Attention as a form of ethics (*)
Gundega Laiviņa is a freelance performing arts and interdisciplinary curator and lecturer from Latvia, former artistic and managing director of the New Theatre Institute of Latvia and Homo Novus, International Festival of Contemporary Theatre. Gundega has been a curator of the Latvian exposition at the three latest editions of the Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space and a member of the curatorial team of the Latvian pavilion at Biennale di Venezia 16th International Architecture Exhibition. From 2010 till 2014, she was a member of the artistic board of Riga – European Cultural Capital 2014, responsible for artistic practices that engage with urban spaces and communities. Gundega has studied music, theory of culture and social anthropology, and has received several European level diplomas and certificates in arts management. Currently based in New York where she studies urban placemaking and management at the Pratt Institute’s Graduate Centre for Planning and the Environment.
Traditionally, January is the time of the year when the most recent and courageous performing arts work is celebrated in New York as a number of major festivals take place across the city. While I write this text, they are announcing full or partial cancellations, one after another. The city is undergoing yet another wave of coronavirus with the number of daily cases nationally approaching one million. 2022 feels different from this period last year, when curators and venues actively engaged in carving out new spaces, both real and virtual, for COVID-safe production and presentations. Now everyone seems exhausted and has instead chosen to cancel when standard forms of presentation become impossible. Has all that mind-blowing experimentation with practices, spaces and distances been just a temporary substitute to the ‘festival as usual’?
Sometimes, when imagining the arts landscape, I see the ocean. There are large cargo ships, full of very precious stuff, yet – incredibly heavy and slow, with minimal manoeuvring capacity. If the weather becomes severe, they stand still and wait. They remind of those big arts institutions that could afford to close their doors when the pandemic hit, and hibernate until better times. They had not changed much when they finally reopened their doors. Then, there are small sailing and rowing boats: they are agile and mobile, and have to be able to take quick decisions, to adapt to unexpected circumstances in order to survive. They guide others, yet – have less chance to survive themselves. Likewise independent structures, as opposed to large institutions, do not have that privilege (or desire) to hold back. On the contrary, many of them have become exciting laboratories of thinking and experimentation during the pandemic.
And then there are free divers – those who are able to move freely in all directions and encounter places, beings and connections that remain inaccessible to the majority. They bring those stories, images and relationships to the rest of us, and sometimes invite us to follow them into the abyss. I like to think that a perfect festival is a free diver. Or, at the very least – an agile sailing boat.
I myself spent the summer of 2020 remaking the entire Homo Novus festival programme in the light of the travel restrictions and physical distancing requirements, and acknowledging tremendous loss, pain and anxiety so many people were experiencing. There was a huge temptation to cancel the festival. There was longing for an old, well-tested pattern. Yet, there was also that liberating feeling that finally there is a real opportunity to actually do things differently, giving away control and embracing the unknown. Moreover, we felt obliged to offer a programme that would help people to overcome those difficulties and detachment.
One of the questions we kept asking was: how do we make live, international events when travel is suspended? In the end, this new festival became a compilation of practices that sought to bring existing artworks or creative ideas across borders, without the author being present. It was possible thanks to international artists who accepted our invitation to work from their homes, be it in Central London or Mexican countryside, and make their works live in collaboration with local co-creators and performers in Latvia, often allowing the voices and ideas of local communities to be truly in the foreground, or central. Moreover, we wondered – with whom else could we collaborate if we cannot be together with other people? Like divers underwater, we started noticing more clearly all those non-human elements that are present in public space – animals, plants, materials, weather, viruses, and, instead of trying to limit their presence, invited them to become co-creators of our festival.
In some ways, we started to be and work together differently than in times when we could travel and share the same space physically. “Art is simply paying attention,” wrote Alan Kaprow, the American artist. In those new circumstances we all were learning to practice attention on a different, more profound level. Until it emerged as a form of ethics.
Later, in summer 2021 a small group of artists and curators engaged in a thinking experiment and created a collection of examples of how live performance work can travel and be experienced/performed without the artist being physically present (showingwithoutgoing.live), how artists can travel slower and more sustainable, or engage with the place and local communities, both human and non-human, on different terms.
The result affirmed that there is a fascinating pool of artistic practices and curatorial strategies that challenge standard ways of touring and hence, festival making by placing artists, communities and localities in the centre of decision making. Many have been around for quite some time already and the reasons for rethinking conventional touring strategies are various: of course the climate emergency and cutting air travel, but also visa restrictions and passport limitations, censorship, imprisonment, disability, the necessity to develop new forms of connection, slowing down, land/community commitments, and engagement with virtual environments, amongst others. By stopping air travel and closing theatre buildings pandemic brought those practices to the fore, made visible and appreciated.
What If we started perceiving a festival as an activator of time, space and relationships, as something that should happen when / where it is most needed in order to activate certain connections, to pay attention? When bidding farewell at the end of the festival, instead of saying “see you at the same time and same place next year”, we would say: “see you when/where there is a need”. It would mean dedicating a larger portion of both – artists and curators’ time to learning the place, time, community, searching for that need instead of traveling around the world and “shopping” the artwork. As John Berger has said: “to improve something, you really need to know the texture, the life story of that thing”.
While I write this text, I recall probably the most inspiring festival I have experienced last year. All the official festivals that happen across the city in January were either cancelled or happened online. Yet, there was this festival happening 24/7 in Washington Square Park – not marketed, not curated, not programmed, not timed, not ticketed. As opposed to so many festivals that promote themselves as inclusive – but in reality are closed, exclusive spaces, this one was a truly inclusive happening where everyone could become a performer – an evocative mix of music, dance, spoken word, activism, play, people and animals, a celebration of being alive. Because the celebration of life is what was needed most at that moment in this place.
(*) Title of the poem by American author Asiya Wadudm
Festival Life creates shared moments of audiences and artists, eye-to-eye