Artistic working conditions - an artist's perspective

The three-day symposium Working Together Transnationally. Structures, Conditions and Artistic Practices took place from March 31st until April 2nd in collaboration with the European Dancehouse Network. Curated together with the Brussels based sociologist Rudi Laermans and facilitated by Fearghus Ó Conchúir, about 70 international guests and participants discussed and practiced models of solidarity within and between production structures and artists, investigated possible media of collaboration and explored choreographic forms of collaboration.

Tomàs Aragay, participating artist, shares his personal insights about the Atelier.

Prior considerations

It had been quite a few years since I had last attended an international seminar of the kind organized to promote networking and share knowledge and practices. Therefore, the first thing that comes to mind is that things have not changed at all during all this time. The work scheme and structure has remained static, very much based on the unidirectional exposition of thinking and knowledge. It is as if there was a thick, unyielding layer hovering over these types of meetings and from the very beginning you realise that not very much will really happen.

Everyone is tied down and well tied down in their respective positions; the roles are allocated, fixed and clearly differentiated: the speakers, the network members, the guests from the host city, the artists, the external experts, and so on. Thus, everyone keeps close watch over everyone else and there’s very little room for joint effort.

However, human beings are adaptative creatures who always seek a way out; the real encounters and interesting contacts always occur over the meals, during the evenings and the pauses and breaks in the main activity.

It’s all if all this was some sort of important theatre play where people can only relax and be themselves behind the scenes. Considering that we’re people from the performing arts, it may well be normal to function like this. Nonetheless, I think that we need to do some deep thinking about the usefulness and the ways of organizing and experiencing these international meetings that we style as intellectual seminars about the profession and its problems.

In this respect I would also like to draw attention to a circumstance that stood out in the conclusions of the meeting: the fact that most of the speakers who came to share their thoughts with other people did not then stay on for the rest of the seminar. Quite frankly, considering that the seminar was titled “Working Together…”, this is odd to say the least… and somewhat contradictory.

And here’s a second prior consideration.

Just looking at the name of the seminar one realizes that there are too many issues, points of view and problems to discuss. Because there is enough material for at least three seminars like the one in Hamburg: one addressing only structures, one addressing only conditions, and one addressing only -and this field is very broad- artistic practices.

There was too much distinct input in too little time, which gave me an impression of absolute superficiality in the work done.

Introduction to the Atelier

Having made these two considerations I will now try to summarize and re-address some of the ideas and issues that emerged during those three days of work.

Apart from the speakers themselves, the seminar was attended by members of the dancehouses that make up the EDN (European Dancehouse Network), mostly their managers, directors and artistic directors, some guest artists and various members of the artistic community involved in dance in Hamburg. So this was a rich mixture of participants.

The proposed methodology was as follows:

  • The two first days: Four speakers presented four case studies, as well as questions and reflections about them. Then four discussion groups were set up and each participant joined one of them. At the end the ideas discussed by the different groups were briefly pooled.
  • The third day: Two artists proposed a choice of one of two practical workshops.

Here I’m going to present various impressions of some of the speakers’ interventions and the groups I worked with.

First day - impressions from the discussions

“There is an interest in restoring the basis of dialogue through the logos.”

About the first intervention. The impression was that what we used to call “dialogue” is becoming unclear and we should rebuild or strenghten the common logos so that the dialogue makes sense again.

Janina Benduski, from the German Association of Independent Performing Arts, presented her work on the labour conditions of people working in the performing arts in Germany. She spoke of the need to introduce guidelines for ethical working conditions, guidelines for the economic conditions of work and tools (such as establishing a minimum fee by law). And it was suggested informally that it would be very useful and revealing to map out the situation on a European level to find out how each country stands as far as these points are concerned.

I think that here in Spain there is still a long way to go, a lot of lobbying work to be done and a lot of reticence in the artistic sector regarding the need and idealness of active, really effective trade union work in the face of establishment.

(This is where I was also somewhat surprised by the dynamics of the meeting, because following such a clear-cut and apparently useful proposal as this one, I had the impression that nothing was clearly decided on how it might be implemented, who would be responsible, or on the time frames and methodology. It’s as if the actual structures themselves and their cumbersome, complex dynamics prevented -in a sort of Buñuel-like phantasmagoria- the simplest things from being decided in a simple way.)

A “sweet and tender initiative” was presented. What I find suggestive about this project is the idea of a group of artists with no legal entity looking for moments for meetings and exchange in order to grow. Their meetings are sporadic and nomadic, with a constant rotation of members and other people. In this project, as in other similar ones that have attracted attention, the question is always the same: how can these independent, unregulated initiatives confronting the establisment and its problems be given continuity? And should they be given continuity?

It seems to me that these “other” initiatives are being posed the same questions that the regulated, permanent institutions have always been asked, and I think that perhaps we should reverse the conditions and ask the institutions questions based on the values possessed and proposed by these other initiatives.

Roberto Casarotto, director of the Centro per la Scena Contemporanea di Bassano del Grappa, discussed a local experience, in a region of Italy with various small and medium-sized towns and cities, which consisted of a project to build up a deep, on-going relationship with the community.

The distinction he made between public and citizens was neat and suggestive. And his claim that we are ALL artists – put in other words, that art belongs to us all – was clear and emphatic. And it was a moving moment when he confessed that this project, with its close links to the idea of community and shared knowledge, has helped him grow as a person.

The next intervention I would like to highlight is the one by Steriani Tsintziloni, director of the Athens & Epidaurus Festival.

She described two moments that emerged in Greece during the runaway economic and social crisis that hit her country in 2011 and whose impact still continues: the occupation of the Embros theatre in Athens and the demonstrations and occupation of the Green Park.

