We don’t want a ‘List of the Best’
By Elena Philipp & Georg Kasch
Elena Philipp and Georg Kasch spoke with Kai van Eikels about his research project "Förderung von künstlerischen Produktionen unter veränderten Vorzeichen," (Funding of artistic productions in changed circumstances) which is one of 12 sub-studies in the Fonds’ research program examining artistic development and funding perspectives in the independent performing arts.
Parallel to its #Take funding programs, the Fonds Darstellende Künste has commissioned twelve sub-studies to explore how the funds work and whether the positive effects can be sustained. Prof. Dr. Kai van Eikels from Ruhr University Bochum is leading the sub-study "Funding of artistic productions under changed conditions". Together with the theater maker and cultural scientist Laura Pföhler and the dramaturg, director and VR artist Christoph Wirth, he is conducting interviews and sifting through recordings and livestreams to find out what has changed in artists' working methods as a result of the funding. The researchers will provide initial insights into the state of research at the Federal Forum, September 14-16, 2021 at Radialsystem and online.
Kai van Eikels, corona has shaken things up in the performing arts. You're already gaining an overview thanks to your research. What's the state of the independent scene?
Very good! There are already many interesting reactions to problems and difficulties that have arisen under corona conditions. We are seeking out good practices with our study: what are good responses to conditions in the live arts that have been changed and made more difficult by corona? What is potentially so good that it could be continued after the pandemic is contained? For us, good means examples that go beyond individual artistic work to suggest ways in which others might do the same. We are not interested in the brilliance of particular performances or concepts, but in practices that can contribute to change.
What do you mean by live arts?
Drama, dance, performance, object and puppet theater, experimental forms of circus and projects that delve artistically into the social and political realm. We try to cover as much of this as possible. The three of us all have somewhat different preferences and artistic habitats. We also ask the people whose work we find interesting what they have seen. Sometimes we deliberately bring in expertise, for children's and youth theater or circus, for example. Basically, the selection is subjective. But we don't want to draw up a list of the best or hand out prizes. This is a study intended for artists in the independent scene. Ideally, what we produce as a text will be stimulating to read and to experience. What are others doing? What can we build on? What can we vary? Linked to this is the question of the extent to which funding tools cover needs. What possibilities are there to provide even more precise support?
In terms of funding needs, is there a working hypothesis?
Our hypothesis is that project-oriented proposal writing feeds back into how production is carried out. Many projects take up topics that are discussed in the news because it is easy to make them relevant. The finished productions sometimes have little to contribute to these areas. The danger is that art enters into a parasitic relationship with reality. One of our questions is: how do we get away from a focus on themes? This may require more reliable funding in the long run. If you're worried about the rent, that doesn’t help you to concentrate on your own artistic work’s potential.
How could a different approach to funding look in concrete terms?
The independent scene is stuck in a one-group-one-project logic. We think that the funding of long-term and collective research processes should be strengthened. Along with something like artistic research contexts – corresponding to what is possible in science in terms of collaborative research. This could be financially stimulated. On the free market, artists, groups and institutions compete for funding opportunities – collaborations have so far tended to be strategic optional add-ons. The point is to enable collaboration beyond this competition, this dependence on project funding, this capitalism-influenced working method. There is a need for more security, more sustainability.
Sustainability also in the ecological sense?
Sustainability is a keyword for the entire study. There is a sub-project by Sandra Umathum and Maximilian Haas that deals with sustainability from an ecological perspective. In general, the question is how we find sustainable, cooperative ways of working. How do we get away from being project-based?
Part of your research involves looking at current productions. What have been the first results of interest for you?
One point would be, following from the notion of live arts, what does “live” mean under current conditions? Many performances and rehearsal processes are currently taking place online. Our working hypothesis was quite open: live is, first of all, everything that feels live to the people involved. It is crucially about how someone’s actions appeal to the imagination. Perhaps the boundary between human and non-human bodies becomes more permeable. A lot of the information that bodies communicate to each other when they're in a room is lost in streaming. But maybe objects that the camera movement is directed at, or bots, become more like actors? We know from other areas of online culture, for example from ASMR videos, that the presentation of objects sometimes triggers strong affective reactions and people can develop strong bonds to things.
