Monday, 28 October 2013

A jet lagged morning, and a few words from the Festivals

Friday, October 18: Morning Session

A day of speeches begins. The theme is the importance of preserving cultural diversity the world over, as recently put forward in a UNESCO resolution - to which, I believe, China is a signatory.

1) The morning begins with an address from a visiting UNESCO official that, though in fluent English, is almost entirely incomprehensible. I suspect the speaker is whip smart, but she speaks in an unremitting monotone I suspect is fostered by the crushing bureaucracy of the United Nations. OH MY GOD it is a hellish slog through this speech: lots of multi-syllabic words and complex sentences delivered almost entirely without inflection. This is followed by a respected Chinese academic who is somewhat more animated, but unfortunately, a soporific speaker is hard to follow - especially when the audience is extremely jet lagged. I begin to understand what it might be like to work at the UN, and am strangely comforted in my career choice...

What SO many of us want to be doing...
2) The Chinese scholar, TU Weiming (who teaches at both Harvard and Peking University) is an advocate of the new Confucianism. One of the many fascinating things he maintains is that in
the 21st century, technology has increased human capacity to learn and to relearn, but also to unlearn. This, coupled with the idea that while Heaven is ever present but not omnipotent, means that humans must take care of the direction their societies move in. Confucius, he says, felt a duty to not set himself apart and pray, but to rather live IN the world, in order to transform it. We ignore this at our peril.

Tu Weiming speaks
3) Jonathan Mills follows. He is the Artistic Director of the Edinburgh festival. I have still not recovered from the first speaker, and Sir Jonathan's style is not exactly invigorating. But he is no slouch, and he makes a point that I am happy to hear made: when we use economic language to talk about art, we do both our societies and art a disservice. 

4) UNESCO ambassador TAN Dunn speaks next - he is about as famous and well-regarded a composer as China has ever produced. But I can absorb almost nothing at this point. We are hours in. Mr. Tann does speak of the duty he feels to use his privilege well, while at the same time he doesn't quite understand why he feels compelled to always experiment, reach further, do more. But this is the way it is.

5) The final speaker is TIAN Qinxin, director of China's National Theatre. I have no idea what she says. The simultaneous translation is difficult to grasp, and the jet leg is full on. Which is too bad. She is another big deal here in Shanghai, but, again, something less than a magnetic speaker. The whole morning is an argument in support of the communication skill of actors - a skill that I ache for from this group of brilliant and distinguished commentators.

We break for lunch.

Friday, October 18: Afternoon

The afternoon sessions are back-to-back collections of international festival artistic directors. I've never seen so many of this breed gathered together in one place. 

1) The introduction is from TIAN Qing, who is the director of the China Academy of Art, and Institute of Music. I am quite smitten with him. 

Mr. Tian begins with an cooking analogy to describe the importance of diversity. If you add water to water, your soup won't be very good. He speaks about the importance in China of not simply copying Western forms, but of preserving / creating Chinese forms so that the soup tastes good. 

He goes on to talk about the massive mistakes that have been made during China's rush to industrial modernization. By not paying attention, there have been tremendous environmental losses. He warns of the same dangers in a rush to cultural modernization - that in not paying attention, China will experience massive cultural losses. He speaks of certain traditional forms that have already been lost, and how, once gone, they are forever gone. His speech is a plea to pay attention to what Chinese culture is. 

"If we throw the seeds away, there won't be trees and flowers in the future."

2) The next speakers are all engaging - thankfully! The director of Finland's consortium of festivals, Kai Amberla, is the first humorous speaker we've had, and so is most welcome. His speech is terrific: a strongly worded call to always remember that art is art, not a commodity. We must make room for the optimal conditions that allow art to function - we must welcome disasters, passion, and diversity. He talks of the relationship between public policy and culture, and that how, without an active cultural policy, diversity will quickly fade away. Diversity, he says, is a choice - a political choice. For him (and I agree), culture is all about passion, and without passion there is no diversity.

3) Andrew Bleby, from the Melbourne festival, is also a wise speaker. He speaks to the purpose of culturally diverse festivals in Australia: through art, we get to know ourselves.

4) Mary Lou Aleskie, from the Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, makes a point that fame is relative and becoming even more so in the globalized world. There are diminishing returns in star programming, since one sector of an audience may never have heard of any particular "star." This, paradoxically, gives her more freedom to program based on interest. The artwork has become more important than who is making it at her festival.

5) Piotr Turkiewicz, from the Festival Wratislavia in Poland, speaks to how he has carved out space for innovation in his programming. His audience has learned that the point of the festival is not to know the names of the artists, but to expect that the art will be thrilling. This kind of innovation is central to his idea of art: "Only dead fish go with the flow," he says.

The other speakers - from Hong Kong, Lithuania, Shanghai and Taipei - are fascinating. All are running enormous institutions, but institutions that are, by their very nature, flexible and quick to adapt. 

The last word is about legacy. Andrew Bleby, from Melbourne, sums it up. There are three legacies a festival can leave:

Art work;
Support for local artists; and
Connection, the fostering of global conversations.

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