Interview with Marta Keil, Joanna Wichowska and Goran Injac published by dwutygodnik.com.
PAWEŁ SOSZYŃSKI: What’s the objective of the East European Performing Arts Platform (EEPAP)?
MARTA KEIL: So far Europe has not had a tool for cooperation and closer contacts between performing artists (of theatre and dance) living and working east of the EU border. We barely know each other, we do not go there frequently enough and artists working in Eastern Europe are still not present enough at West-European festivals. And by no means because they do not create interesting works!
Furthermore, the European Commission decided to carry out a research on mobility of artists, but focused on the EU member countries. A grant for research on mobility and conducting pilot international projects in the field was given to dozen foundations. Numerous groups of experts, including artists, curators, theatre producers and festival directors, were created. At the same time, what we are doing at Adam Mickiewicz Institute within the framework of EEPAP thanks to the Polish Presidency in the EU is an attempt at creating a tool and immediately testing it in practice. While the research is still in progress in other places, we are already acting and checking what is left to do and how to do it.
GORAN INJAC: One of the basic aims of the project is to change the viewpoint. After systemic changes, we have started to idolise countries with the biggest concentration of capital, biggest number of foundations and better project financing possibilities. It does not necessarily translate into the quality of such productions or artistic level of art.
Marta Keil and Goran Injac at the first group meeting in Warsaw, 5th April 2011
PS: What projects have you, as a Platform, already executed?
MK: We collected reports from fifteen countries. They concern the structure of financing performing arts. It is worth stressing that by arts I mean theatre and dance – we did not study opera or music. Paweł Płoski is the editor of the report and the author of the questionnaire on the basis of which we talked to the specialists from all the EEPAP countries. After gathering the material, it turned out that these facts may become a great basis of the next research and project execution within the EEPAP. No one has taken such a large-scale action in this field before. The main task was to gather information and get to know the situation of performing arts in Eastern Europe, so that we know what needs we are to fulfil. These reports will be an important argument during the talks with the European Commission, which apparently does not have any concept for this region of Europe.
PS: What countries are we speaking of?
MK: We work with artists and curators from Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and with our closest neighbours: Czech Republic and Slovakia.
PS: I reckon that the reports are a result of field research?
MK: Yes, together with a group of experts involved in the project (Joanna Wichowska and Goran Injac among others) we go to the countries, meet people, talk to them and directly get to know their field of work and situations in which they function. We cooperate with Magda Grudzińska, director of Krakow Theatrical Reminiscences (KTR), within the framework of which the plenary meeting of International Network for Contemporary Arts will be held. KTR will be devoted to the Eastern Partnership this year. Within last year, Magda intensely travelled around the EaP countries too.
PS: What conclusions can be drawn from these trips?
MK: You can tell that where the border with Schengen runs, the European circulation of culture is mostly stopped. The artists and curators emphasise overwhelming feeling of isolation: lack of information or inspiration. Absence of artists and curators from other regions of Europe is striking. They do not travel outside the Schengen Area, because their heads are still full of some stereotypes and they immediately assume that Eastern Europe is of no significance artistically. Any attempt at making contact is doomed from the start. The local curators, on the other hand, have very limited opportunities to go the EU for obvious reasons: visa and financial difficulties. We have the Union’s financing on which no one can count there.
JOANNA WICHOWSKA: The Schengen system is also hedged with bureaucracy: embassy officials do not give visas away on the spot. It is difficult to travel not only for curators but also artists, and, what is equally important, ordinary people who are the potential audience. Impenetrability of the Union creates conditions favourable to sticking to old forms in the countries which do not belong to the EU.
MK: Another interesting conclusion is a striking absence of dance in the Eastern Partnership countries. From our research, meetings, journeys and conversations it appears that dance artists function in very small and dispersed circles. In the Balkans, the situation is completely different – it is dance, not the theatre, that is in power. It is interesting how the years of socialism and the whole geopolitical situation in the second half of the 20th century hampered the development of dance in Eastern Europe.
