The history of S P I N: metamorphosis in the world of the stage arts

by Joris Janssens

In 2021 S P I N discretely celebrated its 10th anniversary, and crystalised a future vision in our structural funding application to the Flemish Government. At this tipping point in our history, we invited Joris Janssens to look back… (Read original Dutch version here)

Since its inception in 2011, S P I N 's objective has always remained the same: to be a solid structure that supports practices in the art landscape, in their full spectrum of needs and from a long-term perspective. As a collective self-organized structure S P I N supports the practices of various artists and art workers, based on principles of solidarity and mutuality: not only between the supported artists and art workers themselves, but also within the broader artistic ecosystem, in Flanders, Brussels and internationally. As a flexible, creative organization, S P I N has remained true to its original 'promise' ever since: to adapt itself to the changing needs of the practices it supports. The organization's operations have undergone a number of significant changes over the past ten years. Those changes not only reflect the changing needs and practices of the artists and art workers supported, but also reflect some fundamental "metamorphoses" in the broader performing arts landscape. A small history of S P I N therefore immediately reads like a small history of the performing arts in Flanders and Brussels.

The emergence of S P I N around 2010 can be understood by looking at the historical layers in the performing art landscape at that time. Key players of this landscape were the "big houses" and fixed structures in the larger cities and town centers. On one hand, there were the municipal theaters and medium-sized theater-houses, most of which had by now faded from ensembles to production houses with a project-based logic. On the other hand, there were the art centers - created in the 1970s and 1980s and now institutionalized - that presented and co-produced stage productions in an international context. In 2010, any structurally funded artists' organizations were usually those that had emerged in the 1980s and 1990s: either fixed structures around the work of performing artists from the so-called Flemish Wave, or theater collectives. For the artists who "entered" later (since the late 1990s and later), growing into a permanent structure was exceptionally difficult. For many it was also not desirable, as the then dominant organizational forms did not suit the artistic need to work with diverse artistic collaborators in changing constellations. A search for the optimal support for artists who practiced in this way led to a strong diversification of development-oriented structures, each with its own specific specialisation: labs, workshops, and alternative management offices,.... These kinds of organizations were quickly embraced by policymakers. For artists, the promise of the "system" was that the support provided by those diverse, specialized organizations would "click together in a modular fashion," so to speak, creating sustainable artist careers. The founding artists of S P I N also worked in this context.

However, the reality was different. De facto, these organizations did not start from the needs of the artists they supported; rather, they offered a specialized support that was nevertheless strongly focused on facilitating (co)production and touring: a limited segment of the activities artists do. Furthermore, they also lacked a long-term perspective that went beyond the horizon of 'the project'. That the 'promise' of the modular system was not fulfilled became increasingly manifest in a landscape under increasing pressure. On the one hand, the socio-economic position of many artists was weakening. On the other hand, it was a challenge to build a consistent artistic trajectory when you depend on the puzzle pieces that different partners put on the table for each project. In an increasingly competitive landscape, management agencies were also increasingly ‘seen as the first gatekeepers who know how to guide artists into the professional arts field. This created a power relationship based on economic logics.’ (Helga Baert, https://www.kunsten.be/nu-in-de-kunsten/ontwikkelingsgericht-werken-in-de-podiumkunsten/ )

About the organizational forms that had emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, dramatist Marianne van Kerkhoven had written in terms of a paradigm shift, in which the professionalization of the performing arts also acquired an artistic dimension. 'The working structure determines the work,' van Kerkhoven wrote: 'Artistic freedom means that one allows the options taken in one's creative work to permeate all levels of the structure within which one creates.' (Marianne Van Kerkhoven, Metamorphosis in Podiumland, 2007, p. 167). This interpretation of 'artistic autonomy' the Eighties had created for themselves, but had thus been lost to the artists in the modular system. They were dependent on a growing group of intermediaries and had no ownership over the tools needed to create their work, and thus very limited control over the formats and processes within which they were expected to operate.

