The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Christophe Slagmuylder
Christophe Slagmuylder
Born in Brussels in 1967, Christophe Slagmuylder studied contemporary art at Universite Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) and subsequently became an instructor at Brussels’s La Cambre (l’Ecole Nationale Superieure) (ENSAV). From 1994 he became involved in production work with the companies of choreographers Michelle Noiret, Pierre Droulers and born Thomas Hauert. and also with the PARTS school founded by choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, leader of the Rosas company. Then, after working as assistant artistic director for a theater in Brussels joined the Kunsten Festival des Arts (KFDA) staff in 2002 and worked on the festival programming with the artistic director, Frie Leysen. Since the retirement of Leysen from KFDA in 2006, he took over as the festival’s artistic director.

Kunsten Festival des Arts
This festival is held every May in Brussels, Belgium. It is a contemporary arts festival focusing primarily on the performing arts. Known for its avant-garde program, it is recognized as one of the “antenna” festivals of the international contemporary arts scene introducing talented new artists. In contrast to France’s Avignon Festival with its program of mainstream European theater, KFDA strives to present a program with more experimental works and a variety of artists reflecting the wider diversity of arts from around the world. With its own initiatives, the festival seeks to discover and support the production of works by young artists not only from Belgium but throughout Europe and also artists from developing countries that lack arts support systems. In addition to these many productions of young artists’ works, KFDA works to encourage the careers of these artists from a long-term standpoint by involving them in multi-year collaborative production efforts. At the same time, the festival produces new works with established artist from Belgium and the rest of Europe and provides the venues for their world premieres. As one of the epicenters creating new trends in the world’s performing arts, KFDA enjoys a strong brand equity. More than 50% of the KFDA program consists of works produced by KFDA or created through KFDA-led collaborative efforts, an half of these will be world premieres in any given year. The fonder of KFDA, Frie Leysen, retired as artistic director after the 2006 festival, after which the post was taken over by her assistant artistic director, Christophe Slagmuylder. Attention in the arts scene is now focused on the changes Slagmuylder will bring to KFDA.
Kunsten Festival des Arts
Presenter Interview
The Kunsten Festival des Arts, making Brussels a center generating new trends in contemporary art 
Held every May in Brussels, Belgium, the Kunsten Festival des Arts is a contemporary arts festival known for its cutting-edge program and for introducing many talented new artists. All this plus the active pursuit of international collaborative works that bring to the festival a large number of world premieres—roughly half its program—has made KFDA as one of the “antenna” festivals of the international contemporary arts scene that attracts festival directors from around the world. In this interview the festival’s new artistic director, Christophe Slagmuylder, talks about the history and the future of this festival that has served as the springboard to international success for many artists like Japan’s Toshiki Okada.
(Interviewer: Chiaki Soma)

I would like to begin by asking about how the Kunsten Festival des Arts (KFDA) came to be established. KFDA was first held in 1994, the year after the establishment of the European Union with its headquarters in Brussels and Belgium adopted a federal government system, both of which made it a time of great change in Brussels. Was there any relationship between this social change and the founding of the Kunsten Festival des Arts?
  KFDA was established by Frie Leysen in 1994. She believed that it was very important for Brussels to have a cutting-edge international arts festival. And, although Brussels was seeking to establish its position as the political “capital” of Europe, it trailed the other capitals of Europe as a cultural center. Also, Belgium is a country divided between two populations, the French-speaking Walloon region and the Flemish-speaking Flanders region, and Brussels is unique in that the only city in the country where both languages are used as official languages. In the past cultural activities in Belgium were always affiliated with one or the other of these two communities. Each community has had its own bureau of cultural affairs and the arts funding systems and theaters were also affiliated with one community or the other. By being established in Brussels, the only city in Belgium where the two communities co-exited, KFDA sought to be a festival that could help break down this traditional division in Belgian society by being open to the people of both communities and to be one that worked with international artists, artists living and working in Brussels as well as the artists of both communities. Also, financially KFDA received funding from both communities from the beginning and strongly maintained its position as a festival for both communities and as an international festival for Brussels and of Brussels. Of course this was not an easy thing to accomplish and almost every year there were conflicts with the authorities in power. It was quite difficult politically because KFDA could not exercise the political advantages of saying that we were a French-speaking community festival or a Flemish-speaking community festival. In that sense, by not being affiliated with either community left us outside the existing system and unable to let political priorities affect our decisions. Now that KFDA has become a famous international festival the government can no longer take us lightly.

