21 March, 2007

here+now SEE fact-finding trip: conclusions

I set out on November 2006 intending to find out as much as I could about improvised arts and performance in central Europe and in south-east Europe (SEE) in particular. Was it a success? Well, yes and no.

I travelled the route I had laid out, I did everything I could in the time I had, and I met a lot of great people. But the truth, of course, is that for every interesting artist or performer you meet there are thousands you don’t. I didn’t even go to Bulgaria or Romania, which joined the EU on January 1 2007. And everyone agreed that those two countries had some of the best music… So I saw only a tiny fraction of what I would have liked to see.

Still, I learned something, and perhaps some conclusions can be drawn from what I learned.

I learned that, as it is everywhere, the improvised performance art scene is a minority one, fuelled by the energy and single-mindedness of a small number of talented people. One difference: while they are always aware of each other’s work, they sometimes only get to actually see it at festivals held in Western European countries. So we should continue to facilitate such exchanges.

I learned that the arts scene as a whole in this region is changing quickly; that the slow-moving, stifled artistic expressions of the Communist era is giving way to a grass-roots revolution characterized by political and artistic independence, originality, stylistic and technological modernity, an international outlook, and the youthfulness of its exponents. So in today’s networked world, good art is as likely to come from the east as anywhere.

I learned that some of those who had had to fight Communist opposition and bureaucracy to obtain artistic recognition and influence had become the jealous custodians of this influence, unwilling to risk hard-earned reputations by investing in the avant-garde. So we should give our support to the small-scale, grass-roots initiatives that need it most.

I learned that for many ordinary people in the region, their national art, music and theatre provided a mainstay of identity in a rapidly changing world. Their national songs, their greatest artists, musicians and actors were more interesting, important and familiar to them than their countries’ politics and politicians and their role in Europe.

There is a warning here. This is a swathe of Europe in which nobody seems to know what being ‘European’ might mean, apart from the most critical changes that membership of the EU brings: big foreign players (and local bullies) muscling into an opened market; subjection to new, inflexible regulations; and the tantalising whiff of the easy life we take for granted. Meanwhile, new money is rapidly ousting the traditional values of thrift, sobriety, courtesy and community. I fear that this is the kind of soil in which a backward-looking nationalism and conservatism – religious, political, social – could thrive.

So I believe it will be important both for Europe as a whole and its newest members that Brussels listens to ordinary people in the new countries, and especially to their natural ambassadors: their artists, writers, dancers, musicians and other cultural representatives. Europe must help to ensure that they get a platform on which to represent their countries in ways which everybody understands: directly, honestly, personally, and authentically.

I made lots of useful contacts, but it was overly ambitious to have supposed that someone like me, travelling alone, could make any significant difference. The EU is rich and doubtless wants the best for all its citizens, but for most of the inhabitants of the new member countries it is as yet unreal, no more than a distant and faceless institution. Ultimately it will be up to the countries themselves to support, facilitate and encourage their artists, and to help them take their work to other countries in Europe and elsewhere.

However, the governments of several SEE countries appear to be cutting their arts budgets in response to the economic difficulties brought about by their entrance into the European market. These cuts will do terrible damage to a vital and burgeoning domain that is invaluable to these countries’ sense of their own identity within Europe – and which has an important contribution to make to the sense of a collective European cultural identity.

And as far as my own purposes are concerned, I’m a happy man. I have met dozens of talented artists and performers and know how to find more, in a part of the world with some remarkably talented and original artists and performers – who I think we will be hearing more of in the future. 🙂

Thinking of going?

21 March, 2007

Advice for anyone thinking about visiting central or south-eastern Europe

In a word: Go!

It’s big, varied, fascinating, beautiful, and cheap. The streets are packed with authentic European history. The people are European, too, of course, only much more interesting. It’s nice and old; there are hardly any McDonald’s (yet). So go, see the landmarks, soak up the atmosphere, eat, drink and party like the locals, make friends, listen to the music, learn the dances and the crazy languages. Go before everyone else does. 🙂

  • For natural beauty: Croatia (especially the coast) and Slovenia (the north and west)
  • For the performing arts: all the capitals, particularly Prague
  • For history and architecture: Budapest, Prague, Bratislava, Zagreb, Ljubljana
  • For local music: Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, Serbia, Albania, and Greece
  • For hip young things: Prague and Brno, Bratislava, Zagreb, Ljubljana

And always ask people what their region is famous for. I’ve lost count of all the local specialities (clothing, tools, musical instruments) that I wish I’d budgeted for, and the delicacies (fruits, vegetables, meats, wines, spirits, oils, breads, sweets) living in blissful ignorance of EU export regulations…