“We need dialogue that is well thought through and multifaceted”

In our interview with the Hungarian coordinator of PICTURE Budapest-Østfold and the founder of the Artopolis Foundation which organizes the annual PLACCC Festival, we ask Fanni Nánay about the status of art in public space in Hungary, about the history of PLACCC, about experiences gained during the recent Norwegian-Hungarian cooperation, and what the future has in store for her and her projects.

– How did you first learn about art in public space?

– When I was working on my PhD dissertation in Poland, my topic focused on all artistic phenomena that were in the border area between theater and non-theater. I studied cases where theater left the theater building. I think this is what inspired me at first. I also regularly visited international festivals and saw a lot of public space performances. These experiences became important for me. Then I met Katalin Erdődi, with whom I saw Rimini Protokoll’s Cargo Sofia in Belgrade in 2006, and together we decided that we wanted to work in this medium.

– What was going on in this field in Hungary at the time?

– In theater, only Krétakör Theater’s site-sensitive performances come to mind (Kornél Mundruczó’s Nibelung lakópark (“Nibelung Residential Park”), set in the abandoned Hospital in the Rock in Budapest, for example), but exciting experiments in the fine arts such as boldly organized public space happenings were more prevalent at the time. Street theater was also a thing then, though it didn’t interest me, because it simply dealt with the street as if it were another stage, as if it were inside a theater, and did not rely on its peculiarities. It was not inspired by its specific surroundings, and there was no communication between location and performance either. Then, in 2008, the Artopolis Association was founded, and we raised money for the first annual PLACCC Festival with the help of the Budapest Autumn Festival, which focuses on contemporary performance art events. We spent almost a year before the first festival doing research and thinking about what we wanted to show the Hungarian audience. For example we visited the Oerol Festival, held on Terschelling Island in the Netherlands – this proved to be a defining experience for both of us.

– What were the preferences of this new festival, set to be held in a country where there was almost no history of performative art in public space?

– We were in luck, because Balázs Kovalik was the artistic director of the Autumn Festival at the time – he was very interested in our plans and supported us. In the first year, we organized a site-specific theater festival, while today I define PLACCC more as a public space art festival. We have changed in two ways: shifting from theater to other arts forms, and from site-specific to public space. In the beginning, we did concentrate on site-specific theater projects, but not long after starting the festival we hosted the bicycle-based performance of Hello!Earth, which used the whole city as its stage, with the theater itself only existing in the minds of audience members. We preferred – and tried –  to have both Eastern and Western European theaters perform at PLACCC, which would not only be a kind of primer for this genre of theater, it would also be audience-friendly and show people what we ourselves think about the concept of site-specific art. During this time, we had a chance to do real curatorial work and invite only those performances we really wanted to have, using our own funds, which could be complemented if needed. Today it’s the opposite: we can only invite performances that we already have the funds for.

 – I believe it was an important change in the history of PLACCC when you started supporting the creation of works by Hungarian artists.

– In the first few years, our main goal was to show people that this genre exists and that a new festival had been born. We did not really have anyone to turn to then in the performative art scene, which is why PLACCC focused on foreign artists at first. Then we started inviting Hungarian artists to collaborate with us, but mostly visual artists and designers who had already made much more headway into art in public space than artists doing theater, for example, had. This is why we worked with Szövetség ’39, a creative group founded in 2004, which designed large-scale, complex art projects, or with the Új Irány group, which was founded in 2000 by urban and landscape architects. It was not by chance that, in 2009, we invited theater director Pál Göttinger and the Soharóza experimental choir as our first performative art contributors. This was not just theater – it was something else, a path we were setting out on then.

– When did your classical curatorial work come to an end?

– When we first started working, the local government supported the project’s cityscape aspect, while the largest Hungarian cultural financing institution, the National Cultural Fund (NKA), supported the artistic side. This worked well for years, but you could feel the change in 2012. In 2013, we organized two different festivals, in part with the financial aid of the In Situ network. One of the two was the first program series in Csepel. But then, in 2014, things started going downhill. The NKA did not fund the tender contribution that was needed for us to take part in other European projects, so we had to “generate” this amount for ourselves. And we were never really able to recover after that. From that point on, we started inviting In Situ projects, because the network was almost our only reliable source of financial support.

– In this situation, is In Situ a necessity, a choice or an opportunity?

– It is mainly an opportunity, and not just from a financial perspective, but from a professional one as well. It means a lot that we can regularly take part in meetings, that we can talk with other curators and festival organizers, can see their programs. And we also don’t only talk about artistic matters at these meetings, but other topics as well. The structure of In Situ will change in 2017, but I want to make it clear that if it wasn’t for In Situ, PLACCC would have been finished in 2014. We are the smallest and most underfunded member in the network, though our situation may change now somewhat along with the network structure itself. At the same time, we are ahead of some of the other members, because we had to forge ahead quickly to survive. We have gained more experience in collaborating with other sectors and experimenting with new kinds of financial models compared to other festivals in the In Situ network.  The reason for this is simple: there are many gigantic organizations in France and England that are generously supported by local governments, and though these members are trying to diversify their funding, they are not forced to do so like we are, because we get no governmental funding at all. Success is not guaranteed, and the process can only be effective in the long run, and cannot solve our problems today. Possible sponsors also take different approaches to small and large festivals: if the head of a well-funded festival walks into a bank asking for financial support, they will be received much differently than we would be if we did the same.

