. Especially in a metropolitan context such as that of Brussels, the distinction is not clear at all. The differences that do count, are situated in a combination of education and network, and in the thresholds set to the people who didn’t pass through those. Still nowadays, some art institutions fail to see beyond the formal codes. I fully subscribe what Michael De Cock, director of Brussels’ city theatre KVS, said in newspaper De Standaard recently (24/3): “I do not believe the excuses anymore that the talent is not there. You have to dare to look further than your fixed criteria. People like Junior Mthombeni, Sukina Douglas and Saïd Boumazoughe did not follow the regular theatre education, but maybe precisely because of that they offer a huge added value.

Simply showing a creation to an audience, without considering the changing world in which this takes place, to me is impossible. ‘L’art pour l’art and pure aestheticism are over.

Not having the proper schooling and the network that usually comes with it, sets up huge thresholds for many fantastic artists. We see every single day in Zinnema that artists from different backgrounds, struggle to prove what they’re worth. At Zinnema, we open the doors for them, widely. As a society and as an art world, we should ask ourselves what our education system will be worth in the near future, in a context where knowledge grows exponentially and people can connect much quicker? In a world where artists can reach out to each other more easily by social media, where peer-to-peer learning is as valid as a teacher-pupil setting, we need to reflect on this and on the role of the artistic institutions, rather now than tomorrow.

So, I was thrilled to be invited to reflect on a day of gatherings at the Return of the Fantastic Institution, but also on the question laid before us: “How do we take responsibility towards the context?” It resonates strongly with the position of Zinnema, as I described in the previous paragraphs.

Fundamental changes, changing fundaments

First, however, we need to be clear on what this ‘context’ is, we take responsibility for. On a macrolevel, I see this as the outside world which is volatile and changing very rapidly. This context is the current political climate in which polarisation between groups of people is accelerating and references to ‘values and norms’ are used to exclude people and conceptions of racism and sexism are eroded. In Flanders, we have a Minister for Equal Opportunities who called racism ‘relative’ and in discussions on social media on Black Pete (Zwarte Piet) in the Netherlands and Belgium, people tend to feel the need to claim that “racism against white people also exists.” Meanwhile, in our sector, organisations need to operate in a context in which art and culture are considered less and less valuable, as an ‘elitist hobby for leftists’. Both the financial means and the space for artistic freedom are under pressure. Unavoidably, the effects will translate into the artistic practices itself. Simply showing a creation to an audience, without considering the changing world in which this takes place, to me is impossible. ‘L’art pour l’art and pure aestheticism are over. The audience too, in one way or another, expects a comment or reflection on the state it is in.

But what to do? How to do that? As an art institution, do you seek for some interesting tension, or do you radically turn around the way you function in order to act as true activists to make a difference in the world?

Public funding supports artistic freedom and can also be used as a tool to change the system. But which institution can be sure that this will not be used against them and accepts the risk of ending up without proper funding?

The speakers of day one in Kortrijk tackle these questions in very different ways, in line with the very different contexts in which they work and challenges they face. This adds interesting layers to the discussion and can offer interesting frictions. Art Center Vooruit in Ghent, for instance, has much more financial means than MIR festival in Athens which is entirely run by volunteers. And at the same time, both houses actively take up their role and question the perspective from which they operate. A recent example at Vooruit was the new platform for art and discourse ‘May Events’, a discussion platform for people who work in or on the border between contemporary performance and the development of a political discourse. MIR festival serves as a place where artists share their vision of the world and of the reality with audiences ready to make a shift, to question their views, to be propelled to new horizons and to see new realities emerge. This resonates with what director Christiana Galanopoulou presented in her lecture, claiming that justice, freedom and accessibility in society will (also) need to be realized within our institutions and questioning the capitalist system we all operate in. “As long as our institutions are funded by a capitalist system, they will be used by it.” Mai Abu ElDahad from Mophradat equally said “if they fund you, they claim you.”

In Belgium, public funding in principle supports artistic freedom and can also be used as a tool to change the system. But which institution can be sure that this will not be used against them and accepts the risk of ending up without proper funding? In other countries, publically funded institutes are under strict control of the government and cannot express critique on the policies of the government or the social order. In those contexts, the freedom to act and speak out is sought after in the ‘independent scene’ or through private funding.

Standing still

One of the artists who participated in The Return of the Fantastic Institution initially declined the invitation if the organisation did not guarantee there were a certain number of non-whites, queer and disabled people. The promise was not fulfilled (and she was there after all), but the urgency of the statement appeals to me. On the other hand, how sad is it to almost have to use blackmail to get some diversity in a group full of artists, free spirits and ‘smart’ people. How hard can it be? Why is it all changing so slowly? There must be someone of something that keeps standing on the brakes, to stop progress from happening.

While the context has radically changed, some institutions seem to be standing still. Driven mostly by technological progress and global integration, the speed of everything is going up, demanding that we run things in a different way. And yet the number of organisations that are fundamentally trying to run themselves in new ways, is very small. Why should this be so? I think the answer goes back to the fact that what most people believe, for the most part, is highly influenced by their own personal experiences. And when it comes to change, while the larger context is changing, the everyday world people working in the institutions see today and in the world they saw a few months ago is rarely very different. Our experiences can be 99% the same. We get up, get ready for work, get on the subway, not paying attention to the depth of the seawall, because it doesn’t affect us today. The sense of urgency does not hit. So even if we know intellectually that things are changing and changing ever faster, what we see and feel is not necessarily so different. And our experiences, and the feelings that we get from them, are very influential in determining our behavior. So, if it doesn’t feel like things are changing that much, we do not actively and assertively look for new ways to adapt to that change.