The third conclusion is drawn directly from the journeys and conversations with the partners. We already know that the Platform will not concentrate on repertory theatre. First of all, in this region of Europe this theatre is hermetic, insular, fossilised and not particularly open to cooperation. Secondly, we have met many extremely inspiring and fascinating young people, who work at the meeting of visual arts, dance and theatre. It is one of the reasons for focusing on performing arts and stubbornly using this term, even if we still have to get trounced for that. Poland is yet to get accustomed to this term. However, we insist on using it while describing EEPAP’s activity, since we already know the field we want to function in. Besides, in all the countries covered by the EEPAP, it is the interdisciplinary performativity that is most interesting.
In Georgia and Armenia, for example, we met many artists who come from the visual arts, but open themselves to performing arts. Furthermore, such groups as Bouillon Group from Tbilisi or artists and curators like Harutyun Alpetyan from Yerevan introduce into that context a new way of functioning of theatre and dance as a space of public dialogue devoted to current and local problems. Their actions in public space are extremely interesting. They try dancing, draw on the Internet. Above all, they look for contact with other artists, residencies and exchange of experience.
Grzegorze Reske and Paweł Płoski at EEPAP meeting, Krakow, 5th – 6th October 2011 photo: Joanna Kiernicka
PS: I gather that this is where the actual role of the EEPAP begins in practice?
MK: Yes, the basic concept of the EEPAP is to enable the artists and curators to travel around the countries of Eastern, Central and Western Europe, facilitate the contact and exchange of experience with other artists and curators, create a residency programme, and with time create a grant for production. It needs to be emphasised that we are not aiming at Poland-Eastern Europe exchange only. We cooperate with performing art centres in Western Europe too. We already know that such an exchange can be a huge success: I am holding talks with partners from Germany, France, Belgium and Holland. They are all interested in hosting artists and curators as well as in cooperation on the joint projects.
GI: We create educational programme – Curating Performing Art – a type of curator’s practice school, where we will focus on broadening the knowledge of how to present performing arts. It turns out that, e.g., in Azerbaijan there is no festival – neither of domestic theatre, nor international. It is then extremely important to support strengthening of infrastructure and knowledge. Many festivals still stick to quite fixed a formula and look for the ways of updating it. Festivals participating in our network may turn out helpful, e.g. Bitef, Ex Ponto, Nitra, Warsaw Theatre Meetings – their experience is of significance.
PS: Not only experience but also their interest in the region.
MK: It turns out that for many curators from the West Eastern Europe, especially the Eastern Partnership countries, is not only a completely virgin territory but simply an exotic one. Thus, more and more fascinating.
PS: It is not only Western Europe that does not know much about the theatre of the Platform countries. Here, in Poland, we do not know anything either.
JW: It is a general rule in Poland that if you do not become known in Berlin or London, you definitely won’t be known here. We know that there is drama in Macedonia and Serbia only because Dejan Dukovski has lived in Germany for years and Biljana Srbljanovic was staged by Ostermeier. We have no idea what is going on in Bulgarian theatre. We only know Dimitr Gotscheff, who has been a director in Germany and Austria for years. The only Ukrainian director Europe has heard about is Andrey Zholdak, but he does not work in Ukraine either. To all these cases another rule applies: a prophet is not without honour, save in his own country. One way or another, we expect theatre revelations from Germans, rather than Serbs or Slovenians. Besides, the Platform countries do not know much about each other. Ukrainians know only big names from Poland: Lupa, Warlikowski and that’s all. People from Serbia do not know anything about Ukraine, while those from Georgia about Czech Republic.
GI: In Serbia even the theatre circles do not know much about the theatre in Poland, maybe except for Jarzyna, Warlikowski and Lupa. Meanwhile, theatre production in Poland is one of the most large-scale in Europe (statistically speaking, without passing a judgment). On the other hand, in Poland we do not know a thing about Belgrade stages, we only know of Biljana Srbljanovic’s plays. No one is interested in that. But it is not only the theatre production that’s worth knowing but also the theatre theory like Walking Theory from Belgrade.
EEPAP meeting, Krakow, 5th – 6th October 2011 photo: Joanna Kiernicka
PS: This mutual ignorance is not caused by a financial barrier, is it? Behind the lack of communication there is always a language barrier, in this case theatre language and the problem with function of theatre.