– Indirectly, it is thanks to your work with In Situ that the PICTURE Budapest – Østfold project came about. You first decided to seek funding for such a project when you met the Norwegian partner, James R. Moore at a workshop in Csepel in the spring of 2016. What did you hope to achieve with this project a year ago?

– I wanted to achieve many things; I had many plans. Building new relationships and finding possible partners in Csepel were important because I wanted a more effective collaboration with the locals than what I had had with residents in downtown Budapest. We were curious whether a workable model could be built with the help of greater project funds. Our most basic goal was to help create new art projects, since PLACCC is still an art festival at heart, and we want it to remain that way. But we had to accept that, because of the reasons I mentioned earlier, we had to find a new financial model. We felt that, through this project, we might be able to find the people in Csepel who could be our partners in the long term, so that their support could be channeled back into the field of the arts. Since 2012, we have focused more and more on giving young, aspiring Hungarian artists opportunities to work, keeping track of their achievements during and after the projects were finished. The main concept of PICTURE Budapest – Østfold was to examine how art and the post-industrial milieu could interact with one another. It was an experiment which also caused some tension during the process, because we had to decide whether the final works should be more experimental and research-based, or finalized performances to be held for an audience. My opinion is still that an artistic creative process must end in a presentation, in a premiere, but it is also true that in recent times I have seen more and more instances where only the work done in rehearsal rooms was thought of as real, valuable art.

– This may be due to a difference in culture, in the approach toward art as well.

– This conflict was remedied in PICTURE Budapest – Østfold by only having presentations in Csepel, and not in Norway. The project had three main goals. First, we wanted to provide an opportunity for artists to delve into an artistic problem, and let them have the option of continuing their work later on if they could not achieve their desired results at first. The next goal was to see the artists doing their research, to find out what interests them in this process. And the third was very pragmatic: we wanted to see how we could profit from this entire process, and how much of that profit we could reinvest into art later on.

– An important segment of PICTURE Budapest – Østfold was the theoretical introductory symposiums held for the artists in Hungary and Norway. How successful was this framework?

– In hindsight, I think James and I went too far in tailoring the entire project to our own interests when we insisted on having this type of theoretical introduction. We did not believe there would be an overt connection between the theoretical and practical work done by the artists, but we did want to give them a kind of interpretational framework. We thought it would add something to the project, and benefit the artists and the audience as well. It was especially important for me to allow anyone to visit these symposiums, so that if something inspired them they would then attend the presentations as well, allowing both types of experiences to complement each other. And, of course, we wanted to prepare the artists with a bit of theory. Now I believe that the theoretical segment was too long and too in-depth, and that we should have allowed more time for the artists to reflect on what they had learned, or to get to know the locations better. If we started all over now, there would still be a theoretical introduction, because, for example, this allowed many of the artists to begin their work by doing interviews with locals. The main aim of many of the projects was for the artists to get to know something about the people who live and work in the post-industrial environments, how residents use the space and how strong their bond to it is – and I think, in part, this was a result of the detailed theoretical introduction. According to feedback from the artists, the symposium presentations that had a stronger impact on them were the ones that were less theoretical in nature, for example, those that dealt with specific projects elsewhere. Many of these were also about collaborations between local residents and artists.

– I think one of the most exciting aspects of the project was how the artists connected with local residents, though this was a time-consuming effort, and time was something PICTURE Budapest – Østfold could not provide them with too much of.

– At our meetings, the artists told us more than once that they felt there was not enough time to get to know the locals, and PLACCC has also been criticized for not building strong enough relationships with the residents of Csepel. But we must not forget that people living there still work in that industrial area, even if we are using it for an art project right now. Should we organizers concentrate on these relationships, or should we have the artists take the initiative? When organizing the events of the festival, both the Artopolis Foundation and PLACCC Festival keep in contact with people living and working in Csepel. But I still believe that an artist can approach local residents in an entirely different manner than we can. One example is Dániel Makkai, who found an appropriate way of reaching out to locals. Another is Edit Vizer, who also made inroads. Of course, there were many circumstances that we could not prepare for, and yes, it is true that building a structure for this kind of project was a new experience for us. Though in the past we had invited more than a few foreign artists to other festivals to work together with Hungarian ones, this was the first time we had to coordinate eleven artists working in such an intense manner. It is possible that the artists also felt a bit of pressure, because there would be an audience on the last day, and they had to produce something – but it was comforting to see such a friendly, open audience attending the presentation, an audience who knew beforehand that they would not be seeing finished artworks.

