‘Reframing the International’: an introduction

On 6 december 2016, approximately 100 artists, curators, managers and other arts professionals kicked off Reframing the International, Kunstenpunt’s research and development trajectory about working internationally in the arts. The idea is to set up a process with the arts field in Flanders and Brussels (music, visual arts, performing arts), to think about the international dimension of our work: to get a clear view on what is happening in the field and in society, to brainstorm about what can be done in the future and to start concrete experiments around these ideas.

Right now we are in the start-up phase of the whole process, brainstorming about burning issues, setting the agenda, getting some inspiration. And, most importantly, discussing the fundamental questions: Why are we working internationally? What does it really mean when we are working abroad?

The internationalisation continues

Today there is an increasing urgency to raising these questions. It is not the first time that support organisations have been organising moments of reflection about the internationalisation of the arts. But compared to six years ago, a lot of things have happened. Working internationally has certainly become quite self-evident, but at the same time, there is this uncanny feeling that the pressure is increasing. Society is going through some political, cultural and ecological changes, which may well radically change the way we work. Stakes are higher than ever, it seems.

Our enthusiasm about the international recognition for the arts from Flanders is absolutely legitimate. Some achievements are truly remarkable and even historical. At the same time, there is an increasing feeling of unease with recent developments.

It is certainly true that international work has become a lot less exotic than before. The last decades, our sectors have been internationalising thoroughly. We have made use of a number of profound political, technological and economic developments to organise ourselves differently. I am thinking of business developments such as digitisation, internet, low-cost airlines, Airbnb, Skype, couch surfing, roaming, and not in the least of the huge impact of European policies — economic, monetary, educational and cultural. All this has had a profound impact on the development and even the proliferation of cultural networks in Europe since the 1980s.

It is also true that a number artists from Flanders and Brussels have been doing pretty well in this globalising system of producing and presenting art. With our research, Kunstenpunt has regularly been raising awareness with the public opinion and political stakeholders of the success of the Flemish arts abroad. And we will certainly continue to do so in the context of this Reframing trajectory. We have already published some work-in-progress research about the international export of concerts and performances from Flanders and Brussels and we are compiling information about visual arts exhibitions. So stay tuned for more research in this direction.

Our enthusiasm about the international recognition for the arts from Flanders is absolutely legitimate. Some achievements are truly remarkable and even historical. At the same time, there is an increasing feeling of unease with recent developments. There are a number of problems with this success story. It certainly gives a very limited picture of what is going on.

First, this picture conceals the increasing pressure on our work and the difficulties that this entails. Artists, organisers, companies, curators and producers, they all tell us they must fight harder than ever to achieve the same results, with sometimes painstaking negotiations about fees and budgets. Certainly in music and performing arts, contributions to travel expenses not always cover the real costs of touring. There is a lot of competition on the international market and there is a constant struggle to catch the attention of the media and local audiences.

The pressure increases. In a lot of countries, the legitimacy of (national) government investments in the arts goes through a crisis. National governments are withdrawing, sometimes with severe budget cuts in the arts as a result. The political context is clearly shifting: already in the UK, the US, Croatia, the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary and in so many other countries we see a shift towards more economic protectionism and nationalist populism.

Cities and municipalities have become already more active in developing cultural policies. They are experimenting with more transversal approaches or integrating the arts in urban development and city marketing schemes.

In this time of crisis and government cutbacks, organisations and institutions are struggling to maintain their production capacity by engaging more and more partners, often international coproducers. Paradoxically, when national policies are receding, transnational cooperation is booming. But how sustainable are these strategies in the long term? A growing number of increasingly vulnerable partners is needed to keep up the same level of output, previous Kunstenpunt research has shown.

How sustainable is this growth bubble? And, most importantly, where does all of this leave the artists? Throughout the whole of Europe, the position of individual artists has become more vulnerable and precarious than ever. Last week, we launched a research report about the socio-economic position of artists from Flanders and Brussels. Only one out of ten artists can really live from their artistic work. Apparently, artists are the first victims of the economic pressure on institutions and companies (where mostly the non-artistic staff is being employed on a permanent basis, and artist’s fees are paid from the variable budgets). Maybe this increasing precariousness is also an important driver behind the internationalisation of artists’ trajectories?

Meaningful developments

In our Reframing trajectory we will want to explicitly address this whole changing context, both socially and the way our sector operates today. Apart from this growing political and economic pressure, there is also another reason why focusing on our export success is short-sighted. A focus on export might obscure the fact that, increasingly, there are a lot of meaningful developments and artistic practices which do not fit in this frame of export and high visibility.

Paradoxically, when national policies are receding, transnational cooperation is booming.

More and more artists and institutions are looking for ways out of this rat race which is sometimes called ‘hypermobility’, traveling from black box to black box, from white cube to white cube or from residency to residency just to eke out a living. When working abroad, there is an increasing interest to rethink what it means to work internationally by slowing down. By creating time and space for more meaningful connections with local communities and artistic scenes. Sometimes via residencies or workshops, or new formats for producing and presenting art (eg. cocreation, site-specific projects). Increasingly, artists are explicitly dealing with internationalisation, mobility and sustainability in their work.

For some artists, this way of working might not exactly be new. But in the context we are in, it is really important to discuss these practices. To make them more visible and reflect on their importance in the context of this project. A new argumentation for the value of international practices in the arts might be found there. Maybe it will be less the national governments we will be convincing with this new story of connecting the local to the international. Cities and municipalities have become already more active in developing cultural policies. They are experimenting with more transversal approaches, or integrating the arts in urban development or city marketing schemes. There are a lot of issues to be discussed here as well. Maybe the future will be more about the connection of local scenes and communities with transnational mobility and information flows.

Some questions

These observations offer only a brief sketch of the rapidly changing context of our research and development trajectory about international practices in the arts. In this kickoff stage, we are just trying to grasp what is going on. We are struggling with a number of questions:

The meaning. What is the true value and importance of working internationally? Why do we move? Is it really about export, visibility, economic and symbolic capital? Is that what makes us move? Is that also what will convince society and political stakeholders of our importance?

The context. How should we relate to the contemporary political, cultural, social, ecological crises? What is going on? What is the role of artists to help us to understand this?

The trends and the ‘weak signals’. Which trends are visible and not yet visible in the figures?

The future organisation. How are we going to organise ourselves? Will we try to continue our businesses as usual? Will we try to keep afloat in the current system-under-pressure? And/or will we start a collective reflection to see if we are strong enough together to do things differently?

These are difficult questions, but we have a whole year for this mapping project. The Reframing the International kickoff conference was a public forum to share current worries, concerns and wishes. A number of invited speakers raised fundamental questions about the meaning of and current challenges for internationalisation. In the coming months, Kunstenpunt is going to deepen these ideas. We will map trends with data visualisations and statistics. We will launch writing assignments and organise round tables about different topics. And by the end of 2017, we will meet again all together to synthesise this entire process, and to set up concrete experiments around new ideas.

So stay tuned and get in touch with all your concerns, ideas and suggestions.

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