The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Presenter Interview
European arts scene leader Frie Leysen talks about the role and activities of arts festivals
European arts scene leader Frie Leysen talks about the role and activities of arts festivals
Can you tell us in more detail about your actual programming for Meeting Points 5?
I spent nine months traveling around the region. One important thing I learned is that all the cities are so different.. For example, Beirut and Damascus are only two hours apart by car, but the two cities are completely different: Beirut, the Paris of the Mediterranean, has very little in common with the Syrian capital.
 What I tried to do, was to make a program that was not dictated by a European agenda. Because that’s what I saw a lot of in Europe: Arab projects here are mostly programs that basically confirm the European agenda: our sovereignty in culture and moral and democratic values. Things tend to be viewed in a “them and us” perspective. Non-Western artists are the “victims of suppressionist systems, or the terrorists, or the fundamentalists.” Very often artistic programs in Europe with foreign artists are meant to confirm this viewpoint.
 It is the same with Chinese artists in the West, for instance. Their work was always considered to be political by Westerners, even if the artist claims that is absolutely not the case. Western audiences and media always seem to need confirmation for the clicheLs they have created to prove that the West is right. And new clicheLs are constantly being created.
 That is why it was so interesting to work in the Arab region for an Arab audience. It required a mental shift, a change in perspective.

In each city I researched its strengths and its weakness. You can try to make the strong points stronger, or you can go for the weaker points and try to develop them. For instance, Beirut is a city where you have very good theater. Walid Raad and Rabih Mroue grew up there at the same time (born 1967). But, dance does not flourish as much in Beirut. It was interesting to play with that and present more contemporary dance in Beirut during Meeting Points.
 In specific terms, I had made a pool of more or less 40 artistic projects. At the beginning of the festival, the projects were scattered among the different cities of the region, and then they began to move the performances to new venues. But none of the projects was to go to all 11 cities, and none of the cities was to have all 40 projects. Out of this pool we tried to create a tailor-made program for each city.
 We had local coordinators in each city to take care of communications with the press, PR, hotel arrangements and logistics and ticket sales. So, the success of the festival in each city depended a lot on the capabilities of these coordinators. In some cities they did a fantastic job, but to be honest, in others they didn’t.
 In addition to our program, we set up an event called “Unclassified” in six major cities: Cairo, Alexandria, Amman, Damascus, Beirut and Tunis. We invited young people, artists, intellectuals, organizers, as local curators to these events. They got an envelope to curate their own artistic program, presenting artists from the younger generation reflecting the situation in their own city. Some were teams of young artists or people who had their own venue in the city, such as a theater or a gallery. And sometimes they were just individuals. Through them we got to know a lot of young people that you normally wouldn’t meet, such as people just out of college. In some cases I was told that a certain person was too young to be a curator, but I was still interested in their viewpoint.
 For instance, in Tunis our curators were two young choreographers, Selma and Sofiane Ouissi, who are brother and sister. They created a project called “Dream City” in which they took the old city, the Medina, as one big performing space. They involved 60 young artists from Tunis.
 In Beirut, the curator was Raed Yassin, a very young visual artist and musician. He is of the generation after Walid Raad and Rabih Mroue. Yassin is from a generation that is fed up with being viewed as “war artists.” He curated an exhibition with photographers, visual artists and installation creators from his generation titled The secret of peripheral city. Although he didn’t take part directly in the creation of the work, the artists he worked with told me that he was a real curator—advising people and always there to help them realize their works. He did a perfect job.
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