Spotlight on Piotr Turkiewicz, Artistic Director of the Jazztopad Festival
Friday, May 15, 2020
Piotr Turkiewicz Shares his Thoughts on the Future of International Programming & ISPA's First-Ever Virtual Pitch New Works
Can you paint a picture of your experience in Wrocław since the announcement of the pandemic?
It’s been an emotional roller-coaster. At the very beginning, the lockdown came right away. They kept us away from work, away from everybody as soon as the pandemic came. Suddenly we’re all stuck at home and the timeline for our concert season was a big question mark. We didn’t know how we were going to handle concerts next month. Soon that period was prolonged – okay, we’re done at least until August. From one perspective, I was sad that some of the incredible projects that we programmed like two years ago, won’t happen. Some of them took even 5-6 years of planning. Right after that the realization that independent artists and smaller companies were left alone without any income – that was the second wave of emotions that came to me personally.
At the same time, I realized that I haven’t been home for so long, since 2008, so finally I have the time to rethink so many things about not only my professional life.
The Jazztopad Festival that I program here in Wrocław is in November which seems really far away from now. There are so many question marks at this stage. Usually we would announce the program around this time, but we have no idea what is going to happen. We’re probably going to push the announcement to September, but there are already a lot of international artists communicating the fact that they will not travel this year even if they open borders. People don’t want to fly. They want to take a year to make sure that it’s safe so that complicates things a lot but it’s understandable of course. There’s a satellite edition of the festival that takes place in New York in September, but we moved it to April 2021.
I’ve talked to a lot of my colleagues, and the timing of this pandemic and the fact that everything stopped in this particular moment is interesting, because a lot of people who are programmers had a feeling that everything is too hectic for some time now. The pace of the whole industry is really fast. There are concerts happening now and at the same time you’re already planning for 2022/23 and you’re just pushing and pushing. We don’t have enough time to rethink the way we approach our work. Then the pandemic came, and it was weird timing because I felt in a way that I needed this break. Well, now we are all forced to slow down and stay at home.
I also program just a small part of the season at the National Forum of Music in Wrocław, but there are over 1,000 events each year, so imagine having a question mark over 1,000 events! How do you deal with this in terms of approaching artists, the financial structure of the company? So, the overall feeling of uncertainty is strange and sometimes exhausting because you don’t know what will happen.
Are potential scenarios being considered for opening up again? If so, what do those look like?
We are painting different scenarios of going back to presenting live performances. The main hall seats 1800 people. If we have to keep 2 meters of space between audience members then we can fit maximum 350-400 people. That could be the first step to inviting our audience back to the venue. In smaller venues, we’re thinking about 50-70 people maximum. The maximum number in a couple of European countries where they started lifting restrictions is 50 people at concert venues. How will people react to that? Will they be afraid to come to venues even if you lift that restriction?
For example, one idea I’m considering for my festival is to organize an entire edition of house concerts for just 20-30 people maximum at once. We’ve been doing this the last several years during the last weekend of the festival. People invited us to their homes all over the city – it is usually the most beautiful part of the festival. It may be the only solution for this year and a really nice alternative. The bottom line is not to cancel Jazztopad this year. It’s more about how we can continue this event by just introducing a different approach to it. Whether it’s going to be live-streamed concerts without an audience or just putting everything in people’s homes for a very small audience - we’re considering different scenarios.
The most important thing is to keep it going and not say: let’s move everything to next year. It's really important primarily for artists and for our community. We want to support local artists and we’re going to focus on them for the next couple of months since our borders are closed. In a way, it’s going to be a positive thing because sometimes there’s so much emphasis on international programming and inviting big names. I think flying in an artist from New Zealand for example just for one concert in Poland is not going to happen anytime soon and maybe never again.
How has this influenced your outlook in regard to future international programming?
For the festival, we’ll definitely focus on local artists. If the borders in the European Union open, we’re going to focus on artists who can drive or take the train because I don’t think flights will become available immediately. It’s a matter of first of all supporting the local scene and supporting the local community which desperately needs our support right now. There are artists without any means to survive. People are not able to pay their rent because they don’t have companies, they don’t teach, they don’t have a stable income. The only income they have is concerts. There are a lot of tragic stories around about people who are unable to afford basic things. That’s why it’s so important to keep things alive even on a smaller scale and to focus on helping local artists.
For me, the one-off gigs are a thing of the past – I would prefer not to do them anymore. The whole community of programmers and managers will have to meet and change their approach to touring. For example, I had a conversation with Australian Art Orchestra leaders as I’m part of their international advisory group, and we were talking about planning for 2022/23 and how the orchestra will be touring in Europe and I think it’s going to drastically change. It’s going to be an approach of selecting programmers who are interested in presenting arts’ residencies instead of just one gig, and trying to connect festivals or venues within a drivable distance. If you can take the train or drive, you don’t have to fly. I think it will have a huge effect on how people program and how people will tour especially in Europe. It will also change my approach. I have been trying to convince artists to stay in a city for a couple days and it’s always been so rare. It’s like, they a have a tour of almost 30 concerts in 30 days and there is no time to stay somewhere longer. It’s inhumane. It’s exhausting. You have no idea where you are, and at the same time, you’re killing the planet by flying a lot, etc.
