November 8, 2018
IETM Munich 2018
The main provocation of this meeting was: Res Publica Europa.
In IETM’s words: ‘IETM Munich will take a fresh look at the idea of Europe. Is it a cultural entity? A geographical one? What does the EU’s motto “United in Diversity” mean today, in the age of agendas driven by economics and eurosceptic tendencies? Is it a potent ambition yet to be achieved or just a tired phrase?’
What is IETM:
IETM is the International network for Contemporary Performing Arts. It consists of over 500 performing arts organisations and individual members working in the contemporary performing arts worldwide.
It is fun being in an unfamiliar place with a group of people who share something familiar: a passion for making art of one kind or another. Munich offered up enough strangeness in amongst the architecture of its Neo-Classical and National Socialist past to be a little magic: one dusk we followed a pair of masked ‘Crypto-Scouts’ who took us wordlessly to a fire-pit and then onwards to an exhibition which offered a Digital Data Detoxification Process. Another day, after commenting on the strangeness of a man carrying a surf board through the Englischer Garten, we discovered his destination: an engineered surfing wave on an urban river frequented by locals in rubber wetsuits who either ride high for seven or so seconds (the river was not wide) or barrel into the river’s strong current and disappear downstream.
I had never been to an IETM and had had advice that the best thing to do was to hang out rather than oversubscribe to a lot of sessions. I was excited by the provocation in the light of Brexit: what is Europe? Or rather for the English crowd, what are we walking away from? I was riding high on the buzz of a glorious cosmopolitan melting pot of artists, producers and arts organisations, reinforcing my feeling that we are fools to create hard borders that could shut any of this out.
And then on the first afternoon there was… (drum roll) … The Key Note. I don’t think I am well enough informed to say if the ideas of Robert Menasse (Austrian author, The Capital, 2017) and Ulrike Guérot (Head of the Department for European Policy and the Study of Democracy at the Danube University Krems) represent a fair and democratic Europe. All I know is that I sat in an auditorium along with five hundred other people amazed by what I was seeing.
A large proscenium stage.
Three white characters: two females one male.
Three chairs stage left.
In between the chairs, a small table with bottles of water.
Two wireless microphones.
Down stage front centre is academic Ulrike Guerot standing at the very edge of the stage holding a small laptop out towards the crowd. She is wanting to show us a trailer that explains her and Robert Menasse’s idea: Res Publica Europa. Behind her a technician runs to try and figure out how to make the tiny laptop sound be heard by the large crowd. We definitely can’t see it. Robert Menasse is upstage left. He is pacing; getting increasingly furious. Finally he walks down stage and grabs the mic from the technician who is confusedly holding it to the laptop and says into it, directing his words out front, ‘This is childish.’
A roomful of eyes, contemporary performance eyes, trained to construct and unpick meaning on stage seem agreed that this Key Note has an incredible start. We look at the program to see if Forced Entertainment or Dead Centre have in fact directed this?
Robert Menasse has now taken the seat stage right and has the microphone. Ulrike Guerot dejectedly takes her seat stage left. She won’t speak again until the very end. Robert Menasse explains that he doesn’t want to speak in English. As poets have the right, he has the right, to speak in his mother tongue: German. He has the best translator who will translate.
The translator, a blond English woman in her forties sits down with the second microphone and begins to translate. And now we know this must be directed by Thomas Ostermeier because very soon the translator can’t keep up with Menasse’s political philosophy lexicon. She begins to flounder. The audience begin to throw up words like ‘horizontal democracy’ and ‘democratic deficit’? She turns from the audience back towards the mouth she is meant to be a conduit for as if to say, there you go; will those words do? Robert Menasse is growing red, he is sandwiched between two women who haven’t enabled him to be heard in the way that he had planned or hoped for.
Then it breaks:
Menasse is saying that Europe shares the same currency so why can’t it share the same laws. The translator pauses, breathes deeply, and then she does what translators surely aren’t meant to do, she stops translating. At first she mumbles and then says clearly into the mic ‘Um England doesn’t have the Euro. We have the pound. In fact, lots of European…’ Menasse’s chest rises, then his hands, then his voice loud and bellowing, ‘I don’t care what England does, it is out. That’s why I’m not speaking in English’. The Danish artist next to me open-mouthed lets out a kind of stifled half-laugh, half-wince.
