Marta Keil: Festival as a condition to think-with
This text is a revised and shortened version of the lecture presented at Hangö Teaterträff festival on the 11th of June 2022.
How can we think of a performing arts festival as an ally that carries the struggle with the artists and art workers, and supports them in their everyday practices and struggles? How can the festival, with its temporality, become a practice that is rooted in a given context, informing and nourishing its soil long after it ends? And, following the thoughts of Athena Athanasiou, how can it become a condition of the common space to be imagined and negotiated?
I strongly believe we need a festival as a political entity, as a condition that enables the unexpected to happen. Of course, this very “unexpected” is precisely what the dominating socio-political and economic systems are afraid of. And this is exactly the reason why we need conditions that enable us to imagine it and to think with each other so urgently – especially now, with an ongoing war in Europe (and multiple wars happening simultaneously globally), unprecedented polarisation of societies and ongoing climate change. There is no back to normal, that is very clear, but what is at stake now is shaping the social reality before it is once again done “for our own good” by hegemonic powers. Festivals, with their intensity of encounters and experiences and with an (often transnational) multitude of voices, can offer a space to think-with and feel-with, to gain strength from being many. It can also create a framework to experience the process of creating social bonds in other ways. This is where the strong political potential of the festivals is situated – and this is exactly why, in some cases, their continuity is being put at risk.
Paving the way out
There are two impulses that led me to think of festivals not only as a gathering or encounter, but mostly as a political condition. The first one comes from the prevailing feeling of exhaustion: a wave of burnouts that I observe everywhere in the performing arts field at the moment, and that I am currently also experiencing myself. A feeling of being overwhelmed by expectations, urgencies and loneliness that dominate the performing arts field and that seem to form a perfectly working trap: we can’t go on like this but keep going on anyway, as there seems to be no other option – or not enough space to imagine an alternative.
I have been recently revisiting a seminal text on burnout in the arts field by Barbara Raes, a former artistic director of the BUDA Arts Centre in Kortrijk, Belgium and the Vooruit Art Centre in Ghent, in which she notes:
“Burnout occurs when the gap between your own deeply-held convictions and your daily patterns of survival becomes unbridgeable – where passion meets powerlessness. Every era has its own diseases and exhaustion has been a plague through the ages. Even though ‘burnout’ is not unique to our times, it’s a dis-ease that has many parallels with the practices and systems of a society in overdrive.”
Raes wrote it in 2014, right after resigning from her position as the artistic director of one of the most powerful art centres in Belgium; a move that might have seemed astounding at that time. Who dares to resign from a dream job like this? Who can afford to do that, having in mind all the effort that was required to get there? A move like this might seem akin to giving up a political battle: as a flight from a position where there is much at stake and so much to fight for. But often an act of withdrawal is a strong political gesture in itself: especially when it stems from a refusal to reaffirm the given realm by operating within it. I read Barbara Raes’ gesture as a thoroughly considered and risky decision to not follow the business as usual; a refusal to continue working in the dominating conditions and get entangled in the dominating socio-economic rules of constant overproduction, competition, and expectation to constantly deliver new brilliant ideas and to have all the answers.
She further explains:
“What is specific about going through a burnout – as opposed to being overworked or exhausted – is that during this ‘illness’ you are brought face-to-face with the dilemma of ethics versus vision. You feel totally alienated from certain contemporary values and standards that are apparently high priorities on the agenda for everyone else. You discover two alternate paths before you, two ways of stacking stones for the future: you either become cynical, abandon the quest for beauty and honesty and stack your stones vertically; or you look at your ‘illness’ as an invitation and a particularly fertile foundation to recharge and renew yourself and to lay your stones horizontally, one by one – as stepping-stones paving the way for a new path.”
For Raes, laying her stones horizontally meant nearly complete withdrawal from the art institutions (after a long run of working within them) and creating her own practice: a series of rituals for an unacknowledged loss, offered to individuals, teams and, sometimes, also art institutions. Obviously, a withdrawal can take various shapes and directions, depending on the actual context. What strategies are there to challenge and refuse the dominating working methods in the case of a performing arts festival? What is our agency as curators, artists, festival producers, especially when we cannot or do not want to resign from our work completely?
