A while ago someone told me a story that went more or less like this:
A group of scientists were tracking the migratory route of a particular bird species. For some time they noticed an anomaly in the pattern: an important part of the flock would stop halfway, on an island, instead of finishing the whole journey. This stop implied a risk for the whole species.
The scientists were unaware of what caused this unusual behavior, until they realized that an old woman from the island used to feed the birds, and so they stayed. The group of scientists went to see the woman, explaining to her the situation and after asking her to stop feeding the birds, she agreed.
But during the following migration season, the birds stopped on the island again and the scientists noticed she was still giving them food. When they confronted the old woman, she confessed that her husband had Alzheimer’s, and that the birds’ presence was the only thing that brought him back to the present time, the only time of the year were they could still experience something together.
How do you convince someone that, sometimes, their personal interest cannot be placed above the greater good?
In the beginning was the word
When, more than a year ago, I heard about your campaigning against air travel in the performing arts field, I remembered that story. I felt implicated in the discussion and I found that your impulse to speak up on the issue was praiseworthy.
As time went by
Your ideas kept spinning in my head, and not in a peaceful way at all. There was quite an awkward feeling attached to them. I scribbled some notes in my diary and then forgot about it. During the next few months, every now and then Facebook’s algorithm would show me one of your posts and, with it, the thought of this campaign would come back, until one day a friend of mine asked me for my opinion on the matter, and so I decided to organize my ideas and share them with you.
Lost in translation
And so this text is a reaction to ideas you have shared on social media and in some articles and interviews I was able to find. Most of the time this information came to me in English, but sometimes I read you in Spanish via Google translator from French; so, although I get your main arguments, there could be nuances, details or colors I am missing.
My own private overview
What you propose deserves to be discussed thoroughly, and in order to do that we must consider the complexities it entails. It would seem as though what started as a personal decision—refusing to use air travel for your work—developed into a more general and ambitious call for the performance art field as a whole. Something like “the performance art field needs to drastically change its habits in order to reduce its carbon footprint. We need to stop airplane travel and look for other ways of sharing”.
Trump vs. Thunberg
At first, your proposal seems impeccable. What wretched soul wouldn’t acknowledge that the planet, our home, is at grave risk and that we must act now? What kind of person would oppose saving our planet for their own personal interest? Who wants to be that Donald Trump who stands against Greta Thunberg?
No measure is ever applied in a vacuum. Measures are carried out by specific people within specific contexts. When you ask the performing arts field to proceed in a new way, it is clear that it would affect different people in different ways, and these effects should unfold asymmetrically.
You are one of the strongest voices in today’s international scene and you belong to the most privileged 1% of our art world. You also come from a country that allocates one of the greatest budgets for art production in the world.
Inverted Occupy Wall Street
I read in one of your interviews that you decided to stop travelling but had your assistants move from Lima to Hong Kong. At some point, you felt that this strategy was hypocritical and so you decided not to use air travel for your work at all. I think you made this decision out of consistency and I believe it came from a legitimate concern. Although I share this concern, I can’t help but wonder: how can a vast majority (of people, collectives and associations), with diverse working conditions, endorse this transformative proposal?
I don’t mean to reduce your proposal and arguments to your nationality or your position in the field. However, I think it is important to situate them and to point out that no proposition can be detached from its place of enunciation.
I would like to ask the same of you when you read this letter: that you keep in mind where is it written from, without limiting it to its origin.
Are we all equally responsible?
One of the issues we face in the climate crisis struggle is that we all are in the same boat, but we travel in different seats.
About his journey to America, Mayakovski once said that those in first-class throw up wherever they want, those in second-class throw up on those in third, and the later throw up on themselves.
Just as I am familiar with your artistic career, I am unaware of your personal history in regard to activism. I have asked around and nobody knows much (please correct me if I’m wrong). Because of my context and because of the path I have walked, I am familiar with the overwhelming excitement that comes from finding a cause bigger than oneself, and how one ends up looking at the world through this lens alone. It is also important to remember that many other equally legitimate causes coexist with ours.
A view from the bridge
Since you are trying to modify a model that involves so many people, I think it is important to share with you the way I see things from here, from the other side of the bridge.
Cultural investment in Mexico is greater than the Latin American median, although it will always be minor compared to other countries; and people are rarely able to make a living out of theatre exclusively. I am not interested in presenting myself as a victim; we (Lagartijas tiradas al sol) belong to a privileged sector of the Mexican performing arts field. Throughout the past eighteen years of our group’s existence, we have built a relationship with rich countries that has allowed us to maintain an autonomous artistic project.
Currency 1 = 24.9
People chose to migrate and earn in euros because the exchange rate between the euro and other currencies is advantageous. Similarly, artists and companies are able to finance projects at home given these exchange rates, as many Latin American companies live of performing in countries with a stronger currency.
Form is content
When I read that you are rehearsing a piece in Taiwan with a dancer from your studio, I find it fascinating. But this project took place (I suppose) because someone commissioned it and paid you for it. For many companies it does not work this way. One usually produces their work however they can, brings it to the world and then waits for someone to be interested in programing it. Working on commission happens in a very reduced part of the world. I wonder: out of the more than 193 existing countries, how many have institutions that commission performing arts projects?
Planes and trains
Europe is a small continent with a significant railroad network. It is not necessary to explain this to you, because you know it rather well, but it is not the case in the rest of the world. There is not a single country in Latin America with a strong railroad system, and the distances are so long that even inside a country it can take several days to travel from one city to another, while travelling to another country could take weeks. Your proposal sounds good for and from Europe, but if we apply your standard to everybody else, it would condemn us to only work locally.
