A home for the impermanent?

A few critical reflections on the festival discourse

Carnet 1 Jan 1994English

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In addition, von Hofmannsthal was convinced that cheating Festspiele in Salzburg could 'strengthen the belief in an Europeanism which filled and enlightened the period between 1750 and 1850.' Von Hofmannsthal was not alone in his conviction, nor is he today. The notion that international festivals promote brotherhood or sisterhood between national cultures, and thereby contribute to a peaceful global network, is a frequently heard theme in what can be called simply the festival discourse, the body of pronouncements that accompany and legitimize the organization of international festivals. 'Enough egoism! Enough particularism! Enough narrow nationalism! The theatre must become one of the great organizing forces of the world! Let us put it in the service of peace and concord!' insists one of the initiators of the first international theatre festival which the Société Universelle du Théâtre set up in Paris in 1927. 


The festival discourse today sounds a bit less bombastic. Yet for all that, the metaphor of the pacified meeting place still crops up in many festival documents and brochures. The introduction to the programme booklet for the first International Arts Festival in Brussels (May 1994) stated that 'the festival…hopes to be a place for direct and intense exchange between artists of vastly differing origins and backgrounds, between artists whose vision of their audience is still restricted to the group that shares their language.'
Is there more than rhetoric involved in these and related legitimizations of large scale international cultural events? Obviously, this is a question with multiple answers. Let us set them aside for the moment and first note that the organizers of international festivals often seem to be expressly striving after culturalpolitical objectives. Similar intentions can also be detected in a second, frequently heard justification of international festivals. In the metaphor of the festival as a polyphonous meeting place, everything needs to be seen as the art of politics: artistic exchanges stimulate international understanding between peoples and nations, between vastly different cultures and traditions. On the other hand, strictly culturalpolitical motives take precedence among all festival organizers who first of all regard their activities as a vital contribution to the native high cultural landscape. In this vision, a peaceful dialogue does indeed continue about international theatre or dance festivals, but only insofar as these benefit the home nation or region's art and culture. It is the well known metaphor of 'cultural enrichment': the exhibition of foreign work stimulates domestic artistic production, challenges it and gives it new impulses by confronting it with exotic innovations.
After the Second World War, this striving for 'cultural enrichment' witnessed the birth of Dokumenta, which today, along with the Venetian Biennial, is probably the leading international festival of the plastic arts, and the Paris Festival d'Automne for the performing arts, first organized in 1972 and still in existence. At the end of the seventies and the beginning of the eighties, the same intention was behind the arrival in Flanders and the Netherlands of more new dance and theatre festivals such as the Kaaitheaterfestival (Brussels), Klapstuk (Leuven), and Springdance (Utrecht). What had not been possible within the existing native structures, seemed and still seems feasible by definition through the regular organization, annual or not, of an international event: to hold up before the home artists and their audience a mirror of quality in the form of new, contemporary work from abroad.
To summarize: international art festivals derive their legitimacy primarily from the differences between national or regional, possibly also ethnic, high cultures. They present themselves, in a manner of speaking, as temporary zones of cultivated conversation between cultural differences or, even better, between artistic or aesthetic differences which might be connected with diverging national contexts or different regional developments and ethnic traditions. Of course, this can also be expressed without the nobly regarded ideas of a highcultural dialogue meant to benefit either the world as such or the home art and culture. It is my primary aim, however, to treat artistic festivals which expressly present themselves and identify themselves as international, not events which obviously are set up for reasons of prestige, tourism or city marketing. 