One of the first steps of withdrawal from “business as usual” could be, for instance, to break the rules of competition (a principle of having a national premiere or not inviting artists who have just been presented in another city nearby) and create a support network with other festivals instead; to shift from a series of events to the sharing of resources, time and space (for example, by proposing the invited artists to spend the whole festival time together and get at least a glimpse of the local context); to coproduce instead of buying a ready-made production; to invite artists to collaborate on the level of curation and decision-making (so they can also understand the process, its conditions and constraints); to offer the audience and artists time and space for a conversation instead of consumption; to talk openly about wages and address the precarious situation of art workers; to create local alliances in order to negotiate the evaluation criteria for artwork and festivals etc. Obviously, while taking such a direction, we will very often hear: “But this is not the way we do it!” or “But it worked well, why change it?”, and sometimes we might reach the limits of a particular institution in its readiness to go along with the proposed approach (as was the case of the festival Konfrontacje Teatralne in Lublin, which I co-curated with Grzegorz Reske between 2012 and 2017). But it is exactly in this constant effort of stretching the rules and expanding the frameworks where political potential opens up.
The other impulse for this reflection is coming from a context that has been shaping my work for a long time. For most of my professional life, I have been based in Poland, an Eastern European country that has been going through an intense socio-political and economic transformation since 1989 (recently, I relocated to the Netherlands and feel quite uprooted: the ground that used to nourish my work is no longer there, and settling in the new one will still require a lot of time). As a result, my curatorial practice has so far been grounded in the country which Immanuel Wallerstein would call semi-peripheral, which has been aspiring to become a central Western nation with all its might (or actually beyond its might). In consequence, capitalist realism, as Mark Fisher has it, was extremely strong there, as if there was no alternative indeed.
That context has radically worsened in recent years, as neoliberalism has become tightly entangled with populist nationalism. It was in 2015 when the current conservative government assumed power and introduced its populist, authoritarian, discriminatory policies. In the arts field, working conditions as we knew them (and as precarious as they already were) started to shrink – many open, progressive, critical art institutions ceased some of their activities or changed their scope significantly (that is the case of, for instance, the Ujazdowski Castle – Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw); there are less and less organisations that are able to support independent, critical thinking; censorship became a real threat, especially in its less visible, economic form. On top of all that, the pandemic has additionally amplified the scarcity of funds and working spaces, additionally highlighting the inequalities in the field. As Bojana Kunst wrote, referring to cases of programmatic shifts or financial restrictions on many art institutions in Europe in 2017-2019 (referring to, among others, Konfrontacje Teatralne festival in Lublin), the battle that we are part of reaches far beyond the arts field:
We have to read these cuts also as an open rejection of any idea of institutional public equality that would enable different kinds of gatherings, expressions and embodiments of the audience and their expressions of the political. With these processes, institutional hierarchies and privileges are strengthened, and some forms of coming together are more privileged than others, with many alternative ways of expressing becoming marginal, invisible and even criminalised. (…) The goal is to erase the infrastructural support which is needed not only for the survival of those practices but also for the continuity of autonomous political and aesthetic expression.
The struggle over the tasks, responsibilities and structure of festivals has always been a deeply political one. What is at stake today, however, is not only the shape of a particular art institution, but also the possibility to imagine society otherwise: to conceive, test, and experiment with alternative ways of gathering, of getting together and thinking-with. Indeed, a well-conceived festival framework could offer conditions for reaching outside the realm we operate within on an everyday basis. And this is exactly the reason why artistic and curatorial interventions, such as festivals that tend to think otherwise, are often perceived as dangerous and are, in fact, sometimes the first area of cuts.
Festival as an ally
How could we actually imagine a festival that creates conditions that allow a new common space to emerge? I would like to invite us today to think of a festival as an ally: an ally to the artists, art workers and visitors, creating bonds with both local and transnational communities. A festival as an ally would be one that offers space for having a longer conversation; that strengthens artists in their everyday practices by enabling them to meet their peers from diverse localities and contexts and by providing them with space and financial conditions to stay around longer, for the course of the whole festival; that listens to their current urgencies, ideas and strategies and facilitates their articulation; that offers performing arts students and theatre makers time and space to get to know each other, to learn and share new perspectives and to let new networks emerge; that builds relations between hosted artists and hosting organizations, lasting long after the festival is over.
