Technical Assistance, or how the case of Jan Fabre is not unique

Despina Biri

While the saga surrounding the appointment of Jan Fabre as artistic director of the Hellenic Festival ended abruptly on Sunday, with the appointment of Vangelis Theodoropoulos [in Greek] as Fabre’s replacement, the issues it brought to the fore are not unique either to culture or even public policy more generally.

In the past few weeks. it's almost impossible for anyone with even a remote interest in culture and the arts to not have taken part in or at least witnessed the discussions on the recent resignation of the Hellenic Festival Artistic Director, Jan Fabre. While the battle between “internationalists” and “nationalists” still rages, it's worth noting that lack of transparency and expert knowledge is not a phenomenon unique to culture. Nor is the discussion on colonialism.

First of all, Fabre’s appointment [in Greek] as Artistic Director is not the only case in which help is brought in “from abroad”. For example, a World Health Organization (WHO) technical support team has been based in the Greek Ministry of Health for the past three years. Its goal is to provide technical guidance for the reform process in health care. While the collaboration between the Ministry and WHO is considered to be good, this does not mean that there aren't any serious dysfunctions and problems. Probably the most important one is the fact that the knowledge of WHO experts of the realities in Greece is rather fragmented and limited, based mostly on a small (though growing) number of studies on Greece found in the academic literature, as well as on a limited circle of professional contacts, spanning almost the entire political spectrum, however. The picture thus painted reflects to a large degree the extent to which the experts have managed to form a comprehensive view as, given the small number of contacts at their disposal (let us not forget that language still is a barrier), technical support teams may include viewpoints that are biased as regards the dysfunctions of the Greek public and private sectors.

The result of this fragmentation is, as a result, the difficulty in creating proposals that are easy to implement and which are a good fit to the realities on the ground. Besides, it's easier (and cheaper, and less time consuming) to “import” recommendations than to carry out extensive studies and collect data “from below”. In my opinion, and despite the obvious differences, this situation is not a far cry from what happened in the case of Jan Fabre. Even Fabre himself admitted that his knowledge of the Greek culture sector is limited, which led him to propose a programme based almost entirely on the Belgian one, for the first few years at least. This proposal was subsequently presented as the “official programme”, leading to a widespread outcry.

This is where the problem lies – not in Fabre’s body of work, colonialism, nationalist cries that “a Greek festival must be made up of Greeks” (besides, Fabre is not the only object of such critiques). Greek cultural production is becoming more and more well known both within Greece and abroad: from Greek weird wave to Larry Gus to Documenta17, Greek cultural production has nothing to envy from elsewhere (let us not forget that cuts to culture budgets are not unique to Greece); at the same time, nearly everyone considers the renaming of the festival into an “international” one as probably redundant, given that this precisely what it is anyhow. And not only that - artists from abroad live in Greece permanently or come to visit throughout the year. It is therefore not just Fabre’s appointment that would “save us from provincialism” - thankfully the younger generation of artists is in a position to engage in dialogue with its contemporaries abroad without the need for “saviours”. What was at stake in the case of Fabre was the fact that he seemed to almost completely ignore the underlying situation the culture sector is in in Greece, both from an economic and an aesthetic perspective.

However, in a letter  published by Jan Fabre on Friday evening, explaining in detail his team’s dealings with the Greek Ministry of Culture and the Greek cultural sector more broadly, he highlights yet another problem that is, unfortunately, all too common in the communication between the Greek public sector and international partners, namely lack of coordination, often leading to misunderstandings. Writes Fabre: “I had asked for a Greek co-curator and a little bit of time to think, as a festival is not a mechanism for handing out subsidies. I told [Tsipras and (Minister of Culture) Aristides Baltas] that curation is an artistic act, and, in contrast to politics, has no room for compromise”. This is, in a nutshell, is the difference in the approach taken by the Ministry and by Fabre – some of the consequences are known, while others remain to be seen.

On the other hand, can the international community “learn” anything from Athens, as argued by Documenta17 curator Adam Szymczyk (Documenta17’s theme is “learning from Athens”)? Without jumping to conclusions, the answer is: probably not much - unless the question is about the degree to which cultural production can survive in a bankrupt country. In that case, we would probably learn that a large number of artists now lives permanently abroad, while those that stayed work either unpaid or by doing many different jobs trying to make ends meet. It's therefore understandable that Fabre’s appointment in such a context is exasperating to say the least; as exasperating as the “imported technical knowledge” mentioned above. The reason for this is that, more or less directly, those who, in spite of the times, live and create in Greece - with whatever means each has available - do not receive any credit for doing so.

As a friend wrote when commenting on Fabre’s resignation on social media: “the new ethos in the management of the cultural (and not only, might I add) sector is yet to come”. Instead, we are spectators in the “battle of the egos” between the “saviours” of (cultural) institutions, while interventions are limited to those of the trade unionist kind. That is not a coincidence, since this is perhaps the first time when an extremely diverse mix of people came together in order to publicly oppose something that directly affects them. Whether there will be any sort of continuation, remains to be seen.

  • Published in CULTURE
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