Nordic Arts in Berlin – from concept to cultural management

-An interview with Romanian-born Ricarda Ciontos, Artistic Director for Nordwind Festival-

Nordwind Festival is an unique performance festival in Berlin. There is no better description for it. Started in 2006 and having undergone a significant evolution up to the 2011 edition, it acts as a representation platform for the Nordic contemporary arts in Berlin’s cultural space. 

So why Nordic arts and why present them in Berlin? What are the challenges of managing such a festival? 

These are some of the questions we asked Ricarda Ciontos, the Romanian artistic director of the festival. Yes, there’s a bit of madness in everything mentioned so far, but also a fascinating story that waits to be told. For a troubled independent artistic scene here in Romania, we thought Ricarda’s valuable experience could bring ideas, opportunities and discussions up to debate.

Ingun Björnsgaard (Norway): Omega and the Deer, Photo © Knut Bry

First of all, tell us what Nordwind festival is. How did the idea for the  festival come about and how did you develop it?

I started with the festival in 2006, here in Berlin. At that time I was an actress in an Ingmar Bergman play; we travelled with the representation around Europe, especially in Germany and Sweden. The team I was part of consisted of people from the Nordic countries, so together we initiated an artistic project. It all started on a small scale; perhaps we had 15 audience attendees at first. The budget consisted of a few thousand euros and we had no actual intention of transforming our idea into something bigger. Yet the project grew as time went by, with every edition.

Now, at the 2011 edition, we’re holding the festival in Volksbuehne as one of the locations. All in all, after 4 years, we’ve become a big international festival in Germany, with thousands of visitors. The project was born from an interest we had in Nordic performance and it proved to be an interesting topic for the Berlin and Hamburg cultural life as well. The public wanted to discover what the performing arts in the Nordic area are like. 

Why did you opt for promoting Nordic arts in Berlin’s cultural space? This is more of a double question: why Nordic arts and why Berlin’s artistic space?

Despite the fact that Germany is pretty high up in the north and quite near to Scandinavia, the German audience has little knowledge about what the Nordic arts are. This is something which is very much surprising. I believe many people think “Nordic arts? People are wealthy, have money and they are really well off and this is the reason they cannot make such interesting kinds of art”. When I compare this to Berlin’s artistic space, I know a lot of people want to move and be here and explore the city. So there’s not only Berlin’s public but also a lot of international public that would come to see these Nordic artists.

It makes sense to organize the festival in Berlin because it can add something to the art scene here in Germany. This year, for example, we had a 12-hour performance: the Norwegian duo called Vegard Vinge and Ida Muller. It was really the performance of the year. They were aesthetically so unusual and surprising so the people were very impressed about what the artists could do. 

What can you tell us about the 2006 edition? How is the 2011 one different?

In 2007 we were more visible in the city – the performances took place in 6 theaters. In 2009 we partnered with HAU (Hebbel am Ufer), a renown theater and a very fit  place for international events. As for 2011 we also chose several locations. In 2012 I would like to have a few carefully chosen projects to co-produce. But not within the festival, I think it should take place once every 2 years. Otherwise it would be too much to see even for the audience. It would also mean that I should, by now, have the program in mind for 2012. It is difficult. 

How large is the organising team?

There are 3 people working on it in a given period of time; there are 7 on a long term. But I cannot pay someone for an ongoing activity for a full year. This is still not possible. I am the only organizer who can, at least partially, sustain myself from this activity. As for the others, they come and go, depending on when I can afford to pay. 

Nevertheless, this will change in time.  I had a recent discussion with our Nordic partners and explained that it has become impossible to keep the reigns of such a demanding festival in these off-structure conditions. 

How’s the collaboration with the artists?

It normaly goes smoothly because they get paid. But it can be more difficult if your time is limited and if they haven’t got an academical, artistical training behind them. Otherwise, they’re excited about coming to Berlin; Volksbuhne is an attraction to perform at. 

How much time do you dedicate to organizing the festival?

It’s becoming easier. The festival is already big – we already have the most relevant partners from the Nordic area in our program. They’re the ones that come to discuss with us now. However things go slower with Germany when discussing financial issues. They’re not that willing to give money for artistic events. There are already so many projects and so many artists full with ideas, that the normal reaction is “Please, no! Not another project!’. It is here that I put up a fight; it’s more with Berlin than with Hamburg. There are many artists who want financial support and the money is limited. But I think this applies to Bucharest as much as anywhere else.

How are you putting the festival’s program parts together – are artists applying to be selected (and if so, is there a selection process?) or are you, as an organizer, inviting them to participate?

I take a tour in the Nordic countries once a year and participate at events. It doesn’t suffice to see a performance “on tape”. I want to see it happening live.