When you reflect on your own codes and criteria, put your Eurocentric notion of artistic quality aside and the whole context that comes with it, it becomes much more evident to reach more diverse artists.

What can help? Big ideas that produce big light bulbs above our heads can help. A constant focus on change – opportunities and hazards – can help. A sense of urgency to find and exploit new opportunities might help, because that sense is not just a thought but it also ties into a feeling. Luckily, more and more, many voices challenge the status quo, among others the artists and arts workers who were there in Kortrijk.

Ashes and sparks

Now, as mentioned before, I need to come back to the notion of artistic quality. At lunch, I talked to a participant who sighed that it is very difficult to bring in diversity, despite a lot of efforts, such as reaching out to ethnically diverse artists. Apparently, the biggest challenge came down to artistic quality. Zinnema, as a centre for non- or semi-professional artists, does not need to bother with this criterium, this person claimed. I hear this comment a lot, that art centers need to uphold a certain level of artistic quality and that Zinnema would not. Obviously, I do not agree. Who decides what is good and bad art? Surely this all depends on your own context. And in a world where black people still can’t engage fully because they are held back by institutional racism, how can that be fair? So, I would claim that when you reflect on your own codes and criteria, put your Eurocentric notion of artistic quality aside and the whole context that comes with it, it becomes much more evident to reach more diverse artists.

With our season 16-17, I Have a Dream, Zinnema made some bold choices and with it came trust from the very people that feel uneasy to go into established institutions, because of the many thresholds. This new platform for artistic expression – I Have a Dream and the artistic think tank of six artists who curated the program from A to Z – was conceived to present a group of art practitioners, who are often misrepresented or in most cases, not represented at all – young people of African descent. During the course of the season, the presence of these artists, vis-à-vis I Have A Dream, brought a distinct element to the conversation: what is the impact of identity on the creative process and the ways in which it informs and examines contemporary life and culture in Belgium and in Europe? Within the framework of the season, identity, specifically an African diasporic identity was expressed.

Each in their own way moves the participants out of a world where they are unreadable and transgressive, and into a world where each can begin a process of self-assessment, which reveals who they were, are and will be, as a result of their engagement within this creative process.

I’d like to quote the South-African artist Thuli Gamedze on how art can function within activist spaces.[1] “We can expand art to the extent that when we talk about art, we are speaking of a conscious, creative approach that is in response to images, and through response, creates its own images. Art thinking, art behaving, art conversing, art writing- these are activisms of art production that make use of our innate creativity in decolonizing and re-imagining our space.” She continues: “The pervasive western colonial symbolism in our public spaces is a dominant but ghostly presence, which is incredibly silencing for oppressed voices.

Inspiring was the story of an art center in Manchester. One night, a fire destroyed the whole building. All employees had left the organisation. After a while, a new place was set up. A collective took over, and made some bold choices when hiring people and engaging artists: very young and open people, many non-whites, queers, bottom-up practises…  They dreamt themselves the ideal arrangement and raised from their ashes. Luckily, not all centres have to be set on fire. But the metaphor is one to remember and to act by.

At the end of the day at BUDA Kortrijk, we divided ourselves in smaller groups to find answers to the question “How can we take care of society?” Some practises were shared. For example, in Swedish art centres 20% of the artists needs to be non-Swedish in order to receive funding, the same goes for schools and universities. This actually changed a lot in the country: people are aware that not everyone is included and non-Swedish people received more chances. Of course, in this age of intolerant political parties such as Lega Nord, Front National and PVV, the question is whether these quota will be sustained when elections have passed this year and a new coalition is formed. The far-right Swedish Democrats is the nation’s third party now. Another example that was shared, is that of a Berlin music venue which stated that there had to be a 50-50 balance in gender. After a lot of backlash, they decide to ban men on the stage all together and go for a full female program.

Epilogue

In June 2018, in the midst of writing this text, I started working as the business director for the large institution NTGent. Now that I actually play with the big boys (mostly) in an organization at the center of ‘the scene’, I can try to bring about change from the inside.

This change will be achieved by focusing on the core: the artistic story and the way it is produced. Basically, that’s the raison d’être of any artistic organization, but a heavy management layer, with decisions dripping top-down and with little participation and transparency, risks to define many aspects of the artistic processes in European theatre, it seems. In order to change this, an administrative and business reform is needed to ensure that business policy is at the service of the artistic mission at all times and therefore knows its place. I don’t think ‘cultural manager’ is a dirty word, but the balance must lean towards ‘culture’, not towards ‘manager’. In addition to a leaner and more flexible administration, a new working culture must be created, in which transparency, vulnerability, doubt and the daring to colour outside the lines are regarded as qualities and trump cards, not as flaws.

If setting up a production is process, through research, castings, rehearsals and debates, that is open to the public, this must also be reflected in the organisation culture of the house: through participation, transparency, openness and flexibility. (Actually, ‘agility’ is a better word, but tends to be over- and misused). The self-managing teams that are so popular in ‘agile’ HR seem to be nothing more or less than anarchist teams, without authority or central management: a grassroots movement if you will.

This is the way we will work at NTGent, both artistically and professionally. The artistic may never be incidental to the management. In addition, the ties between the studio and the office need to be tightened up. The office people attend rehearsals, are better informed about what they come to the office for every day: the creations, the debates, the vision, etc. Administrators are also expected to be creative, to suggest ideas, to contribute to the content and image of NTGent. They are also in the vanguard, the founders of the new city theatre. Let’s use our energy for a new foundation for the future.

[1] africanah.org

N.D.B

Nathalie De Boelpaep

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