The pedagogy of theatre
Performing arts have the added pedagogical difficulty that they can only be experienced live. When a film student hears their professor stating something in class, they can always go and compare those thoughts with an Ackerman, a Kiarostami, or anyone else’s film, for that matter. This isn’t the case for performing arts. Students have to “believe” what professors affirm, in lack of factual verification. When one lives far from the art capitals, it’s harder to stop believing.
Festivals and artists
It is clear that performing arts festivals have a huge impact on artists who grow up being spectators. The proposal to cut flights implies leaving thousands of artists without the possibility of watching different kinds of work. Theatre festivals in Latin America are utterly important as an entry point to other ways of thinking performance.
Won’t someone please think of the audience!
Who benefits from a foreign company’s performance?
If, as we say, performing arts have a value for those who experience them, the discussion cannot leave the audience out, nor the effect these modifications you propose would have on them. I strongly believe that performing arts do have value for those who experience them, that they do make our lives better, that they endow us with will to live.
We need to talk about Kevin
It would seem as if, when we talk about climate crisis, all of the other spheres of life should give in, and that, at least in this case, the ends justify the means. But it shouldn’t be like that, not always like that. Far from the legitimate (and urgent) concern to produce a performing arts field as clean as possible, it wouldn’t hurt to ponder whether we would want to cherish anything else.
In a Facebook post where you say goodbye to Frie, you thank her for her worthy legacy and for driving a system that, you conclude, is not sustainable anymore and needs to change.
No doubt she pushed for and created various international festivals (implying tons of flights) for the sake of supporting artists from different latitudes and making them part of an international performing arts circuit. Mobility was the consequence of that will to integrate other voices, not its cause. So we should be more careful when we talk about a model and what parts of it should be redesigned.
Do European festivals belong to Europeans?
Yes and no.
It would seem…
Without a larger program, your proposal would mean yet a greater concentration of resources and cultural capital in the richest cities of the world. It would mean that many of the decentralization and diversification efforts undertaken for many years now, would be threatened. It would mean that Europe would become, even more so, an island of harder and harder access, one that can barely listen to what happens away from its shores.
Please don’t get me wrong
I’m not trying to say that the current model must prevail, that we should preserve it without change. Not at all. I’m convinced, as far as you are, that we need to make multiple changes in the way performing arts are produced and shown. But there are many different kinds of changes, and if the one you propose attempts to establish an ethical standard, it should take into account the multiple realities we live in, and the degrees of attainability of the model for those realities.
Be realistic: demand the impossible
Causing an impression with a “radical” statement is a valid strategy, but a strong statement shouldn’t make us forget the material nature of the change we are proposing.
I think it would be a mistake to overlook the symbolic character of the action you propose: if the performing arts world stopped flying, the problem would remain. In other words, in the face of this given problem, yours is a very valuable political statement but it is not an action plan to solve it.
I am not saying that because the problem cannot be fixed from within our field we should do nothing. Nor am I minimizing the problem or the importance of the proposal; I am simply trying to put its possible scopes and consequences into perspective.
Beware of the dog
And the ever-haunting threat of believing that change happens within oneself and that the important thing is to do our own little bit.
Contrary to the old woman who fed the birds, in whose case the problem would have been solved when she stopped putting her own interest ahead of everyone else’s; nothing is as simple in what you propose.
What things are and their consequences
Things are not only what they are; they are also the consequences they bring with them. Often enough, measures hide unthought-of consequences behind a virtuous façade. Red meat consumption is an important ecological problem. In the last years many people in Europe have stopped eating meat as a consequence of an ethical decision related to the environment. This has exponentially raised the demand for other products, quinoa, for example. The unrestrained exploitation of quinoa (mainly grown in Bolivia and Peru) for European consumption has brought profound consequences to the land and the communities that produce it. Some of them good and some of them bad, but what looks like something from one perspective, looks like something very different from another.
A little obvious
What I am telling you is a bit obvious and you know it. I am just trying to restate the importance of considering the correlation of forces in every conflict when proposing an action. Because when we don’t, those who pay the costs will always be the others. “Stop travelling by plane”, at the end, is like saying that everyone should stay where they are and, as it happens, you stay next to the water well.
Forgive my honesty
To be honest, I find it a bit cheap that those who ate more meat, who lived from feast to feast, whom we saw licking their fingers for years, now come and tell us that we should all stop eating meat… equally.
As my friend Juan sums it up
At the end of the day, solving an ecological problem without considering social inequality is just another way to reinforce the colonial structure.
The current pandemic has already faced us with a situation where flights were momentarily restricted. At the same time, the world’s inequalities have been reinforced. The crisis has shown us in a brutal way that not all lives seem to be worth the same.
What we know today is that 16% of the world’s population has hoarded 60% of the vaccines, and it is the same with everything else.
To sum up
By trying to solve one problem, we may end up adding to another as collateral damage, deepening the asymmetry gap in resource distribution and cultural access. These problems are not equivalent, but while your influence in one field is symbolic, it is quite real in the other.
Your blunt proposal has brought the issue to the table in a way that I find very positive. Perhaps I am wrong and my geographical and artistic position prevent me from noticing certain things. Perhaps my needs drive me to consider the situation in relative terms and I shouldn’t. Perhaps, sometimes, one should act before thinking. Perhaps I can’t see the whole picture. Perhaps there is a price to pay and someone has to pay it. Perhaps you are right and festivals should only invite artists who do not fly. Perhaps, inadvertedly, I am the old woman who feeds the birds… perhaps.
But perhaps not.