Whether international festivals Ho indeed exercise a demonstrably positive effect on world peace or the quality of a national, regional or local artistic landscape is difficult to say. Examples that argue both for and against are easy to find. It seems to me, however, that much more important and more urgent is the question of the validity of the-current festival discourse for today. Not only does this protest renew itself with striking infrequency (do the organizers of international festivals continue to write to each other about it, perhaps?), but it profoundly questions the premises underlying the discourse itself.
The most crucial and, at the same time, the most problematic assumption concerns the supposed existence of national (and possibly also relatively homogeneously ethnic), regional or local cultures, each with its own narrowly connected means of artistic expression. Is it not true that the vast majority of international festivals present their exhibited works as representations with all that that word implies of a clearly localized culture? Dance and theatre performances, sculptures and paintings, films and videos: in festival brochures they always possess an unambiguous cultural identity. Their makers pose as ambassadors of a national high culture, represent the specific culture of an ethnic group, or represent the artistic community of a large, sultry city like New York. Briefly, according to the dominant festival discourse, artists and artistic works always have cultural roots, an origin that can be described unambiguously which makes their work recognizable, even when they question their own cultural origin or source. This line of thinking results in statements like the following (I quote haphazardly from a few recent programmeme booklets from international festivals organized in Belgium or the Netherlands): 'Francisco Camacho is a cocksure dancer from Portugal, no more, no less.... Nossa Senhora das Flores is a solo lasting almost thirty minutes, loosely based on a theme from Jean Genet and reworked with a southern, Portuguese feeling for religious exaggeration' (brochure from Klapstuk 93); 'It was there [in the new Musee d'Art Moderne in Montreal] that a new representative of the ' Canadian style', Lynda Gaudreau, presented her latest work, Etude de 100 (brochure from Springdance 93); 'A beautifully danced statement, without fuss or frill, Catalan through and through and at the same time seamlessly imbedded in contemporary modern dance' (also from the Springdance 93 brochure, describing the presentation of Carol.la by Angels Margarit & Mudances); Theatre producers, choreographers and photographers, poets, authors and film producers were invited from Hong Kong, Peking and Taipei. These artists are mostly young and ... each in his own way carries within himself his own special relationship to the Chinese culture. This relationship, half struggle and half privation, runs through the work they are showing in Brussels' (brochure from the Internationaal KunstenFESTIVALdesArts Brussel 1994).
One could place some rather critical annotations alongside these analogous statements (which in the current festival discourse are legion), and certainly not only because they sound especially essentialistic. 'Cultural source' here is indeed synonymous with fate in more than one instance, with a strange sort of deterministic essence that the artist never loses: 'once Chinese, always Chinese'. Before everything else there is the 'nationalization', the 'regionalization' or the 'ethnification' of works of art, and more generally the imbedding of artistic products in a broader cultural context, which is clearly at odds with the currently dominant idea 'which views modern Western art as a paradoxical combination of transnationalism and individualism. 

In accordance with a private, broadly adopted vision, artistic production in the West since the end of the i8th century has followed a double course. On the one hand, crossborder movements and trends were influential in determining artistic developments with increasing intensity and, as time passed, with increasing speed. The early 20th century avant-garde (dadaism, surrealism, etc.) marked an important moment in this evolution, perhaps even a point of no return. On the other hand, along came the interpretive crowd, with products and practices regarded as artistic which in the West were increasingly interpreted within notions of self expression, individuality, personal authenticity, etc. Art was a matter for the individual (and his unconscious longings), even if that individual had gone so far as to serve the interests of the people or of another individual. At any rate, that's the shortened version of a leading platitude that is common in spoken and written statements about postmodern art.
This cliché (which indeed it is), is of course far from strange within the current festival discourse. Festival brochures are usually exhaustive in praising the individuality of an oeuvre and often commend the private, wilful route and the accompanying individuality of this or that artist. At the same time, there's an overabundance of statements which extol the exhibited works, identified as modern, postmodern, neogeo, etc., as representatives of a supranational trend within contemporary art that oversteps each point of individuality. This ambiguous, in fact extremely paradoxical characterization naturally typifies most contemporary reflections on artists and their work. It seems to me that the current festival discourse possesses a special and separate distinction, formed by the continuous combination of both general modes of speaking and writing with an interpretation of high and low cultural contexts that is grafted onto the nation, region or ethnic identity. This kind of general cultural identity is often even presented as decisive for the individual identity of a singular work of oeuvre. But is that really possible?
If modern art does indeed understand itself mainly as a paradoxical development in the direction of (unconscious) individual expression on the one hand and the generation of global, bordercrossing languages on the other, the simple question then arises whether festivals, which expressly announce themselves as international, are not highly artificial constructions. In the light of the dominant notion of art, it does seem to be more appropriate for the dance or the theatre sector, for instance, to walk the paths which have long been taken by the plastic arts. Onetime events are thus often based on either one individual oeuvre (the genre of the retrospective) or on a few global styles or trends (the formula of the overview exhibition). Why does it seem to be so difficult to apply this approach to the domain of the performing arts? Where do festivals derive their lasting culturalpolitical legitimization in terms of international or intercultural meeting places, or in terms of events intended to enrich the particular national or regional culture?
Perhaps the structure of the prevailing culturalpolitical system and its means of carrying out policy explain a large part of the dominating festival rhetoric. In spite of all the transnationalization, cultural politics is still primarily the business of national or regional ministers, land equally of governments. The current festival discourse duplicates, even reflects this state of affairs. The legitimizations described above for the establishing or continuing of international festivals present them as high cultural equivalents of the regular meetings of the United Nations, where it is assumed that everyone (with the home nation or region in first place) has something to gain. Politicians and policymakers understand this language; obviously, they are quicker to come forth with national or regional financial resources when organizers conduct a discourse that connects with the familiar national or regional borders and forms of border crossing such as international cooperation and intercultural exchange. When festival brochures praise the work of individual artists or companies as 'typically British' or 'real Catalan', it may be for culturalpolitical reasons: the current policy discourse forms, in a manner of speaking, the discursive unconscious of the dominant festival discourse.  

