Whether we're talking about the major European festivals that emerged just after the war, such as the Holland Festival or the Festival d’Avignon, or more recent projects such as the Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels, their initial purpose was artistic and social emancipation. The idea was to help create a fairer, more democratic society. Whether we're talking about Europe in ruins after 1945 or Brussels in a state of extreme tension in 1990, when Dutch speakers and French speakers lived together on the brink of conflict, wherever there was crisis and schism, these festivals played a key role in creating spaces for solidarity and dialogue.
It's not as if there's nothing left of all this. Many European festivals still promote artistic innovation, imagination, and modest forms of social engagement. And yet it's becoming hard to deny that the foundations have gradually shifted in another direction: in a neo-liberal age, everyone is expected to meekly toe the line. We've been pressganged into a superficial cult of the so-called "new", of the "bang on trend", of the purely formal. The more "global" you are, the better, even if it means completely losing sight of your local roots and your links with the city. We're expected to "commit" in the romantic sense, but without allowing ourselves to challenge the fundamental political status quo. And ultimately, we're the first to endorse prevalent views of art and society held by non-diverse, middle-class audiences.
Festivals in French-speaking countries are often described by non-participating locals as "ovnis" (UFOs), akin to the endless list of art biennales taking place across the world. Of course this word, with its "alien" undertones, is tinged with populism: you can't reach out to everyone. But it is no less true that the way arts programmes have been internationalised over the past thirty years, which is short on critical thinking and often too eager to seek out the "exotic", has made an increasing number of festivals look much the same. International uniformity is poured into the mould of artists we all co-produce, which means that festivals end up being little more than marketplaces for international touring shows.
Of course, it's not all bad: it's good for the artists, who can show their work on a large scale, and for educated audiences, who discover what's new in Colombia or South Africa. But it's really little more than fancy international shopping. In a world where a lot of theatres in major European capitals put international works on their
programmes all year round, we might wonder whether festivals should be looking for a specific new identity that would allow them to return to their initial role as forces of emancipation.
How can we focus on interactions between international artists and the contexts in which they work? How can we foster new shows that do not consider our great multicultural cities and their inhabitants as mere backdrops and potential audiences, but instead see them as raw materials and sources of subject matter for their creations? How can we create the right conditions, methodologies and economic parameters for artists to absorb the underlying characteristics of a particular area over a long period and use them to inform their work? How can the international productions we showcase interact with these "contextual creations" and mobilise new audiences?
Once again, when everything seems to be going well, these suggestions seem to be of secondary importance. And yet clear signals show that the current model for European festivals is running out of steam and merely confirms the artistic and political status quo. Audiences are getting older and are failing to diversify, festival programmes are becoming interchangeable and detached from the context of their host cities, and public authorities readily use cultural events to further their own ends.
Things could be different. With their rich history, their huge media profiles and their large audiences, many European festivals could adopt a bolder, more disruptive, and truly innovative artistic and political approach. They could once more become genuine avant-garde drivers of artistic creativity and civic emancipation. To achieve this, we have to go back to the basics: we should give urban and multicultural frames of reference precedence over hollow, cliché-ridden, nation-centric mind-sets, make the international dimension of festivals interact effectively with their local roots, enrich the role of festivals in artistic creation to avoid getting stuck in a constant quest for novelty, and make the question of finding new audiences to fill our theatres a central concern.
For festivals on other continents, the idea of a shared history that needs defending, of a uniform identity that needs promoting, and of loyal audiences that need pleasing, is often much less prevalent. What kinds of new urban audiences can we mobilise? What future cities and multi-facetted identities can we invent? These are the true challenges we face.
Instead of being content with shopping for international shows, we could draw more fundamental inspiration from the South. In Tunis, in the framework of Dream City, a methodology has been invented to allow artists to integrate their work into the reality of the city. In Cape Town, Infecting the City does what its name suggests: it infects the city with new practices and content. In Bamako, the young festival called Les Practicables sees an old neighbourhood as much more than just a setting: it becomes a fully-fledged subject, and its inhabitants become actors. And in Ramallah, Under Construction is inventing a cultural narrative for a society under occupation.
In other words, there are independent initiatives that radically foster contextual creations, interactions between artists and cities, and the mobilisation of new audiences drawn from ranks that are not controlled by the political establishment. These initiatives are to be found outside Europe.
So why don't we take a leaf out of their book?
Article published in Libération on 27/08/2018
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