In other words, Frie Leysen intended to establish the festival’s identity within the context of Brussels as the political capital of Europe?
  That can be said to be true in some ways, but also untrue in some ways. Frie Leysen always saw Brussels as a city lacking in ambition in the arts and culture and in the intellectual pursuits. The launch of the European Union was above all an economic measure. What Frie Leysen wanted was to see Brussels not become only the political capital of Europe but also an intellectual and cultural capital. It is true that Brussels has gained much from being centrally located in Europe and easily accessible from the other major cities, even though it may be smaller in size (pop. approx. 1 million). It is also a fact that Brussels is a city where we are constantly confronting the questions of the identity of Belgium as a country where two different communities live in a tense relationship. Belgium is a young country founded in 1830, and it is also a country with a long history of domination by foreign powers both before and after its independence. It doesn’t have the strong traditions and cultural identity of the larger surrounding nations of Germany, France and Britain. There is no sense of a clear definition when we speak about Belgian culture. On the contrary, that is also what makes Belgium interesting and opens up a lot of possibilities. For the very fact that it has no heavy weight of cultural heritage, Belgium, and particularly present-day Brussels, are not bound to past traditions and can thus provide an atmosphere and spirit that is open and looking to the future. This is very evident on the Belgian arts scene. Despite the size of the country there has consistently been a very rich arts scene in all the genre over the last 30 years. So, I believe that it is no coincidence that a new festival would be born in Brussels in such a context. In other words, the open-minded environment and the facts that it there is no strong national identity and a lack of strong cultural branding have, conversely, made it easier to promote avant-garde projects, I believe. The term avant-garde may not be the most fitting, I believe that this kind of context is essential for the pursing new types of artistic forms and language.

Since the 1980s, Belgium has had numerous artists of the Flemish community such as Jan Fabre, Wim Vandekeybus and Jan Lauwers who have been active on the international scene. Was the community of these artists centered in Antwerp?
  Not only Antwerp. They were also active in Brussels. Jan Lauwers’ Needcompany and Rosas were based in Brussels from that time.

The KFDA founder, Frie Leysen, served as artistic director of arts campus De Singel in Antwerp until 1992.
  That’s true. The way De Singel was founded is quite different from how she founded KFDA. And it is very interesting. In fact, De Singel was originally planned as an arts school (conservatoir) with a large high-spec hall designed for the students’ use. Leysen was hired as the concierge (superintendent) of that hall! (Laughs) She felt that this wonderful hall could become a potent tool for artists such as no other in Belgium. So she talked to the government and politicians and convinced them to make the hall a venue where invited works by international artists could be performed. At the time, there was no other hall in Belgium as large and outfitted with such high-spec stage equipment, and she believed that it could be the place to stage large-scale theatrical works like those of Pina Bausch. With her ongoing efforts, she struggled to make this hall that was originally planned as an educational facility into an international arts center. Even today, De Singel maintains its dual functions as an educational facility and an arts center, and this is purely the result of Frie Leysen’s vision and ideas. Until the early 1980s there were almost no internationally acclaimed artists in Belgium, and De Singel would play a significant role in contributing to the birth of the world-class that emerged in the country after that. For example, Jan Fabre is one of the artists who benefited from the presence of De Singel. There was a period when he was able to mount works on the same De Singel single stage that was being used by the world’s top artists and make it the site of his creative work. In this way, De Singel stood like the “lighthouse” of the Belgian arts scene during the 1980s and ’90s.

Why did Ms. Leysen leave De Singel to start a festival in Brussels?
  She is the kind of person who always seeks progressive change. She doesn’t like to stay in the same position and see things stagnate. During her 10 years at De Singel, she tried many new things and helped it develop, then she decided to leave it to the next generation and move on to her next challenge. Shortly after quitting De Singel, she decided that what she really wanted to do most of all was to start a cutting-edge festival in Brussels, a city that was clearly lacking in international perspective. After coming up with this idea, she took two years to plan and mount the first festival. She quit De Singel in 1992 and the first KFDA was held in 1994.
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