At first glance, international festivals undoubtedly resemble more or less a cultural noman'sland, border towns where the public can come in contact with artistic expressions that up to now were unknown. However, it is very questionable whether the average visitor also experiences the actual festival presentations as an international event. For the ordinary festivalgoer, are not those presentations mainly synonymous with a kind of highcultural supermarket, a heterogeneous collection of products from which he has to make his choice?
The average buyer of tickets or subscriptions for international festivals doesn't put much stock in the cultural origin or ethnic soil of a particular theatre performance or dance act. He wants quality, first and foremost (whatever that might be) or, put more sharply, 'value for his money'. The current festival discourse, on the other hand, legitimizes the existence of international festivals in toto. With the exceptions of professionals working in the arts sector, journalistic festival reporters and the handful of art addicts who run from performance to exhibition, the audience at international festivals consists chiefly of locals who are more interested in the range of festival offerings than in the festival events themselves (which is almost always forgotten in the metaphor of the festival as party). And for the average festivalgoer, the offering is just simply too big, too expensive and/or too time consuming to take it all in. This banal state of affairs ensures that the festival discourse in the area of the performing arts, for instance, is utterly in danger of bypassing the motives that most visitors have for participating (and' by the way, it is well known that festival visitors do not in any way represent the average population).     
And what if the festivalgoer, out of cultural curiosity, still expressly chooses a Japanese nôh dance or a staging of King Lear in Polish? Suspicions of an interest fueled by exoticism are not off the mark in this case. Various cultural theoreticians, among them Jean Baudrillard and Marc Guillaume, have shown that in Western culture today there is a many sided, polymorphous longing for change. On the one hand, many highly educated people have taken in lead in condemning the home culture as standardized and lacking in excitement: the commercial mass culture plays the same old song all over again. On the other hand, in the broad centre of society there now dominates a certain inclination for genuineness, for 'naturalness' or authenticity that has especially been influenced by ecological thinking. And indeed, the grass is always greener on the other side: in many Western eyes, foreign cultural expressions such as Eastern dance genres or African forms of theatre almost automatically possess an appearance of authenticity. If the festival discourse that is dominant today urges the organizers of international dance or theatre festivals to confront their own, native audiences with truly foreign cultures, the resulting performances are probably giving in to longings for change that are coloured by exoticism. And those longings are less concerned with being open to 'genuine strangeness' than with a distanced consumption of 'strange genuineness'.
Maybe this sounds like the all too gratuitous, abstract speculation. But it is still difficult to grasp how the average festival visitor, who generally lacks the most elementary knowledge of work that deviates profoundly from his own Western culture, is to decipher this work as a representation of a broader culture. After attending three or four nôh performances, one probably acquires a bit of intuitive knowledge about this 'typical Japanese' form of dance. But one will not have become much wiser about its history and the related broader cultural roots. The current festival discourse, on the contrary, often mixes up passive viewing or listening with active reading, with the actual assimilation of background information. Exotic dance performances or domestic presentations of recently written musical scores from Moscow or Mexico are described in festival brochures as 'typically Russian' or 'thoroughly Mexican'. However, those who are not familiar with the cultural life in the nations or regions involved are forced to experience them almost automatically according to the terms of exoticism, at least insofar as they truly are alien and not connected to another supranational style. In the experience of exoticism, an artistic product or practice is simply alien and nothing else: the unknown remains unknown, impenetrable, secretive and mysterious. It's hard to see at first glance how this way of experiencing art has anything to do with interculturalism. 

