Ruth Mackenzie at Collaborate Creative Europe Desk UK

ON THE BLOG: Ruth Mackenzie's COLLABORATE! speech

Ruth Mackenzie’s keynote speech at the COLLABORATE! Creative Europe Desk UK Forum on International Working on 13 July 2017. Watch the video on Creative Europe Desk UK's YouTube channel. 

I’m Ruth Mackenzie, Artistic Director of the Holland Festival based in Amsterdam. I’m about to become the Artistic Director of the Théâtre du Châtelet, a large opera house in the middle of Paris. 

I’m very excited because it’s got its own metro station – Châtelet – which is used every day by more Parisians than any other metro station. My aim is to try and get as many people who know and have heard of the metro station, to have heard of and visit the opera house after which the metro is named.

I can only have these jobs because I’m a UK citizen and the UK is currently a member of the European Union. By the time the Châtelet starts the first season that I’m programming (if everything goes as Theresa May wants) I will be illegal, which is a pity.

At the start of my career, I had enough French to be sent to France to work with French partners and I learnt how to join in with consortia: if you had a group of friends in different countries in Europe, you could do remarkable things together that would be difficult to do alone.  

Collaborations are about values

When I worked at Nottingham Playhouse, one of our big partners was Centre of Arts in Bobigny, on the edge of Paris. They used to introduce me to everyone as “Ruth Mackenzie: she’s big on ideas but she hasn’t got any money” – which I think is the story of my life. 

What I did learn through those collaborations was that there were some basic rules. An important rule was that the consortia, the collaborations, only worked if you shared the same values. And one of the most important lessons I learnt (and this is I think something that we are not always good at in the United Kingdom) was that values do not mean money. The consortia, the collaborations never worked if the only thing you wanted out of the partnership was money. I think this has always been something we were bad at and of course, that was the sting in the joke from Bobigny.

I think that it something we need to confront especially at the time when we are afraid because we are going to lose money. We have to stay clever about how to develop and keep partnerships, collaborations, relationships where the value of that relationship is so evident that the money will follow.

"One of the most important lessons... was that values do not mean money."

I’ve just finished a Holland Festival where we had 17 world premieres and 34 Dutch premieres. Virtually all of those premieres were co-commissions, co-creations, co-presentations, and it is an entirely natural way to work for the Holland Festival and for all its partners 

Maybe it is exactly when we are at our lowest, and I fear we’re not yet, that we become more introspective and tedious about the terrible mess that we’ve got ourselves into. But that’s also exactly the time we have to show what we have to give: of course, that is only another way of making the same point about not just entering a relationship for the money. 

We need to show that we have something to give and overcome the mainland European perception that we are insular, which of course literally means being on an island and metaphorically means thinking only about ourselves and our own concerns. Even before this crisis hit us.

We need to look at the excellent models we have listened to this morning. Those who actually are excelling at giving, at finding new ways to work, at thriving from the innovation, the stimulus that collaboration can give us. 

Artists can help us change the world

In the most recent Holland Festival, we had the theme of democracy. We always say we don’t have themes, we are artist-led. We follow artists down the road they want to go. I would never ever say to an artist “would you like to make something about democracy?”

What we noticed as we talked to artists about the work they were developing, is that a lot of them were concerned about different aspects of democracy. A lot of the pieces we invited began to talk to each other about democracy in ways that were extremely interesting, as well as reflecting different concerns from different parts of the world to our audience 

As a spine down the middle of our festival, we had an extraordinary film-installation, MANIFESTO, by the filmmaker Julian Rosefeldt. It was originally a co-commission between Melbourne and the Ruhrtriennale and is now touring the world. It hasn’t yet come to the UK, but when it comes you must see it. 

"It has never been so easy a time for artists and audiences to find the universal... but never so important to understand local specificity and difference."

It’s a collaboration between Julian Rosefeldt and Cate Blanchett who have taken 63 manifestos from 63 countries and made them into 13 films. Cate Blanchett is in the centre of each performing a cumulative, mashed up artist manifesto from artists. It’s a work of astonishing beauty that provokes you to think about the artist intervening in politics and that’s really what I want to talk about now.