We just had this conversation also within the Europe Jazz Network which is a group of over150 festival producers and venues. We have to come together as a group of presenters and say we’re going to change our approach to how we program because there’s no way we’re going to go back to the insane schedules that we used to have. First of all, for the next couple of months, local artists supporting local communities and then for the future, trying to change the approach and make it as green as possible and as efficient as possible in terms of making sure we’re not going back to the same pace we used to have.
At one of the ISPA convenings, we were discussing this very matter. Maybe capitalistic is the way to describe the approach – produce, produce, produce, and a few members were saying that we need to take this time to rethink our values and our structures, and to slow down, and a lot of what you’re saying reminds me of those conversations. I agree because it also allows artists to connect with the communities where they’re performing in a deeper way.
I really cherish that and I often have conversations with festival artists about it. I’ve been commissioning a lot of new projects – that’s the main focus of the festival, so it’s naturally been like that, that you stay for a week for example - you have rehearsals, you do a master class, we also do a lot of pre-concert talks, meeting with audiences, and hosting open rehearsals. We have this incredible club every evening where the whole community meets, then we have these house concerts where the same artists stay even longer and take part in them, so you come up with a festival that’s maybe 9 or 10 days long and there are a lot of artists staying in town. It turns out that doesn’t really happen that often and artists appreciate it so much. I really hope that a lot of people will start thinking the same way.
It’s not only about selling out a big venue and having a big name on a poster. It’s more about how you actually build the community within the festival and using the festival or venue to do it. It is much more important to have those moments and the time with artists and to help them develop something new and also to challenge them. That’s how I consider programming – challenging artists, challenging audiences and building trust between the audiences and the artists which is only possible when you have them here for a couple days, not just a few hours.
You sit on the Pitch New Works Committee and we will be streaming the virtual session on June 3rd. What kind of opportunities do you think a virtual version of the session provides?
I’ve been on it for over six years now. This is one of my favorite ISPA involvements. To be on that committee is a privilege. We have in a way backstage access to the ideas and issues that artists are thinking about. So many projects we receive are in the very early stages of development. Having access to that is incredibly exciting.
I’m very happy that the Pitch New Works session is happening online in June - to keep that part of the congress alive is a really great move. I think this is the most popular session for the last couple of years in terms of attendance, engagement of people, etc. When you see some of the projects that were pitched and how successful they've been ever since, you realize that it's a priceless opportunity for artists. The fact that anybody can join this year's virtual Pitch New Works gives a lot of people who don’t know ISPA or who have never been, the perfect introduction to what ISPA is: the vibe, the community, and the possibilities of the network.
What was the project selection process like this year? Were the selection criteria revised to adapt to the pandemic?
The approach is a bit different for the international congress since we have a focus on particular countries or regions. In terms of the criteria - the artistic quality is always the main thing. Unfortunately, we won't get to go to Taiwan, but the projects that we selected will give us a good idea of what’s happening in the arts in that part of the world. We selected six projects from Taiwan.
It's a really interesting selection this year because for the first time we received an application from Iran and also from the Philippines. It’s always great to see countries that are usually not present. These projects are led by female artists. I was very excited about them, and I’m happy they were selected.
It's also a very balanced selection. On the one hand, we’ll have a good introduction to Taiwanese art. On the other hand, we have projects from Iran, the Philippines, South Africa, and one project from the UK. One of them, the Rama House, brings five different countries (Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Taiwan, and Thailand) together, so it's great to see the collaboration within the region which I think will be really interesting for people who will take part in the session.
Did you notice anything different in terms of the content of the projects submitted this year compared to last year’s submissions during the international congress?
There was nothing that was very different from before. Usually we’re missing projects that are focusing on music. We get a lot of dance, a lot of theatre. I come from a music background along with the chair of the committee, but we rarely receive applications focusing on music, and unfortunately this year was no different. I hope this will change in the future. Some of the projects from Taiwan are based on traditional culture which is also interesting to discover. When we hosted ISPA in Wrocław in 2013, the pitch session was a great way of introducing the Polish performing arts scene as well.
What are you most excited about for this year’s session?
Seeing projects from countries that never applied before. I hope this is a trend we will continue to see and that the overall awareness of Pitch New Works continues to grow as we’ve been working on promoting the program for several years now. It’s not that easy to come up with a very good application, especially in countries where culture and art is not as supported, so receiving applications from these parts of the world is encouraging.