20th Confrontations | 9-18 October 2015
20 years of Confrontations. What next?
Since its inception, Theatre Confrontations Festival has undermined and exploded the limits of theatre, plotting out new ways of thinking about its role, meaning, and primary objectives. Established 20 years ago by the founders of the Lublin theatre avant-garde: Janusz Opryński, Włodzimierz Staniewski, and Leszek Mądzik, the festival has from its outset sought solutions and ideas distinct from those which prevail in mainstream theatre, in this way proving that the dramatic theatre model is not the only conceivable one. Confrontations is a festival rooted in the tradition of independent, avant-garde, political theatre, and it continues to seek out such theatre to this day. Assuming as it does that what happens at the intersections of limits, divides, genres, domains, and disciplines is the most interesting, the festival persists in its attempts to broaden the formula of theatre, highlighting the non-obvious spaces between various arts. At the same time, Confrontations poses questions on the responsibility of artists, taking up the topical issue of the working conditions of artists and art workers and the system of production of art, which determines these conditions.
Working on the programme of subsequent editions, we attentively and critically scrutinise the development of Confrontations. We treat this twentieth iteration of the festival as first and foremost a unique opportunity to examine the evolution of Confrontations over the last two decades, as well as the factors on which this process has been contingent.
For today, the festival is clearly a major public institution of art. It showcases the works of artists, but it frequently produces and promotes them as well; it is an intermediary between the artist and the audience; it co-creates and actively shapes the critical discourse accompanying artistic praxis (catalogues, translations, publishing series, thematic books, etc.), thus actively informing the ways of thinking about theatre and dance, and participating in setting out the directions in which these develop. An examination of the international circulation of performing arts today will show that it is primarily shaped by festivals.
What is the impact of the understanding of the festival as situating it in the space of public institutions of art? How does it affect its tasks, role, and duties, given in particular the on-going debate on the situation and mission of public theatre?
We believe that the vision of the festival as a public institution of art necessitates some clearly defined duties of the festival and the accountability of its organisers both to the artists and the audience. Following Dragan Klaic, an eminent scholar of performing arts who had years-long connection with Lublin, we take the basic tasks of the festival to be, among others: to discover new talents, to seek and to name new, non-obvious ways of understanding the language of theatre, to develop professional, critical discourse, to pass skills onto younger artists, to shape larger and more diverse audiences, to provide eminent artists and their theatre groups with opportunities to develop, to stimulate the mobility of artists, works, concepts, and ideas. What matters in our view is the involvement in international activities, which, to quote Klaic, “is a dimension of development of public theatre and not a matter of representation or creating prestige. Treated as a cognitive experience and an inspiration, international cooperation allows us to test and develop intercultural competences, creating a particular dialectic of the local and the global, and raising a global critical awareness in audiences” .
These beliefs inform our choices of the specific themes and phenomena in contemporary art which we would like to discuss with Lublin theatre-goers.
Marta Keil and Grzegorz Reske, curators of the 2015 Theatre Confrontations Festival
 Dragan Klaić, Gra w nowych dekoracjach. Teatr publiczny pomiędzy rynkiem a demokracją, trans. Edyta Kubikowska, publisher: Instytut Teatralny and Festiwal Konfrontacje, Warszawa-Lublin 2014.
translated by Małgorzata Paprota and Bartosz Wójcik
20th Confrontations Festival: Decency Clause.
One of the programming leitmotifs of this year’s Festival is “Decency Clause” that we have prepared together with Dr Joanna Krakowska, the author and curator of events subsumed under this umbrella.
In 1990, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) – the US governmental agency founded in 1965 as a means of supporting culture and the arts – refused to pay out already assigned grants to four artists on the grounds of the alleged indecency of their art. The NEA based their decision on the “Decency Clause” that had been approved of by the Congress and which in result obliged the agency to take into consideration not just the artistic merits of the applicants but also the supposed “moral” dimension of their work. In this particular case, what was deemed “indecent” was everything that was feminist and queer. Holly Hughes, Karen Finley, John Fleck and Tim Miller were denied their rightful grants despite the fact that their projects had been positively evaluated by NEA pundits. The artists in question lodged an official complaint: their appeal at a district court was favourably reviewed, however, the Supreme Court asserted the legality of the disputed “Decency Clause”. The 1990 ruling has had long-term consequences as far as US art is concerned: since then, due to the influence of the Congress, the NEA has ceased to bestow grants on individuals.
