Urban dramaturgy

Rachida Aziz is an opinion-maker, fashion designer and founder of Le Space, a lively art space in the Dansaert neighbourhood, where she hosted Tunde Adefioye, Kristin Rogghe and Gerardo Salinas, the KVS’s brand-new urban dramaturges.

Not even Google can tell us what an urban dramaturge is. It is a brand-new word and at the same time is one of the symbols of the renewed KVS. But first let’s introduce them to the public.

‘I’m relatively new in the cultural world,’ says Tunde Adefioye modestly, though he is not doing himself justice. Seven years ago he set up Urban Woorden. ‘At the time I was working on my PhD in chemical information science at Leuven University. A completely different world. But I noticed that the extensive cultural world in Leuven failed to reach a large number of people. And I missed the urban culture that had made a great impression on me in the USA. Two years before I came to Europe, I saw a piece that combined dance, slam poetry and music at a leading cultural venue in San Francisco. One of those real wow moments. That experience has unconsciously always remained with me. Since I noticed that there was a great need for urban culture, we went out to the parks and schools. We didn’t wait until we had access to the schools, but spoke to the youngsters at the school gates. The traditional culture sector considered this an odd approach. But to me it was quite obvious. For example, every Friday we let young MCs come together to share their rap and experiences with each other, or else we discussed books in a safe space.’

‘I studied literature and medicine in Buenos Aires, so we have a common scientific background, Tunde,’ laughs Gerardo Salinas. ‘In terms of art, I have tried out everything in Argentina, but it was always a job on the side, as it is for most artists. I arrived here with the views of an outsider and that was one of the first things that struck me: you can live off your art here. In Buenos Aires, if you say ‘I’m a dancer’, they immediately say ‘That’s nice, but what’s your job?’ So you are your own patron. At the same time it does give you a lot of freedom. But here I saw a huge wealth of venues and cultural organisations in just a small area. That was my wow moment.’

RA: In the end you were able to make art your job, weren’t you?

GS: The title of my first job in Flanders was ‘allochtoon’ (foreign) cultural officer. As a newcomer, just try to understand what ‘allochtoon’ means. At first I thought it only applied to people like me, born elsewhere but now here. Until I saw that people who have lived here for three generations were also ‘allochtoon’, while other newcomers were not called ‘allochtoon’.

RA: So the ‘allochtoon’ cultural officer didn’t understand the notion of ‘allochtoon’.

GS: (laughs) ‘I learnt to understand it and I also slowly started to understand the cultural sector. I worked at the Warande cultural centre in Turnhout and at what is now called Moov. But at the same time, as the chairman of the Latin-American Federation I had a network of Latin-American contacts in Antwerp. And I saw that these two worlds had no contact with each other at all. On the one hand you have the wealth of infrastructure and on the other the energy of civil society, but the two never meet. I did everything I could to design means of bringing these two worlds together. In that way, together with a lot of other people, we gave shape to the Mestizo Arts Festival, or MAF for short.’

Kristin Rogghe was already a dramaturge and while at t’arsenaal developed the GEN2020 project. ‘In everything I did I found it important to cooperate with people from different worlds. A production was always a quest.’

RA: And now it’s from dramaturgy to urban dramaturgy. What should we understand by that term?

KR: Urban dramaturgy is a neologism, a new word for a new development. We have established a couple of definitions, but the meaning will only fully take shape through what we practice in the next few years. Urban dramaturgy is the lens through which we view not only the actual creations, but also the whole of the work and programme of the KVS. We shall be working with Brussels as a whole, but also with other major cities and more generally with the concept of the ‘new urban life’ and everything artistic that it has to offer.

GS: To my mind, new urban life describes the unique moment in history that we find ourselves at. There have always been migration flows, but we have never before had today’s communication technology. It enables people to remain in contact across all borders, and information can circulate at lightning speed. This means that in contemporary cities you get an unprecedented concentration of knowledge and experiences from all over the world. I believe that this has a huge potential, of which we now only use a fraction. Of course, to use data to the full you have to trust their bearer – in this case the migrant. Imagine what might be possible if we used to the full all the human wealth of the city! We can examine this potential by means of artistic concepts, interventions and creations.

KR: And where better to do it than Brussels, the pre-eminent ‘city of arrivals’?

RA: Why does Brussels appeal to you all so much?

GS: It’s not the KVS that persuaded me to take this new step in my career, but Brussels itself. This city, in all its chaos. There are cities that are well-directed and there are organic cities. Antwerp is one of the first type. Brussels, like Buenos Aires, is a perfect example of the second. There are a few guidelines, but chaos dominates. That suits me, because I am constantly looking for renewal, and am myself a force for renewal.

