The Theater festival in deSingel (Antwerp) organized on the 11th of September a day of reflection on the subject of performing arts in Flanders. The day started with three statements, including this text from Barbara Raes, who recently resigned as artistic director of the Vooruit Arts Centre. This is an English translation of the text "Stralend opbranden en stenen stapelen".
Burnout occurs when the gap between your own deeply-held convictions and your daily patterns of survival becomes unbridgeable – where passion meets powerlessness. Every era has its own dis-eases and exhaustion has been a plague through the ages. Even though ‘burnout’ is not unique to our times, it's a dis-ease that has many parallels with the practices and systems of a society in overdrive.
A few months ago the burnout monster paid me a visit. What is specific about going through a burnout – as opposed to being overworked or exhausted – is that during this ‘illness’ you are brought face-to-face with the dilemma of ethics versus vision. You feel totally alienated from certain contemporary values and standards that are apparently high priorities on the agenda for everyone else. You discover two alternate paths before you, two ways of stacking stones for the future: you either become cynical, abandon the quest for beauty and honesty and stack your stones vertically; or you look at your ‘illness’ as an invitation and a particularly fertile foundation to recharge and renew yourself and to lay your stones horizontally, one by one – as stepping-stones paving the way for a new path.
‘You can gamble your passion for something, but you mustn’t commit yourself to the end result’. This was environmental activist Vandana Shiva’s response to the question of how she continued to work towards a different and better world, day after day, without losing courage. You can gamble your passion for something but you mustn’t commit yourself to the end result. Meaningful words from a very intelligent woman… but how do you do it?
How do you do it in a field where you’re expected to implement optimal policies in just two or four years; where government is set on ‘result-oriented’ practices; where artists may be 'hip' today but just as well 'hop' tomorrow? When art centers become companies, and art lovers their customers; where professionalization is more and more equated with the values of a market-derived management culture, and where work ethics are based on being over-passionate, over-flexible and under-paid? These are the perfect ingredients for stimulating a sector, but also the perfect recipe for a catastrophic burnout.
Perhaps you may think by now that I took the cynical path of stacking my future stones vertically, but I didn’t.
What fascinates me is the alternative: the enduring search for future sustainable engagement with our interesting yet complex practice, in interesting yet complex times. In recent years, we have felt the potential for our own transition in this field. We are groaning under the final remnants of a faith in an exclusive growth model that clashes with an awareness and desire for a new value system. A multitude of pleas and mountains of books on the subject of sustainability have been written in the last decade, and our field has expanded its vocabulary by leaps and bounds. But converting this honestly into our own practice does appear to be a bigger switch than expected. After all, it doesn’t just involve a minor adjustment to the left or right in an existing system that has worked well for our profession in previous decades. Instead, we feel that the existing systems and organisational forms are economically and energetically unsustainable in the long run.
We are able to give a voice to transition and to take the first steps towards raising awareness in our own organisations. We are trying to change the way we deal with our field of expertise and to slowly have an impact through changing our society. Yet we inevitably run into problems we cannot solve in our thinking and within our own individual (working) frames of reference. Changing things where change doesn't come naturally always implies saying goodbye to old patterns. And that’s exactly where the difficulty lies.
Deep-seated transition goes hand in hand with plenty of imagination, courage and embracing the unknown. Deep-seated transition is accompanied by leaving behind the well-travelled ways of dealing with power, knowledge and obviously money. While our old system is still characterised by growth, individualism and profiling, there is a growing need in our field today for authenticity, reliability, and austerity. We believe that only in this way can our professional field become more pro-active and intelligent.
Transition transcends the capacity of the individual and that of the organisation. Open systems and open sources are the tools for now and the future. We see a growing awareness in our field of the need for a collectively created bridging narrative, where we can acquire our thinking and doing through a kind of ‘open system filter’. A platform to share our experiments and knowledge with colleagues in the field, but also with citizens and participants from all walks of life.
It is typical for open systems to develop towards greater complexity, which can involve chaos and loss of control. So it is a challenge to ensure that, despite the complexity in such a way of working and relating, the system doesn’t fall apart, but adapts. People often have the tendency under stress to frantically return to classic management structures using verifiable and measurable tools as a yardstick. However, exploring open system approaches, the win-win is often found on another level. More than ever, community, networks and sharing become essential. Co-creation and participatory decision-making stimulates the development of a resilient organizational structure.
