A few years ago I called the Swedish Embassy in London. Nothing particular in mind, but as a well-meaning participant in the cultural sector I take dialogue to be something positive. The next few minutes showed how utterly wrong I was. After introducing myself, it didn’t take ten seconds before the person on the other end exclaimed, with a haunted yet on the verge aggressive voice: “But you know, we have no money!”
The sentence echoed over the line as if recited in a cathedral: “But you know, we have no money, no money, no money, money…”
Hell knows from where it came, but I heard myself respond: “But that’s great”, and a short however excellently calculated pause followed (As I said, I have no idea from where this came.), and I continued knowing that confusion was rising on the other end, “Then we can have coffee every afternoon the whole week.”
Silence. More silence… and then… “What do you mean?”
“Well, if you have no money, I don’t see any reason for you to sit around in the office! So let’s go for coffee.” That was the last silence I heard from the cultural attaché in London, a few moment later the line broke.
I can assure you that had I been more consistent in calling embassies there would have been so much more silence and broken lines. Yet, there is apparently enough money in embassies to pay somebody to answer that phone.
Recently, in relation to a medium sized exhibition project, Tate Modern sent me an e-mail requesting that I, the exhibitor, should apply for travel support from Swedish authorities. I figure Tate Modern’s turnover is approximately three or four thousands time bigger than mine. Do I have an assistant? Christ, Tate Modern literally swims in assistants. I’m impressed, from that position you need a lot of guts to ask a poor artist to pay for his own trips. (I know, there are no poor artists anymore, but still it sounds better.)
The other month, performing in Sydney I realized, to my surprise, that my appearance was funded by Goethe Institute. I did indeed live in Berlin for some years, but I was never registered as a citizen or had anything to do with German funding authorities. I must admit it was slightly embarrassing to Guten Abend and Danke the cultural attaché, but thank God for Margie Medlin’s indecency.
Art and its practitioners have always been helpful for benevolent international relationships. Excellence, eccentricity, drug habits, popularity or virtuosity will always be subject for admiration, it is just the institutions, venues and audiences that change, or do they? Is what we today experience the end of an era when embassies and governmental policies will change, not because they can but because they are over? There’s still hope.
Internationalization has obviously two sides, a transmitter and receiver, where the idea is a win-win situation and everybody is happy. Nation to nation and the artist should smile both when shaking hands with the major and when receiving the check. Doubtless it is the “nation” part of international that has created leverage, and the artist has often operated as a bribe for more or less legit business (everybody knows that CIA funded exhibitions in Europe after WWII).
When embassies have no money and exotic is something we explore on Youtube. When the nation-state loses its position and cultural exchange is governed by low tariff airlines the win-win situation seem out of hand. Is it perhaps time to stop seeing an option in embassies and explore the “inter” in international, i.e. fuck cultural exchange on the level of representation and let’s instead see how artists produce agency because they are all over the place. Not necessarily due exhibitions, performances or readings but because they are there, creating long term relationships on grass root levels.
Twenty to thirty years ago a few creative managers in the cultural sector realized that art could be understood as an export product. They mimicked business propositions used by commerce and engaged in a sort of cultural colonialism. What if not Belgium was one of the first, repeating the crusade they started in Africa some hundred years earlier? Monopolization appeared through the set up, in particular, of European net works, not only in respect of distributing national products but also through the handling of other countries pearls of cultural production. Wasn’t that exactly what happened during, and just after the iron curtain fell. Artists and groups first from Balkan and then further east ware, so to say, bought by European managers and toured with out reservation on the European market. But as much as IT-business had to over heat so did the hysterical touring and use of Balkan based artists and groups. After a few years nobody wanted to know anything about the now over explored newcomers in the European friendship. A colleague from Zagreb once told me: “French, German or Belgian groups are programmed every year. We were top of the food chain for one, possibly two seasons. Now we have to wait another decade for the next summer of love”. Quite clever deception: we bring you aboard in order to make sure you don’t make any fuzz, and business as usual. The Belgian dance group “Rosas” visited ImpulsTanz in Vienna for the seventeenth summer in a row in 2009.
It however appears that supporting international touring of larger and established artists and groups lack efficiency. Not only does it cost a lot of money, the amount and quality of exchange is minimal. Those companies tend to utilize the fast-in fast-out scheme which implies close to zero exchange, if what we mean with exchange is something more than the hour on stage in a state funded venue somewhere, and the obligatory review in the local newspapers. This model of exchange is based on the notion of lack of information. Elaborated through fax and fixed lines, when Brussels was far away and Madrid was next to the end of the world, when a copy of the season program for Kaai theater or Theater am Turm was hard currency. Today Brussels, Berlin and Bratislava is more or less one and the same, for years connected through residency programs, dance platforms, EU collaborations and more cheap airlines. If we like it or not the national part is passé, today its all about inter, which in short is to say: success is equal to having as many players active, as much as possible, in as many contexts as possible, all the time. What matters are personal relations, not to ship cultural heritage in the form of products from capital to capital. What counts is to be there, in the workshops, residencies, collaborations, impro jams, breakfasts, seminars, dinner parties, magazines, summer universities, parties, beds, informal networks and so on.
This is not a tendency but correlative to general transformations of society towards post-Fordist production. It is no longer products and their circulation that is key, it is organization and management that counts. It is no longer about selling many of the same, as the good old T-Ford, but selling a few of many, like Amazon or Google. This is sustainability today, small entities everywhere. Swarm intelligence in front of flagship cultural export.
Moreover it is all about openness and sharing. How does it come that major choreographers never give workshops or hang around and exchange with the local community for some days before of after their performances. It isn’t because they are so busy or have board meetings to attend. It is because of priority. Or rather, it is because these artists and choreographers live on a romantic notion of secrecy or even mystery. At best an audition but a workshop never. The Grand artist is supposed to be super-human. The brilliant artist and choreographer today, however, is the one that sticks around and engage in the local context, that produces desire for more and further encounters, not the ones to be admired and put on a pedestal. Transparency, sharing and personal engagement is the name of the game called neo-liberalism.
It is our job, the artists, to speak up and stand tall, and convince our funding agencies that touring is over, especially for the countries that weren’t part of the initial internationalization. It is a waste of time and resources to try to win a position in the international touring circuit. The business is dead and newcomers will forever be patronized. Only if we invent new and contemporary strategies for international engagement will performing arts have a change to flourish. The fees might be smaller but they will last longer and I tell you, we will be immune to the cathedral echo “no money, no money”. We won’t even hear it, because we don’t need the money, we wont need the ignorant, white wine soaked smile of cultural attachés with zero knowledge of our beings and doings.
So let’s skip the nation and work on the inter. Why stick to funding our own crew when we can support knowledge and research intensive projects and relationships diagonally across boarders. Let’s put a stop to the vertical funding mechanisms operating in favor of the Nation and the already established, and instead engage in small, personal, temporal and dynamic collaborations.
This is the time of cognitive capitalism and who has the knowledge? We do!