For the average festivalgoer, the broad range of chosen dance and theatre performances, music or opera presentations may form a freestanding unit that is judged as such. On the basis of the festival's own selection, the festival reviewed as having been 'interesting' or 'barely successful', as 'outstanding' or 'mediocre'. The same takes place with each individual work: each is weighed and then rated. Crucial to this, however, is that festivals function chiefly as the primary context for the classification of the exhibited material. Individual works are not really viewed separately but are being continually compared with what was seen yesterday or three evenings ago. It is the well known museum effect: for the visitor, the paintings and sculptures begin as it were to engage in a kind of controversy, attempting to outwit each other in the race for attention and appreciation. Inherent here is the danger of forgetting that the body of works being presented is itself the result of a previous choice made from by curators and exhibition impresarios. Occupied in the exercise of his own powers of judgement, the average visitor is usually never aware of the existence of the much more important powers of selection and consecration exercised by people and institutions who are often invisible.
The visitors of international festivals, with journalists leading the way, are also people who compare and rank individual works; and going by the related reporting and the busy buzzing in foyers or festival cafes, it's plain that they usually locate their categories first within the context of the particular festival (or better, within the context of 'their festival': they generally are familiar with only a fraction of all that the festival had to offer). This is of importance for the reception and perception of other festivalgoers. First, in this basic practice of testing and ranking the works' context of origin is eclipsed by the context of reception, which in the West possesses first and foremost a strictly artistic character. At an international festival, for instance, theatre or dance performances are primarily aesthetic products; they are compared within the festival context on the basis of their 'exhibiting strength', that is, their artistic merits. Whatever value they may possess as ambassadors of a specific culture is therefore completely overlooked, regardless of how much the programme booklets may insist on it.
In the second place, most festival organizers go about their programing in such a way that in the process of public assessment or journalistic examination certain individual artists or companies walk away with the honours in advance. Each international festival has its Big Names, its assured successes. Precisely because the festival itself forms the decisive framework in the ranking of special works, the lesser known names almost necessarily must settle for a modest place in the definitive festival honour roll of most visitors. Each large scale dance or film festival has its surprise, its unknown newcomer who suddenly makes it, who becomes a 'must see' item. Much more numerous, however, are the theatre companies or film producers whose star immediately dims in the presence of the handful of international luminaries, especially in the eyes of the average visitor. Events like international festivals may thus present themselves as power free zones (the metaphor of the meeting place); they are always perceived by the assembled public as de facto contests of endurance, as areas of artistic competition and examination. 

International festivals today play an important role in the continuing formation of canon and the process of artistic consecration. Festival programmes possess a great deal of cultural power: regarding their selections, they carry the weight of international reputation within the various artistic sectors. And those reputations in their turn influence the price making forces on the market of cultural products: the more illustrious, the higher the cost.
How far does the power of festival directors reach? Perhaps these are best assessed on two levels: symbolic authority in the home region differs from international (or better, supranational) influence in the making or breaking of artistic reputations. A programme maker can enjoy a great deal of esteem nationally or regionally and thus play a central role in the establishment of the native artistic landscape. But the organizers of international festivals assess each other, too. Over time a supranational level has formed in which the makers of programme's make contact with each other and hold discussions, make appointments and sometimes set up reproductions; they are especially occupied in ranking each other's work. That mutual classification in turn also lays the basis for an international reputation scale. Whoever scores high on that scale is quickly seen as a trendsetter that must be watched. And those who make it all the way in the eyes of the important college of programme makers discover an invitation in the mailbox one fine day to appear for awhile, somewhere, as curators of a prestigious festival.
With the relative independence of the international festival circuit, a new region for work and status developed, for producers of art as well as organizers. Within that region people attempt to improve their positions and to continually jack up their international reputations, first by presenting new, completely unknown work. As such, the recent quantitative expansion of the international festival circuit has almost automatically generated a geographical cultural flight: in distant regions there's always some head turning discovery just waiting to happen. But in this way, either consciously or unconsciously, the worldwide balance of power on the cultural and artistic plane is reproduced.
Programme makers, with undoubtedly the most noble considerations, invite artists and companies from the periphery. They show work of unknown choreographers from Moscow or Prague and present theatrical performances from Romanian or Bulgarian directors. In this way, somehow, the cultural power to consecrate which is held by the West is itself consecrated (and within that, that of the leading artistic centres). Even the most honourable internationalism must finally recognize that the worldwide cultural relationships are far from smooth: in the artistic world system, the West still calls the shots. Whoever wants to be numbered among the internationally known artists has got to be able to show his work in Western cities. International art festivals offer a choice opportunity in this respect, and at the same time strengthen the existing inequality in cultural power between the centre and the periphery, 'the West and the rest'. A festival discourse that omits this factor is no more than pure ideology.