On Curating Festivals

Closing Statement by Robyn Archer: singer, writer, artistic director, public advocate for the arts

Curating Festivals

26  November 2020

I’m speaking again from Melbourne – traditional lands of the Boonwurrung people of the Kulin Nations and pay my respect to their elders past present and emerging, and take a moment to reflect on the remarkable spread of lands involved in this Atelier – the number of them, and therefore the number and incredible breadth of First Nations peoples who should demand our respect.

We have heard a number of speakers and participants over these days talk about their work with fragile, vulnerable or marginalized communities. Among these, Roselle described her work with a very particular semi-nomadic Indigenous community, the Dumagat, in the Philippines, Marsha regularly co-opts public space and invites particular communities (those whose voices struggle to be heard, or when heard heeded- African, African American, Latin American) to use that space, Lorena talked about the entire organisation of the British Council in Mexico having a duty to see their support and programming through a lens of diversity and inclusion (and in her case with particular reference to disability,) George Mario works in Malta with very particular communities that exist around a musical tradition which in performance is magnificently robust but whose existence is threatened, Vallejo Gantner in our roundtable yesterday talked about the Onassis Foundation’s eye to the cultures and profiles of Native Americans, and Matjamela made specific reference to the eleven ‘other’ languages of South Africa, and his overt resistance, via a curatorial process, to the continued dominance of the language of the colonisers. So many of you are working with diversity and inclusion in mind, and if you and your festivals have not yet got to the point where you are satisfied with your achievements in opening up – either via artists or their content, the audience or the management itself, then I get the feeling you at least are all aware of the challenges.

I would say that it’s one of the most important attributes of a healthy curatorial process – simply AWARENESS. And as someone remarked yesterday, “Once your eyes have been opened, you can’t go back.”

As curators, or those of you who assist in the curatorial process, this awareness will first come from your individual circumstances – your family, your neighbourhood, nation, education, and experience. We know a lot: the problem is that we don't know what we don't know. Then we rely on those accidental encounters that pry our eyes open. Every time I am lucky enough to be part of The Festival Academy’s activities, whether in different countries around the world over the last ten years, or this year online, I am shocked about what I don't know – deeply grateful for what I learn each time – and ever keen to keep on learning.

My own particular circumstances already gave me an advantage. From performing in public from four years old, being a popular entertainer from twelve years old, my own awareness of alternative sexualities and the protest song movement from my mid-teens, by pure luck I was invited into a whole different world of the arts – to sing a Brecht/Weill opera with a symphony orchestra when I couldn’t read music. That dramatic shift, again accidentally, brought me into a world of artistic ambition that eventually gave me the chance to curate the biggest international arts festivals in Australia. But my greatest advantage was that I had come from a family not engaged at all with the kind of arts I had now learned to love. My Dad was a singer, a stand-up comedian and MC – and I learned so much from my apprenticeship to him – in fact, how to ‘put things together’ – how to put together a song-set, a cabaret show – and then much later translated that skill into putting together a festival. As a child I was instinctively absorbing the skills of narrative structure – how to create from wildly different content (old/new, original/borrowed, well-known/unknown etc.) a beginning, a middle and an end that brought the audience to its feet – I learned how to make a show that had its own integrity, its own journey – something that was more than just the sum of its disparate parts.

This has served me so well as an artist and as an artistic director.

But there was another huge advantage, and that was precisely because I came from a family not connected to the arts – to entertainment yes, but not to that more difficult, more subtle sphere I had drifted into. But throughout one of those big festivals I directed, the biggest at the time in the southern hemisphere, in my hometown of Adelaide in South Australia, I had the touchstone of a family in which I was the first to go to university. It was a family which had no arts-speak – no language of the arts. So when I thought about what I wanted to do for the outside and free program, for people like my family members, I wanted for them the very best, the most beautiful, the most thoughtful. I was not prepared to curate only subtle inspiring challenging beautiful works for inside the theatres with the big ticket price, and then just colour and movement on the outside for those who couldn't afford a ticket. I wanted the same level of awe-inspiring achievement for free on the outside, for those who did not have the money, or the inclination to enter what they saw as a world of things they couldn’t afford but also feared they might not understand and feel stupid. 

Still they deserved the very best experiences that the arts can offer and so I worked hard to give them that, either through local artists and projects or those from around Australia or the rest of the world. Thus I was aware in my curatorial process of gender, of queer, of financial barriers – that all came naturally from personal experience. A branch of my close family also included young people with disabilities – another personal insight. And at the same time, I was constantly building on my knowledge of those at the top of their profession nationally and internationally, and the emerging sector at home.

