Three ways to boost the environmental sustainability of the performing arts in Europe

Three ways to boost the environmental sustainability of the performing arts in Europe

Last month, the European Festivals Association (EFA) — the major European network uniting music, dance, theatre and multidisciplinary arts festivals from Europe and beyond since 1952 — gathered in Yerevan, Armenia for its 70th Arts Festival Summit. For a workshop on environmental sustainability, co-organised by PEARLE*, Joris Janssens (IDEA) summarized learnings from projects such as Perform Europe, Reframing the International (Flanders Arts Institute) and Rewiring the Network (with IETM).

What do we talk about when we talk about environmental sustainability in the performing arts?

In the Perform Europe mapping research, we untangled this notion of ecological sustainability and what it means concretely when we talk about international touring and presentation of performing arts.

First, a few issues came to the table having to do with the reduction of carbon emissions by ‘greening’ our mobility, production, infrastructure and events.

  • With regards to touring, we obviously talk about greening the mobility of the artists and their productions. We are also talking about mobility from the programmer’s point of view — scouting, prospecting, visiting showcases,…
  • Greening our mobility is boosted by greening artistic production: e.g. by downscaling productions, the choice, re-use and recycling of materials, touring concepts instead of finished performances, and recreating them in a local context…
  • With regards to presentation, greening the infrastructure is important, taking initiatives to improve the energy efficiency of venues & cultural infrastructure. This also relates to the mobility of audiences, this needs a diversified approach relating to the intended audience: infrastructure for walking, cycling, parking (accessibility for disabled audiences) and proximity to public transport.
  • Finally, also greening the events, relating to the use of materials, energy, resources,…

Second, it’s not only about reducing our ecological footprint. As artists, companies, festivals and cultural operators, we also have a more positive role to play in the transition towards a more just and sustainable society.

Our world and societies are facing major and intertwined challenges, such as the climate crisis, the energy crisis, and increasing geopolitical tensions. Dealing with these crises, our societies and communities are in a transition towards a more just and sustainable society. The performing arts have a positive and meaningful role to play in this transition.

Environmental sustainability is not just about “doing less” or strategies to reduce impact. It is also about the unique role of the arts and culture as a space for the collective imagination about a preferred future, sustainable and just in a global context.

Concretely,…

  • We can raise awareness about climate issues and behavior change, by giving the good example, both in a professional context (dealing with artists and partners) and with regards to audiences. One way to stimulate audiences to for instance nudging audiences to choose for sustainable transport options (e.g. cheaper tickets when travelling by train).
  • The performing arts can be a artistic laboratory stimulating our collective imagination of a more sustainable reality which is not only environmentally sustainable, but is also fair and just in a global context..
  • Re-imaging our infrastructure — not only mitigating the carbon emission impact but actively adapting to the climate reality of tomorrow, e.g. by literally greening the infrastructure.

What are the major challenges?

Becoming climate neutral is not something that you can do on your own. You are dependent on others, on resources, on infrastructure (for instance the availability and comfort of public transport).

The international performing arts world has become increasingly competitive. Artists need to be visible all the time. Festivals and venues want to make a difference by presenting exclusive international content. As an individual you can be very engaged, but in such a competitive context you will reach your limits. Increasing your impact might be more important than reducing your impact.

When trying to do the right thing, we are all dealing with a difficult balancing exercise. Ecological sustainability will go in conflict with other needs and values. Often, ecological choices are the more expensive ones. Not travelling is saying no to opportunities.

This predicament becomes even more complicated in a transnational and global context. Wherever we work, we are all facing the same dilemmas. But our priorities and final choices are often context-dependent.

  • In the Perform Europe research, we saw that environmental sustainability is higher on the agenda in more ‘privileged’ regions: with better infrastructure, better support systems for the arts and a higher standard of living.
  • In more isolated regions, the priority is to break the isolation and to develop meaningful artistic and cultural connections with Europe and the rest of the world. By many, the debate on environmental sustainability is seen as a threat, strengthening the isolation of the disadvantaged and the privilege of powerful institutions.
  • What does international solidarity mean in such a context? Who has the right to be mobile, who does not? Will we diversify on the basis of backgrounds and give more chances to the underpriviliged? Will those in power share resources and opportunities? Open questions…

So, ultimately, what can be done concretely, by artists and cultural organisations, in particular performing arts festivals? 

This all is a wicked, systemic problem. Only partly, this is a technical matter of energy, resources and infrastructure. But it is mainly a matter of rethinking what we do and how we do it in a world in transition.

Rethinking production, touring and presentation and how we share artistic processes with communities. Rethinking the way we link the local to the international. Rethinking the relation between the digital and the physical.

This is already happening in the field. Many are doing this concretely by downscaling production, booking more shows, getting rid of exclusivity contracts and organising longer tours in regional networks, diversifying activities. Not only presentation of shows, but also co-creation, residencies, community engagement. Briefly, a practice is emerging in which touring is no longer about the economic valorisation of finished shows. It is about the sustainable distribution of activities, resources, and values — via local, regional and international connections.

Short, there are three ways forward, thinking about boosting the environmental sustainability of the performing arts.

  1. Taking ambitious measures to reduce our carbon emissions and impact. We need to green mobility, production, infrastructure and events. We need to integrate the ecological sustainability in your decision-making framework.
  2. Raising awareness, take up an exemplary role towards local audiences and communities, and also in a professional context. Show what you do and stimulate artists and audiences to join.
  3. Setting up experiments with re-imagining our work in a world in transition: together, we need to explore new connections between the local and the international, between the physical and the digital, between presentation and other functions (creation, development, and audience engagement) in a spirit of international solidarity.

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