As for the selection criteria, I consider important that the performance adds something new to Berlin’s artistic scene. The latter is already extremely creative so it doesn’t need just another idea. A Nordic performance should present a new style, a new approach. In a way, I find myself in need to answer the question “Why did you bring these artists for?” so I have to look for people who are doing very specific, very special art. 

You mentioned something about how the audiences wrongly perceive Nordic artists. Apart from the “Nordic” artistic material that the festival seeks to promote, are there any other particularities it wishes to bring to attention? Is there such thing as an identity for the Nordic arts?

I think that in Berlin there’s this idea that “we’ve seen it all” and that nothing can be surprising anymore. I do not agree. Often, when interviewed, the reporter takes a look at the festival program and states that it is either “extreme” or “excessive” or “vital” or “very emotional” that it doesn’t go far from pathetics. For artists in Berlin, like myself, who are more reflexive and adopt a detached view, the nordic artists create a contrast. They add value precisely because of their emotions and their excess, which can be radical in a physical and emotional way. Whatever they’re doing, it is never mediocre and certainly not a self-esteemed type of irony, nor a “we don’t take ourselves too seriously” approach. The latter is rather a European cynical approach that we have when producing works of art.

Erna Omarsdottir (Island): Digging in the Sand with only one hand, Photo © Tine Declerck

So is there an identity for Scandinavian art? If yes, then how does this festival propose to present it? 

I think there isn’t an identity at the moment that will, let’s say, be recognised as such 20 years from now. Each Nordic country has its own approach, influence, way of working. Finland for example is higly influenced by the Russian rule period, which led to a different development than in Copenhagen or Stockholm.  There is no “Nordic” understood as an entity. For them it is very important to plunge into one’s inner feelings and nothing here is ever constant. Perhaps next year things will go into a totally different direction, maybe the preffered style will be minimalistic and cold. You may never know.

Nya Rampen (Finland): WORSHIP!, Photo © Tomi Nuotsalo

What’s interesting however is the way people in Germany view Nordic arts: “If artists here come from the Nordic countries, their art must therefore be very rational and cold”. This is not true. In many aspects they’re very emotional. They also posses a naivety that’s hard to find in art nowadays; it comes close to Volks Kunst –  sometimes less reflexive, less intellectual. I find this impressing. I would also say it’s due to the power that nature has in the North, its vastness and its ubiquity. Imagine going outside in February, on a road and there’s this turning point; you are dealing with a huge problem if you unfamiliar with the environment. If you would be in Tuscany instead, you’d find the right way eventually. But nature in the North is a violent force; there is no way out if you get lost. For example, in Iceland, there are 300.000 people and if you travel there by car, you could go for miles and miles without any human in sight. This simply marks you as an artist. So yes, perhaps nature could be a a recurrent motive, yet even here artists interpret it differently…

Personally, I would refrain from saying that an identity exists for Nordic arts. In Berlin our festival often received such labels as “excessive” or “violent”. But this is a rather simplistic view, because some artists came from a completely different artistic direction. I suppose even they don’t feel confortable with such a general labeling. 

Kristian Smeds (Finland): 12 KARAMAZOWS, Photo © Ville Hyvönen

More on the project management of the festival:

I have noticed the festival has had quite some big sponsors for the 2011 edition, including commercial entities. How were things in 2006 in regard to the financial aspect? How did the festival sustain itself financially? Who supported the project in its initial phase and how did you manage to attract a stronger support as years passed?

How did we sustain ourselves at first? “Don’t give up!” (laughs). Berlin is very pleased if you abandon your own project, because there are already so many funding requests. After the 2007 edition of Nordwind I started to think I should grow the idea. Normally you’d say the opposite: if you have little money, then your project should correspond to your budget and be small as well. Well, I said that the only way for it to receive support is if it becomes bigger and draws media attention. Thus it becomes relevant for the audience and for the city. If your project is getting smaller and smaller with each budget cut-off then one day you simply cease to exist!

Of course, to develop a huge festival both in 2009 and 2011 meant that the organising team should put tremendous effort. It seemed like madness at certain times. We only had as much money for an entire festival that others needed for just one project. Then Hamburg wanted to partner up and become a festival venue; they were happy about the edition in 2011 and wish to continue collaborating, so this was a good idea. 

The commercial entities that show as partners for the 2011 edition were your private sponsors?

Not really. For example one of our commercial partners helped us with cars, because it was its industry. It was very nice of them, we used the cars as shuttle service for the artists. A motel and an airline also “sponsored”  us similarly, but we received no actual money. This hardly ever happens anyway, unless the festival would be even bigger, so that the sponsor knows its worth investing more if the audience is over 20.000. 

