The move of the minister of culture, Mr. Aristides Baltas, to invite Jan Fabre as a deus ex machina, was in any case geared to an ambitious and valid future for the festival in direct need of restructuring.
It was mind-blowing to me that a major artist like Jan Fabre was willing to commit to the extent he did. Fabre is at a peak in his career, for visual art working on major projects in Firenze (where he’ll be the second artist to be paired to the David of Michelangelo) and the Hermitage, beside the normal travelling exhibitions. His new 24 hour ‘Mount Olympus’ performance is as important as his early pieces, and from different perspectives so. It plays with different traditions, in an immense remix of al land everything. It gets an enthusiastic reception and is an additional operation besides, again, Fabre’s ‘normal’ worldwide travelling theatre pieces and new plans.
All the same, when he was asked about a month ago to commit for Athens on impossible terms, he decided to do so, fully and not professionally but as a committed person. He did make clear to the ministry that he wanted to be only a curator, not an intendant taking full organisational charge, this being a Greek responsibility. And he did see this as a four year commitment, developing his engagement along the way. Why did he do so? Essentially as part of his interest in Greece and the potential of the Greek scene. Fabre doesn’t only master and mix up very different genres, he also continuously mixes up established and non-established energies. It could have been amazing if he would have been allowed to take that as a basic attitude for developing a festival.
While he pieced together on an excessively short time a festival, having been clear about the limits of what he could and could not do for this summer’s program (not: invite Greek makers himself, at par, as he wanted, because he believes in this or that production, not as second class invitees, because of being Greek), he was therefore thinking the whole time about how the festival could become embedded in Greece. The image that appeared was that of a profoundly locally grounded, yet radically international festival, also of a festival not so much defined as a summer production, but rather as a processual event over several years, giving very different people access to one another. When a first press conference was given to announce his nomination, the program only started to be in the making. His request of a Greek co-curator to select the Greek participants for this first summer had not been met. There was a lot to experience on that press conference, a minister of culture that is a true intellectual, an artist that wanted to engage over several years for a country in a remarkably idealistic way, a shabby organisation, an infighting scene with several vested power clusters looking where they could hit.
Fabre's aspriation was afterwards spinned publicly into its opposite, which was easily possible because the project was still under construction and remained unframed from the Greek side. When there was subsequently a meeting of Greek artists, Fabre was initially enthusiastic when he heard about that plan - yes, this is what artists should do, reunite and be critical - and then shocked by the outcome, an open letter (not sent to him) declaring him a persona non grata.
Text of the article by Bart De Baere, director of M HKA (Museum of Contemporary Art, Antwerp)
FROM JAN FABRE AND HIS TEAM IN REPLY TO THE LETTER FROM GREEK ARTISTS
Drawings by Jan Fabre from the series 'The escape of the artist'
Words can create worlds, as every artist knows. The pen holds power: it can construct and create – or crush completely.
On the 1st of April, while social media and the Greek press were exploding with the worst kind of assaults, my team and I were informed through Facebook about the discontentment, which resulted in a letter addressed to me. To read your letter, we had to find it on the Internet in a Greek article and use Google Translate to get a grasp of the content. Neither you, nor the Ministry of Culture, nor the Board of the Festival had informed us about the result of the artists’ gathering that day.
Why didn’t you have the decency to address us directly, to invite us in person to your meeting, to challenge us with your questions, your worries, your complaints? Why did you not even send us your letter? Why did you choose to act anonymously? Why do you reject any form of serious dialogue, any form of debate?
We are deeply disappointed that we were excluded from this (as well as any other) dialogue. But most of all, we are shocked by the phrase ‘Persona Non Grata’. We would not wish any artist, anywhere in the world, ever to be called ‘Persona Non Grata’. Referring to an artist that way is dangerous and reactionary – and strikes the very core of art.
In this letter we want to explain our plans and the situation in which we found ourselves – in the hope that your ongoing discussion will be based on facts rather than on narrow prejudices and wild imaginations.
On the 11th of February 2016, I accepted the role of artistic curator of the Athens and Epidaurus Festival. The Minister of Culture, Mr. Aristides Baltas, emphasised the need to build (or rebuild) the international prestige of the Festival as a platform for the promotion of Greek artists all over the world – an exciting challenge that my team and I were happy to accept. We want to thank Mr. Baltas for this invitation and his trust in the force of art. We looked forward to getting to know the Greek artistic landscape intimately.
