Make the future a fest!

Recently I have been to London and I visited the FutureFest at Tobacco Dock, a 200 year old warehouse in the docklands, site of a failed £47 million shopping-mall. Futurefest was about the future and about technology and treated these words almost as synonyms. It was organised by Nesta. Nesta stands for „National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts“ and it claims to be „an innovation charity with a mission to help people and organisations bring great ideas to life“. It has been „a cracking weekend“, their website says. And indeed, I felt not only cracked but smashed.

Smashed by the naive approach to technology, to progress, to growth, to the future in general (which is always bright), smashed by the lack of (self-)critical reflection, smashed by the simple linear thinking which was blending out any conflicting arguments, smashed by the blindness of the organisers and curators towards their own ideological position, smashed by the neoliberal ideology which was the driving force behind it, smashed by the according vocabulary of everlasting optimism and progress. Anything digital was great and nothing but great: Google, Facebook, Uber, Airbnb, everything was fantastic and so socially responsible. And women are the future, at least if they aim for „success in stilettos“, as one speaker claimed. The speaker, a young woman and mother who came as a war refugee from Iran, is running an initiative called InspirEngage International and she had been rewarded „New European’s Most Influential Woman“ by the European Parliament. Technology and social work met with feminity and motherhood, in stilettos or sneakers – and it is pretty clear why politicians love that.

The „A“ in Nesta was underrepresented. Will Self did not help who was as funny as vague. Brian Eno did not help who was as old-fashioned (wonderfully slow) as old-fashioned (pitifully outdated).

The whole event was sponsored by Nissan that could present their electric car with a video before a fanfare helped the speakers to enter the main stage. May the power relations in the world never change, but let the cars be electric, so our conscience is as sedated as our well-being undisturbed!

I walked out of FutureFest after one day of ted(dy) talks with four thoughts:

  1. If this is the future, I do not want to be part of it.
  2. Let me help prevent this future.
  3. The world needs more art!
  4. I have an important job!

Why am I telling this in the context of an issue on the Dutch subsidy system? For a simple reason: a good part of the subsidy system has taken over the same thinking and vocabulary of efficiency and social goals. The effect of the Zijlstra years of market ideology recently got completed and simultaneously disguised by the focus on social aims. The art of the market meets the art of impact resulting in neoliberalism in socialdemocratic words.

Projects are judged by their promises in terms of „pluriformiteit“, „diversiteit“, „spreiding“, „bijdrage aan het veld“, „participatie“ etc. „Subject matter“ has long been replaced by „target groups“: It is less important what your talking about (subject), let alone how (aesthetics), but more to whom (target group). More and more „career advisors“ and „coaches“ sit in committees and juries.

Every few years all funders run in a new but the same direction, be it young makers (it just varies under 30, under 40, under 50 or before death), be it education, be it participation. If all go there, it cannot be wrong.

OCW pays a lot of money for „Wijzer Werven“, a programme intending to help cultural organisations with fundraising. The money goes to coaches and consultants, who never even heard of the difference between „client“, „audience“ and „public“, whilst the artists and arts organisations struggle for a living. Could those coaches not learn at least as much from the cultural field as the other way round?

Behind this is a deep fear of subsidy organisations, be they private or state-funded: they could be held accountable for wrong decisions. Held accountable by boards, politicians, ministers, the public, populists. We live in the age of accountability. You could also say in the age of cowardice. We experience desperate attempts to objectify decisions about art. All very understandable, and even more so, when artists and arts organisations go to court against funding decisions.

As much as we need the sand of reflection in the machine of progress to make the future a fest, we need to redefine criteria for funding which can provoke and support radical thinking about our world and subjective positions. We need people who dare to do so, who have such a vision, especially in leading positions.

Choose radical artists! Go for talent, not for well-written plans! Support the daring, not the slick! Reward those who put themselves in the centre of conflicting thinking and complexity, not in the centre of target groups! Fund those who venture into new artistic ground to reflect our times, not those with the safest result.

And please – and I love you funders for all the support you give my organisation – be critical about your own vocabulary. (I am saying this also to myself being part of the machine.) Thinking is taking place in language. Language determines our thinking and our decisions. Make the future a travel into new terrain, not an extension of old territories. A fest of challenges and surprises.

Rainer Hofmann
Artistic Director SPRING Performing Arts Festival Utrecht

This article was first published in Theatermaker (October edition).