Last February, Jan Fabre was nominated by the Minister of Culture of Greece, Aristides Baltas (Syriza), to become the artistic director of the Athens Festival for the period 2016-2019. Last Friday he resigned. How did Jan Fabre manage to mess it up in less than two months? I felt like asking him some questions.
Jan Fabre presented his plans last Tuesday during a dramatic press conference in Athens, where it was announced that he would not act as a director but rather as a curator, that the name of the festival would become Athens and Epidaurus International Festival, that he was not knowledgeable about the Greek artistic scene, that, consequently, his first festival would be mostly Belgo-Belgian and, above all, that only a quota of Greek artists would have access to the program.
The Greek arts world gathered on 1st April at Theater Sfendoni and drafted a letter in which they asked the resignation of the Minister of Culture and declared Jan Fabre persona non grata. On April 2nd, Jan Fabre called it quits with a short written statement. What could sound like a fine April's fools prank turns up to be a painful episode for the resilient Greek arts sector. Jan Fabre himself ascribed his decision to resign to ‘the hostile artistic environment to which I came with open mind and open heart’. Could it be as simple as that?
Dear Jan Fabre,
As a member of the artistic community of Belgium, who works internationally, I want to start this letter by acknowledging the fact that I greatly value your artistic work, which I have had the opportunity to present as a curator, as well as the institutions you founded. It is maybe because I value what you have achieved that I was left abashed after reading your curatorial plans for the Athens Festival. Were you really surprised that they weren’t met with a standing ovation? As far as I know the Greek artistic environment, hostility is not one of its natural characteristics. ‘Hostility’ – I use your words – is always a reaction to something. What could that be?
Could you not see you were walking on thin ice?
On March 29th, you presented your plans in Athens. In the press kit, you wrote that you "hope to build bridges and devise dialogue". I am all for it and hope we can start that dialogue. By "we", I mean not necessarily you and I, but "we" as the international community of artists, curators, art directors, producers, audience development managers and so on. That is the reason why I share my message publicly. I have so many questions for you.
Firstly, how can you compile so many jobs? I consider myself a hard worker but I would not be able to run, simultaneously, an international artistic career, a theater company, a venue, a visual arts production house, and, on top of that, accept to curate a large international festival for the next four years. How do you do it? You and Johan Simons have got to share the secret at some point. More seriously, where would you have found the time to reinvent a festival that, to use your own words, "mirrors the world"? Were you not scared that your plans for the Athens festival would mirror only your own world? Could you not have imagined that the lack of understanding of the Greek context could come back in your face as a boomerang? Why did you accept this nomination when, clearly, the Greek cultural policies are currently highly unclear? Could you not see you were walking on thin ice?
The Athens Festival was previously run by Giourgos Loukos. He was fired in December after an inquiry that found that the festival was operating on losses of over 2.7 million euros. Was the festival refinanced and is it running now on a balanced budget? If so, why are several Greek artists still waiting for payment for their contribution to the last festival? Was Flanders participating financially to the Belgian program you proposed? It is a fair question to ask when the majority of Flemish artists see their public support shrink year after year. Bref, you got my point, where would the money of that operation have come from? You said, during the press conference on Tuesday, that "money does not matter so much". Well, for most people, it does.
Many Greek artists produce and present their work internationally. If it was not for the Athens Festival, and several other Greek festivals and venues, such names as Blitz Theatre Group, Lenio Kaklea, Argyro Chioti and Vasistas, Dimitris Karantzas, Euripides Laskaridis, Iris Karayan, Prodromos Tsinikoris, Anestis Azas, Dimitris Papaianou, to name only a few, would not have the opportunity to export their work. Did you not think that by proposing a focus on Belgium during your first festival, it was their development and their dynamics that you were proposing to stop? Could you not have imagined that a large part of the Greek artists would be revolted and scared by your artistic plans? How did you see your responsibility towards the community of local artists? How could you neglect the Greek expertise of their own sector and expect things to go just well?
Greece, Belgian colony?
I want to come to the core of what makes me perplex about that whole episode: the tribute to Belgium. Hear me well, I love your country, I chose to base myself here 14 years ago. But seriously, did Athens need a "best of" of Belgian artists? Ok, I know you said you did not have enough time to curate the festival in 2016. Fair enough. But, if Belgium was such an important topic, would it not have been more exciting to have a team of Greek curators look at our Holy Land? Could you not imagine that your arrival, accompanied by an armada of Belgian collaborators, would create a turmoil?
To be honest, your presentation to the press made you sound very neocolonial and arrogant. You mentioned the National football team as a good example of diversity. It is also a symbol of nationalism. In Belgium, (super)diversity is a topic that is dealt with by a series of cultural and social operators that you might have wanted to bring to the table. I have a hard time understanding how, one week after the terrorist attacks that struck Brussels, you could talk about a Belgian society that is an example of "hyper-diversity and multi-culturality". Was our country not torn apart by three youngsters who chose to die rather than embrace the "Belgian spirit". Are they not examples of the failure of the immigration policies in Belgium and Europe? Why did your plans for the festival not connect to the issue of migration and the massive arrival of refugees? Would it not have been a fantastic opportunity to collaborate with the artistic community in exile? Those were issues that should not have been just put aside, because they are also crucial to our beloved Belgium.
To conclude, I write this letter to you because, as a member of the arts community, I am worried. I am worried to have to explain, once more, to international colleagues and artists, that Occidental white males, a group I belong to, are actually able to acknowledge their privilege and look at the rest of the world with the consciousness of their responsibility. I am worried that the fair relationship I, and many others, try to create with international partners might be affected by the signs of colonial cultural imperialism this whole episode conveys.
Please do not blame the others for the fire you set up.
In your resignation statement you wrote that you could not work anymore in Greece because you could not make your artistic choices in total freedom in a hostile artistic environment. I find this adding insult to injury. Your press conference ignited these hostile feelings. Your artistic plans were the spark of it all. Please do not blame the others for the fire you set up. All of us must rethink our privileged position as members of the strong, well-supported, artistic community that Belgium developed. And we need you, as a founder of that community, to join the task force.
Matthieu Goeury is an arts worker based in Brussels, Belgium. He is active as a producer and curator. Working in the field of performing arts, his trajectory led him to create a workspace for emerging artists, participate to the launch of Centre-Pompidou-Metz, and program at Vooruit, Ghent. During the last years, he created the festivals Possible Futures and (Im)Possible Futures. He tries to apply, with more or less success, strong ethics to the projects he develops, based on socio-political engagement, solidarity, equity, diversity, pragmatism and reasonable seriousness.
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