I agreed to the collaboration on a number of conditions. In contrast to the previous artistic director, I would be the artistic curator. This meant that I would be responsible for all artistic choices and general artistic vision of the Festival. It was the task of the Ministry of Culture and/or the Festival Board to handle non-artistic matters, such as finances, logistics, techniques and administration. We demanded the appointment of a Greek financial manager who would have complete financial responsibility for the Festival. Mrs. Liana Theodoratou was appointed by the Ministry as festival coordinator and executive manager. She was our direct contact person and we would like to thank her for her engagement and hard work.
From the beginning, my team and I made it clear that we are not yet familiar enough with the Greek artistic landscape to make a well-considered selection. We would be arrogant to pretend to know the artistic landscape of a country where we do not live and where we are not part of the artistic community. Besides, an artistic landscape is in constant motion. On the recommendation of the newly installed Board of the Festival, we agreed that the selection during our first year should be mostly international.
However, through conversations with Greek colleagues and friends, we became aware of the vital importance of the Festival in supporting Greek artists. We immediately requested a Greek artistic curator for the selection of Greek performances for the festival edition of 2016. He or she was to go through the applications submitted in 2015 and present us with a first selection. These explicit demands on our part can be found in the reports of our meetings with Mrs. Theodoratou.
The idea of hiring a Greek artistic curator for this year was rejected by the new Board of the Festival due to ‘the limited time remaining’. Additionally, our curatorial team was informed that all the 2015 applicants had received a clear communication explaining the current situation.
We are absolutely flabbergasted that what was represented to us as ‘impossible’, has suddenly become one of the focal points of the programme of the newly appointed artistic director, Mr. Vangelis Theodoropoulos.
The Board did agree to our request to engage Greek co-curators for the following editions of the Festival, one for each discipline we decided to include (namely theatre and dance, visual arts, literature, music and performance art). The publication of ‘open calls’ for these Greek co-curators was planned for this week, since we wanted to start working with them as soon as possible. The intention of this plan was to enable us – in close collaboration with these future Greek co-curators – to get to know the Greek landscape thoroughly, so as to ensure an inspired programme of Greek and non-Greek artists in the next few years. We wanted to strike an interesting balance between tradition and innovation, continuity and renewal, for instance by programming established artists alongside young, upcoming talents. During the first edition of the Festival, the National Theatre of Greece, the Greek National Opera and the Athens Symphonic Orchestra, among others, were going to be presented.
Another condition concerned the finances. We insisted that all the outstanding artists’ fees from the previous festival edition should be paid immediately – and we were explicitly promised that this would happen. We likewise requested that for the coming years, 50% of all artists’ fees would be paid in advance, while the other 50% would be paid after the performance.
The idea of presenting the ‘Belgian spirit’ during the first year of the Festival, with different aesthetic and ethical voices representative of the melting pot of Europe and the world, seemed to us to be a valid artistic statement – as is thoroughly motivated in our press kit.
These Belgian artists have strong voices, and some of them are well known and internationally acclaimed. Furthermore, most of them haven’t been presented in Greece before. Where the performing arts came into existence in Greece and blossomed there into a crucial and cohesive theatrical paradigm, Belgium has its own important place in contemporary theatre and art history. We wanted to share our experiences and learn from the creative power of Greece, especially during these trying times of crisis.
We conceived the programme of this first year as a means of enriching the exchange between the harbour cities Athens and Antwerp, and between Greece and Belgium. We chose the Belgian football team as a metaphor for the convergence of different cultures, languages, backgrounds, religions and nationalities. There are Belgian footballers on the national team that were born in Armenia, Brazil, France, the United Kingdom, Yugoslavia and Zaire. Some of them have Moroccan, Turkish or Congolese roots. Likewise, our selected Belgian artists, from Flanders, Brussels and Wallonia, form a pluralistic and multicultural mix. We saw the Festival as a powerful platform for a meeting: different countries joining as one.
Why would we come to Greece and accept the curatorship of your leading festival if we didn't intend to respect your culture and artists?
