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"The role of art critics in times of social distancing REFLECTIONS ON-SITE" by Holland Festival 2020

Due to this worldwide health crisis the performing arts have come to a standstill almost everywhere. This affects not only the work of the artists, but also that of the art critics. However, change creates opportunities. Suppose you could use this time of contemplation to think up a number of things: What changes in the role of art criticism (in relation to the performing arts) would be desirable? Could the international performing arts festivals play a role in this? And what do you hope to get more time and publishing opportunities for in the future as a critic?

Having recently written an article about the Berliner Festspiele’s online performances, I would like to write as a theatre critic about how the online presentation and consumption systems in the arts are reconstructing theatre in the pandemic and post-pandemic period. Will the theatre structure be changed – or destroyed – when the arts festivals create the online platforms of theatre shows? In addition, how will the artists and critics react to the first world lockdown in human history, a period which is terrible because of the fear of death but which has also allowed us to share our experiences of isolation? Despite enjoying the free online performances and the restful long periods at home, I believe that artists and critics should be looking critically at the changes in life and the arts, and the responsibility of the countries spreading the epidemic around the world, as well as the possibility that society and the arts may become closer because of the virus. Moreover, as world citizens with greater power of dialogue, critics should respond to the movements and protests in the world during or before the epidemic, when the US and Hong Kong governments suppressed their citizens’ freedom using the excuse of enforcing laws to protect them from the pandemic. The real-time performance and the live experience are enduring characteristics of theatre and arts festivals. Even if a festival screens movies, the sensations and feelings of being together in a venue with other audience members are totally different from watching the online clips alone at home. However, the development of online performance should be focused on the sense of real time and audience participation. What if showing online is not a provisional measure, but one of the possibilities of future theatre and festival development? For example, as a performance curator, I produced an online performance called ‘How to present the love life of Hong Kong people to Aliens in the time of Pandemic’ by Zoom programme in April and May 2020 (written and directed by Pat-to Yan), in which the audiences come into the chatroom and watch the show. Obviously, the presentation could have been a video record if audiences watched it without any interaction. However, the audiences were allowed to chat with the performer by text message in the chatroom. Thus, there is ‘read-time’ in live performance even though the venue is virtual. Moreover, the performer and audiences were ‘present together’ while there were interactive elements in the performance. As for whether the emotional communication, ensemble and the real feelings between performers and audiences have been lost in online performance, the mood of the performer and audiences gathering together is still created without the limitations of space. Online gatherings are common in the 21st century, since as daily smartphone users, we are a part of the ‘cyborg’. Finally, in the strategy of festivals, if the main purpose of creating programmes is the enjoyment of audiences, their reactions and the responsibility to support those living from artistic creation, the most important concern should not be the distinction between theatre, movie, and the internet performance. It is crucial that critics should also focus on the influence of social issues and the related problems before or after the global plague, which are about governments controlling freedom using the laws of protection from the pandemic, police violence towards the protesters in Hong Kong, America, Chile and so on. Especially in Hong Kong, where I live, the freedoms of creating art, of speech and human rights have been continuously eroded everywhere by China's powerful political repression. For instance, a TV programme had been banned by the Hong Kong government because of its mocking of police violence. This freedom of expression will be punished under Hong Kong’s National Security law. Critics and artists will panic, and people will be arrested for having said something anti-police or anti-government in their art or simply for a message in social media. As a part of the dictatorship’s power in Hong Kong, the festivals will not fight for the freedom of creations and will not support art mocking the Chinese government again. Thus, I believe that the worsening situations of human rights should be presented by the international art festivals in other countries which can and do support critics and artists who cannot speak in their home countries (such as Hong Kong) performing their own works. The local audiences can reflect on aesthetic differences and political crises between their country and others in. Finally, Europeans can be aware of how China is concealing the seriousness of the epidemic, controlling the people’s freedom, and waging economic aggression against other countries. No matter what the influence of the pandemic, people’s relationships with each other are being reconstructed. I believe that critics should criticize the transformation of art forms and the possibilities of new creations. If there is a chance to do so, they can act as consultants, exploring and critiquing the new artistic formats while the festivals are being contracted. The critics’ role would be to figure out solutions that break the traditional inherent image of art as something between performances and audiences, instead of only writing the reviews after the shows. As for the international issues, different international art festivals may need to share with each other information by critics who are allowed to write and present the different ecologies and cultures, including the crisis of freedom and human rights in some totalitarian states, and the relationship between art development and the improvement of democracy in the 21st century. Even if the necessity of political elements in the post-dramatic theatre was only a controversy without effects on lives or whole industries in the past thirty years, today’s art critics have no excuse for rejecting the discussion of politics after this epidemic in 2020, which has nearly caused the direct extirpation of arts and the art industries.

If you could choose any production or artist from the initial Holland Festival 2020 programming to write about, or meet the artist, who/what would that be and why?

The programme Nous Pour Un Moment by Ame Lygre and Stephane Braunschweig should be the first choice for me to write and meet the artists, because of the topic of different relationships and the contradictions in societies which I am interested in now. The scenography with water is attractive since it represents the imaginations of unstable friendships, families and societies by the water.

The second choice is Drei Schwestern by Susanne Kennedy which presents the new direction of Three Sisters in digital form. I would like to know how new media recreate the concept of the traditional script and the isolation of families in the content.

The article has been published at the website of Holland Festival 2020

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