Thursday, December 10, 2009 • 12:00 AM Comments ()

The Zero Budget Festival

posted by Andrea Assaf

1. Festival Overview

UNESCO declared 2009 “The Year of Grotowski” in honor of the 10th anniversary of the death of Jerzy Grotowski, whom many consider to have been the most important theater director of the 20th century. The legacy of Grotowski´s work lives on in many ways – in the contemporary reverberations of his most well-known productions, such as The Constant Prince and Apocalypses which changed theater history forever; in the work of theater and performance artists who were inspired by what some call the Experimental theater movement; to the development of the academic discipline of Performance Studies; to the on-going work of those who practice art as a vehicle for spiritual transformation; to living artists who worked with Grotowski and now are teaching new generations of students around the world. In celebration of the Year of Grotowski, numerous events were organized in New York City and Wroclaw, Poland, including summer conferences and festivals in both cities, the launch of the multi-year “Meetings with Remarkable Women” project, and this fall, the Zero Budget Festival.

The Zero Budget Festival was organized by the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards, based in Pontedera, Italy, and hosted by the Grotowski Institute in Wroclaw, from late October to mid-November. Named “Zero Budget” because it was, in fact, organized and produced with almost no money, and all publicity accomplished through the Internet and Facebook, it was nevertheless packed with events and audiences, night after night for over three weeks. Momentum built through November, and by the end of the festival, most performances were so full that some audience members had to be turned away. The festival offered an incredible array of performances, all free and curated by the Workcenter, in an impressively wide range of aesthetics, and multiple languages. Practice-based workshops, from quilting to Biomechanics, were held in the mornings for a limited number of pre-registered participants. The full conference began each day in mid-afternoon, with a lecture by a prominent theater artist and/or scholar, or a forum for dialogue among conference participants. Performances typically began in the early evening, and continued often until midnight or beyond. The festival included strong performances from many countries, such as Turkey, France, Italy, the U.S., and more. In this landscape of internationalism, it was clear that the theater of Poland continues to be remarkable, empassioned, craetive and precise, and that the aesthetic influence of Grotowski´s early work in Poland is still evident.

The festival featured the latest performance project by the Downstairs group of the Workcenter, a full-length work titled I Am America, based on the poetry of Allen Ginsberg and songs from the U.S. South (along with other incarnations of this material, such as the Electric Party) directed by Mario Biagini. Some festival participants were also privileged and blessed to witness the on-going performance research of what is now the Upstairs group, led by Thomas Richards, in an intimate living-room setting, one unexpected morning after tea and reflections on the experience of the festival. I Am America was provocative, moving, celebratory and raucous – bringing audiences to their feet with applause that called for encore after encore. The work of the Upstairs group ... indescribable as it is ... left witnesses with everything from inner peace to joyful tears, the profound experience of a vibration beyond words, and a gratitude far beyond applause.

2. Society, Culture and the Artist

I was fortunate and honored to be a guest of the festival, invited to perform and lead a dialogue session on art and society, or theater practice and community activism. This topic, proposed by the Workcenter, seemed a marked departure from their usual focus. The perception of the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards (at least in the U.S.) has historically been that it is, at best, the highest achievement of total dedication to artistic process, ensemble practice, and transcendent performance; or, at worst, the penultimate example of European interculturalism and appropriation, and/or indulgence in the artist’s experience to the exclusion of social or political responsibility. In other words, the theater’s greatest site of “art for art’s sake,” which is either excellent or deplorable, depending on one’s view of the question of art and politics. So when the publicity for the Zero Budget Festival announced that the Workcenter was “interested in an active approach to society, culture and the individual,” those of us who work in arts activism were both surprised and excited.

The discussion that ensued at the forum on this topic was both deep and intensely challenging. We began by establishing the distinction between "quality" (aesthetic impact) and "value" (social or political impact), and while these two concepts are intimately linked, the intention of this dialogue was to focus on the latter. Throughout the festival, we'd been having discussions about the dimensions of creative work in relation to dimensions of being human, and the ethics of theater practice. In this forum, we were focused on engaging the socio-political dimensions of being human, or the political dimension of consciousness (what could be referred to as "horizontal" relationship), and the ethics of representation or performance in the public sphere. We discovered that with multiple langauges and cultures in the room, we had different understandings even of the word "political," and even more so of what "political action" is. For example, a participant later remarked that in a Greek context, any debate or dialogue between individuals is political, because it is in the social realm, or of the body politic. In a U.S. context, I described 3 levels of political or activist art:

  • Political content as the subject matter or theme of a work of art (such as much of the poetry of Allen Ginsberg or the Spoken Word movement today), which may or may not include a call to action, and aims to inspire personal transformation
  • Politically-engaged community-based art-making as a process that consciously expands access and increases agency in art, and actively engages community members in social or political issues; this level often aims to affect both individual and community
  • Cultural organizing, in which artists work pro-actively with political organizers, with the explicit goal of spreading awareness of specific issues and accomplishing policy change, in order effect societal transformation

As much as any song, practice, or work of art may have aesthetic power and beauty, or even spiritual vibration, it will at the same time have social implications, cultural and political resonance. In this way, we may say that all art is political (whether the artist wants it to be or not), especially once it is placed in the public sphere. If we accept that assertion, then as creators and practioners we must ask: What is our responsibility to this political or social dimension of meaning? What ideologies or histories are embedded in our creative process? What political resonance does my work have once an audience hears or witnesses it? How does that resonance or meaning change in a different cultural context? Who has access to the work, and who has power or agency in the process? And, as Thomas Richards aked me in the forum, what kind of change am I trying to effect?

This forum at the Zero Budget Festival was the beginning of an important conversation (perhaps even historical) in the lineage of Grotowski's work. Many thanks to the WorkCenter for the opportunity to participate, and to the Public Humanist for the opportunity to share reflections. Please continue the dialogue, here and beyond!
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