Artists can help us shape and change the world. What was interesting for me, looking at the work we’d invited to Amsterdam, is that the best pieces on democracy were locally specific, about very particular circumstances, but the best pieces at the same time were universal. The issues they raised were of interest, way beyond Brazzaville (Congo), Paris, Berlin, the Bronx, Brooklyn. It has never been so easy a time for artists and audiences to find the universal, international, global but never so important to understand local specificity and difference

Our audiences are increasingly adept at accessing content from around the world; most easily digital content, but not only, that meets and reinforces their values, that suits their tastes. They have that way to roam the world. We the curators, the programmers, used to be the trusted guides who could offer them that. But increasingly they are very adept at finding content without us.

Access to culture has never been easier, especially for digital, for this generation of digital natives. Similarly, there has never been a greater need for the local voices, the local relationships for the locally specific voices to be heard and understood.

At the Holland Festival this year, we had an artist called Boris Charmatz, who had just made a new work where he and his dancers explored the Charlie Hebdo attack. With great bravery, they explored the point of view of the terrorists. We invited him to perform at 11pm at night (it had to be dark) at Bijlmar. Bijlmar is one of the most deprived districts of Amsterdam with an incredibly diverse community with a lot of poverty and anger. The piece was performed outside in public square, free to everybody, and local people could experience the piece alongside dedicated Boris Charmatz fans. 

Alongside the project with Boris, we also had the Flexn dancers from Brooklyn who have mixed a form of Jamaican street dance with urban street dance from Brooklyn and created a new form, Flexn, which they see as being as important and evolutionary an art form as ballet was the in 19th century. They are now codifying Flexn in the same sort of way as ballet. It has many similarities. They struggle to have a voice and to be taken seriously as an art form. We were criticised for having them in the festival as they are just street artists. They were a very obvious group to go into partnership with in ijllmar; Boris Charmatiz was not.

As I stood outside at 11pm (he combines monologues with the dance), listening to the monologues of the terrorists: “I am the person you will not see on the surveillance camera”, “the person’s eyes you will never see”. They were beautifully brave pieces trying to explore, through the words and the dance, the way a terrorist might think. It made me think, which is always good, about inclusion. About, perhaps, some of the values we take for granted but maybe we have to think about again, as we look over the cliff’s edge. 

Inclusion is also a form of exclusion 

I remembered Emily Thornberry, when the Labour party was run by Ed Miliband, insensitively tweeted a picture of a man from Essex with a white van, during a by-election, and made an inappropriate comment for which she was fired from the shadow cabinet. Then I wondered, in the implicit attitude that she had expressed, how much better I was in my practice, if I thought about the choices I make to be inclusive in this festival as well as the projects I’ve mentioned. 

We’ve had artists from places that are often excluded: the Nile Project, who came from every African country that works along the Nile, we had a refugee from Brazzaville, Congo, who made a four hour performance about being a refugee. We made a lot of choices about the sort of voices we wanted to share with our public and to give a platform to. 

Last year, we worked with partners here in London to reunite the Syrian Orchestra of Arab Instruments that had been a great force in Damascus. Since the war, these had been scattered to the wind. I tell you, if you want a challenge, trying to get visas for the orchestra of Arab instruments, half of whom were Syrian refugees scattered around the world, but 15 of whom were still in Damascus… that’s a project that can kill you before you succeed, but we did succeed. 

My point is not that we succeeded. My point is that the choices we made demonstrated our values and the values of our partners. 

But to whom did they close the doors, to whom did our programme send out a signal which excluded people from our festival?  The posters for the Syrian Orchestra of Arab Instruments, for FlexN, for the Nile Project, these are easy for people to read: they communicate our values and our passion for inclusion, but equally that excludes some people.

When I think about how, throughout my life, I have tried to work with those who I felt needed support, needed partnership and whose cultures I was fascinated in. I have never worked with the guy who has a white van and lives in Essex and I think I’m not alone in saying that. We have to think about that. 

We, the British cultural leaders, are here to change the world and yet we have somehow managed to ignore a great section of the community who then, through that referendum last year, turned against us. It wasn’t just the politicians they turned against, it was us too. 

"To whom did they close the doors, to whom did our programme send out a signal which excluded people from our festival?"

As I stood on that dark public square in Bijlmar with a police car circling round it, I thought that was rather great. It was free, so we had a lot of local people coming and going, watching this performance, trying to understand potential terrorists. 