This is the moment the real drama would start. Perhaps clothes would come off or a heavy soundtrack would kick in but no… we sink into our chairs, sure now that this isn’t a radical show IETM have offered up as a treat, but it is a confusing piece of theatre that I can’t quite place. No director is taking care of meaning. I see a messy scrum of gender politics. I see notions of nationalism trying to meet notions of democracy. I see the holes Euroscepticism has made and how different people are trying to fill them. I see a lack of diversity of voice. I see a Europe trying to reimagine itself. I see fear and loss and anger. I see how language can be and is political. I see voices being lost, while others bellow. I see power at play in the act or refusal of translation.
At the end Ulrike Guerot finally speaks. She asks us to, as artists, advocate and support their cause because we know how ‘to put music to things and tell stories’. I don’t know if they were aware of the stories they told us on that stage. I’m still trying to work them out. Also, I don’t know what music would go best with them – maybe I’m not a very good artist.
The rest of the week was calmer but still fascinating. There were unexpected provocations like the anger expressed over what was named ‘queer erasure’ at the event. There were lots of moments where cultural contexts were excitingly different but also clear moments of shared concerns and hopes. It was a real privilege to be part of all the discussions and I have no doubt concrete outcomes from these kinds of meetings will continue to influence our sector for the better.
Some of my takeaways:
- We heard first-hand about the horrific situation for independent artists in Egypt and were asked what international solidarity can actually mean and look like for those artists.
- It was agreed that we aren’t living in a ‘post-colonial’ world and that various forms of colonial suppression still occur but in a subtler form (cultural capital, power and money still influence across borders).
- It was interesting how participatory work was seen to threaten the quality of the cultural sector in some countries while in others it is beginning to break through into mainstream institutions and become valued alongside ‘higher’ art forms. Discussions around why this might be were, for me, some of the most tricky, humbling and interesting cultural exchanges.
- Discussions about cultural democracy, value-centric decision making, inclusion and diversity. Example of Contact Manchester as a venue who uses young people in high up decision making. Interesting that it was hard to name other sectors who use cultural democracy successfully.
- Disability session named Britain as leading on inclusion for people with disabilities in the arts – with of course still a huge way to go. Heard from other countries in which it was only just starting to be on the agenda and was financially under resourced.
- Overall focus in festival on participatory work. Some confusion between countries that participatory work meant participation, i.e. audience taking part in some of the action, rather than the sole genesis of the work being that it is performed and often made by non-professionals.
There were a lot of brilliant sessions during the few days whose notes will be written up in detail over the coming weeks. Here are some notes from Art Making In Rural Communities which I particularly enjoyed:
Art Making in Rural Communities
This session picked up on conversations begun in Wales around how to make art in rural areas led by Henk Keizer, Rural Forum Denmark.
Food for thought:
- Rural areas are more volatile than cities.
- You cannot understand the city without understanding the rural area around it.
- There can be a culture of mistrust between urban/rural communities (from both sides) – economic, social and cultural divides.
- One of the main issues noted by people working/living in rural areas was young people leaving. How can artists face this dilemma?
- A general agreement that embedding artists in the community is more fruitful than parachuting urban artists in for short term projects.
- Participatory practice methodologies relevant in rural areas around time needed to build trust and make meaningful work.
- Discussion around the mutual benefit (or lack of) in creating art work in rural areas –most artists have social mobility (in a personal sense and in regard to the art they make) whereas local participants may not share that mobility.
- How can the work be a fair and mutually enriching exchange?
- Agreement that there should be stronger advocacy for rural arts.
- Agreement that local artists should be given training and platforming.
- Agreement that there are multiple notions of rural depending on cultural context and specific socio-economic contexts.
- Desire for funding bodies to value participatory methods – predominantly the need for long term funding to allow for time needed.