The politics of lightbulbs and other notes from the field

Alexandra Baybutt, PhD candidate from the Faculty of Arts and Creative Industries, received an Erasmus grant to support her research in Europe. Here she describes some of her experiences abroad and explains why she wouldn’t be the person she is today without Erasmus.

Why festivals?

I draw from performance studies, cultural anthropology and critical geography in approaching my subject matter and target cultures: curators of festivals of contemporary dance and performance art. My fieldwork officially began in June 2016, though unofficially since I began dancing aged four, stepping in and out of frames of performance as a dancer, choreographer, collaborator, audience member, movement coach, educator and writer. Festivals have influenced my ideas, my friendships and long-term artistic collaborations. I was a scholarship recipient in ImPulsTanz Festival, Vienna in 2005, just after graduating from LABAN, London. There I met dance artists from all over the world. I became close to a few from the Balkans – from the former Yugoslavia if we are to be more precise – and we still work together. Eventually I find myself undertaking a PhD concerning the spaces of festivals, their effects and their makers, and applying to Erasmus to support the process.

Impromptu Sunday folk dancing at Kalemegdan, Belgrade

Nijmegen + Brexit

Not so long into fieldwork, the Brexit referendum took place. That day, as part of the Unnoticed Art Festival, I was wandering round Nijmegen in the Netherlands with a group of other volunteers, carrying out art-actions intended to be as unnoticed as possible. It was a shaky day to be encountering diffusions of artistic agency, re-enacting the Big Bang under some trees at a mini roundabout, and eating nasty chips very slowly in a fast-food restaurant. ‘Europe’ was in the air in conversation, stitched together in newspaper headlines, but diffused somehow, as my companions were on a spectrum of deep concern to indifference. One preoccupation displacing another, moment to moment.

Београд, Србија, Belgrade, Serbia

After being present in a few different festivals for my research, it is thanks to Erasmus that between September 2016 and May 2017 I was mostly based in Belgrade, Serbia. Why Belgrade? Because Service Station for Contemporary Dance has held a festival there every Autumn for almost a decade, networked with other artists and arts organisations in the region and beyond (for example Nomad Dance Academy  and Life Long Burning). The organisation serves local dance artists and choreographers, and provides a space for the development and testing of these culture forms. I wanted to be present at their festival and help out where possible, to be with the small team, and the wider milieu. I wanted to get to know them better, what they do, how they do it, what is at stake in their context and under what conditions the festival emerges.

Service Station for Contemporary Dance, Kondenz Festival

The time afforded by both self-directed PhD research and the resources from Erasmus meant I was better placed to situate the practices of cultural workers in the political and economic conditions of Serbia at this time. Station are amongst several organisations fighting for the support of contemporary art and dance as public culture, resisting the privatisation of spaces of art. Kondenz festival is, for example, free to attend. Moreover, Station supports creativity in others through its own creative protocols of experimentation and horizontal decision-making. For other examples of Serbia’s active resistance to the neoliberal shock tactics to its infrastructures, see for example the work of Ministry of Space.

This makes Kondenz festival the means through which audiences can see specific forms of practice, and witness the relationships between artists and Station that cultivate creative risk-taking. Above all, the festival exposes that Station trusts artistic risk, and is not so interested in simply importing artists and works that are already elevated elsewhere. Such a position within a field of cultural production is not unique, but what became evident was how their choices were determined by an ethics of practice that made the festival operate at many levels of meaning.


What is this contemporary you speak of? What is this Europe you speak of?

When considering contemporary Europe, and contemporary art, any linguistic subdivisions of the continent, as well as the notions of ‘transition’ and ‘integration’, require great care and sensitivity. Choosing to refer to an East or West, or South East, or Central, or Balkan, is no mere geographical or topological choice, but a political act, and one that reinforces/negates certain groupings, and appeals to memory (and forgetting).

The constitutional changes following the transition to democracy and capitalism of countries in the region since the 1990s have ushered in an amorphous range of social, cultural, political and economic processes. Contemporary art, and contemporary dance, face many difficulties owing to these processes for continuity and recognition by internal structures or policies; and instead shape belonging on their own terms, and through partnering with like-minded peers, irrespective of national borderlines.

For transnational art practices that regularly champion the ‘international’, the local scenes are nevertheless where action takes place, and the festival remains a site of gathering and sharing. The Kondenz festival in 2016 was similar to previous editions in that it showed a range of works from local artists and from others invited from further away. But this edition became an explicit mouth-piece of its aims, stating its manifesto in print and out loud as part of the responses to the Ministry of Culture’s decisions not to support local dance artists that year, and to some negative critique of them in the press.

Such schisms of perception of dance and choreography by artists, producers, audiences, funders and critics within a city are again not uncommon (e.g. in 2016, the controversial Athens Festival directorship). What distinguishes Station are the ways in which it chooses to make its point, a kind of meta-performance of the festival coinciding with and through the curated works. The manifesto of the Kondenz festival in 2016 gives a flavour of its intent, and was read aloud prior to each performance:

For any kind, variety of a side-track of dance which reflects.
For any choreography of physical or mental bodies which re-questions.
For theory which feels.
For research, experiments, risk.
For an audience who takes part in arts.
For political art.
For art which is not only a product.
For collective practices and organizational principles.
For the artist – citizen.
For transparent procedures.
For continuity of work.
For a united and visible dance scene.
For new generations.
For the next KONDENZ.

Stupid questions + learning

What I wish to point out is that I could not have known about the workings and challenges to the festival without spending time in Belgrade, with Station, the art scenes in general (see for example the temporary gallery and workspace Kvaka22/Catch22 in an old military instrument building) and the political Left more specifically. I want future students at Middlesex to have access to Erasmus, as it contributes dramatically to growth and learning in unpredictable ways. I consider challenge necessary for growth. I do not expect to think the same way by the end of my PhD period of life as I did when I began. And though I am expected to perform confidence and authority of perspective regarding my subject matter, I also consider it important to regard knowledge as provisional, partial and relative. Such travels and close contact with others support processes of continual questioning, enabling a kind of innocence in seeing and perceiving. Being an outsider was welcome: it gave me permission to ask stupid questions, make the mistakes that lead to insights, and to try to make the strange more familiar. The next phase of consolidating arguments worthy of PhD status will be wrought from the rich experiences supported by the Erasmus scheme.

Epilogue + the details to think with

A lightbulb box: the company is American, it is manufactured in Hungary, and it is explicitly not for sale in the European Union. The object shouts its geopolitics in a way that makes arts festivals seem wildly utopic by contrast. The temporary space that elevates human movement and forms of relationality somewhat suspend the conditions of their creation, though embedded within them. The divides that state who is or isn’t allowed to use a lightbulb are blurred for a moment. Of course, there are different divides at play in contemporary art and choreography: new hierarchies form through dissolving others. But these spaces are powerful, and no mere utopia, but illuminate the significance of arts festivals and the figures in them.



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