Interview with EFA Vice President: EFA opens doors to Europe-Asia cooperation

13 August 2010

In his role as Vice President of the European Festivals Association (EFA) and representative of the Flanders Festivals International, Jan Briers has been working closely with Asian festivals and festival associations over the past years. From 25-29 September an EFA delegation is going to Shanghai for the fifth time. In an interview with EFA on 12 August 2010, Mr Briers spoke about the importance of collaboration between Asia and Europe and the role of festivals and networks such as EFA in this context. 1. As representative of both the Flanders Festival International and the European Festivals Association you have been working closely with Asian festivals and associations over the past years. Can you tell us a bit about the evolution of the cultural and festival sector in Asia that you could follow during your travels in the past years? It was about 20 years ago when first Asian festivals gained importance on the global stage. At that time they were created by the state, mostly by the departments of education or information. And still today, there is a much stronger political influence than it is the case in Europe, not necessarily a negative one. There are still many festivals in Asia where the city or the government decides on the purposes, not necessarily cultural, but also political, social or touristic objectives. On the other hand, the programmation shouldn’t be influenced by the political level. There, a change is still needed. Many things have already changed over the past 20 years. There were two festivals for me that directed that change: the Singapore Arts Festivals and the Hong Kong Arts Festival. The directors of those festivals, Goh Chin Lee and Tisa Ho, were interested in working together with Asian partners as well as with European festivals. They were also the ones who introduced the idea to create a federation like EFA – in Asia. The Association of Asian Performing Arts Festivals (AAPAF) was founded in 2004 and AAPAF’s statutes were created on the basis of EFA’s. But it had to be done in a slightly different way as EFA is a very old organisation and the situation of the festival sector in Asia differs a lot compared to Europe. Their idea was to create a federation in which a few strong festivals - that were able to help the festival world in Asia as a whole - took the lead. Secondly, a few Australia and European festivals and partners were included, such as the Edinburgh International Festival, the Flanders Festival International and EFA – to have a connection to other parts of the world. It is interesting to see that today also smaller festivals join AAPAF. This is a good development because the aim was also to support smaller festivals that have more difficulties to develop, like festivals from Cambodia, Laos , Vietnam or Indonesia. Their structure is very different from that of European festivals; they are in need of new strategies. We are recreating ourselves all the time, but they create something totally new: a real festival life in Asia. Today, Asian festivals stimulate participation in the cultural life. 2. “Still so much to be done” once said Denis de Rougemont, Founder and first President of EFA, about the development of a (cultural) Europe. The conditions for the cultural sector are very different in Asia and Europe. What is the main difference? From an artistic point of view, most of the Asian festivals are still looking too much to the past – but isn’t that the case in Europe too? You feel there is a need to create their own new cultural life. But this takes time. Europe can and needs to help them. One of the best examples is the Singapore Arts Festival. I saw a production where they combined the old and the new: a young Chinese composer living in Paris was asked to create new music around the traditional dance of Cambodia. At the same time a video artist was sent to Cambodia to show what the Pol Pot regime did to the country. It was a very emotional production. And a good example of how to look at the future. Now, in Singapore or Seoul, more and more small creative centres are set up where young artists, writers, choreographers, film makers, musicians, composers etc. work together with many facilities at their disposal. You can see, an understanding emerges that one has to give space to young, creative artists. But it is still a very long way to go. 90% of a festival’s programming includes productions concerned with the past or from the West. 3. It seems that Asia is a big market – they buy and sell. It seems that Asian colleagues are keen on learning from European festivals’ experiences. But is it not even more important for us to learn from Asian arts and culture? Do we know enough about Asia? It is strange that we know so little about Asia. As I said before it has already changed a lot: young people in Asia are very interested in the arts. If we want to be part of that new world that is developing in Asia, we have to go there and see what they are creating. I think there are many European artists, mostly from dance, film and visual arts, that have already relationships with artists in Asia and help them to come to Europe and the rest of the Western world. Not only our artists, but also we, the festivals in Europe, have to be open to Asian arts. Last year, we brought five Asian productions to the KlaraFestival in Brussels. But it was not easy to get other festivals interested in the productions because they