But there were many things that I did not know naturally and had to pursue. Growing up in Adelaide I was unaware of the presence of First Nations people. I knew almost nothing of their 60,000 year old presence and culture, aside from the ‘myths’ and legends’ taught at Primary school The colonising propaganda still had its unconscious sway over me until my early twenties when a friend took up the position of first community arts officer for the Adelaide Festival Centre – the dominant performing arts complex in Adelaide. 

Through her, I was introduced to remarkable people doing amazing things inside Aboriginal communities, first urban, and then my eyes were pried open even further when I made concert tours to the Northern Territory. Only then did I really understand what Australia was. And from then on I was driven by my curiosity to know more, and eventually had the opportunity through my festivals, to offer up that platform to First Nations art and artists. For sure, you have to work on being ever-curious, and ever alert to the fact that you don't know what you don't know.

And because I didn't know what I didn't know, I made mistakes. This is something Vallejo talked about yesterday, about what he considered to be his failure as AD of PS122, in downtown Manhattan, to be as inclusive as he wanted to be – to which Marsha responded,

“Don't talk about it as failure” – a little bit like the encouragement we took from the last Training Session on Climate Change and festivals. The toolkits we can now access are amazing – but we were warned that you won't achieve everything all at once. Take one step, and move at the pace that will guarantee you success. Do one thing well, achieve one change, one move in the right direction so that it is not token and not weak – but can be sustained and built on. I interpreted Marsha’s encouragement in my own terms of AWARENESS as the first great step. 

My mistake in one of my festivals was, I had chosen an image, from a computer screen, to represent one of the themes of my festival that year – and it was about articles of faith, of what we believe in – all of us, in our diverse ways. This was because I had seen so many artists worldwide viewing the coming millennium through this lens – the theme had arisen organically from my research. But the graphic treatment of that image was found offensive by a particular Christian religious group in the city and it began a very difficult few months in which the media storm threatened the festival, and there were threats of violence towards us. We eventually negotiated a peace – well my male General Manager and male Chairman negotiated it because as I was a woman I was not allowed to meet with the Christian religious leader in question – and we made a compromise I could live with. But this was an honest mistake, an accidental act of misappropriation – it came from the fact that neither I nor any member of my team had any awareness that a particular image was regarded in this special way by that particular community. 

Yesterday in our roundtable, Matjamela said to us “Do not let the fear of doing something wrong, stop you doing what you feel you want to do.” We are always going to make mistakes. We live cheek by jowl with people whose values we do not share, and of which we are often ignorant. Every mistake will allow us to learn more, and the word FORGIVENESS has already been mentioned. The superb poem that Inge shared with us at the start of this meeting, Emi Mahmoud’s Seven Stages of Grief during the time of COVID included the statement ‘some things cannot be forgiven.’ That may be true, but when mistakes are made, if forgiveness is not possible, then the first step must surely be to try hard to resolve the conflict peacefully, rather than through violence – even if we decide that we will never agree. And Vallejo and Marsha agreed that if you make a mistake, don’t be afraid to show up again.

The second word that comes to me after AWARENESS is POWER – and that’s why awareness is so important. In one way or another, we here are lucky enough to have been granted special powers – what we do as curators will affect artists, both those we invite and include, but also those we do not invite (especially in the widely dispersed world of the digital era, as those we choose may discover audiences in their millions, those we leave out miss out on that chance); and we will affect audiences close to us and those we don't even know about.  

We all see very clearly today, many of you in your own countries, just how damaging power is if it is not used wisely, shared widely. John, said yesterday ‘It starts with us.’ The choices we make in our curatorial process will have an effect and we must take responsibility for it. Small or large, our platforms are important, and can change lives – we must TAKE CARE – that other meaning within the word CURATE. And if you are not the decision maker, and you are working within a more obviously hierarchical structure, your challenge will be to judge to what extent you can have your voice heard by the decision-makers. Can you comfortably and safely influence the choices made by your curatorial lead – whether that be an artistic director, a committee, a Board or a Jury? Or will there be a risk if you dare to challenge those things which your awareness tells you are not as healthy as they should be? 

This is not just about diversity and inclusion, but also about ecological responsibility and indeed also about aesthetics and opportunity. You all now have the privilege of acting in the public arena. Not everyone gets that privilege. Anything we do has an effect. As Ahmed said, all art is political – it challenges the status quo, it is political, it does not challenge the status quo, it is political. And our choices as curators or those supporting the curatorial process are the same. Our programming choices provoke action, or they do not – either way, we are having an effect on the societies in which we live – and possibly way beyond the societies in which we live. 