Holly Hughes, one of the “NEA Four” will visit Lublin as the Confrontations Festival’s guest of honour. This New York-based performer, Professor at the University of Michigan and an icon of the North American feminist and queer movement will present her own “Clit Notes”, which she created in direct response to the NEA-related events of the early 1990s.
Together with Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw, Holly Hughes established the legendary Women’s One World (WOW) Café in the 1980s, a cooperative of artists in New York’s East Village, which later became one of the centres of avant-garde art; it is at the WOW Café that leading female practitioners of experimental theatre, women’s underground and queer performing arts made their debut and/or made a name for themselves.
Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw are co-founders of the outstanding Split Britches collective – the legendary and the most famous lesbian theatre group in the world, which gained renown because of among others “Belle Reprieve”, a performance based on Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” and re-written as a play about the network of relations between women. In Lublin Weaver and Shaw will show two solo pieces.
The two artists will be accompanied by Penny Arcade, one of Andy Warhol’s stars, an exquisite performer and social activist, who will work with Lublin-based artists on her work presented during the Festival.
In the course of the Confrontations Festival we will premiere in Poland the New York performing arts and theatre avant-garde. The emancipatory struggle waged by Holly Hughes, Split Britches and Penny Arcade has forever changed the shape of contemporary art as well as provided a fertile ground for artists, such as Martha Graham Cracker, critically acclaimed and lauded by the Lublin audience alike in 2014. We will engage ourselves in a dialogue with the most important personalities of the US queer and feminist performing arts and discuss the current social, political and economic state of the arts. We will touch the avant-garde to understand the present. All in the belief that censorship did not disappear in 1989 – this is a myth that we would like to defy and dispel. We are too familiar with suppression and bowdlerisation. The decency clause is omnipresent – all that changes is just the perception of what is decent and what is indecent. Our bodies, desires, ideas, age, gender, race and freedom are constantly under the scrutiny and pressure of churches, institutions and politicians.
Taking place in Poland at present, the culture wars related to politics, women’s rights, gender issues, economic inequality, social solidarity, religion, military campaigns and gender are a case in point. The Lublin showcase of the New York theatre avant-garde constitutes also a reference to the identity of the Confrontations Festival, whose roots are steeped in alternative, avant-garde and political theatre.
Joanna Krakowska, PhD works at the Polish Academy of Science’s Institute of Art; deputy editor-in-chief of theatre monthly “Dialog”, contemporary theatre historian, essayist, translator, editor. Co-author of a number of books, including “Soc i sex. Diagnozy teatralne i nieteatralne” (2009) and “Soc, sex i historia” (2014). Editor of the following books: “Teatr drugiego obiegu” (2000), “Aktor teoretyczny” (2002), “Teatr. Rekonstrukcje” (2004). Author of “Mikołajska. Teatr i PRL” (2011), a book shortlisted for the prestigious NIKE Award and recipient of the Fulbright Scholarship at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York (2013-14).
translated by Bartosz Wójcik
Why do we need a festival?
Janusz Opryński, Marta Keil and Grzegorz Reske in conversation
Marta Keil: The Confrontations Festival was set up twenty years ago by you, Włodzimierz Staniewski and Leszek Mądzik, as a festival of independent, alternative theatre. What did the concept of “alternative” mean to you back then? And how does such theatre figure today – what is it independent of, what sort of phenomena does it offer an alternative to?
Janusz Opryński: “Alternative” will always suggest to me the word “rebellion”, which involves some kind of resistance against mainstream, dominant trends. It seems important to me to engage an attitude of suspicion in the way we understand the world. I doubt reality, can’t trust it fully, can’t trust official ways of communicating. This seems to me one of the most important things about art – having enough courage to be able to test and challenge current trends.
MK: And why did you need to set up a festival?
JO: To meet.
MK: Meet whom?
JO: At that time, we were travelling a lot with various theatres around the world, and getting to watch a lot of plays. We wanted to share some of that, show different ways of thinking about the world, a different sort of culture. Back then, we were one of the few, if not the only, international arts event in town.
Grzegorz Reske: It is worth stressing here the context of the first few editions of the festival, which the younger generation of audiences cannot remember. We are talking here about Lublin from twenty years ago, when there were no cafes, no tourists, no foreign students. We also spent our free time in different ways. When we organised street performances, we took up almost all of the old town district: there was no outdoor dining then, no outdoor pubs and cafes. It’s unbelievable just how much the town has changed in those twenty years, and with it all of Poland.
