An open letter of Slovenia’s Performing Arts Journal “Maska” to the Ministry of Culture
In solidarity with a member of the PACE network – Performing Arts Journal Maska based in Ljubljana, Slovenia – we publish their open letter addressed to the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Slovenia. The letter is a response to the withdrawal of key funding of the Ministry for Maska and other local NGOs. Maska considers this act a part of a long-term strategy to shrink the space for the development of professional non-governmental organizations:
”Last week, the NGOs that responded to the four-year call for performing arts programme proposals of the Ministry of Culture received their decisions on co-funding. Eight organisations – the number of funding recipients was specified in advance – succeeded; congratulations and good luck to them. Many, however, were rejected, including the Maska Institute, the Delak Institute, the Emanat Institute, the City of Women Association, Nomad Dance Academy Slovenia and Glej Theatre. What is more, the Ministry of Culture now has the highest budget for culture in the history of independent Slovenia; nevertheless, it halved NGO funding, delivering a sharp blow to the Slovenian and international cultural landscape, as many NGO programmes are among the most important creators of new performance trends and formats. We therefore consider the withdrawal of funding as part of a long-term strategy to shrink the space for the development of professional non-governmental organisations. This act is a continuation of the Ministry’s degradation and destabilisation of the sector, which has always been one of the most vibrant and progressive fields of contemporary art.
Most of the rejected organisations have one thing in common. The last time when their funding was cut, four organisations filed actions against the Ministry of Culture, and the Administrative Court ruled that their applications be re-examined. After the committee’s re-examination, two additional institutes (Maska and Emanat) received co-funding. All organisations that filed actions back then were rejected again this year. Cutting funding has become a means of punishment and suppression of speech and creativity. These organisations share another feature, namely, their socio-political engagement against the ruling authorities, and their practices, which tend to be bold in terms of format and content and create the space for experimentation and confrontation with the unknown. One could say that this is a deliberate attempt at destroying a group of boundary-pushing organisations. It is a move of a narrow-minded and conservative cultural policy, a policy of revanchism.
In our work, we never acceded to the narrow definition of art but constantly strived to expand and re-define the concept of performing arts. 101 year ago, the first issue of Maska, the first magazine in Europe dedicated to theatre, was published. 1993 saw the foundation of the institute that took over the publication of the magazine and later expanded its range of activities to literary, art and educational programmes. One of its central aims became an interdisciplinary production of knowledge, be it manifested in the form of artistic, theoretical, publishing or educational practices. By adopting this approach, Maska has made an important contribution to the contemporary study of artistic practice which, in its core, is interdisciplinary, thereby leaving an indelible mark in the national and international arena, with international collaborations and residencies across Europe and the world.
Since its establishment, Maska’s mission has been the affirmation of a critical approach to contemporary art and theoretical practices. In this context, criticism can be defined as an attitude towards reality and social relations that we adopt as individuals on the one hand and a methodological tool highlighting the analytic, reflective and exploratory dimensions of artistic creation on the other. We see art as being part of the fabric of society, as an environment that plays an equal part in forming and intervening in social relations. Maska’s productions are particularly well-known for being socially engaged, investigative and documentarian and for intertwining politically engaged theoretical and theatre thought. Maintaining that art is part of the fabric of society, which helps shape reality, is an affirmation of the view that art is not only about an inspired and talented individual but also a sensitive practice (collaboration) for the audience that opens neuralgic points of contemporaneity and the ignored or silenced voices that find their outlet in art. We therefore seek to call attention to and reflect on the social phenomena that have a significant impact on people’s lives. We achieve this by triggering emotions and reactions and opening spaces for alternative artistic creation, critical reflection and, last but not least, life itself. Such approaches require time, continuity and patience. Due to Maska’s diverse activities, there has always been this idea of a Maska “laboratory” that would enable a closer intertwinement of activities. A special genre was thus developed, the first of its kind to be implemented in our local theatre environment, Namely documentary theatre, whose existence depends on interdisciplinarity that gives voice to various life specialists (researchers, journalists, professionals and amateurs). In recent years, our production activities have taken place in the newly-established contemporary art space Nova pošta; the programme is run in collaboration with the Mladinsko Theatre, giving space to autonomous reflection, study and artistic creation; to dialogue and reactions to current social issues. To name just the most recent projects, the Performance Festival (collective interventions), works by Žiga Divjak, a representative of the young generation and one of the most awarded directors who has produced a series of documentary theatre projects about the current zeitgeist, namely 6 (the Borštnik Grand Prix), The Game (7 Borštnik Awards and a special jury award at the Week of Slovenian Drama) and Heat (coproduced by Maska, SMG and steirischer herbst). Last year, the Nova pošta programme had a generational note with Bad Company by Vito Weiss and Solo by Nina Rajić Kranjac, and a completely new performative approach was implemented with the cycle of theatre essays entitled Takorekoč.
In the course of our nearly thirty-year history – in 2023, Maska will celebrate its 30th anniversary – we have been committed to a critical reflection on contemporary art, developed through a wide range of publishing activities (up to date, 206 issues of the Maska magazine and 86 book titles have been published), a continuous educational programme as part of the Contemporary Performing Art seminar and other support programmes dedicated to the reflection, contextualisation, documentation and study of contemporary art practices, namely Neodvisni – a contemporary performing arts portal, Za isto mizo and Zbor za publiko. For Maska, there is no art without a space for deep contemplation and discourse developed on its margins as the requisite part of cultural creation and its environment as such. Maska is one of the rare organisations that has gradually developed a strong discourse space, giving the independent performing arts scene the ability to self-reflect, identify the field as being of common interest and strengthen the public sphere, which far surpasses the interests of a single organisation. The withdrawal of public funding will therefore lead to the disappearance of a large part of theory and reflection in the field of independent performing arts.
Maska is entering this new period with new blood. It is one of the rare NGOs that, after nearly 30 years, handed the reins to the young generation as a vote of confidence, setting a precedent that gives other organisations the chance to redefine themselves. We are here now, rejuvenated and full of plans, hopes and passion for art and theory, equipped for life. We want to preserve this rare space at the crossroads of thought and theatre, making it our own, in the continuity of spirit and the discontinuity of time, as our present and our lives give rise to questions that are our own. Suppressing the new generation is a clear sign that the revitalisation of the whole scene is to be suspended, a sign that the Ministry does not want the field to have a future and a brutal demonstration of power.
A reckless programme and financial devastation of the NGO sector and a lack of vision for the future development of the cultural and artistic production as a whole is at the heart of the problem for all NGOs, whether they received co-funding or not. For that reason, we believe that only by coming together can we break the rigid cultural hegemony.”
Alja Lobnik, Tina Dobnik, Pia Brezavšček, Rok Bozovičar, Gregor Moder, Aleš Mendiževec, Urska Comino, Natasa Bozic and Taja Lesjak Šilak