A transition exercise for performing arts mobility

A transition exercise for performing arts mobility

It strikes as no coincidence that for the last few months, there has been an increasing number of (online) seminars, conferences, debates and calls for projects and experiments to rethink and reshape working internationally in the (performing) arts. At the moment of writing, we are almost one year after the first wave of lockdowns in the context of this global pandemic, which led governments to shut down our venues and severely restrict our travels. This might be the right time to reflect upon something which is essential to our work and which we have taken for granted for a long time, until it brutally lost its self-evidence: international performing arts mobility. Even before Covid-19, there was the increasing feeling that the current (international) performing arts system — as it functioned well until the 2008 financial and economic crisis — can boast a number of achievement, but that it had reached its limits. Today, more than ever, there is a strong desire to finally go beyond survival strategies and work on a transition, a major systemic shift. This transition exercise is based on experiences in a number of projects in the last couple of years – mainly collective and co-creative research-and-development trajectories – such as Reframing the International (at Flanders Arts Institute), RESHAPE ( a Creative Europe project), Rewiring the Network (for the Twenties) (with IETM) and most recently, Perform Europe, a European project to rethink cross-border presentation in the performing arts[1]. IDEA’s role in these projects has been providing space for collective reflections and synthesizing the results – often making use of transition thinking frameworks. So, the following ideas are not merely my own reflections. Largely, they are the synthesis of ideas captured during many exchanges with performing arts practitioners from all over the Euromed (although a Western-European perspective might be dominant).



Throughout the last decades, many initiatives have been taken that allow companies and artists to engage on the international market. International exchanges between artists and communities led to mutual benefits: artistic recognition and inspiration for the artists, performers and companies; the encounter with new perspectives for audiences and communities. These are important achievements to mention. But the point is that this growth — which now suddenly has came to a halt — had become quite problematic and not sustainable. 

After the near-collapse of the global financial system in 2008, most European countries cut in their budgets for contemporary performing arts. Producers and presenters of performing arts pieces needed to look for solutions in order to keep on facilitating exchanges between artists and audiences. The immediate response of many performing arts organisations was not to support less artists with the same budgets as before. Rather, in many cases, budgets were fragmented. Space and time for development, engaging with the local contexts, via workshops or other audience engagement activities,... decreased. The pressure on all involved increased.

Tis acceleration is not sustainable. It cannot be continued over a longer period of time. Not only is it mathematically impossible to keep mobilising ever new partners. But the question is also: what are the human, social and ecological impacts of this accelerated growth? The many values or benefits related to working internationally are under mortgage in this system of accelerated hypermobility. Because of the increased speed in international exchanges, there is less time for meaningful connections of artists and companies with local contexts and communities. Also: what effect does it have on the people working in the field? What kind of artists can survive in this accelerated system, characterised by hypermobility? The current production and presentation system asks for artists who are flexible and always available, cut of from social and family life, and under a huge strain — failing to find the right balance between work and life. Furthermore, the economic issues within our sector are interlinked in the most complex way with global issues of social inequality and with the climate crisis.

So, already before Corona — international mobility in the performing arts had lost its self-evident value. Increased acceleration, competition, hypermobility, flexibility had been putting pressure on people. It had limited the time for artists, presenters, mediators, and communities to connect out of the arts bubble. The ecological impact is huge, as the social injustice. Generally, in the current system, there is a lack of connection, rootedness, and meaning. The feeling is that many of the current policy schemes and frameworks  – although (still) aimed at fostering international collaborations – make these issues and unsustainable practices persisten because oft the strong focus on export and less on a developmental vision on internationalisation (e.g. on import and co-production, or less visible aspects such as networking, development, residencies); …


In our current situation, there are many unsustainable practices. They are dominant and persistent. But there are also (marginal) experiments for alternative and more sustainable approaches, addressing these issues. At the same time when our pressures where mounting, we saw an increased interest in experiments with radical alternatives and new approaches towards internationalisation of the performing arts. In the light of our transition exercise, the fundamental question is the following: are these experiments just survival strategies? Or will they turn out to be the weak signals of a real system change, of a paradigm shift towards more sustainable mobility and ecosystem within the performing arts? 

