I’m sitting in a student room at the Beijing Dance Academy. We just started the production which you will see as the opening show of the Exodos festival. An immense and intense journey for young dancers from seven countries. Working on international projects is something that you never forget; every day you learn something new. Myself as a producer and artists as creators. We are finding each day that we are all different but equal as human beings, that we share the same basic feelings. There is no big difference if I’m working in Africa, or in China, or in Palestine; the smile coming from people on the streets is the same. This counts the most. The differences among us in this world are to be respected. This is what makes our world so rich, colourful and interesting.
For the past 20 years of the Exodos festival, we have been bringing to our audiences a taste of other cultures, smiles, and excellence. We believe that art is a universal language which could connect our world, and that everybody has the right to express himself or herself in that language. We only have one world, and we have to understand and respect each other if we want to survive. Art and culture are among tools connecting the world – but many people, especially politicians, don’t want to recognise that fact.
Twenty years is a long time: what has changed?
In these 20 years we became more international, we made many connections and joint international projects; we presented more than 600 artists from all continents; we lost about 2/3 of our budget; we lost almost all support of our authorities, since they do not understand that one has to invest in culture; that culture is beneficial for the whole society even if it is not part of commercial industry. Culture lost all its value in these 20 years, especially in Slovenia, which once was a country where art and artists were supported and respected. That time is over, and we all are more or less beggars and on the edge of survival. We simply have no possibility to work in what we know the best, and artists have no possibility to express themselves in the language they know the best. The question is who will give up first: we who know that culture is a necessity for the society, or politicians who think that culture and art is something like a hobby?
However, I’m born optimist. First let’s celebrate spring and the 20th anniversary of our festival. It is smaller than it was 20 years ago, but small things are important, small thoughts are valuable, and even small changes could make our world better.
Nataša Zavolovšek, director and producer of the Exodos Festival
Ps. I would like to thank Miran Šušteršič, the first director of the Exodos Festival, for his courage to create this festival, and my whole team for their courage to support me throughout these years; to all the artists who accepted our invitation to come to the festival during the Balkan wars or during our financial crises; and to all our partners for all support. All of you helped that we succeeded in making so many editions – and I do hope that there will be more.
“There is good and bad internationalization. Fronting as cosmopolitanism and under the guise of widening its horizon, bad internationalization flies around the globe to treat very similar audiences in very similar circuits to the same old tricks, pocketing the money and the symbolic capital afterwards. Good internationalization justifies the journey by actually looking for something that is different from what we know, by investing time and energy in it, and by locally offering something that will make a substantive difference, both to the traveling artist and the audience itself.”
Wouter Hillaert, a Belgian cultural journalist and freelance theatre critic with a special interest for community arts
Artistic practice as a journey
This statement about good and bad internationalization still limits the issue to trade, to import/export. In this scenario, bad internationalization would amount to take-the-money-and-run capitalism, good internationalization to fair trade practices. But it would still remain trade. I’m interested in internationalization for different reasons: a search for alterity, for the other, and the entire negotiation that results from it: about what you understand and do not understand, know and don’t know, about what you think you recognise, about the radically strange or the mediatized other that we recognise as the exotic, about ‘unknowability’. To achieve that, you either have to stay for long enough or return often enough, you have to share power and resources. That’s the bigger picture. In the narrower sense, what fascinates me about the confrontation with practices (from) elsewhere, is the constant questioning of one’s own ideological/artistic values, which, as things now stand in Flanders, sound too unisono in the media, in evaluation committees, and so on.
What strikes me in this respect, is that in Flanders today, you do NOT score with a sustained practice of meeting and collaboration. During their last hearing at the KVS, the theatre commission bluntly asked us if we weren’t done with the Congo and Palestine yet. As if choosing those locations was akin to picking something from a Europalia style country catalogue. We are not done with the Congo and Palestine, simply because Palestine and Congo are also located in Brussels, and help shape our immediate surroundings. Because the youngsters from the Chicago youth centre around the corner foster an unrealistic view of a mythical Palestine, which chases them onto the streets to vent their anger. Because Matongé is also a neighbourhood in Brussels. The same does not apply to Myanmar or Argentina.
That sustained practice is often read in line with the perception about the KVS: do-gooders out on a mission to ‘change the world’ in the Congo and Palestine. As things stand, however, we had to conclude that our approach here and over there is quite different. Here, we try to connect the arts with society, we try to entice artists into relinquishing their independent positions and relating to the community. In the Congo and Palestine, it is often important to strengthen the artists’ autonomy and free them from the oppressive grip of society.
Risk of disruption
If you work with Congolese and Palestinian artists, you additionally risk being suspected of trying to perpetuate colonialism by other means. Recently, I created Badke with Rosalba Torres and Koen Augustijnen, a performance featuring ten Palestinian dancers, which reflected their local dance heritage. Up popped the question why we hadn’t made a diptych, with a Palestinian choreographer directing Belgian dancers? Why did we want to introduce the notions of ‘the contemporary’ or ‘modernity’ into a traditional context, like missionaries?
It is necessary to keep asking questions about balances of power, but in the end this could also become the perfect excuse to do nothing. There is inequality, sure, but does this imply we cannot mean anything to one another within the existing context? Like Rosalba Torres said in a comment: “We have gone to meet them. But ultimately, this performance is not ours, it’s theirs. It speaks of their relationship with this dance and what it represents politically and culturally. I cannot wait for my country to come to terms with its past. You cannot wait until the situation in Palestine improves on a humanitarian, political and financial level. When else are we going to meet each other?”
It is my assertion that Badke is a great gift for Brussels. It makes short shrift of every cliché about Palestinians. But there’s more; the capital of dance is confronted with its limits: this explosion of collective physicality is not a style, nor a discipline, but a deeply rooted faith of the body in forms of communication with the place and others in that place. That is something we don’t have as a source, but which audiences (both the varied KVS audience in Brussels and the festival audience in Zurich) seem to lap up eagerly. It’s not we who are going to save the Palestinians, it’s the Palestinians who are coming to save us: from our dominant brain dance.
In conclusion, I give you this reflection by the African thinker Achille Mbembe during a lecture in Avignon: “How are we going to re-think the artistic practice as a journey? A journey that exposes us, yet not like Facebook. A journey during which we show the world our vulnerability. During which we risk disruption, detuning. Not as an end in itself, but as a condition for meeting 1) the unexpected and 2) people we thought we had nothing in common with. If art doesn’t pick that road, it will be useless for the vast majority of humanity.”
Hildegard De Vuyst, Flemish dramaturge and artistic coordinator of the 1Space project in reaction to the statement, starting from her experiences in KVS* (Brussels) between 2001 and 2016
* The international work described above is no longer part of KVS, but has become the core of a new non-profit organization called Connexion, enhancing south-south cooperation.