Communication Channels

Feature in Issue 20-3 | Autumn 2008

Terry O’Donovan reports on the kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels, which in 2008 focused on language and cross-border dialogue.

For the past thirteen years, an arts event in Brussels has been exploring contemporary performance in diverse and exciting ways.

Kunstenfestivaldesarts is dedicated to new work (creations as they call them) by Dutch- and French-speaking artists from Belgium as well as Western and non-Western artists. Artistic director Christophe Slagmuylder passionately travels the world in search of inspiring performance art to bring back to Brussels for this three-week long festival which takes place in a plethora of venues around the city every May.

Now in his second year of directorship, Slagmuylder is committed to developing the work of innovative practitioners by commissioning many new works from artists with whom he has built relationships over years and years. Half of this year’s thirty productions were new works co-produced by the festival. In 2007, Korean artist Toshiki Okado impressed Slagmuylder so much with his piece Five Days in March that he asked the writer and theatre-maker to create a new work for this year which resulted in Freetime, a moving and enchanting exploration of character, productivity and narrative form. This is how Slagmuylder hopes to continue the development of his cutting-edge collection of works; by beginning dialogues between artists and audiences, and finding connections which may otherwise never have been found.

‘We can have a touring piece by The Wooster Group or ROSAS performing alongside artists’ second or third piece,’ he explains. ‘By watching new and old work side-by-side in a festival, an audience can begin to discuss the relationship between the artists, the forms they use, methods and themes. It opens up new conversations about art.’ The same dialogue arises between the participating artists, oftentimes with the result beginning inspiring collaborations. William Forsythe, who returned to the festival this year as a spectator, having performed his work here on numerous occasions, was so struck by Brazilian choreographer Bruno Beltrao that they are now discussing possible collaborations.

They are two choreographers that you wouldn’t necessarily put together on paper. Beltrao has been developing a rigorous and exhilarating body of choreographic work based on the world of street dance, with his contemporary dance and philosophy training helping him to deconstruct the world of hip-hop movement.

This year’s festival was concerned with language and communication across nationalities: a fitting theme in Brussels, the capital city in a country warring with language. Slagmuylder says he never chooses his themes in advance, instead he begins to programme and is led by the work which he chooses to find connections between them. This year’s opening came in the form of German composer-director Heiner Goebbels’ latest music theatre production Stifter’s Dinge in which there was no performers. Stifter’s Dinge centred on a post-human world, where language no longer mattered.

Elsewhere, Michael Marmarinos’ Theseum Ensemble’s epic Dying as a Country is described as a performance for 999 people and a microphone and calls for 120 volunteer performers per show.

Other performances included William Yang’s China, choreographer Eszter Salamon with Les Ballets C de la B’s Christine de Smedt and Thomas Hauert / Xoo’s Accords. Central to the festival’s ethics is to provide a place for artists and audience to meet, which came this year in the form of the central venue of Beursshouwburg’s cafe. Stylist and costume designer Belgian Valentine Kempynck transformed the cafe into an evolving brainstorming session by covering all the tables in white paper and hanging pencils from the ceiling. As performances opened and closed the opinions and debates which they inspired were hung from the ceilings, with more scribbling of ideas materialising day by day. A similarly inventive way of evaluating and documenting the happenings throughout the three weeks was inviting American writer Tod Wodicka to comment on a weekly basis via a webcam. This culminated in a live debate hosted by the author supported by the performance bases of Brussels (all theatres, including the National Theatre keep the diary free for May and don’t charge for the use of their space). Kunstenfestivaldesarts is a truly inspiring event which connects contemporary performance to a varied range of audiences in inventive ways. As this year’s festival closed, Slagmuylder was revelling in the fact that they sold more than 20,000 more tickets that 2007. He has already confirmed commissions for 2012, is selecting the artists to commission based on this year’s events, and will soon start his work of travelling to the corners of the world to find the brave new art which defines his festival. He wants to uncover contemporary art in India and Mexico – head to Brussels next year to see what he’s found.

This article in the magazine

Issue 20-3
p. 28