I thought also about who the people were in the communities in the Netherlands, those who voted for Geert Wilders and why they voted for him. Who the people are in Paris and in France, in the place where I’m going to work, who had turned often from socialism and from the orthodox right wing to Marine Le Pen.  I realised I have to be more serious about this, because I don’t think enough about that and I don’t reach out to the artists and to talk to the community and build those partnerships, create the work that could help me understand as much as help them understand how all of us could grow together.

It’s something that we all tirelessly do, but we all make these choices as to which communities, which cultures, which forms of art, which sorts of innovation we want to invest in. Maybe we have got to think a little harder about how we can give again, give to those people who have rejected us, not because they are narrow minded or have a white van, but because, actually honestly, we rejected them. 

So that’s my provocative bit. 

We can’t have fatigue about democracy

One of the other interesting aspects of democracy, the theme, was that I realised it wasn’t really just about content. We had lots of pieces which explored democracy through their content – such as Romeo Castellucci doing Democracy in America based on Alexis Tocqueville’s masterpiece Democracy in America. 

More interestingly, for me, we had artists who tried to explore how you break down the traditional barriers where content is there on the screen, you sit in rows, you watch the film, you eat some sweets, popcorn, have a drink and that’s it. Those that were trying to empower their audience members to become participants or even to become creators. Democracy in terms of form, in other words. This is work that again all of you have done, I know, but maybe it is work where there is another step to go. 

Not just in the analogue world, but also in the digital world. When we live in a world as we now do, where the average person with a smartphone looks at it more than 300 times a day: the relationship you have to the content is entirely different from when you sit in a row and stare at a film. You feel that you own it, even if you’re only accessing this content, you feel that you can interact with it, that you have power over it. You hold it in your hand.  Maybe we as curators and artists haven’t yet caught up with that, and caught up with the way that we can take advantage of our audience becoming participants, having power.

"We have to learn to listen harder, to create partnerships outside our comfort zone, outside the bubble, to begin to bring in those in the community that we haven’t much bothered about."

It’s an easy word, to empower, but actually to give away power is not an easy thing for us to do. Every one of us in this room, we have power, which of course we’ve fought for, we’ve won, so we don’t like to give it away. 

Maybe we have to. We have to learn to listen harder, to create partnerships outside our comfort zone, outside the bubble, to begin to bring in those in the community that we haven’t much bothered about. Not just those in the community that we most want to invite into our world. The reason we need to do that is because we can’t afford to have fatigue about democracy at this stage. 

Today there is a letter by cities, an open letter to government, calling for the power of cities to be recognised, for the power of cities to be inclusive, to serve all their communities and the needs they have to work with other cities in Europe and round the world. Today is also the start of the journey of the European Union withdrawal bill through the House of Commons.

We talked earlier this morning about the deficit of ethical leadership and it was inspiring to hear our colleague from Julie’s Bicycle talk about the importance of training. Training ourselves to be better leaders. I think it’s not just about climate change, I think it’s about the way that we create, consume, distribute, share, and develop our cultural work and our relations with our community. I think we are in a sort of ‘last chance saloon’ about understanding and analysing the limits of inclusion and how to get ourselves out of the mess that we, not alone, were part of getting in to. 

Inclusion is a great word and it sounds like an easy word. In fact, inclusion is also a form of exclusion: we have sent out signals for those we have not included, that they are not welcome and maybe now we need to pay more attention to the consequences of those signals.

We don’t want to abandon any of those that we have included nor any of those cultures that we have welcomed and worked on. That is very important. 

What are we going to do about those that we have never said ‘welcome with your white van, come, let’s work together and talk’? We’re meant to be brilliant at the zeitgeist - it seems to me that actually in the last few years that we’ve not been that good because a lot of us have been caught by surprise. Not least me.

For two years, I’ve been working on highly political themes in Amsterdam for our June Festival. Each year, I’ve been caught by surprise by the announcement of a June election in UK which completely derails my theme, taking the political theme to an extreme I had not imagined.

Seriously, now is the time for us to become good again at spotting what the communities that we serve need from us.  We must help contribute by doing what we are meant to be brilliant at, which is providing the glue to create community, cohesion, because if we don’t do it now, then we do just jump off the cliff. Thank you. 

Image (c) Jahel Guerra

Ruth Mackenzie