Opening Speech SPRING 2016
by Rainer Hofmann - Artistic director

Dear guests of SPRING Festival, dames en heren,

it is 2016. Watching news, reading papers and blogs, I cannot help – as director of a festival –  but think about the role of theatre (and I include dance in this) in our society. Let me offer you a quick and incomplete ride through a few events and thoughts of recent months.

  • Terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels shocked us deeply and caused fear. We are reminded how vulnerable free societies are. While we are quite good in ignoring attacks in Pakistan, Nigeria or even Turkey.
  • Drowning children in the Mediterranean Sea shocked us for a few days as did bombed hospitals in Syria and freezing refugees on the balkan borders.
  • A lot of people reacted with compassion and help, others demanded to „orbanize“ the Netherlands, as we could read in protests against a refugee centre in Overvecht, which is cynical seeing what Viktor Orban does to his country.
  • A quarter of the population in Lebanon are Syrian refugees.
  • Arnon Grünberg wrote in the Volkskrant: How much do we need to be willing to share?
  • Some European countries closed their borders and built fences. We get used to that.
  • In most European countries an increasingly radicalizing populism established itself as a strong political power. We get used to that too.
  • Donald Trump happens. We get used to that too, maybe.
  • Politicians tell me: Do iets in de wijken! Om international te zijn moet je niet de stad uit!
  • Erasmus prize winner Frie Leysen says: art cannot and must not come up for the failures of politicians.
  • The German party AfD said: the task of German theatre is to strengthen German identity.
  • The Turkish president is sueing German comedians and refusing Dutch journalists into the country on his way to EU membership. But that’s nothing compared to the fact that he puts Turkish journalists in prison and wants to lift immunity for members of the parliament.
  • I was recently in Cairo, where the society, as an Egyptian collegue put it, is back to minus 5 in terms of democracy and freedom and the idea of public space belonging to the people.
  • The movement of the „Identitären“ in Austria and other countries crashed several theatre performances, which were critical on populism, while they were posting on their website: 100 % identity, 0 % racism. Forgetting that Europe was for a long time an emigration continent and exploiting their colonies. Now that we are well off, the call to stay where you are born comes in handy.

I could go on like this forever. Our democratic achievements and agreements seem to be crushed between terrorist attacks and nationalist populism. Let me assure you: I do not think a society with often traumatized and sometimes badly educated refugees is nicer and more peaceful. But it is not a flood, it is the consequence of complex world politics and therefore asks for responsibility.

These issues dominate the political and media agenda. But what happened to what happens in the shadow of this big agenda? What happened to discussions about ecology, global warming, neoliberalism, Ukraine, NSA, privacy etc?

The European idea is crumbling; the European idea, which was meant to be a peace and welfare project, but is now mostly treated as an economical convenience. When prime minister Mark Rutte put economic growth and stability as the central topic of the Dutch presidency of the EU, then he missed not only a lot of what Europe is and is about, but he missed also to address, why Europe is crumbling: the lack of a unifying idea with shared values or rather the awareness of it. In terms of European solidarity we look back on a lost half year. But solidarity had a hard time before the refugee crisis, when the loans to southern European countries under the austerity policy saved mainly our banks but did not end up with the poorer people there.

How to react to this situation with art and culture? Does art have a civic duty and a political influence?  Especially theatre? Is there something like artivism, which combines activism and art? What would that mean for artistic freedom?

Art is part of culture. But culture has become an extremely problematic term, since people are now less excluded because of their racial or ethnical difference, but of their cultural difference: they do not fit in. The term Culture is contaminated by identity politics.

But are identities not always shifting and changing? Is our identity not more endangered when we lose our own cultural memory? A recent poll showed that many kids don’t know the meaning of the Good Friday. Young colleagues have not heard of „Faust“, one of the central European myths. The problems of identity and culture do not begin on the borders, but in the class rooms and at home. They begin in an education system, which is focussing more on producing functioning employees and less on knowledge, culture and reflection. Reflection on where we come from, what makes us today, and how we might change in the future: Just think of the capacity to analyze new technologies in order to master them, and not being mastered by them.

Art is not elitist as parts of the actual elite sometimes say. The actual elite being those in power in economy, media and politics.

So what can art do? What is its impact? Enlighten us? Entertain us? Make things conscious? Put the light on something? Does it have healing power? Or is it more a knife? A provocation?

Activist and philosopher Lieven de Couter said in the magazine Rekto Verso: „Art’s political value, from Greek tragedy to contemporary art, is extremely indirect. But. Let us believe in the mimetic power of art.“ Others believe in a more direct impact. I think every artist has to find his own answer, and I can only talk for SPRING.

I think art is a different way and means to look at the world. It is a world apart, but deeply interconnected and interwoven with this one. Art can create free space. It allows reflecting, imagining, creating and testing alternative modes of thinking and doing. Be it in cultural projects in neighbourhoods, be it in big repertory shows in places like this, be it in cutting-edge dance performances as at SPRING. But it is not politics or social work.

We should work to make art accessible. With accessible I do not mean, easy to digest en wat was het weer leuk en precies wat we verwacht hadden, but addressing relevant questions in a surprising manner.

Together with the Centre for the Humanities of the University Utrecht, we invited thinker Timotheus Vermeulen as Festival Fellow. Vermeulen works on the term „meta-modernity“ bringing together the big narratives and the utopian ideas of modernity with the relativistic irony of postmodernism. In my own words: big history and personal stories, enlightenment and entertainment, politics and love.

I am utterly convinced that the utilisation of art for political and social purposes is wrong. And I am utterly convinced that art dealing with the world as I described it is absolutely necessary. I feel no obligation, but an inner urge to be political. I do not want to be held hostage by the current situation. But I am more than happy to follow artists who work with high political and social awareness, and we have quite some of them in the festival: Dries Verhoeven, Edit Kaldor, Nastio Mosquito, Milo Rau, Toshiki Okada, just to mention a few.

I am equally impressed by artists who surprise me, charm me aesthetically, who offer me a new world. Especially in dance the political is often more hidden, in body politics and in spatial symbolics, as we see with Maud Le Pladec, Hodworks or Simon Mayer.

And I am impressed by artists who create moments of intimacy like Jan Martens or use digital technology like Andrea Bozic or Katja Heitmann. Artists, who redefine public space like Nick Steur or Tim Etchells, whose posters are spread in the inner city of Utrecht.

They all, in very diverse ways, deal with our living together, with how we gather and how we meet. A traditional meeting-place in a city is a square. This is how SPRING opens: with the premiere of 6: THE SQUARE by Nicole Beutler, a performance which insists on the quality of the aesthetic experience, which is very aware of history and which – in all the layers a good dance performance has – questions our world today. Let’s look through the eyes of this performance at what a Square is, as a meeting-place and as a man-made form creating order but also limiting freedom.

Enjoy 6: THE SQUARE. Enjoy SPRING 2016. Thank you.