JO: It was important for us back then to discover new ways of comprehending the world and a different way of talking about it. Because, after all, twenty years ago Polish alternative art looked completely different to today, using different forms to today.
GR: I also think that founding this festival in the year 1996 had a big influence, a time when, slowly, a certain terribly important period of independent Polish theatre was coming to a close. We hit upon a moment of transformation within the Polish theatrical avant-garde.
MK: What sort of programmes did you create to meet this change?
GR: We were looking for new forms into which to fit the festival, but also ways of reflecting new realities.
JO: We kept on trying, being open to new narratives, looking for alternative solutions. The first few years of the festival were based on original projects by Leszek Mądzik, Włodzimierz Staniewski, Ósmego Dnia Theatre and Provisorium Theatre. Later on, thanks to Łukasz Drewniak, we came to discover Lithuanian theatre, including Oskaras Koršunovas, who showed us things like the brutalists, e.g., Shopping and Fucking in 2002, and also more traditional productions by Rimas Tuminas, e.g., The Cherry Orchard. Then there was Eimuntas Nekrošius and his Hamlet. Eventually, we went looking even further East, into Russian theatre, working with Agnieszka Lubomira Piotrowska on festivals focused on Russian language plays.
MK: And how did you come to make the decision to look for new kinds of theatre in that particular region?
GR: That process went parallel with Janusz’s own artistic development, which was then very much immersed in the culture of Eastern Europe, and then in Russian literature, culminating in The Brothers Karamazov. Besides, it was a natural extension of the changing political landscape in Lublin: an influx of foreign students, mostly from Eastern Europe, Ukraine, Belarus. Above all, however, we were interested in the artistic practice which was evolving back then in Eastern Europe. The first performances by Theatre Doc really livened up the theatrical language in Poland.
JO: Later on, you appeared and steered the festival even more in the direction of independent events, taking place outside the main programme. Let’s not forget that the festival, for better or worse, also tried to influence theatrical realities and create environments in which artists could work on new projects. An interesting example of this is the workshop Lublin Jews, created in 2007 in partnership with Laboratorium Dramatu (Drama Laboratory) and NN Theatre.
GR: Indeed, the fruits of that meeting were plentiful: that was when texts such as Our Class (Nasza Klasa) by Tadeusz Słobodzianek, Adherence (Przylgnięcie) by Piotr Rowicki, Jew (Żyd) by Artur Pałyga and The Mayor (Burmistrz) by Małgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk were developed, and as a counterpoint to that meeting: Nothing that is Human (Nic, co ludzkie) by Paweł Passini, Łukasz Witt-Michałowski and Piotr Ratajczak.
MK: You mentioned that the Festival was created to allow a meeting, a presentation of that which was happening externally, a broadening of perspective. At the same time, you are suggesting that the role of the Festival has changed and moved towards a more active, production-based focus. It’s interesting how the formula of the Festival has changed in the social and political context of the most recent two decades. I have the impression that a festival which limits itself to presenting some kind of “best of” programme no longer interests many people.
GR: Because the market, the cultural circuits, have changed. Even in the 1990s and at the start of the 2000s, independent theatre groups would put on shows which would then tour round festivals and cultural centres. Such tours were a way for people to earn a living and get paid work. Today, this circuit no longer exists, or rather independent theatre has been pushed out by commercial productions. As a consequence, Festivals had to take on the responsibility for creating the facility for artists to work and produce performances.
MK: Where, apart from the festival circuit, can independent artists not connected with rep theatre work today?
GR: There are no such places around any more, really. If the Lublin theatre-going public responded so warmly to shows such as She She Pop or Gob Squad, then I have to admit, sadly, that in Poland today we lack the environment, the financial and organisational systems, and the inner will, to develop such shows. The Gob Squad Arts Collective spent years preparing their shows in the Berlin Volskbühne, which is a rep theatre. And though the creators of the Gob Squad suspect that Frank Castord, who for many years directed their stage, had never been to any of their shows, he all the time agreed to sign away part of his budget and his space to support independent performers – even if he himself wasn’t interested in this genre. In Poland, where we have dozens of publicly funded theatres, rep theatres, we would be hard-pressed to find any which allows independent artists access to their resources. It is sad that rep theatre, financed from public coffers, so readily converted to commercial programmes after 1989, stating that this was a way for them to survive, and at the same time it doesn’t want to open up part of its stage space to new artists.