For some reason I don't quite understand – maybe you will - I’m thinking of two festival moments right now. One was the IF festival in Yogyarkata. You may still be able to find something about it online. It had been planned as a huge international arts festival with the most famous artists in the world – but they didn't get their funding and so the festival had just a few small local events. But they produced a huge program book, the biggest most impressive festival program you’ve ever seen, as if it did happen –the IF book was full of the events they had intended and they even had a few physical manifestations – for instance, a decorated bus even went to the airport to pick up the famous orchestra that was never going to arrive – things like that. There were signs that the festival was happening, but it didn’t really exist. Why do I remember it so clearly? Somehow their persistence in manifesting their dream made it real – their ambition and intent was still memorably communicated. And that’s about process. 

I was involved many years ago in curating a big event in Darwin at the top of Australia. It was connected to their traditional Labour Day march through the town and we called the event STRONG WITH THE WOMEN: it had a focus on the role women had played in the Union movement, and the role of First Nations women in the Northern Territory. We worked on it for months – we planned a huge parade through the town and big concert in nearby Frog Hollow – newly commissioned songs and performances – the lot. 

But at the very beginning of the parade, the Monsoonal storm began – called by First Nations people there ‘the knock-em down’ rains. By the time the parade arrived at Frog Hollow, the marchers were drenched, the designed trucks and costumes ruined, and the natural amphitheatre of Frog Hollow under, literally, a meter of water. 

We had to abandon our big show after all those months of intense work in community and ended up crying and dancing all night in our wet T-shirts. But that event is still remembered as one of the great moments in Darwin’s cultural history – and in fact it never happened. There was a smaller version of it inside a theatre some months later, but I never saw it, and that wasn’t what was remembered. It was the one that never happened that people remembered so fondly and with such pride. Why is that? It’s because the process was so strong, and so intense and took so long. In the end the final product didn't matter so much, because it was the long months of working together which people remembered. Community members of all kinds were welcomed into the process and consulted about what they wanted to contribute and how. Women came with needle and thread ready to sew a new Union banner on the first night. It took six weeks before they started because they went into a fantastic extended conversation about what they actually wanted the banner to say – how to describe the pride in their Union and their work. They were grappling with our fundamentals WHAT are we doing?  WHY are we doing it?  HOW are we doing it?   New skills were learned, great friendships were forged, there were new understandings, through the arts, about the nature of their work, and what it meant to these women – as hard-nosed male wharf labourers turned up to lend a hand wherever they could. That we lost the final event was sad, but in the end not the most important thing – and I think that's something we should bear in mind. 

My own personal attitude towards my work as a singer and theatre artist is that I’d rather many weeks or months of a fantastic rehearsal process and then a show that was not so successful, than the other way round – that is, a very successfully final show, after months of a miserable rehearsal process. It just doesn’t make sense – it would be a crazy way to live. Of course one wants both, and a lousy show might mean you lose further opportunities – but what you do in the process is every bit as important as whatever the final product might achieve.

This speaks of the ephemeral nature of our work. Festivals are by definition ephemeral – through commissioning processes they may well be the agent of enabling artists to make new works, which have a long life, but a festival itself by definition, comes and goes. Its power is perhaps precisely in its ephemeral nature. Because it will only happen in a particular confined place at a particular compressed time, perhaps those who participate in it, both as artists and as audiences and as the enablers, the curators, the managers, perhaps they all treat it more preciously than those cultural assets we can enjoy at any time we choose. I fleetingly wonder whether some of that magic evaporates when the festival goes digital – we perhaps have a feeling that it will always be available and we can view it at our leisure, rather than having to be in a particular place at a particular time and have all out antennae up and active for that compressed moment so that we don't miss the very thing that we can never have again. It’s the very thing I remind you of here and now – that we will never again be together again like this, in this strange room whose walls are open to a vast wide world. We should treasure this moment, and those that have passed between us in the last couple of days.

The truly ephemeral nature of festivals was reinforced forever to me by an account given by Marion Pastor Roces, from the Philippines: she is a specialist in traditional South East Asian textiles and also a political activist. Marion described a festival to which she was invited in a remote village. She was shut inside a small cabin, along with other women, all night, while the ‘festival’ was conducted by the men throughout the village. It is a very good example of the kind of ‘exclusivity ‘we reported on earlier from one of the roundtable discussions – an agreed exclusivity accepted by all involved, including those partially excluded. Way into the early hours she could hear the sounds of voices and ritual going on outside, glimpses of changing light, and a sense of movement and activity. It was an intense experience which she enjoyed – especially the feeling of curiosity not being answered, but imagination going wild. In the morning, after sleep, she emerged out of the cabin and there was absolutely no sign of anything that had happened during the night. The absence of evidence was as powerful to her in this event, as all the detail might be in what we usually think of as a festival.