Over the past fifteen years my work has often been exhibited in your country by invitation. I have had five solo exhibitions in the AD Gallery of Mr. Pandelis Arapinis, as well as some international exhibitions with Ms. Katerina Koskina and Mr. Christos Joachimides. Eight of my theatre and dance performances have been presented in Greece, both solos and larger-scale works. These have been important occasions for me, because of my deep respect for Greece and Greek culture.
In order to reach Greek audiences in recent years, my theatre company Troubleyn has made substantial financial efforts, and lowered its performance fees to the very minimum. This was the case in 2012, when we performed This is theatre like it was to be expected and foreseen and The power of theatrical madness in Megaron Musikis in Athens, and in 2015, when we performed Mount Olympus: To glorify the cult of tragedy, a 24-hour performancein Megaron Musikis, Thessaloniki. We often agreed to requests from Greek presenters to adapt our financial demands to the Greek circumstances. Moreover, we have often proposed to offer cheaper (and even free) theatre tickets for Greek artists, especially young, emerging ones, and students – a proposal that was, unfortunately, not always accepted by the venues in question.
From the moment we commenced our curatorship, we entered into conversations with several members of the Greek artistic community, trying to open the Festival to different voices. Our aim – right from the first year – has always been to include a fair number of Greek artists in the Festival.
In the visual arts, Bart De Baere and Katerina Koskina decided to include the exhibition ‘Athens, Antwerp – Two faces of Europe’, which was conceived a few months ago, under the umbrella of the Festival. This exhibition would have started earlier to coincide with the other events in this year’s Festival. The exhibition will include more than twenty Greek visual artists, in a triangle with Belgian and international artists, such as George Lappas, Chryssa, Eleni Mylonas, Nikos Kessanlis, Rena Papaspyrou, Stephen Antonakos, Vlassis Caniaris with his ‘aspects of racism’, Ilias Papailiakis and Kostis Velonis.
Joanna De Vos met Iliana Fokianaki, who accepted the position of Greek co-curator for performance art. We planned to contact Greek performance artists to present a performance art work during the Festival.
Sigrid Bousset was being advised by the writer Christos Chrissopoulos. Through partnerships with, among others, Nissos Publications, we hoped to bring together Greek authors and actors for literary evenings in which Greek and Belgian literature would meet. Prominent Belgian and Greek philosophers, writers and journalists would engage in discussion in a radical rethinking of the future.
There were also plans to transform the garden of the marvellous site Piraeus 260, the heart of the Festival, into an art installation by Greek artists, featuring a bar, restaurant and small stage for Belgian and Greek pop, rock, classical music and jazz. Katerina Koskina suggested the young Greek artist Maria Tsagkaris, whom she had already contacted for this purpose.
We had especially ambitious aims for young Greek artists, since promoting young work was one of our focal points. Edith Cassiers hoped to create a fruitful relationship between the Festival and arts education, more specifically with the development of the Academy for Young Artists (AYA). Already this year, she had planned master classes and workshops (by internationally acclaimed artists like Jan Lauwers, Jacques Delcuvellerie, Stef Lernous and Georgia Vardarou (for Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker), to mention just a few); post-performance talks, meetings and discussions; a Young Jury; a Young Critic Platform; and other events. Seven Greek artists were invited to spend seven days together in an intense Summer School where both artistic and managerial issues would be addressed. Through this Academy and through partnerships with the art schools in Athens, we hoped to encourage and inspire young Greek artists and art students from different disciplines in the years ahead, during the Festival and throughout the year. Not to create more ‘little Fabres’ (since we honestly think that one is enough), but because we believe that artists have the right to be trained to formulate their own artistic intentions and opinions.
In the framework of the AYA, we also planned to offer fifty young Greek artists and art students free theatre tickets and admission to all the performances and workshops of their choice. We were contacting young Greek artists to ask them to present their work in a showcase: an event to which we planned to invite a range of international programmers in a position to promote this young work abroad. We were going to contact around ten young Greek theatre and dance artists to form ‘double bills’ with young Belgian artists: a Greek performance followed by a Belgian performance (or vice versa), ending with a conversation between the two artists. These encounters between different (or surprisingly similar) countries and artistic practices would have formed the introduction of the basic strategy for the Festival over the next few years.
We were also organising a benefit for refugees, featuring Greek singers, musicians and poets. Our deepest admiration goes out to the Greek volunteers who give their all to help the refugees.