MK: Certainly, the theatre is not such a developed tool for public debate there as in Poland. The theatre known as a new political and engaged theatre barely exists in the Eastern Partnership countries. From what we know and talked about with our partners, it seems that the role of the theatre in the debate on reality is scarce in the EEPAP countries. That is why it is important to execute such engaging projects on the spot. That is my dream.
GI: In Poland the level of emancipation in the theatre is quite high. It means that institutional theatres, usually extremely stiff, allow for experiments. It is obvious to us, but we should not forget that it is quite an achievement. You do not need to go underground in order to show something that is at variance with traditional form and that is socially provocative. Theatre is free to do whatever it pleases. As a result, the official institutional theatre responds, or tries to respond, to demands and needs of society, within which it exists. It becomes a place for public debate. In the post-Soviet states, the theatre is still only an aesthetic-formal category, limited by the boundaries of quasi-modernist paradigm distant from modernity. It has no social contents, so it cannot become politicised.
PS: What about the alternative theatre?
In Azerbaijan, the alternative to institutional theatre is off ritual theatre drawing on mysticism and religion. This theatre is just as safe politically.
PS: Joanna, you travelled around Ukraine. It lacks political theatre even after the experience – to a large extent performative – of Orange Revolution. Maybe such a theatre did come into existence there?
JW: If so, it was quite transitory, just like the Orange Revolution’s benefits. Ukraine and Ukrainian theatre are not monolithic. There is a clear distinction between independent and repertory theatre. The latter, called academic by Ukrainians, is still going strong. It has a stable bourgeois audience and does not serve anything. No use expecting it to join the discussion. The majority of independent initiatives fight for survival. The sources of financial aid are very limited and unstable. Besides, we know that Galicia lives for different matters than Kyiv and that avant-garde traditions of Kharkiv do not have anything in common with what happens in Donetsk or Odessa.
In Kharkiv, the Arabesque theatre is realised through shockingly anti-capitalist text of Serhiy Zhadan "Red Elvis", while in Lviv great young people from Drabyna Association have for the last few years organised the Ukraine drama competition and festival DRAMA.UA. Both are precious and very needed, but the difference in the perspective is visible. Nadrey Prichodko – a director from Kyiv, Director of Theatre Centre at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy – told me that the Ukrainian theatre is collapsing because it has lost its replicative function. It happened because – just like the whole country – it has basic problems with self-identity. Who are we: a boy or a girl, Europe or Russia?
To us such questions may sound out of date, but in Ukraine they are vital. The theatre there hardly ever puts such questions. Andrey Prichodko put them very hurtfully to Ukrainians in the play staged in Kurbasa Lviv Theatre. He produced a classic text of "The Forest’s Song" – Ukrainian "Dziady". In this performance you can see the germ of a serious discussion about the modern Ukraine but the core of this discussion would not be understandable to someone who does not know the nuances of this country’s history. And if you do not know them, the language of this performance remains inscrutable.
PS: I gather, however, that it is not the task of the Platform to teach all the people one language?
JW: We have talked a lot about how to deal with the danger of some form of colonialism, which is inherent in such a project.
MK: In fact, there is always a risk of colonialism in every attempt to start cultural cooperation or exchange. Being aware of this danger is the basis of conducting a research in this field.
PS: This kind of programmes is the favourite weapon of the cultural "soft power".
MK: We cannot escape this threat. It seems that in case of the Eastern Partnership it is very easy to succumb to temptation of having a Madagascar of our own. One of the solutions is the constant vigilance and extremely precise preparation of the joint projects. That is why the EEPAP had to be preceded by two years of research, journeys and never-ending talks as well as being aware that there is no perfect recipe. We are looking for the tools and checking how and where we can work together.
JW: However, it is not about one-way flow. It is not going to be like the team of Poles will go to the distant countries and teach about performing arts. A team of Serbs or Georgians can teach just as well. We should become convinced that in some exotic outside-Schengen Area countries, there are people who, beyond the official folklore-academic trend, do great things. And that, regardless of where they live, they care for the same things. Enabling them to meet and suggest tools for not fighting alone anymore – that is our goal.