From an empty Stadsschouwburg Utrecht, Rainer Hofmann opened the SPRING on Screen programme on Thursday 14 May with a speech via Zoom. Read the speech here.
Opening speech for an unopened festival 2020
Goedenavond, good evening.
Welkom, welcome at the opening speech of SPRING Performing Arts Festival 2020. There is no SPRING this May, but I thought I keep a good tradition alive and give an opening speech in the Stadsschouwburg Utrecht. Thanks for joining me here. Now it has become an opening speech for an unopened festival in an empty theatre. So this is not a moment of starting something, but of not-starting something, a moment of pause, of reflection. Fulfilment is postponed.
The actual opening show that we wanted you to see tonight, had the title The Lingering Now. It was created by the Brazilian theatre maker Christiane Jatahy with a cast of people who had to flee their homes and countries. It is about people on an unknown and involuntary journey, people whose lives had been interrupted, people who want to go back home or build a new home somewhere else. The show is about life in suspension.
Now in some way we all live in suspension, most of us under comparably safe conditions. But we do not know what comes tomorrow. ‘Varen op zicht’, as they call it in politics using a nautical expression. According to Dutch laws you need a good radar-installation to be allowed ‘op zicht te varen’.
The other day I listened to an essay by Olga Grasnjowa, a writer from Azerbaijan. Having grown up in a country with questionable democratic and humanitarian standards, she expressed how surprised she is about how surprised we Europeans here are about the fragility of existence. Her life experience in her country taught her that everything can be taken away from you in almost no time.
Then I saw a video on YouTube – yes, I spend too much time staring at small screens trying to make my lockdown a bit more intelligent -, an edit of commercials from our Corona time. All the commercials looked and sounded the same, no matter if they sold cars, insurances, beers, smartphones, tacos, running shoes, tractors or credit cards: They had sad but soothing piano music, they were referring to decades of tradition (trust us, we know how to make you drunk, buy an insurance and drive a car), they showed pictures of warmly lit homes, and they said, we are here for you, we are all part of a community, we help each other, we are there for each other, we are in this together, we do it together, we build it up together.
At least if you buy our cars, insurances, beers, smartphones, tacos, running shoes, tractors and credit cards. Is this being together? Is this offering a safe home? I mean we all know, that in a glass of jam with a sticker that says “home-made with grandmother’s recipe”, there is surely nothing homemade in it and grandmother was absolutely not involved in it at all.
All these desperate companies from the video with their shrinking advertisement budgets and their exhausted marketing departments exploit our need for togetherness and safety, which I also feel strongly in these days.
At the same time the ‘anderhalve-meter-samenleving’, the one-and-a-half-metre society is sold to us as the new normal, het nieuwe normaal. Sold to us by a government whose press conferences have highest viewing rates on TV and internet. They have become very successful pest-sellers.
Expressions like “het nieuwe normaal“ or “anderhalve-meter-samenleving“ (even with the good intention of keeping us safe) try mainly to keep things going. Come up with a harmless name and you do not have to think about real changes! But calling something normal, does not make it normal. It is a step on the way to business as usual. It is the opposite of a Lingering Now, the opposite of a pause, the opposite of a moment in suspension, the opposite of a moment of reflection.
But is there not something that we could learn instead of rushing to a new normal? The virus is like a magnifying-glass, showing us the effects of the ideologies of growth and exploitation which rule our society. Theatre maker Milo Rau said in a poster project that SPRING initiated: “If you are not relevant for the system, perhaps the system is not relevant for you”. This leads to the question: What kind of system would be relevant for us? What kind of system do we want? All together? I have no answers, but let’s use this lingering moment to think about it. This is the hour of the life savers, soon comes the hour of the big questions.
And here we come in. We from the arts. The paradox is that whilst all our theatres and venues are closed, we are as much needed and as important as maybe never before. We ARE a radar. We are THE place of coming together, we are THE place of creating communities. We are THE place of reflecting on a crisis. And of discussing the deeper causes of a crisis. And possible futures. We cannot save sick people. But we can help to understand the world and come up with ideas for a different world.
