Last year the organisers of Croatia’s Festival Novog Cirkusa decided to turn their five-day festival into a one-day conceptual event, with one performance, one lecture, one exhibition, one poster, and one programme (of mostly blank pages). John Ellingsworth talks to festival director Ivan Kralj about scandals, struggles, hallucinations, the Ministry of Culture, and the necessity of provocation.
How did you come to start Festival Novog Cirkusa?
It was actually a two-year process to figure out how to start the festival. One of the ideas was to hold it somewhere on the Croatian coast, but over time I decided it should be in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, because commercial sponsors are located there and most of the public money for culture is spent there. I thought it would be much easier to start it in Zagreb, but soon found that it was virtually impossible to make the festival with other people's money—so I did it mainly with my own investment.
Did you know how to start a festival?
No, but I think nobody who starts from scratch knows what to do. Back then I'd been learning to juggle for a few years, and I was involved a bit in the juggling community where there were some people that wanted to try to start some sort of circus festival or juggling convention of some kind. But then every time it failed they said, 'Oh, it's so complicated, it's impossible.' I'm quite a stubborn person. So for me it was like, 'What's so complicated? If you want to start a juggling convention just get with fellow jugglers and there it is.' It didn't seem so demanding.
But of course the thing I wanted to do was not really a convention—it was a festival to gather professionals and general audience, among others—with workshops for Croatian artists because there is no education for circus in our country. And beyond all this the real goal was to put the festival front and centre in the public cultural life of Zagreb and Croatia.
Yeah, it was quite a task—but I was a journalist and for me it followed on from that. When I started the festival journalists interviewed me and asked, 'How did you end up in circus and what's the difference?' It was very hard for me to explain what the difference is between journalism and circus (isn’t the difference apparent!?), but in another way they are the same thing: media. It's all media in the sense that you're trying to reach the public with something—with the content. So I didn't really feel like I was doing something extraordinarily special—it was just communicating, which was already the core of my work.
And then of course I knew that at the start it was really important to involve the press—because circus in Croatia really needed rebranding, in a country used only to traditional circuses travelling around with their series of acts. So I felt there was a really big need to involve the media in discovering this other side of circus.
I suppose one characteristic of journalism is political awareness and engagement, and looking at the work Novog Cirkusa has programmed it seems like you've been out to collect work that has a political slant, an edge, rather than the more abstract style of work that predominates in Europe.
I think that most of the festivals in Europe do support this abstract style of work that is made for everybody—or maybe for nobody specific. When you're programming a festival you're trying to feel what the audience wants and how to respond to the audience's needs, while I think our approach was quite different in the sense that we didn't really make compromises. We wanted to push the artform.
So it was really risky, in a way, to programme what we did, but it was also much easier for us because our audience were completely new to contemporary circus. So their expectations were not resisting the work; it was much easier to challenge their expectations than with someone that already has experience of what contemporary circus should be.
Maybe also we miseducated the audience—because maybe now they think contemporary circus is always very political... but I'm not intending to write a circus encyclopedia or a circus history, and if someone would measure that through our festival they wouldn't do a wonderful job. For me it was more important to create a platform for the works that don't easily find support. I remember during the fourth festival some of the programmers who came from Europe, or almost all of them, saw the programme—which included two different performances with schizophrenic people on stage, and one with an HIV positive artist—and said, 'Are you really sure that you want to put all of this in front of your audiences? You're not worried that your audiences will reject it or that no one will come?'
For me it was a strange question because the audience really want to be challenged and don't want to see the same thing that they saw last year. I think our programme was quite unsettling for European programmers because usually you want to have at least one major piece or something good that's played somewhere else—there is this complex of inferiority in a way that you feel it's much more reasonable to programme something that was already successful in Avignon or Edinburgh... you know, that you should not risk so much. Which is a very strange concept to me, because circus is all about risk.
For us also it was an economic question—it felt as though working with some new names, or making some new combinations, would be easier. But I think it was also part of the success of the festival because then we managed to put some artists on stage that years later played in Avignon or went to the Mime Festival in London.
It made it easier for us to find our own festival spot in Europe—so programmers and professionals didn't come because they weren't available during some other important festival, but because they wanted to see why this company premiered in Zagreb and not somewhere else. And then obviously when some of these companies did find success in Europe it became more interesting...
How did you programme the festival? Did you take open submissions?