Has this also changed anything aesthetically?
Many people who show up to a performance in the evening as an audience have already used zoom all day. One reaction is to shift to listening, to voices telling you something. The telephone conversation is making a comeback because it's often able to create intimacy. These are formats that are not new, but that are getting interesting again under current conditions – because voices can be soothing. There are also very stimulating broadcasts, such as a work in which someone in a wheelchair describes his journey along a coast. This is transmitted via livestream to a studio where performers translate the description into movements and sounds and the audience then experiences this performance. The bodies of the performers also become media that transmit something.
Are new forms of collaboration and networking already becoming visible, for example because a group that has never worked online suddenly calls in specialists?
The relationship to technology is an important aspect of our study. This concerns the artists both as users of existing hardware and software and as active co-creators of technology. How do they deal with programs that sometimes impose structures on performance situations? Can these be liberating? Then it becomes apparent that some are starting to develop programs – how are they doing that? Are collaborations with people who bring technical expertise becoming more important? Do they undertake training or do they get someone to do it? That does have an impact on funding needs.
That's the personnel side. What artistic developments have there been?
Through the use of technology, of course, something also emerges aesthetically. For example, there is a piece of work in which adaptive algorithms decide what is saved from a performance – so there is a third party choosing what to remember in addition to the audience and performers. This could change the nature of live art. In particular, we're interested in how technology enhances imagination. How are bots used? How are communication situations created where it is impossible to decide whether the communicators present are an audience, performers or bots? There are interesting works that create role-playing situations in which distrust develops: who am I actually talking to? In the process, one also discovers how bot-like one's own communication is and how easy it is to reproduce certain structures.
Speaking of artistic development: has Neustart Kultur funding primarily helped artists? Or has it also enabled artistic innovations that were not possible previously?
The funding was extremely important, I believe, in order to protect people. We must not forget that many people in the independent scene work under precarious conditions and are not in a position to save up a large fortune. Once it became clear to those who received funding that the money was available and that they could use it to keep their heads above water for a while, people became more relaxed and therefore more curious about the situation. They got involved in a playful and exploratory way.
Is there a paradigm shift within the live arts because of corona?
We don't know yet. Our study is not yet far enough along to say. What is already apparent is that certain developments that were already occurring before the corona crisis have now accelerated. For example, I think we will have a much broader concept of script in ten years. For decades it's been moving away from the literary dramatic text towards a more material focused type of text. In addition, there is currently the writing of code, that is, text that is read and executed by machines. I think that these dimensions of text will become more closely intertwined in the future and will shape the aesthetics of the live arts. We will also have a much more ecological understanding of them.
In what way?
We will no longer be able to think of the place where live arts take place as an "empty space", be it institutional or imaginary, that has been emptied for the purpose of possibility. It will now be a milieu, a space in which something, or things, already live – together. The artistic action, the aesthetic form will find its way into it, in the infrastructural, technical, aesthetic sense. What constitutes artistic form can no longer be answered independently of ecological questions.
Do you have the impression that you can really change something with the study, for example, by using it to exert political pressure?
For me it was a motivation to participate in the study to know that something is being done here for the independent scene that can have a lasting effect and improve the situation. I already have the impression that there are opportunities to propose new funding formats. You can change the structures in such a way that, on the one hand, more artistic quality can emerge and, on the other, less anticipatory obedience. You have to create situations that encourage people to be less obedient.
The application process is currently very sluggish, and the live arts are often very politically timid. I could imagine, for example, as a counterbalance to long-term funding, funding for short-term interventions, without a long application procedure, where a risk is taken by selecting people you trust to react intuitively to an ongoing situation. Then you simply give them a certain amount of money and see what they do with it. I'm not a cultural politician. But I believe that there is a realistic chance to improve artists’ working conditions. At least while there is still no unconditional basic income. Because that would be the real goal: to be able to live in a situation where you don't have to worry about not being able to pay the rent tomorrow.