It takes me finally to a bit of the WHY of what we do as curators. The toolkit that Lily and Mauricio presented and have worked so hard on – a dynamic document to which we are all asked to keep contributing, states that this is not about the arcane festivals based on religion, or seasons or harvests, or other ancient rituals. Here we are talking mainly about more recent manifestations of arts festivals – and while there has always been music as part of ritual and ceremony (there are singers now living in the north of Australia who maintain the oldest living song tradition in the world) – while music, dance and design have always been present in celebrations over the centuries, we concentrate on those festivals who focus mainly on the arts themselves – albeit that those arts may serve a purpose beyond just their own value.

We owe much of that more recent festival development to the period immediately post World War II, for instance in Edinburgh in 1947 with a festival of international theatre performances, and around the same time the great cellist Pablo Casals created a festival of music: both had one aim in mind – to re-unite Europe through the arts. The director Peter Sellars once expressed this  - it was an event in Amsterdam to celebrate the achievement of the great and recently late festival director Frie Leysen on the occasion of her award of the Erasmus Prize in 2014. He said that after WW II those in the arts were asking ‘how do we listen to German music anymore? How do we read German literature anymore?’

The answer was to come together again through the arts.  It means that this model of an intense gathering and experience of the arts was not just for the sake of enjoyment of the arts, but for a vital underlying reason – to be human again, even in the face of not being able to forgive, and to  make a strong statement that reuniting was the only humane possibility. If I thought about that right now, and we replicated the same commitment, many of our festivals would look very different. There are urgent pressing issues of conflict that face us all. In my country there is a damaging fall-out between Australia and China, a war of words that is resulting in real damage. Why would we not be using all our cultural resources to reunite our peoples – to ensure the great relationships that have built up over past decades are not lost in this moment of disagreements. Australia has also just last week had the reputation of its otherwise proud Defence forces badly damaged by the confirmed accusation of war crimes in Afghanistan – and a lengthy legal process will now be conducted against those alleged to have committed the crimes.  If we behaved as curators did in 1947, we would now sense an urgency to create cultural connections to Afghanistan in order to demonstrate, in the face of evidence of inhumane actions, that humanity is possible between these two peoples. 

It evokes that moment in World War 1, when on Christmas Day the soldiers having been engaged for months in hideous face to face battle, on both sides emerged from the muddy trenches, exchanged cigarettes on the frontline and sang together Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht – Silent Night, Holy Night.

Where are our trenches now? What do they look like? Can we emerge from them and sing together, despite our differences? In some places the battles are all too obvious – Ani in Armenia, John in Kenya (talking about the situation in Ethiopia), Black Lives Matter in the

United States and in Australia. And while many of us feel so lucky that there haven’t been overt face to face wars in our countries, yet we are all sharing right now, an incredibly destructive war against a powerful enemy that is really invisible – that little virus – that perfectly natural perfectly indiscriminate occurrence in nature, as many have occurred before, and will occur again, emerging in timeless fashion to reduce human over-population.

Right now we all have the same trench to crawl out of, and international solidarity will reveal itself in the sharing of an effective vaccine – and will also again show up the cracks that have opened up before our eyes during the pandemic – that those that can afford to pay, in advance, are likely to get the vaccine first, and that poverty, whether within nations or in some nations compared to others, will render some increasingly vulnerable.

In this moment AWARENESS is all. It’s obvious, from the way that you all speak, with such passion and thoughtfulness, that you are all doing a great job. As curators, you can't do everything.  But if you continue to develop increasing awareness, increasing sensitivity to the human condition, and remain in that humble position of admitting we don't know what we don't know- and pass on that awareness to those you work with, then you will take steps, and enable further steps to be taken in our various battles wherever and however they occur. And it may be tough sometimes, but remember JOY is a great medicine. Tom gave us that beautiful jewel – the arts as vaccine. Look at the joy we had of the Night Hotel, and the NH7 Weekender, and Faroffa. The ability and the power we have to enable artists to create joy for audiences – even when dealing sometimes not just with happiness, but equally with the most difficult subjects – is something very precious. I celebrate your decision to devote your working lives to this world and this task – what a privilege, to use our working lives to enable joy, and thank The Festival Academy for bringing us together to be able to share our ideas, our challenges and our hopes for the future.

- Robyn Archer 


(About the image: "Bertolt Brecht referred to this image as The Doubter and wrote a poem about it. Healso wrote in The Song of the Flow of Things: 'Of all sure things, the surest is doubt'." - Robyn Archer)