I might become interested by DVDs or promo materials, but usually I watch every show at least twice before inviting it. For me it's interesting to go to the festival that's not yet so discovered, or if I happen to be at some big festival to go to some other place where performances are playing—it doesn't have to be an established venue, it can be quite underground, like Area 10 in Peckham (now closed), where I discovered Psychological Art Circus. Big festivals love big names, but I feel comfortable skipping seeing Aurélien Bory for the fifth time. Then maybe I can try to find something in the same city that doesn't have a big promotional campaign behind it—something that is much harder to discover—and I can go see that and give it a chance.
I also believe that the programmers of today are still very Francocentric—and I think this too is a symptom of not trusting audiences. They think, 'Oh, the audience like French shows—there's high production standards, there's poetry, the visual aesthetic of French circus.' France have also been Francocentric as they never really used to programme companies from the rest of Europe—they've only just started to in the last few years. One of these festivals that I was invited to attend many years ago was Circa Festival in Auch. It's actually changed quite a lot in the meantime, but back then I think no one was speaking English and there were not so many international programmers coming; today it's become a meeting place for European programmers coming to discover work—but still coming to discover French shows. They programme maybe one or two companies from abroad every year. But it was also the case that when Marc Fouilland, the director of Circa, made his first international journey to a non-French circus festival it was to Zagreb, to Croatia.
How would you describe the Croatian circus scene? You mentioned that there's no formal education, but a Croatian circus company, Room 100, were recently successful in Jeunes Talents Cirque Europe...
It's hard for us to produce something for our festival because there are no venues that programme circus during the year, and if a Croatian company wants to bring work to our festival then they're really brave because they're taking the risk of creating something that will not have the possibility to play in Croatia...
Outside the festival I would say the circus scene has a history of splitting up which is probably connected with it developing in a country that is in transition. Because there was this big boom of shopping centres, of course, as Croatia entered into capitalism, and suddenly there was this challenge to artists of how to respond to generous offers of work juggling for the shopping centre or the new perfume launch. You know, doing all this stuff which is not actually art—performing circus.
I would say the scene all started with one or two companies, and when money got involved people started to concentrate on their own interests, or started to think that someone else was getting a better part or a bigger share—so it split up, and basically became a country of solo performers and small companies and rearranging companies. Room 100 was part of one big company that split (in the Croatian city that is actually called Split); the direction they took was very individual and I think uncommon.
There's a lot of live art and body-based practice going on in Croatia. Does that stuff cross over with circus?
Not really. It doesn't cross over because I think they're totally separate worlds. Also circus is not yet recognised, a circus artist is not recognised as an artist, and when you have these sorts of crossovers you always have to make some exchange or compromise, which I don't think can happen yet. It's a young artform with young companies and young artists who rarely open themselves to outside influence. Also, they are everything: they are the directors, the actors, the technicians, everything.
I ask because Room 100 seemed to have some resonance with live art practice...
They're an uncommon example, but also they went through the JTCE [Jeunes Talents Cirque Europe] programme, which wasn't just about money but also about getting advice and mentorship—and I think when they got the opportunity they used it. It's really important I think to understand the role of other people around you—because if you're working on a performance project it's not bad to open up to people outside. You can't be everything—can't be a manager and an artist—but most artists are still living in the old Croatian reality where you turn off the house lights yourself before you walk out on stage. The art is always combined with the economics...
It's difficult of course without subsidy. Tell me about the relationship Festival Novog Cirkusa has had with Zagreb and the Ministry of Culture.
So, well, for the first edition we got some support from the City of Zagreb, which I think we got because I'd previously been the creative producer for this small corporate street festival produced by Sony. It was seen by some influential people in the city and they said, 'OK, let's give his new project a try'—otherwise we wouldn't have gotten any money from anywhere. The Ministry didn't support it at all. And then... I understood I wanted to do it anyway, and that it didn't really matter who supported it, but at the same time I felt that they were supporting so many things that were not really mainstream culture, and that if they at least came and saw the performances, checked out what I was applying for, then maybe next year they'd consider it. But they didn't want to come to the festival at all because it was considered not enough artform—there was not enough art inside of the form. So they couldn't go to see the circus; they had their cultural dignity. We had media support and sold-out performances, and for the public it really put a new light on what circus is—but not for the Ministry. And then what helped us in the second year was that there was a big scandal. Our festival is quite often at the centre of scandals unfortunately...
