Compagnie Yoann Bourgeois: Celui qui tombe (He Who Falls). Photo © Foteini Christofilopoulu


Circulating artists, defunded infrastructures

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Compagnie Yoann Bourgeois: Celui qui tombe (He Who Falls). Photo © Foteini Christofilopoulu
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Don’t just blame Covid for this crisis: restructuring the cultural field had already led to more artists and fewer resources

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Privileged and precarious

My instagram feed looks cool. Some friends, unaware of the reality of performing arts in Europe, tell me this is what success must look like. Before the pandemic, I had been travelling continuously over the last five years – and while doing so, I gradually began to think about working conditions, budget cuts, infrastructure, access and policy. For quite some time already, the question in the field – at least for those lucky enough to be residents in Europe – has been not who can afford to travel, but on the contrary, who can afford not to travel and still work? Cultural workers are circulating the global markets just like commodities. They are in the peculiar situation of being both privileged and precarious. Privileged, because even the possibility of thinking about a career in the arts already requires a solid social and material base; and because the consequences of that choice are usually hidden behind success stories. Precarious, because freelance work in a stagnated economy with unstable income leads to depression, anxiety, burnout, frustration and sadness, and makes them question their professional choices and capacities within a permanent identity crisis.

Austerity and restructuring

This situation has been exposed, but not caused, by the pandemic. At the end of 2019, the government in Flanders announced budget cuts for the cultural sector of 3% on big institutions, 6% on companies and a shocking 60% on project funding. The outcry was immediate; the U-turn came later, packaged as an ‘budget increase’ when it actually only partially restored the previous amount (half a million euros disappeared), making it probable that the major cuts will return along with ‘normality’. To put it bluntly, a whole generation of artists might have to bartend indefinitely in order to practice their profession as a hobby.

But Flanders was late. The slashing of cultural budgets has already been rehearsed across Europe after the 2008 financial crisis. ‘Act normal or go away’, said Dutch PM Mark Rutte, whose right-wing government introduced severe cuts back in 2012 to the arts (which populists called a ‘leftist hobby’). Dutch authorities have tried to continue the same way even through the pandemic: on 18 November 2020 the production house of Frascati Theater in Amsterdam – which distributes 95% of its funding to emerging artists, and is an important doorway for recent graduates – dramatically announced its closure due to refused corona subsidies. A compromise was eventually struck with the minister of culture, who found some ‘crumbs’ to cover less than half of the sum they requested. So Frascati continues, on a much smaller scale, for now.

In Barcelona funding used to be entirely structured around the company and production model and some dance companies founded in the 80s, 90s and 2000s achieved enough stability to employ dancers (though the French artist status system never really existed), to rent or even own spaces, keep administrative staff, produce annually and tour internationally. The left-wing Catalan government of 2003–2010 gave the culture sector a vast economic boost, and many dance companies emerged in addition to those already operating. But once austerity took hold in 2011, the dance sector was decimated and the company and production-oriented model collapsed. Companies could no longer keep their own spaces, the production cycle fractured and most dancers and choreographers were forced more than ever into freelancing. Today, there aren’t any long-term support schemes and artists have to be ultra flexible and well connected internationally to develop a coherent body of work. For while big countries with national touring circuits like France and Germany can still afford a less internationally integrated scene, Catalan artists are trying to enter the international co-producing and touring system through the revolving doors of Brussels and Vienna.

Norway’s national contemporary dance company Carte Blanche, established in 1989 in Bergen, is a notable exception. Like a remnant of another world, its delegated budget can sustain both production and touring, and international co-productions arise not out of funding desperation but for the sake of cultural exchange. The company employs 14 dancers full-time, with 9–10 permanent contracts, several three-year contracts, and paid one-year apprenticeships for dancers under 24. Salaries are negotiated by union agreements, and they get access to the public Norwegian healthcare and pension systems. To promote decentralisation, the company is seated in Bergen instead of the capital Oslo, and the team of dancers is international. In the words of current director Annabelle Bonnery, ‘these are extremely good conditions, incomparable to anywhere else I’ve worked before.’

Yet even in that oil-rich economy, budgets are being slashed (volunteer programmes, long-term grants for artists, free language courses for foreigners). Across the continent, meanwhile, freelancers are not free, but struggling with insufficient funding and infrastructure, set against one another in constant competition, and juggling with several jobs of different registers. Only the most adaptable remain in this self-destructive race.

Blue Quote Mark

These processes are not lived as the disasters they are, but sold as liberation from outdated systems, styles and hierarchies

Blue Quote Mark

The East as a roadmap for the West

Of course, these processes are not lived as the disasters they are. On the contrary, they are sold as liberation from outdated systems, styles and hierarchies. Young artists traditionally – and rightly – position themselves in opposition to previous generations, ethically and aesthetically, but short-sighted reforms often come with worsening working conditions. No one knows that better than the Eastern European countries whose public sector was cheerfully defunded and privatised in the years after the fall of the Berlin wall. Germany is a notable exception, though critics often point out that funding mainly goes to big institutions and doesn’t necessarily trickle down to individual artists. Supranational funding coming from the EU can hardly replace the role of ministries of culture – its recently announced increased budget for a seven-year period for 27 member states is roughly the same as Germany’s annual budget. Still, the exceptions prove the rule that well-developed national cultural policies which soften market forces are being bulldozed by the mantra of freedom and entrepreneurship, repeated until it erases the truth that resources in the sector are much fewer not because we are poorer but because the ruling elite considers art and culture a waste – not even a threat any more.