– What works better in Norway than in Hungary?

– You plan in a different way if you have a large amount of funding that you can rely on. For years, we found it difficult working without a secure financial foundation, and now, even though we had money, thanks to the project, it was still difficult to spend it, because we were so used to not having any real funding. The infrastructural conditions were also very different in Norway. A lot of technical equipment like lights were a part of their basic equipment there, while we always have to rent these things for every festival. And just because you have adequate funding does not automatically mean that the infrastructural problems suddenly go away. An important difference, for example, is the fact that the now inactive paper factory in Moss is owned by a single real estate investor, while every building in Csepel has a different owner, which really slowed down our organizing of the event. In some cases it made work there outright impossible. This fragmented ownership of the area also makes cooperation with investors in Csepel really challenging, something our Norwegian partner did not have to deal with. Still, I’m optimistic, because we were able to find a factory hall for the project in Budapest, a building once used as a medical station, and we also received some bicycles free of charge. And this all might be a long-term result of our current project.

– How can one communicate a project like this to the audience?

– This was a new area for us as well, because when we communicate the events of PLACCC Festival, we always have to be very specific and give the audience as much information as we can. For example, what they should prepare for, what kind of genre the performance will be: a walk or an installation, for example. And we have to explain to them what we expect from them as participants. During PICTURE Budapest – Østfold, most people were curious about what kind of things they would be seeing during the presentation, and due to the nature of the project, we could only answer their questions later on. But we were very happy that those who came to Csepel did what we hoped they would: they took part in an exploratory event that lasted a couple of hours. What really made these two days special was the interest local residents showed: many of them attended, high schoolers among them, and started locating places that they had worked at on the map of our various projects in the area. I think this is important: that members of the audience could in a way relive what they had experienced there before. The factory was the center of life both in Csepel and Moss, Norway, a place for the community, for a shared, common identity. When such a place suddenly disappears, it is not certain that people living there want to restore all of its elements. But nothing remained in its place, nothing that could hold together the identity of the people left behind. This is why we were so happy that participants started remembering their past.

– How would you evaluate the projects presented in Csepel? I felt it was remarkable that there were so many contemplative pieces, works all looking inward.

– Something that was very important in Moss was even more so here: the collaboration and interaction between the artists. As organizers, we thought we would allow collaboration between any artists who chose to do so, but we wouldn’t force such cooperation on anyone. We were happy that some participants started collaborating together: examples include Dávid Somló with both Dániel Makkai and Jonas Bjerketvedt, who himself also worked with Ziggurat Project. It also felt good to see how the experimental work in Norway and the presentations in Hungary were related. Naja Lee Jensen dealt with dreams in Norway and wanted to continue her work in Hungary, but after seeing the anti-governmental protest there chose to change her plans. I think her project made it clear that it would have been better for participants to have had more time to do research. Dániel Makkai’s works echoed each other: he worked in Moss with the students of the International School there, then later found common ground with Roma children in Csepel who had grown up on the premises of the factory – then he built on the motif of the factory as a kind of playground in his project. I was happy that Ziggurat Project used the video graphics in Csepel that they had created for their work in Norway, even though most audience members did not know about the connection between the two works. This is how bridges were built between the two venues.

As for the second half of your question: it is clear that elements of both the more “intense” and “active” projects relied on the performances being born within the minds of the audience – Dávid Somló’s bicycle tour and Dániel Makkai’s complex playground were such pieces. And you are right, Jakob Oredssen’s green field, Jonas Bjerketvedt’s folk dance video installation, Camilla Wexels Riser’s and Liv Kristin Holmberg’s communal experience of twilight were all “born in our heads”, as it were. One of the reasons for so many contemplative works was because the artists were compelled to realize that Csepel is an area rich in the stimulus it can give a creative person. This is why many of the artists chose something out of this rich environment to reflect on, directing the attention of the audience toward these elements.

– I am asking the organizer of the sole art in public space festival in Hungary: what does the future hold for you, what is the next step?

– My real dream would be a model like the one that exists in many other countries: to take part as an equal partner in a dialogue where artists and representatives of civil organizations sit on one side and municipal leaders, real estate investors and representatives of local government all sit on the other. We need dialogue that is well thought through and multifaceted about the topic of art in public space – this would be the most inspiring thing for all those involved. When thinking about Csepel, one must remember that this is not in fact a post-industrial space, as there is industrial production going on there to this day. True, this is a kind of “post-industry” compared to the golden age of Csepel, but if the creative and artistic industries could complement the work still being done here, together they could mean a fresh start for local residents. Of course, many years of work are needed to achieve such a goal, and we would need a very different type of climate in this country. I also think it would be extremely important for PLACCC not to be alone when continuing dialogue about art with other industrial sectors, but to work together with other organizations and open, grassroots initiatives that are also active in this field.

Interview conducted by Tamás Jászay // Translation by Dávid Cseh.