What could we learn about the old normal? What kind of new normal would we want? Could we imagine a different society? How could it work, even on a global level? Does the human perspective that we can offer help with these questions against the preachers of efficiency? Could the emotional quality of art and its utopian power lead to a different understanding of how we want to live?
How can we promote an open society, also against those who use the virus for their nationalist and populist goals, against those, also within the EU, who dismiss democracy under the pretence of safety rules? How can we safeguard international exchange when nationalist, protective behaviour threatens us? How can we balance the local and the global in the future?
I do not want to instrumentalize the arts, I want to argue for freedom and support for the arts, especially at this moment. They offer the most, when they are not forced to offer something. Culture and art are not a luxury for good times, they are part of the infrastructure of a liberal, democratic society. They reflect deep human needs. They can offer feelings of togetherness or comfort, a larger sense of being, critical thoughts, visions and provocations, utopias and new spaces. Don’t tell the arts what they should do. Leave it to them, give them support and the chance to surprise you.
Right now we cannot go to theatres. Theatre means coming together in the same place at the same time, artists and audiences. We from the performing arts are hit in the core of our existence. We were the first to be closed and we will probably be the last to open up again fully.
We are thankful for the support the Dutch government offers to the cultural sector so far. It is a beginning at least. Yet they underestimate the relevance and the power of the arts heavily. I would like to remind them, we are essential for an open society. Let me translate it into a recommendation for action: fair practice is no fair weather practice.
Obviously, our government does not even know the big economical role of the creative sector. They seem to stick to an old idea of economy which is held alive by equally old and powerful lobbying structures. Even less do they see our strength beyond the economical role, beyond immediate exploitability. Even less do they see the need for this. Back to business seems to be good enough for them, back to normal. It is not for us. We are essential in imagining our future world. Artists and audiences together. In the theatres and in the foyer bars afterwards. Without someone saying “End meeting for all.“ Only “last round“ is accepted.
For the time being, we all created online activities. Far too many in my eyes. A strong and stale smell of “Ersatz“ hangs in the air as soon as the streaming starts. (I am really sorry for imposing myself onto you in the same way, but there is no other way right now and you signed in voluntarily.) Let’s make a little less digital noise for a while and prepare for the time when we open again, when we can invite the audiences again to our venues and museums.
Loving contradictions and ironical gestures, I cannot help but make some noise here myself. And we at SPRING cannot help but offer you an online programme. Don’t worry, it is very specific: We do not show any registrations of performances. We show you work that is made for the screen by the artists that had been invited to the festival. We want to give you an idea of what you have to miss and some inspiration. Every day you can find a new art work on our website. Today we start with a short film by the Japanese choreographer Hiroaki Umeda, a spectacular merging of the physical and the digital. As a special extra we offer you next week on Saturday a new online version of Lotte van den Berg’s Building Conversation called Digital Silence. On the third space combining digital and physical presence.
We do not restrict ourselves to the screen. Theatres are closed but the city is not. For a poster project we asked artists: What do you want to tell the world? Many answered our call and gave us Messages out of quarantine for the future, amongst them Tim Etchells, Nicole Beutler, Philippe Quesne, Dries Verhoeven and Christiane Jatahy. Look out for their contributions on posters in Utrecht and also on our website. I am sure they offer some comfort and some thoughts for our future.
The current situation is not the new normal. It is an emergency situation. Otherwise we are not living, only surviving. I do not want to imagine a world with 1.5 metres distance, where social interaction takes place mainly via screens. I want to believe in us coming together again. I want to believe in the moments, when we will meet here in the theatre, when we will be moved by what we see together at the same moment.
Ladies and gentlemen, I hereby declare SPRING Performing Arts Festival 2020 alive and unopened. Please raise your glasses with me. I see many of you have dressed decently for this non-opening. Please stand up and show also the lower half of your bodies and the clothes there. To a moment of pause and to postponed fulfilment. Do yourselves a favour whenever your current situation allows: Stop being efficient and take your time! To a shared future with open theatres! To the magic of the live moment! To coming together again! Hopefully at an extended SPRING in Autumn edition. Latest at SPRING 2021. Thank you for joining and cheers!