Privatisation of structural problems

These ever-shrinking subsidies are being distributed with increasing bureaucracy, tighter deadlines and permanent application cycles, requiring artists constantly to argue for their own existence and beg for their means of survival, while at the same time creating an immense amount of additional unpaid admin work. Before the formal establishment in the late 80s of the structures we see in crisis today, strong artistic groups and movements had formed around people, places and ideas with an underground, do-it-yourself spirit – like Judson Church in New York, Odin Teatret in Denmark, the Flemish new wave – though always in conditions that allowed their basic material survival, whether that be the availability of space in post-industrial cities, or unusually liberal local governments willing to fund the arts. Back then it was still possible to do weird, messy, experimental stuff outside the market. Today this is no longer the case: cities have gentrified, living costs increased while wages stagnated and capitalistic logic has infiltrated everything from institutions to friendships. There is incessant mobility, lack of resources, constant global competition for better professional opportunities elsewhere. To a large extent, this whole ideology has become internalised: many art students are already depressed even before graduation. They might not be able to articulate or analyse the conditions, but they know with their bodies and minds that their future has been cancelled.

Commodification of education

Unlike the students in the 80s who had access to cheap housing, free education and a fertile soil to invent opportunities for themselves in an undeveloped and less crowded artistic field, the students of today are crushed by student debt, rising housing costs and the gig economy – pressures intensified by social media, the democratisation of art practice, and the blurring of differences between art, creativity and entertainment. They’re taught to become entrepreneurs, to run their own micro-businesses and to establish their names as brands on the internet. Universities sell dreams to future project managers who then often hit a wall, unprepared for the harsh reality of the economy. The number of applications from emerging independent choreographers to the Aerowaves Europe dance platform has tripled in the last decade (from 200 to 600), a striking indicator of the sudden expansion of a field unprepared to accommodate them. We see the rise of bullshit jobs in the form of unpaid internships, or festivals and residencies requesting artists to pay to work. With dwindling professional opportunities and growing numbers graduating with dance degrees, a lot of artists turn to teaching as a source of income, in self-run paid workshops, intensives or as part of the academic precariat (higher education having undergone a similar restructuring). The result is a closed circuit of exchanged practices where contemporary dance becomes impenetrable for regular audiences. The motto of B12 in Berlin, a self-proclaimed ‘workshop festival’, sums it up pretty well: research or die.

Economy as ideology

The financial crisis is an ideological question, not just an economic one. A coordinated attack against arts, humanitarian disciplines and public spending hides its true motives behind economic arguments. Budget cuts are presented as liberalisation, the sector as consisting of elitists wasting resources, and market success as the measure of worth for public support. Thus critical voices are silenced, taking risks is discouraged, and art is marginalised and replaced by forms of entertainment. It has come to the point where even the critique of these processes is dysfunctional: it will never be able to strengthen the argument of culture as a public good by adopting the same economic jargon, nor by instrumentalising art to fit into EU boxes that frame it as an extension of social and community practice, which is part of the same logic that pushes these austerity policies in the first place.

Outside eye, sinking ship

In the field of dance, the dramaturg is called ‘the outside eye’, simultaneously inside the process and detached from it. Their job is to observe and analyse the direction things take, to have a view of the whole even before it’s fully formed. In that sense, I believe that the practice of artists today is to a large extent centred in active dramaturgical observation and analysis of the world we live in. It includes navigating between institutions and contexts and using resources and opportunities in a subversive way. It includes exercises in self-organisation, strategies for collective action, invention of critical languages, practices of care and repair. For – accelerated by the pandemic – the ship is sinking. If we don’t find a way together to stop the incoming water, if we don’t take care of those thrown overboard – if we don’t imagine, and build, a new ship – it’s all lost. 

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An earlier version of this text was originally written in Bulgarian for the performance ‘The Hour of Truth’ (concept by Alexander Manuiloff, produced by Radar Sofia, Bulgaria, at Derida Stage in 2019) where seven contemporary dramaturges have seven minutes each on stage to speak freely about what is usually not spoken about

With thanks also to Oscar Dasí, Alexis Euspierre, Annabelle Bonnéry, Annette Van Zwoll, Clàudia Brufau and Oonagh Duckworth for their advice

Further reading
Flanders Arts Institute, ‘Re-framing the international’, report about working internationally in the arts:

On the French system:

Artsy, ‘Inside New York’s last remaining artists’ housing’

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