The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Presenter Interview
The Kunsten Festival des Arts, making Brussels a center generating new trends in contemporary art
What work were you involved in at the time the KFDA was getting started in the early 1990s? And how did you come to begin working with Frie Leysen in 2002?
  Originally, I was studying contemporary art history at university and after graduation I got a teaching position and taught a course at Brussels’s Ecole Superieure. At the same time, I was involved in production and administrative work with numerous dance companies on the performing arts scene. I was working at Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s school, PARTS. I helped in the planning of special student performances and as a career counselor after they graduated. It was in the course of that work that I became acquainted with KFDA’s Frie Leysen, and in 2002 she asked me if I wanted to work on the program with her. Ever since the festival’s start in 1994, Leysen had put together the programs by herself. Around the time she met me she was looking to reform the program and wanted someone to exchange ideas with about new directions. I think any festival reaches a point where they review their policies and look for problems, and in Frie Leysen’s case it was eight years since the launch of KFDA and she was at a point where the situation in Brussels had changed a lot and she needed someone to help her examine whether or not the festival should be continued, and if so, in what way. That is how I began working as Frie Leysen’s partner from 2002, and we collaborated to develop and continue the festival until she decided to move on. She left after the 2006 festival, and even though there is no time limit on the director’s tenure, it was still unusual perhaps for her to quit the festival that see started herself. KFDA is a festival that is independent of any public authority, having been founded as a personal initiative of Frie Leysen alone. Of course the festival receives public funding, the government didn’t ask her to start the festival. So, she could have stayed on if she had wanted, but she decided to leave it to the next generation to bring the KFDA project to its next level of development.

Was Frie Leysen working alone when she established KFDA? Or was she working with anyone as an administrator?
  There was a co-director, Guy-do Minne, who was an important person on the Belgian cultural scene in the 90s. From the first festival in 1994 until 2000, when he left for the Brussels cultural capital, he served as the festival’s General Director in charge of the budgeting and management. He also supported Frie Leysen on the artistic front as well.

Before you joined the KFDA team, how did you view the festival from the outside? Did you feel any new movements going on?
  I saw the first festival in 1994 as nothing less than a great event in the art life of Brussels. From that first festival the program consisted of international artists and artists of Brussels, and there were also artists from outside of Europe. For example, there were contemporary artists from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan on the program. At the time there might have been performances of the traditional arts of countries like these, but it was very rare for their contemporary artists to perform in Belgium. It encouraged local artists to create works with new forms of expression and gave them the opportunity to perform their works in an international context. It was important as a festival where works reflecting the viewpoints of the artists of Brussels and Belgium and works reflecting the broader visions of international artists to be performed on the same stages and also as an opportunity for local artists to have their works seen by foreign presenters.
  Furthermore, seen in terms of the relationship between the French-speaking and Flemish-speaking communities, since KFDA has no theater facilities of its own, we had to work in cooperation with the theater or performance space that we used as the venues for or productions. And, at the time it was very rare for a presenter to be using theaters and arts centers affiliated with both the French-speaking and Flemish-speaking communities. Traditionally, the French-speaking and Flemish-speaking community theaters and arts centers have belonged two completely different circuits that didn’t know each other and had no reason to get to know each other. In short, there were no merits in getting to know each other. The two circuits each had their own separate support organizations and their own audiences, and their programs were also written only in their own languages. The media that covered the French-language and Flemish-language arts were also completely separate—and it is only now that this situation is beginning to change. In the 1990s they were still completely separate. The French-language television broadcasts and Flemish-language broadcasts are separate and they don’t necessarily need to cover the same subjects in terms of cultural information.

But in the educational system the two communities learn each other’s languages, don’t they?
  It is true that the other language becomes one our required subjects in school from a young age. However, with the exception of Brussels, where both languages are the official languages, in the rest of Belgium there is almost never a need to speak the other community’s language.
  It is certainly a strange situation to have two sets of separate public institutions in the same country, but to answer your earlier question about KFDA was viewed in this context, the very fact that the directors affiliated with the theaters of these two separate communities could sit down in discussion at the same table was an event in itself with considerable impact. But today, the situation has changed considerably and more theaters are now mounting productions in what was formerly the other community’s language, for which they may use translated subtitles during the performances and print bilingual programs. All this was unthinkable in the 90s. So, it can be said that KFDA has helped make Brussels a city where people can come and go more freely and look at things from different perspectives.

Despite all the contributions KFDA has made in helping the two communities coexist, the country’s political situation isn’t getting better … (laughs). The division between the two communities has become even clearer and there was the recent crisis where the new government couldn’t get started for several months. What are your thoughts on this contradiction?
  The most serious issue is that today’s government can only be created by politicians who are chosen by democratic elections. The internal situation is that the northern (Flanders) region of the country is economically affluent compared to the southern (French-speaking) region. So there are an increasing number of people supporting the division of the two regions into separate countries. This movement is based mainly on economic motives. It is a very complex matter. As I mentioned earlier, the public institutions are completely separated by community in the realm of culture, but there are other areas like social security where there is only one bureau. But even in these areas there are increasing divisions as the two communities seek to establish their political influence. This lies in direct contradiction to the approach we have taken in our festival. And it is a situation that is a serious issue in Brussels. But Brussels is a city that is neither in the French-language and Flemish-language community, and since it is considered a metropolitan area that is governed separately from the Walloon and Flanders regions, if the two communities were to be separated, Brussels would not belong to either region.
  Nonetheless, the movement to separate the Health, Tax and Social Security bureaus only grows stronger. The reason is that the people of the affluent region are tired of paying taxes to be used by people in the poorer region that don’t even speak the same language as them. They say they are fed up with the situation (laughs). It’s a very serious situation.
  Right beside the concept of opening up our borders as a European metropolis is this division that keeps people in this small country of Belgium from reaching agreement, and instead they are trying to close the borders and redefine them in a way that makes their world smaller. It is really frightening. These people just want to feel safe within their own unified cultural realm and comfortable in their economic affluence and they are willing to let intolerance for others grow as a result. It is truly something to be concerned about.

And Brussels also has another community, the immigrant community.
  That’s correct. The 2007 festival is the first one since I took over as artistic director. While naturally continuing the approach until now and the festival’s fundamental philosophy, I also wanted to gradually add my own personal flavor to it. And to do this, it was important that I redefine the festival’s concepts and mission and introduce new vocabulary. We emphasized the words urban and cosmopolitan in the 2007 festival. For me, aside from the French-community and Flemish-community issues, this is a very cosmopolitan city with a truly large number of communities. But a community cannot simply be defined by a common language. There are many ways that communities are diversifying today, I believe, due to such factors as people living in the same proximity and having the same hobbies, or that the central elements of their interests are the same or that people are now connected via the Internet. So it is not just language. There are many interconnected communities in large metropolises like Brussels and Tokyo. What we want to support is exactly this kind of cosmopolitan condition. And, we can say that the important thing is for these different communities to coexist and not be confined within their separate restrictive boundaries. Rather, they should get to know each other better. For example, Chinatown and other communities exist as isolated “ghettos” inside the city, and while it may be with the intention of maintaining a family-like atmosphere, what interest me is rather the culture shocks that occur when these communities come face to face with each other with a recognition of their differences.
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