As regards her intervention, on the other hand I would underscore the enormous depth of feeling it radiated, which showed that she was talking about impassioned living culture, that is, things that happen because they are necessary and born out of the conviction and the desire to move and change reality (depth of feeling that stands out in stark contrast to other interventions displaying the complacency of what is already known, intellectually protected and aseptically shared). And on the other hand, it is interesting to highlight some issues, concerns and suggestions that remained up in the air:

  • At this present time, when all is lost and the world of art and the stage has hit rock bottom, people come together and mutual trust emerges again. This trust is necesary for cooperation. And a new understanding of humility also emerges, as a value that should never be lost.
  • She also explained how, in these situations where everyone mixes with everyone else, you realize that “you don’t know everything” and that you can learn a lot by listening to other people.
  • She also discussed the fact that the operational “structure” set up in these emergency situations admits ERRORS and is open to constant transformation. (And obviously she mentioned the need to urgently transfer this constant flexibility to the much more established, rigid, public institutions).
  • She talked about the importance of the idea of just hanging around, just being in an place, mixing with other people without a goal or purpose, something very difficult to brng about in theatres and other institutions dedicated to art.
  • She also opened up an interesting debate on the need to know how to dialogue and deal with FRUSTRATION. Every movement, initiative or collective goes through moments of frustration on coming up against reality, the problems of economic sustainability, internal tensions related to goals and their achievement, the fact that some members leave the collective and new ones join in, and so on.
  • She wondered what the keys to keeping the “engine” of these projects going might be, and finished off with a beautiful image: the idea of leaving holes. According to her, we must leave holes open for things to carry on.

This was one of the interventions that interested me most. It became clear that the dialogue, exchange and cooperation occurring between established solid organizations and institutions takes the easy road, rather rigidly, very much in line with the regulations in force and therefore leaving very little margin for deep serious structural changes in the ways of doing things.

On the contrary, the example of the actions taken by the whole Greek artistic community during the deep crisis that hit the country reveals the real possibility of reappraising from the standpoint of practice what ways and structures will serve us best in the future in order to coexist and work in what we like to call the performing arts.

The idea of ERROR as possibility. The idea of continuous change and flexibility. The idea of accepting and talking about frustration as the only possibility of serious self-criticism was very stimulating – self-criticism that constitutes the driving force of change and a continuous reappraisal of the ways of doing things in relation to ever-changing different circumstances.

I participated in this working group, and apart from what was actually said, I was left with the pleasant sensation that when collective experiences with common goals are set in motion through civil society, breaking away from certain established dynamics, a field of possibilities is opened up, as if one was creating a black hole where freedom can re-emerge and creativity is placed in the centre of the action.

Reflections about the second day

About the first intervention I remember two or three ideas that alluded to elements that can be useful when two or more are put together:

  • The idea that it is necessary to be attentive and encourage unexpected movements.
  • The idea that collaboration consists of everyone entering uncharted territory.
  • And the figure of the MEDIUM, the thing in the middle. A MEDIUM can be a potentiating factor, if it increases the potential of all those working together, or it can be a source of frustration if it obscures or conceals the parts working together.

As regards the third intervention, which was situated in the sphere of the technological revolution we are experiencing and what its implications are for our profession and our forms of collaboration, the speaker floated an idea that I find very interesting:

  • The new technological context is making us into OPPORTUNISTS.

We need to seek strategies to avoid this and continue building up “genuine”, deep, long-term strategies for collaboration and partnership.

The immediacy of technology makes for an attitude, wanted or not, where we jump at anything that moves, looking for opportunities and offering ourselves as an opportunity, in other words, entering into a system of rapid, superficial and random supply and demand.

The speaker warned of the dangers of this way of functioning and wanted to find work strategies that avoid these dynamics.

The idea of having to construct “another” world parallel to the technological one – and yet not analogical – which functions and resituates us, is suggestive.

I wrote down “Polymorphoperverse” in my notebook but I can no longer recall exactly why, or where this word came from.

A new speaker put the idea of CARE on the table. From CURARE. The etymology of “curator” is the Latin word CURARE. She spoke of the need to always carry out the action of CARING from a clear, defined standpoint.

She warned, in a clever image, that if one becomes too zealous about CURARE and administers too much poison to a patient, it can kill him. And she developed the idea that too much CURARE makes it a toxic activity for both the artist and the curator. Therefore, it is necessary to establish the right distance between them and allocate responsibilities so that the relationship is beneficial and does not become toxic, asphyxiating.

At the end I wrote down this sentence:

“Do as much as possible with and as less as possible against”.

I attended Leonardo Delogu’s workshop, where he proposed a quiet stroll around the city. And three things surprised me:

  • How relatively incapable some managers and artistic directors were of taking the proposed artistic practice “seriously”. The shoemakers’ son always goes barefoot. There is a lot of talking and people easily disconnect from the idea of a group and shared practice.
  • The gentle, subtle effect that Leonardo exerted on the group: his ability – without being pushy, without giving excessive instructions or wanting to direct the group towards anything in particular – to achieve a great deal of depth in the short time the activity lasted.
  • The proof, something I already suspected, that the themes of collaboration emerge much more clearly through a practice as simple and clear as this, passing through the body and generating possibilities of collaboration and analysis much more interesting to explore than the format of lecture and debate used in the first two days.

In fact, during the brief feedback discussion at the end, several participants suggested a couple of things for future meetings that seem to me to make sense:

  • Start by doing practical exercises using the body and space and then use hem as a basis for discussion.
  • Try to cover fewer topics so as to be able to explore them more calmly and from more angles.

All said and done, I would like to express my thanks for the invitation and the opportunity to be with and meet so many really interesting and funny people.

Tomas Aragay
April 2017