TA: I found it confrontational to hear that there was criticism because we are from outside Brussels. A city does of course define your identity and it could be a problem that an outsider represents your city in the major institutions. But I live in Brussels. I sense that it is an incredibly complex city. Brussels is also important in the European story, because it is a city that shows us the way to the future.

KR: I had always thought I would end up abroad, but I found Brussels to be a home. I have lived in Anderlecht, Schaarbeek, Molenbeek, the city centre, Sint-Joost and Sint-Gillis, so I do have some idea of the reality of the city. And believe me, it is not what the mainstream media make of it. In between times I also lived in New York for a year, which only increased my love of Brussels. Brussels is just as cosmopolitan, but in a smaller area.

RA: I myself opened Le Space because I did not feel at home in the traditional cultural institutions and because I see that lots of artists and cultural organisations feel homeless. For me, Le Space is a laboratory for the new hybrid culture that is taking shape in our cities. For example, I don’t understand why the government expects cultural organisations in this city to draw up five-year plans in which everything is fixed. Brussels has already changed three times just this year. First as a result of the arrival of the new refugees, then with the lockdown after the Paris attacks and then on 22 March with the airport and metro attacks. How useful is your five-year plan after all that?

KR: It is above all the first year that has to be worked out in detail in those plans. But even so, it’s right that you can’t fix everything a year in advance. That’s another reason why we set up the urban dramaturgy: precisely to deal with that changeability and to make room for everything that doesn’t fit into a compartment.

GS: You have to build a permeable membrane around your house. Traditional institutions are keen on certainty and achievements. So how do you create renewal? By daring to try new things. All renewal implies taking risks. If you always repeat the same thing you will always get the same result. But I must say that over the years I have also come to appreciate the more conservative forces. It’s all about balancing the two. This institution is only a vehicle that you use to move from one place to another. OK, the KVS is a Porsche, but it remains a means of transport, not a destination.

RA: In my view, renewal always comes from the fringes. Why do you believe that an institution like the KVS can play a part in the renewal of the cultural sector?

TA: People on the fringes and in the major centres should remain in consistent dialogue. It is precisely out of this that new things can arise.

KR: If an institution is always questioning itself and embracing new artists, you get renewal. People with differing frames of reference are given a central position in the new KVS and that too means renewal. For example, as a director Mesut Arslan deliberately seeks out new forms and relationships between performers and audience. He will set Nachtelijk Symposium, a play in the Flemish repertoire by Erik Devolder, in a big wooden arena by the contemporary artist Lawrence Malstaf. In their turn, such theatre-makers as Junior Mthombeni and Fikry El Azzouzi put stories and topics on the agenda that are alive in the streets but rarely make it to the large theatres. In their piece Malcolm X, the great musicians of the Brussels Jazz Orchestra will share the stage with, among others, the impressive spoken-word performers of Poetic Pilgrimage and a female singer who is currently being selected by open audition.

RA: In your writings on art you often talk about decolonisation. Is that another of the tasks of the urban dramaturges?

KR: Decolonisation is a task for everyone. It means changing your perspective. You have to stop viewing the world from above and link up with people and movements that view things from the bottom up. When you do this, you often discover that the most interesting points of view never get out into public view. As urban dramaturges in a major institution we can certainly play a part in this: we have to seek out these blind spots.

TA: The heroes in such countries as the Congo and Morocco are our heroes too. The recent evening at the Kaaitheater about the Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi, now deceased, was completely sold out. I was glad it had been organised and that it was such a success. There are lots more inspiring thinkers, writers and artists who should be given more room. They are people who broaden our concept of ourselves and our history. That brings about change. For example, for the first SLOW (Slam Our World) session at the KVS we have invited the British-Egyptian Sabrina Mahfouz, a rising star in the Anglo-Saxon theatre world.

RA: I have confidence in you all because I have often come across you before. So I know your background. But what are you going to do about people who distrust the major institutions?

KR: I am familiar with that distrust and I understand it too. I know where it comes from. I hope it helps that we shall be replacing fine words with doing and making things together.

GS: Our quest will above all be honest. Places like the MAF, Le Space and Urban Woorden must continue. A giant like the KVS can never have the subtlety of these alternative operations. Large institutions that want to swallow up the fringes: that too is a form of colonialism. I shall never let that happen in a thousand years.

RA: The first steps are extremely important when building up that sort of relationship of trust.

TA: In my case it’s actually the reverse. I come from the world you have described. I will be needing time to get used to this big organisation. What we do will depend on the needs and questions we encounter: the young city-dwellers, the artists and so on.

GS: Give us the time to get to know the people. With all the love and respect we have for what they do.


Foto: © Nawal Cheikh Ali