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7 Min



Dr. Nicola Scherer


Melanie Zanin

Who cares?

Narratives of contemporary international performing art festivals and collaborations

Dr. Nicola Scherer gave the keynote speech, of which experpts are published here, at the Kick Off Weekend of the ITI Academy on 3 December 2021. The keynote followed by a panel discussion can also be viewed here.



When it comes to these dystopian times, what a kick-off can use is an idea – a narrative – of how to create a better tomorrow. Sounds cheesy? I know. But let’s face it, we are humans, we need this. Therefore, this keynote starts out with a quote from Rosi Braidotti, who says that she is worrying about we are still calling, for a lack of a better word, the human sciences or the humanities. She is referring here to the academic sphere that needs change and the same goes for the international performing art scene. For her this comes with a sense of responsibility and as she describes herself as a person who belongs to a generation that had a dream, she drafts the following, which can inspiring for the field of preforming arts too:

“It was and still is the dream of actually constituting communities of learning […] that look like the society they both reflect, serve and help to construct. It is the dream of producing socially relevant knowledge that is attuned to basic principles of social justice, the respect for human decency and diversity, the rejection of false universalisms; the affirmation of the positivity of difference; the principles of academic freedom, [...]” – You might add, artistic freedom. “[…] antiracism, openness to others and conviviality.”1

Rosi Braidotti proposes new ways of combining critique with creativity, claiming to put the ‘active’ back into ‘activism’ and moving towards a vision of posthuman humanity for the global era.  

Who cares? Rosi Braidotti does. She is a representative of posthumanism, social science and poststructuralist theory that describes the era we live in already as a posthuman time. What is meant by this term is the declaration of the end of the Anthropocene, the era in which human beings are in the centre of recognition and global political decision-making processes. I share this vision of the urgent need of coming together, sharing knowledge, generating new knowledge collectively, making mistakes in our practice and learning and unlearning together. We need a multitude of perspectives, multi-perspective teams, and I strongly believe we won’t get anywhere on our own.



That said, I will now present a thesis which shows the important role of international performing art festivals – here it comes:  

International performing art festivals (PAFs) are politically relevant actors for the international performing arts scene. 

  • PAFs see themselves as cultural-political actors who curate internationally and mediate locally. They form specific profiles within their curatorial work, through which they effect and contribute to new narratives.  

  • For example, they make a contribution to expanding the repertoire of stories that are visible in the festivals host countries. Associated with this are, for example, questions of the representation of various aesthetics, dramaturgies, actors and performing arts practices.  

  • PAFs are effective on a local, national and international level and contribute to the diversity of the performing arts landscape. In the curation of the festivals, (socio-political) references are consciously programmed by the curators. 



In the following, I am going to give you some examples (for more, please see the video of the panel discussion) where international performing arts festivals can be described as cultural-political actors and which make transparent which ways international performing art festivals contribute to local and global discourses, impact local communities and international scenes. These global issues are presented, represented, deconstructed in different ways in the context of international performing arts festival practice. Within the last decade a variety of global issues have been discussed within the international performing arts scene, such as post-/decolonialism, feminism, global warming, worldwide processes of the re-emergence of nationalism and the lack of artistic freedom in several global regions. Theorists like Nikita Dawan, Judith Butler, Wendy Brown or Hélène Cixous have been invited to speak at international festivals. By including new and also theoretical perspectives into concepts of curation and the festival itself, festivals benefit from and contribute to discourse and thereby changing narratives. The 2016 edition of the Steirischer Herbst festival, for example, used the slogan “Wir schaffen das” (English: We can do it!). The curatorial concept referred to the political claim of the former German chancellor who (at least) started out with welcoming refugees in the so-called refugee crisis of 2015/16. Besides a crystal-clear political position in the opening speech and the programme booklets, the festival held their festival centre in the middle of the Annenviertel in Graz, which characterised as migrant district, and called the festival centre the Arrival Zone. The festival itself is located close to the Austrian-Hungarian Border and takes place in mainly conservative, right-wing orientated surroundings. Thus the festival itself becomes the local opposition. This is just one, very brief example, and yet there are already several layers of positioning. First, the political positioning of the festival throughout the curatorial concept, with the slogan for the particular year and the programme, secondly the geographical position of the festival in a regional and global context, and thirdly, the positioning of a festival centre and other locations (art works took place directly on the Austrian-Hungarian border) used for the artistic, discursive and arts education programmes. Alongside concrete theoretical discourses, festivals can change narratives by creating and co-creating internationally. They do so by inviting new experimental art works, with dramaturgies and aesthetics new to the local audience, as well as through co-productions and collaborations. The international performing arts scene is marked by an imbalance of power structures.