If you ask an international multidisciplinary artist to become the curator of a Festival, wouldn’t you expect him to present his artistic universe? An artist speaks most clearly through his artworks: that is what I do, that is who I am.
In 2014 the Benaki Museum offered me its galleries for the Stigmata exhibition, curated by Germano Celant for the MAXXI in Rome. At that time the museum didn’t have the necessary budget. For this first year of the festival I offered the Stigmata exhibition for free in connection with my role as curator. We were planning on presenting only one performance, namely the 24-hour piece Mount Olympus in Piraeus 260 in early July. The performances ofPreparatio Mortis were removed from the programme the day of the press conference. Some of my writings were going to be published in Greek, since writing forms the basis of my artistic expression. Why would you so rudely accuse me of taking the ‘lion’s share’?
As we were guests in your country, we did not organise the press conference ourselves. The press conference was hosted by the Board of the Festival and the Ministry of Culture. It was their job to prepare a press kit for the conference, and not just to reproduce our proposals without providing the context of their invitation and the overall plans for the Festival. It was their job to introduce us to the Greek press, Greek artists and the Greek community. We came with an open mind and an open heart, looking forward to a critical dialogue and strong opinions. A festival is about thinking together. We only found out after the press conference that no Greek artists were present, and probably none were even invited. We regret this, as discussion and dialogue were one of our main goals in going to Athens.
Did we make some communication mistakes in our press kit? We focused on the few certainties we had at that time, namely Fabre’s artistic works and the focus on Belgium. We may not have placed enough emphasis on our plans to meet and engage the Greek artistic community, starting this year, since we were in the midst of developing the plans we describe above. The exact programme for 2016 was to be the topic of a later press conference. Our first visit to Athens was intended as the symbolic start of an encounter between our artistic communities.
Though we think the presence of Greek artists on the Festival remains crucial, we strongly think the presupposed ‘subsidizing function’ of the Festival should change. It is not the duty of any (international or national) festival to replace any governmental task: this will not work in the long run. Every country needs a ‘system’ that facilitates and cherishes the arts and its artists. Though an artistic festival is important for a country - as artistic expression, as presentation and meeting platform, etc. - subsidies are even more important for the development of an artistic landscape. The financial support of culture needs a long-term plan that meets the real necessities, not solely a number of annual projects within the matrix of a festival. There is a danger in being completely dependent on one single festival.
By creating a sustainable solution, such as project funding from the government, a system that has demonstrated its value in many European countries, more progress could be possible. Instead of complete reliance on one festival, creating an unnatural palace of mirrors in which everything begins and ends in the same place, one could draw on various sources (such as governmental funding, international co-productions, public-private partnerships, etc.). A festival should be a platform, a portal for different horizons.
After the press conference the director of the National Theater came to me to introduce himself. He invited the curatorial team to visit his theatre for an exchange of ideas. The next day we met in his theatre and I asked him for names of talented Greek actors with whom we could get in touch and work. I also proposed that we continue our dialogue in the near future and talk about opportunities for collaboration. Mr. Stathis Livathinos replied that Greek actors were angry with us ‘because they used to produce performances for the Festival and now you took their job and money for the summer away.’ I understand the fears and frustrations of Greek artists, especially considering the hard conditions in which you live and create. Nevertheless, I believe these are socioeconomic arguments and not artistic ones.
The day after the press conference both the Prime Minister, Mr. Alexis Tsipras, and the Minister of Culture, Mr. Aristides Baltas, asked me to include more Greek artists in this year’s Festival. I assured both of them there would be a substantial number of Greek artists involved – but on my artistic terms. As I mentioned above, I requested some time to get to know the Greek artistic scene and a Greek co-curator for this purpose. I told them that a curatorship is an artistic act in itself. Unlike politics, it is without compromise.
Do not put yourself in the humiliating position of asking me for what you claim is yours. Instead of attacking a foreign guest who was invited to curate your Festival, think thoroughly about your long-term vision for Greek culture and cultural policy. Every thesis needs its antithesis. Use it for positive action and forward movement.
You opened your mouths to my appointment and programme as curator – loudly, passionately and together. Keep these mouths open. Let this only be the beginning, and not the end. But do not forget to open your eyes and ears as well.
Antwerp, 8 April 2016
Bart De Baere
Joanna De Vos
Sophie Vanden Broeck