In the second year it was very hard for us—we had two performances planned at the two biggest theatres in Zagreb. They're not so big, but anyway the biggest we have. Basically these were the only places we could go to with these performances, and suddenly it happened that both of these theatres cancelled their agreement with us without reasonable explanation. I never found out what happened for sure, but that year we ended up being considered within the city council's theatre remit, which might have been seen by them as a threat—us coming into their territory and competing with them for money. But I don't know. The reasons they gave were really silly—they were not available for the date we'd agreed, and then when I asked what date they could do, they said September, totally the wrong month for our festival. But I said, 'Yes, OK, we'll take it.' Then they raised the price on us—at first, for the National Theatre, it was something like 7000 Euros. But then, oh, it became 10,000 Euros. I would always say, 'It's, OK, we'll take it', and they'd say 'It's 10,000 Euros + VAT'. 'It's, OK, we'll take it.' In the end, when they couldn't find a new excuse, the last answer they gave was that it was technically impossible to stage our show in their theatre. This was the show by O Ultimo Momento, Contigo, so you know how technically complicated it is: it's one Chinese pole in the middle of the stage and nothing else.
So we ended up in a former factory and we put all of these performances there instead, and we made a kind of performance connected to this scandal because it felt like these venues were really sabotaging our festival. There's even a city policy that says cultural festivals should use all these theatres for free if they are city funded. So we ended up creating these gloves, which we called Gloves for Applause, and which we presented in high fashion on a velvet pillow—it was like some celebrity glove. And basically these gloves had the faces of these two women that ran those theatres, and still run them, five years later, and there was a mime artist who presented how to use the clapping gloves, which also had the initials of their names, which were L and D, the letters in Croatian for left and right, so you knew how to use them. It ended up on the news, and the same night the Minister of Culture, Bozo Biskupic, descended. I guess he was upset or surprised or whatever and decided to come to this factory beside an underground music club where we moved our programme. He came with his four main assistants—one of them is actually now the new Minister of Culture—and they ended up in the box office line to buy the tickets. Nobody knew they were coming. Every year our festival has a topic or theme, and that year everything was designed with the vocabulary of planes and airports and flights, and we had boarding tickets to go into the theatre, and check-in and duty free shops and flight attendants showing you how using mobiles is forbidden and things like that. And also we had a tannoy speaker, a man giving announcements, and to make fun of the Ministry's ignorance we had made this recording: 'This is the last call for Mr Bozo Biskupic. Please proceed to the gate.' And basically he came and that's what he heard. After that somehow the festival did get slightly more support because they had seen the work we programmed. That night the Minister came it was Moglice-Von Verx, I look up, I look down, one of the most amazing pieces—a very important piece.
So I think they had seen that our festival was something totally different from their prejudices. Things changed after that year, but things never changed enough that they would fully support the success of the festival.
We tried to sell the gloves for 10,000 Euros, the same price as the National Theatre hire—we were promoting them as the most expensive gloves in the world. We thought maybe some lunatic would buy them, but they ended up in the Museum of Festival Relics, which we opened in the last festival as a collection of different weird artefacts witnessing Festival Novog Cirkusa's history of struggle.
The Gloves for Applause
I think I know, more or less, but tell me: why was No. 6 packed down into one day?
Basically I think the fifth festival was a really successful one to end the story on because it never became easy enough to produce. I mean, it's really hard to work to produce a professional high-level festival with a totally volunteer team, and with nobody being paid, renting everything. If we could have rented a cake for the festival and claimed back every slice that wasn't eaten we would have done it. Everything went to the artists and to technical realisation and a little bit to promotion, and the cultural funders never responded to the fact that this was a festival that really served its audiences and measured its success by them. Croatia's critical community has celebrated it as one of the most important festivals that's happening in Croatia—which is quite a brave thing to say for circus.
Zagreb is the city that likes to say it has the biggest cultural budget in Europe, proportional to GDP, and it might be true but it's also true that this money is not being disseminated in any logical way. So I decided that the fifth edition of the festival was really the year that it came to the cultural wall, as they say. We had like 60 programmers coming from Europe, journalists from abroad, a big international conference on women and circus, artists who were giving international premieres, audiences filling up the theatres. We even let audiences sit on the stairs. So it was a really successful one again, but also, for us, a destructive one: all of my team were collapsing, crying after not sleeping for two months. It really became a health issue; myself I started to hallucinate.
What did you see?