JO: I remember Rose Fenton, a wonderful British curator, told us repeatedly that because our festival is financed out of public funds the city has the right each year to ask what we spend our budget on, and what the festival is for – and we have to be able to answer, each and every year. This is very important when thinking about the aims of the festival, and why for the past twenty years we have been making changes in the formula of our festival, seeking of new solutions, conducting a legitimate dialogue with reality. At a certain point, we went right outside the theatre space, simultaneously developing a year-round educational programme. Part of the cycle of “How to live?” events has involved hanging philosophy quotations on public building around town. Passers-by at first thought that this is a marketing campaign for some kind of product… I remember this moment of hunger for knowledge: hence the need for meetings, seminars, reading out loud philosophical texts. Creating the festival, we are always testing its formula. Taking risks. Let us look for new solutions. I think that if we manage to preserve a certain courageous attitude in this sphere, we will be able to achieve some important aims.
GR: The public make us even more committed to this aim, and in this context Lublin is quite unique: we can see how wonderfully people react to diverse, sometimes challenging performances, and attendances are always increasing.
JO: It turns out that it is possible to work effectively, offering a programme which every year pushes the bounds of audience expectations that little bit further.
MK: It seems to me that what Rose Fenton said is key when it comes to thinking about the festival and the work we do programming it. Considering how many new festivals have popped up in Poland and Europe in the last few decades, I feel a need to constantly ask what our festival is for, what causes it to happen, who it is aimed at. Trying to answer these questions, I think about the Festival as a public institution which fills the gaps which Grzegorz mentioned; evolving in the direction of something which creates the conditions for artists to work all year round and offers an interesting educational package for the public and for theatrical practitioners. I see the Festival as a public cultural institution.
GR: The local context is also important: the Festival, which always takes place in a specific location, must refer to the needs of that territory. I see this challenge as an attempt to describe the topics and problems which are for local communities particularly important – or will be come so in the near future.
Translated by Marek Kazmierski
Decency Clause Revisited
Censorship was abolished in Poland 25 years ago – thus collapsed one of the last institutions of the authoritative communist system that stifled social and individual liberties. At that time, it seemed that the freedom of speech was an unquestionable achievement of a democratic state that would never be in jeopardy. This was one of the numerous forms of delusion that we fell for on the eve of the independence of Poland. What transpired in time was the sobering realisation that there could be countless disciplinary mechanisms, legal shackles and pretexts for gagging citizens who otherwise would be exercising their right to freedom of expression. Each of these restrictions could be perfectly justifiable – defence of personal rights, protection of the so-called “religious sentiments”, or a countermeasure employed by the powers that be when the freedom of speech allegedly ran counter to somebody’s copyright. Intellectual property law and intellectual rights are interpreted fairly loosely – they are frequently applied to curb criticism and as such have become one of the leading control tools, often throwing a spanner in the works of the circulation of ideas within culture at large. What transpired as well was the fact that speaking out loud was not enough – what mattered was being heard publicly; this, however, too often was contingent upon financial resources. As a result, two faces of economic censorship have come to the fore: (1) access to media is conditioned by one’s financial standing; (2) self-censorship imposed on oneself so as to accommodate one’s voice to suit the expectations of grantors. And since grantors are predominantly the state and its agencies, then the issue of artistic freedom in a democratic system, in which one is forced to take into consideration political fluctuations and allies, has turned out to be not as obvious as we’ve bargained for.
To make matters worse, we have become aware that the space of the freedom of speech and artistic expression does not necessarily have to pertain to state politics; quite the contrary, it is related to individual politics – privacy, intimacy and corporeality (the physicality of one’s body). And yet again too often the body, desire, sexual orientation, age, health and their public manifestations have become offensive to some institutions, politicians or individuals. Mores, worldview, religion, and a peculiarly defined decency have all in effect hindered the circulation of ideas. This has led to the creation of an expansive space of conflict, in which one has to fight for the freedom of expression, equal rights as well as the freedom of conscience. These are often culturally and economically conditioned issues, which in turn are related to the most important social values: empathy, solidarity and justice.
Did we have a right not to know all of the above 25 years ago?
Perhaps if we had watched and listened more keenly to what was happening in the world back then, our disappointment would have been less substantial – and our reliance on Western paradigms less uncritical. Today marks also the 25thanniversary of the climax of the infamous culture wars waged on by the conservative administration of Republican Ronald Reagan. The very name of this thematic strand of the Confrontations Festival – “Decency Clause” refers to one of the more widely known episodes of these wars – to the spectacular manifestation of economic censorship and to the related attempts to stifle freedom of artistic expression.