had not seen them. It is very difficult for us Europeans to know what’s there – so we have to trust our Asian partners. We have to work together with Asian programmers and have confidence in what they propose. The one that was proposed to us, for example, was the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra. It was a marvellous experience in the Flagey in Brussels. European festivals are too much individualistic programmers, in the sense that some of the big festivals include a lot of Asian artists in their programme but they don’t communicate it. They don’t tell the rest of us festival organisers. There are single events but it would be more productive if those European festivals that work already with Asia share their experiences and expertise with other festivals that have not yet programmed Asian productions. Initiatives such as the EFA-AAPAF meeting help a lot. It is very important that our members go there to take contact with Asian festivals and partners – to lay the foundation for future collaboration. 4. EFA is planning a series of activities in collaboration with its Asian sister organisation AAPAF, such as an Atelier for Young Festival Managers and a first major meeting between EFA and AAPAF members you just mentioned. Why is this work of EFA as a network so important? EFA as a network proved to be a key actor in the development of collaborations between artistic networks from all over the world. In 2007, in the frame of the 50th anniversary of the Flanders Festival, EFA organised a conference in Brussels (“Cultural Networks at Work”) together with the International Society for the Performing Arts (ISPA) and many other networks from all over the world. It was a very important moment because it brought together all the important cultural networks. It laid the foundation for festivals in Europe to get to know the structures with which they can work. EFA has not only developed into an important trustee of the European community but also of the artistic world. Many festivals still don’t realise the opportunities EFA offers to them – that they have an open door not only to Europe but to other regions of the world such as Asia. We only can change this through giving good examples, such as the EFA delegation that is going to Shanghai for the 5th time in 2010; or the fact that several festivals are working more and more together thanks to EFA, like for example within the project MUSMA – the European Broadcasting Festival. Festivals need to participate in EFA meetings to find out about all the opportunities EFA offers, the contacts that are related. We have to encourage participation. The General Assembly in Merano was very productive for example. Therefore, I would like to encourage EFA members to attend the Shanghai meeting. 5. Focus China: The rapid transitions in all sectors also mean major challenges for the Chinese society. Which role for arts and artists in this scenario? I actually think it is more the task of festivals, of the festival directors to create possibilities, to convince our Asian partners to see the artistic work as the most important item. Because if you give artists the possibility to create, your own culture can develop. At the same time, as festival director, you have not only to give an opportunity to artists but also to the public. To try to remove barriers to participation in cultural life. Festivals are in the privileged position to approach a broad variety of audiences and reach new audiences. They can give everybody the possibility to have access to culture. Festivals have to convince their sponsors, boards, officials etc. about their importance for the country’s own culture, for the development of the country. We can help them in this respect. Festivals like Avignon, Edinburgh or Berlin already do a lot in Asia. But more festivals have to follow their example. A good way to help them is to bring their productions to Europe. The KlaraFestival for example programmed a lot of Asian productions last year. It was a huge success. And next year we will bring a Belgian artistic project to Shanghai – in which we also work with Asian artists – and will again include Asian artists in our festival in Belgium. On the other hand, big festivals in China have to open their doors to both artists and audiences; not only to famous European orchestras, for example, but also to smaller, new productions. They have to give their own artists and artists from around the world the possibility to work together in order to create a new public. 6. Coming back from your travels to Asia, what do you bring back for your own festival, the Flanders Festival International? Which artistic project or idea? I’m not the artistic director. My task is to communicate my experiences to the artistic directors and introduce them to the Asian colleagues. That’s very important. Thanks to these contacts they had the chance to go and visit our Asian colleagues and enhance future artistic collaboration. You have to invest in this. I would like to call upon European festivals to collaborate more closely and set up joint projects. Why not a European-Asian festival for example in which we co-produce with Asian festivals? Related links: • Interview Kathrin Deventer, EFA Secretary General: “European festivals in a global era”2009 EFA Delegation to ShanghaiSpeech Darko Brlek: "Without arts, no peace, tolerance, creativity and progress" during the visit of the 2009 EFA delegation to ShanghaiAssociation of Asian Performing Arts Festivals (AAPAF)