Above, we have extensively discussed some of these unsustainable practices – the hypermobility and the negative impacts it has on people, social relations and the climate. In our lockdown, the major question is: can Corona be an accelerator breaking down these unsustainable behaviour, and speeding up the development and multiplication of radical alternatives?

For now, the new coronavirus has put an end to this fearful hypermobility and hyper-production. While the future is uncertain, the catastrophic impact on the performing arts sector has been revealed in various researches, questionnaires, reports and online meetings, organised. The pressures are most urgent for those who have been working in the most vulnerable conditions. While many in the performing arts are going into survival mode, we see at the same time that the pandemic crisis leads to a number of interesting experiments. Artists continue to express themselves and are wanting to engage with audiences in new and uncharted ways, from small-scale local connectedness to a bold exploration of digital tools as vehicles for exchange between artists and audiences. In these uncertain times, questions abound. What will we have learned from these experiments? What will our societies learn from performance, in a time when proximity, bodily experience, public space are to be re-experienced? How do we want the performing arts ecosystem to eventually come out of this crisis? What kind of care do we need for artists and audiences, when we reopen our theatres and venues? Is it possible and desirable to go back to the situation before Covid-19? How will working locally and/or internationally interact? Can we use this crisis to break down current unsustainable practices, and achieve more sustainable conditions for the cross-border distribution of performing arts?

What could meaningful mobility in the future look like? During the trajectories mentioned in the intro, a lot of visions and ideas were put on the table about what more meaningful and sustainable future mobility practices could look like. Most certainly, future more sustainable practices will be about slow art – about slowing down the pace of creation, development, production and presentation. It will be less about project-based thinking and residency-hopping, but about long-term perspectives on artistic development, artistic collaboration. Funding and support schemes which allow for slower practices and long term perspectives and structural support, capacity building. We need alternative economic models, not based on the principles of profit and competition but on solidarity in a common European or even global space. We need equal access to greener mobility, respecting the boundaries of are planet while being in tune with principles of social justice and fairness. In short, it might be less about the international touring of products, but more about the international distribution of resources and processes.

This image of our transition for performing arts mobility might be appealing to many. But how to get there? It is quite clear that this is a complex matter. We can only do this by building on emerging practices, alternatives and radical experiments. And there have been many – developed by artists, arts workers and institutions wanting to explore this terrain – sometimes in the context of calls for projects or research and development trajectories. But experiment an innovation will not suffice, the transition scheme learns us. These experiments will need to be connected – not only among each other, but also to other innovators and change makers in other parts in society. We will need to develop new networks and create new skills. We will need to actively break down our unsustainable practices, and mainstream and institutionalize what we learnt from our experiments, in order to have this desired paradigm shifts towards a more sustainable ecosystem. It is clear this will need not only the effort of a few innovators — artists, arts workers working inside or outside of institutions — experimenting with radical approaches. This is where all the projects in which IDEA Consult is working on are interlinked. Ultimately, we will need all actors in the broad performing arts ecosystem: artists, organisations, policy makers and funders, arts education institutions, and researchers. We all will need to work together to make this transition actually happen. 


[1] Working at Flanders Arts Institute, I coordinated a research project Reframing the International. On new ways of working internationally in the arts. My summary of this research, published in 2018, can be found here. On the European level, I was involved in RESHAPE, a Creative Europe in which artists, arts workers and intermediary organisations from all over what we called the Euromed worked together to re-invent working models for the arts. Read all about it in the new RESHAPE ‘workbook’, which has just been published. With IDEA Consult, we facilitated Rewiring the Network (for the Twenties), a co-creative trajectory where the members collectively designed a transition for the international networking in the performing arts. Read all about it here. Information about Perform Europe is to be found here.