This one night I had to fill out some food vouchers. I had to write 'Laura Herts', the name of this American artist who was performing. To make this food voucher all I had to do was write her name and I just remember I tried so many times to write it—an indefinite number of times, just throwing it away and trying again on a new voucher. And then at the end I managed somehow—and I thought, 'It's kind of weird, but it will be OK, it will be usable.' And in the morning I checked and I found that the real name of Laura Herts on this voucher was FEEDING THE ANIMALS.
Sometimes there was this unconscious moment of feeling like you're awake but also sleeping and you can't really control your hands—your body is someone else's body. It's quite frightening I think.
So after two months of abnormal stress and effort I decided I didn't want to do this anymore to my friends. Because let's be honest there are not many generous people in the world who would really sacrifice as much as one's friends would do—these are the people who take holidays from their real jobs to destroy themselves with work. These are the real supporters of the festival. I couldn't even give them the money for the gas to pick people up at the airport.
We never used this organisational problem or health issues for promotional value—so nobody really knew that something was wrong. We pretended to be a really professional festival—made everything seem very well organised.
So I had this idea to organise a one-day festival that would actually use the support it gets from public funds—I wanted to show what could be done with public money in service of the public need. Then even the Ministry would understand that it couldn't be done, that it wasn't enough. We made an autonomous decision that we would cut the festival to one day and they said, 'No it has to last more than one day.' They didn't like our provocation and retroactively cut 20 percent of funding that we'd already spent. That year everything was a total provocation. We cut our expenses by producing only one poster—no other promotional material. The audience still came. We printed booklets that were half empty, illustrating the fact that the festival should have more programming. Everything was one by one: one performance, one lecture, one exhibition, one workshop. It was a really conceptual realisation of the festival, and it was strange because the programmers were still coming to see the performances. It's a really big trip to come to see one performance which you probably already saw, so there were people coming to give their support.
What did you expect to be the outcome of the provocation?
I was expecting... I wanted to produce a non-festival, a festival that is not enough. Which was actually a sincere confession. It's totally crazy to invest your private funds into the public need in the percentages that I did, we did. So I think it had to be cut—after six years.
It's not enough that you work 365 days in a year just for the cause of making a festival without being paid—but also to invest your own means and sacrifice so much of your personal life, because you can imagine that you also have to work other jobs to provide for yourself and the other people you have to provide for. So for me it was really important for someone to make a decision: is this a public need? Don't lie; I don't want to participate in this lie. If it's a need then OK let's do it; if it's not a need then let's kill it. Really. Sometimes it's like building igloos in the desert as they say.
We actually do this in Zagreb: we have I think Europe's biggest ski cup on our mountain, which has no snow so we produce the snow, and give the biggest prizes to the skiers in competitions. Millions and millions are spent for nothing—they describe it as promotion for the country, but what are we promoting? A country without snow.
In the application forms for 2011 I wrote in the description of the project that if you want to support the festival then please support it properly—or don't support it at all. It doesn't make sense. In Croatia we support festivals that have one person at a concert, or 70 people at a huge, expensive opening.
What's next for your organisation, Mala performerska scena?
We recently finished the book Women & Circus and we're now trying to promote it all over. There are some new publishing projects planned for 2012, some new circus and sideshow projects, and we're still producing the Red Room Cabaret, which we'll tour as much as we can. We should also start a residency programme next year. In addition, we're partners in several European networks and we're participating in ongoing projects and in the preparation of new ones dedicated to critical writing and mobility. There is also this big idea of a new magic festival (magie nouvelle) we would like to kill ourselves with next year.
But currently we are of course occupied with the seventh Festival Novog Cirkusa that will, magically again, happen from 25th to 30th of October, with Les Colporteurs, Red Room and the finished piece by Room 100. The festival refuses to disappear somehow. One of the reasons is probably the new government elections, happening just after our festival. We can’t expect big changes in the cultural sector really, but this is certainly the political point where we want to comment on the reality.
Now, this seems like a lot of projects in the making, but our team of lunatics working without pay is growing. I'm not sure if I will personally be involved in all of this. I don't know. This may in fact be my job application. I'm really open to finding a new work placement somewhere in Europe, so we'll have to see if any interesting employers are reading your website...
An obtuse scalene triangle of festival director, Cultural Minister, and flight attendant.
Prospective employers (or prospective buyers for the precious Gloves for Applause) should contact Ivan on email@example.com
This article originally appeared as part of Sideshow Magazine Issue 1.