Sven Åge birkeLAND
SVEN ÅGE, ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF BIT TEATERGARASJEN IN BERGEN, HERE SPEAKS TO DRAFF ABOUT THE ROOTS OF BIT, CURATING TRUST IN AN ARTISTIC COMMUNITY AND THE ARTIST’S TOOLBOX OF SOLUTIONS FOR DEALING WITH THESE TIMES WE LIVE IN.
Why did you start the festival Teatertreff'84 that would later become BIT Teatergarasjen?
BIT Teatergarasjen started as a response to the fact that the town only had a national theatre and the international festival every spring. As theatre students, we wanted to spread the good news from the international world all through the year so we started this festival that became BIT later. And the first couple of issues were very academic, the first one wanted to research group theatre from the 60s and 70s based around happenings and performance art, and then in the second year it was Grotowski and others, so we covered the history. And after that we wanted to look to the contemporary.
The three of us who started it, we were all post-punks and we wanted to go out in the streets. We had this big opening programme in the city centre and there were thousands of people at it. And we also had indoor shows in clubs and in theatres, even in the national theatre, and people went berserk and we were accused of animal abuse and it was total chaos, but it was a very good move. The town loved this extra layer of what art could be. We did it as research these first two years - it was part of my thesis, so we did our thesis work in praxis.
And why did you go into theatre studies in the first place?
Initially I wanted to study film in Stockholm but I had a girlfriend who didn’t want to go to Sweden, so we came here to Bergen instead. The relationship was over after two months, but I stayed. I like this rainy hellhole. When there’s one day of sun there is total forgiveness. The first fall I was here, it was rainy and misty and we didn’t see the sky from late August until late November, it was absolutely fucked up, but it was so beautiful. I fell in love at once. You had one little positive glimpse of sun, and I thought that’s how it is to go from hell to heaven – there’s a confirmation in that almost. When we started working on BIT, I became a single parent. Being a single parent in Norway, you’re not very well off but at least you can pay rent and put food on the table, so I could continue the business of working on the festival. I stopped my Masters six months before I was due to deliver my thesis and I went into cultivating this festival that would become BIT and I worked for the first ten years without a salary because I had this single parent support. At the start, we focused on what we really enjoyed, and it was clear that our interest was more in Abromavich than Grotowski. From there on we tried to cultivate the idea of mixing a little bit of academics and a little bit of performance and happenings. It’s a lot about trust in the field itself. Who is better at taking the temperature of what is going on right now than artists? So I feel that by trusting the art field itself, from the academics to the practitioners, the whole ecology of the field, we get a precise idea of what life is about just now. And this notion of giving more and more trust to the field itself, you see the result of that in this current festival, which is very different from last year’s dance festival in Bergen or Meteor two years ago. The world has changed dramatically in just the last three or four years. In the last Meteor two years ago I still had the same notion of giving autonomy to the field, by curating trust in a way, but at that time you could see that even if artists came from New York, or Manila, or Paris or Bergen, they were kind of pointing at some things they had in common, even coming from these diverse parts of the world. Now in this year’s programme all the threads are really different, they actually represent a much more diverse tool box of handling a world that is getting more populist and shittier. The arts field, which I trust a lot, has to find different strategies to survive, to actually cope with the world.
And do you feel any special responsibility in your programming in relation to Norway’s position within the artistic sector internationally, in terms of availability of resources and freedom of expression?
Some of my colleagues in cities with fucked up political systems, they have more money than us here, but, they are very often not allowed to express what they want to artistically. I curated a festival in Poland five years ago, where two years later they had Castellucci and others, and they had riots with 100,000 people in the streets, death threats to the curators and the staff, a government that takes away all the support the day before the festival opens. So we did crowdfunding and they managed to repair it, but they are living under this insecurity all the time… I mean, in terms of responsibility, you look yourself in the mirror in the morning, and every day you like to be alive, and I think it’s a responsibility to make things a bit better wherever you are in the world. Norway is a society that’s pretty well off, yeah. And what’s at stake is always a relevant question and sometimes you feel nothing is at stake and that’s boring. But then, you know, you change contexts, change situations, do things in cafés and clubs and invite a researcher of violence in domestic situations for example, or terror research, so we get a talk going and try to raise issues we find relevant and interesting. The two shows that only sold at half capacity here during this festival were both shows that were addressing important issues, one about waste and the other about rape victims in Rwanda. These two difficult, challenging objects didn’t resonate in the local community at all, but the show with a performer reading about his shaved anus attracted all the people from the art field.
You mentioned earlier this idea of ‘curating trust’. How do you curate trust in an artistic community?
Trust is something that goes two ways. We are not a big organization. When we co-produce things it takes between twelve and twenty-four months of preparation. You start by meeting an artist who is sitting there with their notebook, having a good idea, and you say ‘let’s dive into it’ or ‘let’s talk again’ or ‘here’s €3,000, get started on establishing a budget, raising funds, and we will present in twenty-four months’ or whatever. And that process, starting with that, you have to have trust… that’s on a micro level. We do that with 80% of our programme and we don’t have a house where people can meet every week or month or whatever so we have to trust that the artist is smart enough to bring that material to another level and I will not intervene at all as long as I’m not put in jail for presenting it. In this festival programme, at least nine of the pieces are situations and things I couldn’t see or foresee because they’re having their premiere here, so I’m as excited as you are going to shows and that applies to almost 50% of the programme. So I trust that artist to not fuck it up, and to not fuck me up, and not fuck themselves up. And they trust the audience and the community they’re working with.
What’s at stake with performance these days?
Actually it differs from day to day. We have an orientation that is very heavily humanistically grounded and I think most of the people working in our field, the artists we work with, will say they’re centre to left in politics and that’s all ok – but I would like us to be more generous because times are getting tougher. I will not programme a right-wing proposal, but at least we have to understand their rhetoric. Now we see left wing people are arguing between themselves instead of joining forces. So something is at stake when it comes to how we actually speak and how we communicate. Now there’s a lot of pretty surface social media kind of hang outs that are symptomatic, but not so interesting, and I think we could do better – on many levels. For instance, we all know there is harassment and assault around and we have to do something about it – this #metoo campaign kicks off the idea of let’s take it seriously and that’s cool, but that’s where that one stops and the next movement should be more serious. I don’t know anyone that wasn’t harassed somehow. What does that say? I think we have to be more generous and we have to be serious when we address things. We have artists that are really concerned not about political dogmatism, but they are concerned about how they could contribute to making things better. I don’t believe in politics that is just thesis, I want people to go that bit deeper into it.
Sven Åge Birkeland is the Artistic Director of BIT Teatergarasjen and the biannual festivals METEOR and Oktoberdans.
Images: Liv O'Donoghue
Posted: 28 October 2018