In 1990, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) – the US governmental agency founded in 1965 as a means of supporting culture and the arts – refused to pay out already assigned grants to four artists on the grounds of the alleged indecency of their art. The NEA based their decision on the “Decency Clause” that had been approved of by the Congress and which in result obliged the agency to take into consideration not just the artistic merits of the applicants but also the supposed “moral” dimension of their work. In this particular case, what was deemed “indecent” was everything that was feminist and queer. The performers, i.e., Holly Hughes, Karen Finley, John Fleck and Tim Miller – later known as “the NEA four” – lodged an official complaint: their appeal at a district court was favourably reviewed and “the clause” deemed unconstitutional. Eventually, the Supreme Court – after presidential appeals – asserted the legality of the disputed “Decency Clause”, though. This was a highly publicised and unprecedented case whose one participant – a courtroom freedom fighter, an advocate of the freedom of speech and artistic expression – Holly Hughes will be our guest in Lublin, where she will perform Clit Notes, her most famous solo work.
The tradition of solo queer performance is one of the most original and creative strands as far as North American theatre is concerned. Obviously, this is the bitter offshoot of the economic status quo as too often solo performances – due to the entrenched system of theatre (non)funding – are a product of the financial necessity rather than an independent artistic choice. Still, if there are critical strategies of the North American theatre, then they were unquestionably pioneered by queer performers. It was them that, more frequently than others, took personal risks while taking a stand publicly and mining their biographies and identities on-stage. One should not forget that queer in the US arts does not boil down to the casually treated sexual orientation. More frequently than not North American queer is inextricably bound with personal involvement in the issues of race, class, power, poverty, violence, ecology, disease, ageing, politics, etc. And where the fact that something is genuinely “queer” is not contingent upon one’s LGBTQ sexuality but on one’s being a misfit that in turn allows one to see the world in a different light. This becomes evident while listening to Penny Arcade, who is considered so queer that she does not conform to any convention or identity, thereby provoking everybody. She remonstrates with lesbians that consider bisexuals to be people who “do not try hard enough” and gays that cultivate bourgeois values. She accuses the younger generation of opportunism and lack of fantasy while she finds queer academia guilty of the overuse of political correctness. As she maintains, she is bisexual because she objects to being labelled and pigeonholed.
In contrast, being labelled is something that does not concern Split Britches, although – truth be told – the label of the most famous lesbian theatre ensemble does not detract the duo of Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver from dispelling queer stereotypes. Both of them will appear in Lublin – each with her individual show, each of which treats of subjects that are at best rarely staged in Poland. In her unusual, clever and self-reflexively ironic Ruff, Peggy Shaw will talk about how she was affected by brain stroke, underwent recuperation and overcame the effects of her medical condition. In What Tammy Knows about Getting Old and Having Sex – a performance featuring volunteers, Lois Weaver will tackle the issue of the sexual activity of seniors.
And – last but not least – a special guest: Citizen Reno. A charismatic performer capable of making her audiences cry with laughter, on the one hand, and giving US economic bigwigs a heart attack, on the other. She hosted “Money Talks” – a series of public discussions with economists and bankers on the subject of economic policies. In Lublin she will also conduct such a conversation with a brave and prominent individual who has already agreed to take up the gauntlet.
Altogether – Holly Hughes, Penny Arcade, Lois Weaver, Peggy Shaw and Citizen Reno, they constitute an explosive mix of unique personalities, idiosyncratic characters, queer identities and political commitment. If it weren’t enough, together they are over 300 years old. And this is by far the most suspicious thing about them. Age, gender and sexual orientation are still in Poland considered indecent subjects – if they are indecent, then they are undoubtedly political as well. Over the last decade the theatre in Poland has managed to discuss these topics fairly thoroughly, but the Confrontations Festival aspires to invigorate this discussion, expand and complicate as well as to raise the intellectual level of the exchange, asking experienced US queer performers what they in principle find decent and indecent in contemporary world.
Global problems – a wave of war refugees in Europe, gentrification of minds and cities, steadily increasing social stratification – make us realise that we should indeed demand that a world decency clause be passed. But this clause, the clause that we are so in need of right now should tackle issues different than feminism, gender and queer that a quarter of a century ago the North American legislator had in mind.
Translated by Bartosz Wójcik