Where did the financial resources come from?

There’s a structure and a logic behind funding, as far as the Nordic countries are concerned. First, there’s the Nordic Council of Ministers. Then there are also: Nordisk Kultur Fond and  Kultur Kontact Nord, as well as Kultur Radet, the culture ministeries, embassies and only then come the private sponsors. Nordwind had them all. The buget was more like a patchwork: we received 2000 euros from here, 5000 from there, so there were different contributions. 

How did things evolve from 2006 to 2011?

I traveled for years in the Nordic countries and met many artists. Having made a few collaborations there, in time I proved that they can invest in my ideas. This mattered a lot since in the beginning it looked like pure madness: someone from Romania wants to come and organize a festival in Berlin on Nordic arts! That doesn’t help with credibility, but following the 2007 edition we had doubled our money because we had gained more trust. Most relationships were created through arguments other than money. For example, a collaboration with a venue such as Volksbuhne can only be made if you present the theater with strong artistic arguments. In return, the fact that Volkbuhne agreed to partner up with us also held a good weight when discussing with other partnerhsips for support. 

And the money first came from…?

The Nordic embassies from Berlin. Very small sums in the beginning. At the 2006 edition we received 500 euros or so. It was then that we started to apply for bigger funding opportunities. 

The reason we were lucky with actually receiving funds had to do with the festival’s idea. There is no such festival in Europe, one which presents all Nordic countries in a multitude of old disciplnes, from visual arts to theater, dance, all types of performances. We’re basically discussing about a whole representation platform. The idea was unique. Berlin’s cultural scene and its audience was prepared to engage with such art. Therefore it worked fine. Perhaps if I had gone to Hamburg first, things would have been much more difficult. But the fact that Berlin is also a major attraction point also helped support the development of the festival.

Leaving aside the case of Nordwind, what funding opportunities are there available in Germany and Berlin for artistic project in general?

In Berlin there are 2 major funds: Hauptstadt Kultur Fond and Bundes Kulturstiftung, the latter offering funds for the entire country. 

From my own experience, I have noticed that small projects or regional ones are not supported anymore. If you look at the winners’ list, you’ll only identify projects that are international and have visibility. So this is where the money goes to. It’s a big difference from the 80’s and early ’90s period when an offscene movement took place: brilliant people who did a lot of experimenting. This simply doesn’t exist anymore, as now they’re all part of different institutions. Artists can experiment if they have partners in Paris or Bruxelles, but if they’ve just started then they’re unlikely to receive funds. It is worrying how young artists, who have yet to gain reputation, are not being offered the support they need. It’s absurd – they’re required to have some experience with projects and a lot of media coverage, but how are they supposed to have that since they cannot launch themselves and their ideas in the first place? 

Sometimes Berlin is striking in its ambition to represent a melting pot, but in fact it offers so little to young artists. Some actually move to Munchen or other places, where it would be easier for them. Still most hang on to Berlin, but here it is often that good ideas are simply left out by the funding comittee. Some artists don’t even own a place to create or meet up; they do this at their own homes. How can they possibly work then? And still Berlin continues to claim a super professional approach on art. 

Another important thing in regard to space is that there aren’t as many performing arts centers in Berlin as one might think. There are a few, but less than 20. So my inside view is a bit different. 

Is this problem on funding for young artists on a public agenda for discussions?

Artists discuss this, yes. But they’re happy just to get over the critical, first grant; if this happens, they continue their work without looking back. Solidarity among artists isn’t really working if you’re discussing financial opportunities. 

Could Nordwind festival have taken place successfully in Romania?

I know little about financing opportunities in Romania. But the way I see its cultural and artistic scene from my position in Berlin, I think Romania holds a great international interest. I also believe that it would be possible to organize such a festival here with EU money, for example and also if you can convince the Nordic embassies to participate. 

There’s hype about the Romanian artistic landscape right now so the idea of holding the festival here is surely not an out of discussion topic. I am convinced that, should there be a pilot project on this, let’s say “Nordwind festival has guest-country location Romania at the 2015 edition”, you will surely get funds. This is what I would say. One important reason is that the country is cheaper – it is easier to pay the artists, as well as take care of the technical arrangements of production.

And because I have mentioned the Eastern artistic space, I would like to ask about your views. What are your opinions on the eastern European performance – would you say it has its own identity? 

Romania most definitely has a clearly outlined identity. I don’t know much about arts in general in the last year, but film and music are emerging rapidly. There are also many artists that are present abroad. If you ask the audience here, for example, they know what Romanian movies received prizes at the Berlinale and Cannes. With theater, things might be different; the way I see it, the traditional approach still exists and so the style is still very naturalistic and not at all associative. 

Interview by Irina Enache

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