Furthermore, a festival as an ally rarely invests a considerable share of its budget in bringing a big-scale production from overseas for just one or two presentations. Instead, it forms support networks with other festivals and art institutions in the neighbouring regions and proposes other, sustainable forms of transnational artistic cooperation: it offers an artist or a group a longer tour in the region (which then requires the festival curator to resign from a desire to have the artist exclusively for themselves), invites artists coming from overseas to work with local art workers instead of merely showing a ready-made production; tests hybrid formats, audio-performances that can be either intimate or with a group of audience; offers possibilities for directing performances from a physical distance thanks to local collaborators etc. All this requires a shift: from presentation to collaboration, from a one-off strategy to a longer conversation. And what is needed at the same time is an ongoing, attentive, usually very stressful and exhausting negotiation with the festival funders to accept the changed program strategy. Often, again, strong local and transnational alliances turn out to be key – both in the negotiating process and, especially, in the moments where this seems to be going nowhere.
Moreover, even if the above curatorial strategies would stretch the usual festival timeframe (at least on the level of the artists’ involvement), this does not have to imply a resignation from the festival’s specific temporality. On the contrary – perhaps extending the time reserved for preparation allows the festival’s intensity of encounters and exchange to be more grounded, rather than a rushed, superficial experience. The festival’s temporality is not only what distinguishes it from any other type of art institution, but also the source of its unique political potential. Festivals often invite us to suspend some of our daily activities for a while – not to create an illusion that we can go on without these, but to make room for a crack, a rupture in our daily practices as we know them. This momentary suspension of our daily rhythm opens up potential for experiencing a different pace and perspective; another way to encounter, exchange, gather and think with others.
But how, then, can we make the festival’s emerging political potential sustainable? If a festival takes place once a year and cannot provide a regular and recurring presence of artists, it will be difficult to deeply root their practices in the local soil (no matter how much we try to extend the festival’s time frame, it will not – and should not – act as a theatre institution or production house). But what is definitely possible is to set in motion a process of rooting the festival in a rhizome of translocal alliances and bonds, in a network of inspiring and challenging exchanges, in a multiplicity of perspectives on the complexity of local reality. In order to root safely, a plant needs not only good soil but also a whole complex system of information transmitted between other plants and species living in the same ecosystem. Understood from this perspective, a festival can become the basis for long-term networks of solidarity created with other festivals and art institutions, offering artists and art workers the conditions for building strong bonds that will enable them to sustain their practices. In this sense, once we decide to make a gesture of withdrawal from the dominant working methods, the stones that we still have in our hands can indeed become the basis for setting a new path. There may not be enough stones in a single handful, but this path cannot be paved alone anyway.
curator, dramaturge and researcher
 Athena Athanasiou, Performing the Institution “As If It Were Possible”, in: Maria Hlavajova, Simon Sheikh (eds.) Former West: Art and the Contemporary After 1989, MIT Press, BAK basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht 2016, pp. 679-691
 Barbara Raes, Radiantly burning out and stacking stones, https://fo.am/blog/2014/09/25/radiantly-burning/ (accessed: 29.07.2022)
 A reflection around this process was the basis for editing the book: “Reclaiming the Obvious. On the Institution of the Festival”, Marta Keil (ed.), Instytut Teatralny im. Zbigniewa Raszewskiego, Konfrontacje Teatralne/Centrum Kultury w Lublinie, Lublin-Warszawa 2017
 See: Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative?, Zero Books, 2009
 Bojana Kunst, Performance, Institutions and Gatherings: between Democratic and Technocratic European Cultural Space, in: Livia Andrea Piazza, Ana Vujanović (eds.), A Live Gathering: Performance and Politics in Contemporary Europe, be_books, Berlin 2019, p. 64