For the past twenty years, I have been active as a maker, performer, artistic advisor and multi-tasker of all kinds in the experimental performing arts field. My background is in contemporary dance and choreography but since I graduated from school I have continuously re-examined and re-invented what my artistic language is and could be. Lately, I’ve begun articulating my practice as crash-disciplinary, a term I’ve invented to permit a certain voluntary ignorance of disciplinary borders and conventions. This approach gives the material I work with and create a lot of power to decide how it exists in the world and emphasizes the learning aspects of my artistic practice, a process that continually both morphs and crashes into new territory. I very much identify myself as seeking to learn through my work. To learn ways of being with and in the world, ways of seeing and understanding, ways of feeling and sharing. My artistic processes are always learning processes.
The choices I have made over the years haven’t been without consequences. Today I am 41 years old and I have little stability or structure. I pretty much have to defend my position, my place in the field, over and over again. In some sense, every day is my first day at the office but it isn’t my first day in the field. I am proud of still having the energy and the curiosity to be lost and to fail, to try again and to experiment. I am grateful for all the encounters I have had over the years, with people and ideas, and the lasting impact these have had on who I am as an artist today. I am both in a very precarious position as well as very privileged. And it is from this position that I write today.
With the pandemic hitting hard many artists usually working internationally the virtues of the local have come to the foreground. But what exactly is this local? Is it the local of my city or region, the local of my neighbourhood, the local of my home or the local of my body and inner world? We mostly assume that the local is understood similarly by everyone but it is definitely not experienced the same. When I look around me I see that local is very much international, that local is very much familiar and unfamiliar at the same time and that local is fragile and in constant movement and does not in any way offer me a sense of security, stability or comfort. The local is not my home and it is not necessarily the new thrilling alternative as some would like to think. The local is unstable yet also hermetic. I consider myself an international worker because I work with people from all over the world, with roots and connections all over the world, with dynamic relations to what home is and with an uneasy sense of stability. Every project I launch requires me to establish new connections, create new links, seek new relations with people both far and close, with the geographically ‘here’ and ‘elsewhere’. For me, the local and the remote are equally fragile and equally foreign. They are territories within which I feel neither particularly at home nor particularly a stranger. I just am. And I am in different places, in a constant flux of new families created and growing, families that morph with time and with me moving. The local for me is not an easy solution to grapple the hardships that this pandemic has forced upon us. It is also not the suffocating littleness of that which I know. It just is. A part of the landscape within which I create temporary homes.
During the pandemic, one of my missions has been to try and discover the foreignness of this place that, on paper, is my home (I refer here to my neighbourhood). Not to familiarize myself with it but rather to keep feeding my need for adventure and discovery. I have come to one conclusion; no place is particularly exciting when stripped of its soul. The beating heart of the local has been silenced along with the impossibility to travel across borders. This pandemic has rendered most things lifeless, partly dead, or at least on a very long pause.
It is in this atmosphere that I as an artist try my best to continue innovating, creating, experimenting, reflecting. It feels a little like studying literature in a library emptied of books, or like making soup with only dry ingredients or…
It is in this atmosphere that important changes are taking place in regard to government funding and social security for art workers in Belgium. Cultural Policymakers have decided that today is as good a day as any to take decisive turns for tomorrow’s artistic landscape in the country. This could be a big mistake. I mean let’s face it, who knows what tomorrow will look like and what needs and desires will be on the table.
The lack of acknowledgement of what, in reality, is happening in the arts goes hand in hand with these changes. The new funding guidelines seem to go back in time, again trying to fit us and our work back into smaller and smaller boxes. What happened to the appreciation of blending borders between disciplines, new models of working together, or basically doing and thinking differently, together and apart?
We are certainly in need of change but are we not missing the point by relying on old parameters of growth, going back in time and re-adopting principles and values that are long outdated and not reflecting the complete reality of the field?
In this time of change why not exercise a radical shift of perspective instead? Exceptional times require exceptional measures, isn’t that what they say? Why not try really exceptional measures for once, try something new and truly different? We need a change that brings with it a new way of looking at the artistic field, a change that allows cross-contaminations and new relational approaches between players to flourish. We need exciting perspectives for the future, not the tired and dusty ones from the past*.
This radical shift cannot, on the one hand, happen from one day to another but, on the other hand, it is already happening. Artists are already inventing new ways of working, they are already giving priority to fair and sustainable working relations, building solidarity and diving into the unknown head-on. The problem is that institutions and funding bodies aren’t, while at the same time taking more and more space as decision-makers of tomorrow’s art. A program that doesn’t dictate what artists should be making, a funding application that doesn’t value this type of work over the other, these are things one must look very hard to find in the current landscape. Who decides today what kind of art is made? The artists who make the work? The funders? The institutions and venues who support the making of the work and its publication in different ways? Ask yourself the following: how much art is made in the margins, in the shadows? How much of this work in the periphery of the big machine could be inspirational and influential in this radical shift?
I know, the underground needs to stay in the underground or it loses its identity, its raison d’être, but is it not time to shift what is in the spotlight? Isn’t that exactly what is needed right now? A true shift of perspective not just a ‘gentle’ alteration of the already established moulds. The artistic landscape is an ecosystem of desires, ‘knowledges’, stories, inventions, experiments and colours. An ecosystem that is by nature rich in its diversity**. So, why do institutions of all kind constantly try and restrict this diversity? Isn’t it time for the funders and the venues to follow what is being made rather than the other way around, that we, as artists, have to follow what funders and venues ‘allow’ us to make? The time is ripe for exercising true change and a radical shift of perspective. I dream of a time when artists won’t have to follow a mould dictated by funders and institutions, a time when the mould is flexible and dynamic and in constant transformation, a time when the mould is based on what actually happens in the arts.
*The new arts decree in Belgium is, among other things, greatly limiting the possibilities for artistic research and reducing the space for alternative modes of creation and production, for new ways of working. It is also giving further power to institutions by investing in bigger and bigger houses, with the consequence that the budget for smaller and more fragile alternatives (such as individual artists and artist-run organizations) is further decreased. The general focus is on the notion of cultural heritage and big institutions.
** I am not speaking of a politically correct diversity here but of a diversity that is messy, multiple, far-reaching and touches on race and gender but also social and economic disparities and artistic variations. A diversity that truly reflects the multitude of creative voices out there.
Nada Gambier, March 2021