Performing Art Festivals (PAFs) as actor networks


The greatest number of performing art festivals can be found in the global north, the USA and northern/central Europe, thereby the majority of infrastructure, funding and curatorial decision-making – power over excluding and including – in international practice falls to the global north and with it a huge responsibility for providing safe work settings, sustainable infrastructures, making diversity visible and accessible within the international scene, as well as for rethinking their own role and formats. The most innovative formats do not necessarily appear in the context of the big, well-known festivals, rather especially interesting new things are usually happening on the edges. For example in local alliance, such as at BIBAM, student organised small festivals that are just starting out, or intercultural cooperative projects such as PENGO. A big part of curatorial work in the future must be a new understanding of cultural leadership that includes sustainable choices (check UN Sustainable Development Goals), social political responsibility and the continuation of festivals as learning institutions that help deconstruct current inequalities within international performing arts systems and to build back better. To sum up, these six different ways can be identified as already existing possibilities and current practice:

1. International (co-)production 

2. Cultural-political references in the curation and their mediation 

3. Integration of local scenes and actors -> community building 

4. Participation in discourses 

5. Creation of new narratives, aesthetics, dramaturgies 

6. Representation  

A festival operates in complex ways and is interlinked with several entities and actors, as the graphic international PAFs as actor networks shows. This is not a complete mapping of festivals as actor-networks, it’s a model that must be adapted and supplemented for every single festival, since every festival has its own unique framework.  

Not a Key, but a Note


What does all that mean for the ITI academy and curating within an international performing arts scene? Well, I don’t have the key – but here is a note that one (as one actor or a festival as actor network) can consider: for every piece of work you invite, think about someone or something you could invite next. Whose perspective is not represented? What voice could you invite to be included? What artwork or theory is important to share with the community you are in touch with at this moment in time and who else is missing in this community? Be aware of the geographical positioning of the festival itself. We need curatorial concepts that include good cultural leadership, fair cooperation and sustainability in international coproduction and coproducing, that work on imbalanced global power relations and are socio-politically relevant. Listen, listen – listen closely – to what is going on in the world. Practice awareness, empathy and compassion. Share power. Lose your ego. Question your own formats and institutions. Be open to failure. Learn from it. Leave in-betweens. Celebrate predictable unpredictability. Work collectively, in multi-perspective teams. Learn and unlearn as a team and institution. To return to the quote: constitute communities of learning, produce socially relevant knowledge and work with the basic principles of social justice, the respect for human decency and diversity, the rejection of false universalisms, the affirmation of the positivity of difference, the principles of academic freedom – artistic freedom – antiracism, openness to others and conviviality. 

That’s it. It’s as simple as that. 

You have resources. You have all the time in the world. You are in charge. And there is no one else taking care. 

That’s the end of this Keynote, and only one beginning for the kick-off of the ITI academy – an academy for emerging professionals for future festivals.  

Thank you. dziękuję bardzo.  
ขอบคุณมาก ๆ. bedankt. 

1 Rosi Braidotti: Posthumanismus – Leben jenseits des Menschen, p. 16 f., Campus, Frankfurt/ New York 2014


Dr. Nicola Scherer studied Fine Art and Performing Art in Braunschweig and Cultural Management in Vienna, as well as post-degree university courses at Paris Lodron University Salzburg/ LMU Munich. In her research she focuses on international performing art festivals and curating as cultural policy practice. She has also formed over ten years of experience as an artist, curator and cultural manager through her art collective space ensemble and its exhibitions, and through performing art and art education projects between Berlin, Braunschweig, Vienna and San Francisco.