Over the past few years there have been numerous initiatives to promote co-creation and co-working in Flanders. Think of the inspiring projects by Timelab or Buda in Atelier De Stad. In recent years, the co-operative structure has been investigated as an alternative in several organizations and groups, and valuable efforts towards alternative organisation have also emerged from artists. The models of SPIN or Manyone, seeking in addition to organizational collaboration to stimulate debate and reflection among artists, come to mind; or the initiative of State of the Arts to voice our concerns together; or the shared model for a residency space at Volksroom. These have all been exercises in sharing. They are the kinds of initiatives that could give us the opportunity and means to develop further in the future.
Co-creative leadership abandons unilateral authority in favour of decision-making from the perspective of emancipation and self-management of employees in the realization of change. Shared leadership that respects interdependence supplies oxygen rather than combustion. It implies remaining open and vulnerable while striving for perfection; risk-taking without the guarantee of success. Not wanting to be successful per se is difficult in a field under pressure to excel. Those who do not harvest success must be ‘weak’ or ‘ill’, writes professor Paul Verhaeghe. But unfortunately we work in a ‘hard’ sector, where vulnerability as poetic fancy is valued on stage but in our organizational practice it is still associated above all with uncertainty and lack of resilience.
We try to make all that is uncertain, certain. We know we are dealing with an impact that is difficult to measure and yet we would like to measure our impact precisely. Can we admit that we actually do not know? That we struggle under pressure and take care of everything everywhere, but take too little care of ourselves? It would generate a lot of trust and vigour to be able to share the struggle in a vulnerable way.
Etymologically, the word 'curate’ comes from the Latin curare, which means taking care, healing. With all these curators wandering around in our profession, we must surely be healthcare workers par excellence.
To be able to take care, there must be time made available. We live in times when no one has time for anything. So there is no time for doing nothing. There is a huge difference between being busy and feeling busy. Doing nothing on purpose and making time without any agenda, without a specific purpose, leads to the most creative and inspirational moments. Shared moments of ‘white’ space, of musing-time. Such moments are a requirement for a meaningful ‘switch’ that would allow us to truly see what is unfolding through care and awareness. We need to have adequate time and space to think about how we can remodel our organisations, our production and presentation models, our relationship to society... our thinking, working and living. Taking care of the cultural landscape means taking care of its human resources, or rather people and the conditions under which they must work.
Our caring capacity is under huge pressure. With previous legislation we experienced the wounds of small budget cuts. And yet we became a field with more organizations than ever, all with too few resources, all going the extra mile to keep up the volume. So we did exactly what was expected of us in a late capitalist society. Art centres would offer less and less by way of production and support for artists. Pressure of work would increase for both artists and the people on the organizational side. The artists, however, are in the most precarious position, because artistic budget is often the last to be considered in a budget drowning in overheads. Hasn’t this gradually become just another footnote to the whole story?
The political-ideological framework within which the arts will have to manoeuvre in coming years is not at all evident. It doesn't look as if the pressure will decrease. Whether budget cuts are large or small, we will, by definition, have to search again for the 'essence' of our arts organizations and companies. Daring to question, to be able to deal with the essence, is where the need tangibly arises. Daring to be more like an artist. Not because we are backed up in a corner, but because together we have the courage to redraw the artistic landscape, to create the fertile ground where innovative models will grow and prosper. In her State of the Union address last week, Ann Olaerts called for an effort to approach the renewed arts decree in an adventurous way; and above all, together!
Together, would our sector be able to pioneer an alternative way of living and distribution? A fair redistribution of resources, time and labour leads to different consumption habits, other ways of looking at the world, and much more free time. And within that repossessed free time, how many new things can happen! Sustainable reduction thus becomes sustainable innovation. And then we are back to ‘growth’ – not purely economic growth, but growth of this different quality, which is so crucial to our society!
None of this is news for you. You know it all already. After all, we are a mirror of contemporary social (hi)stories. We are working in a field that dreams a lot, but also pretends a lot and easily forgets. A field with a very short memory; a field that is hiding its burnout in the darkness; a field that is slowly lagging behind, and is aware of it, yet unable to let go. A field in which beauty could easily outshine all, but sadly continues to conform with the rest of the world, with the same rules and costumes.
Great transitions start with small changes. The program this afternoon is an invitation to work on change in a co-creative way. An invitation to do something about that collective burnout and, as a profession, to begin laying down our stones horizontally, one by one, to begin creating futures, near and far. This is after all the place where you and I will spend our time together in the coming years.