In the history of the performing arts in Flanders and Brussels, S P I N anno 2011 was the first answer to that gap, and the observation that the promise of the modular system was never fully fulfilled, without reverting to the recipes of the past. Founded as an artist-run self-organization, S P I N was the first arts organization in the landscape in which artists structurally joined forces - knowledge, networks, means of production, etc. - without necessarily working together artistically. Three artists - Hans Bryssinck, Diederik Peeters, Kate McIntosh - decided to work together structurally, sharing the administrative and production support for their work, in a structure that was collectively managed and developed with the artists themselves at the helm. At that point, then, S P I N was a collective, artist-run organization with the goal of facilitating the full spectrum of artistic practices of these three artists. Through various formats (SPINoffs) S P I N stimulated research and reflection within the broader Flemish, Brussels and international performing arts landscape about the place and role of artists and the arts in society. The focus was strongly on how collaboration, solidarity and mutuality can be given organizational form in an increasingly flexible knowledge society. Many 'individual artists' from the scene built up insights and experience here with self-organization and new forms of collaboration, which they would later apply in very diverse projects and contexts.

In 2018, the organizational structure of S P I N changed fundamentally. S P I N became an organization collectively managed by 5 'co-directors', who shape their practices through the organization. S P I N thus deliberately ceased to be a purely artist-run self-organization. Gradually it became clear that S P I N as a collective had to be developed not only by the artists, but by the entire team that invested work, energy and ideas in the organization. The administrative and production staff were therefore also given a say in the development and decision-making. This shift from an artist-run organization to a structure, where support and production staff also share in the collective final responsibility, is again significant within the context of the broader landscape. Anno 2018, the discussion about the precarity and vulnerability of freelancers has long since moved beyond artists alone. As more and more support and production staff developed their trajectory outside organizations and institutions - and thus also took up a more vulnerable position the production-based network model - the need to structurally strengthen their position as well increased. This intervention undoubtedly further sharpened S P I N's strengths: the organization's agility to respond to the diverse needs of the artistic practices of the artists and art workers became greater.

And the practices diversified: S P I N became an organization in the past policy period that no longer focused on the "artistic practice of artists," but rather on a much greater diversity of practices that artists and art workers engage in within the broader arts landscape. This not only concerns development and artistic creation, but also administration and production, curating, artistic research, initiatives aimed at knowledge sharing and peer exchange, educational and community-building activities, activism... Incidentally, this diversification of 'artistic practices' is again a broader trend in the ecosystem. To say that S P I N gives that trend a place in its operation is an understatement. From its operation, S P I N has turned out to be an innovative structure that helped make that diversification possible.

True to the principles of collective self-organization, S P I N took a leadership role in the context of the broader landscape. Possibly the organization's agility is one of the reasons why it still exists and thrives today, while many other self-organizations have been discontinued, sometimes imploded. In any case, S P I N proved agile and resilient enough not only to adapt to changing conditions in a rapidly changing arts landscape, but also to nurture and fuel innovative developments in the landscape. S P I N was not only shaped by the ecosystem, it helped shape the ecosystem.

Ten years after its creation, S P I N continues to rethink its operation in relation to a changing context. The challenges today are many. The position of artists and art workers has not improved in recent years. The pressure on the ecosystem and in particular on the position of artists and artisans has increased. There is actually a need for a new paradigm shift, towards a landscape in which the position of artists and art workers is strengthened. The question then is what meaningful role S P I N could play in that transition to a more sustainable, future ecosystem. From transition thinking we can learn what is needed for such a system change. In their framework for transition management, DRIFT (Dutch Research Institute for Transition) points on the one hand to the continuing importance of innovation and experimentation. On the other hand, initiatives that what we develop from those experiments should also be shared and multiplied within a broader landscape. Only in this way the critical mass can be built, leading to a real paradigm shift towards a more sustainable future. However, this requires more than mere innovation, as the diagram below by Anna Birney, of the London School for System Change, shows.

Anna Birney, Cultivating System Change. A Practitioner's Companion, p.35

Hence the strategic choices S P I N is making for the future. On the one hand, we want to continue to focus on innovation and experimentation, in an ever-changing context. On the other hand, there is a need and a desire to multiply the knowledge and expertise built up within S P I N - in the organization, but also in the various research and development activities - even more widely in the ecosystem, in order to help create 'critical mass'. The expansion of the co-direction of S P I N to eight artists and art workers is the answer to S P I N's desire to 'open up' its own strengths and expertise to a wider group of artists, without giving up the depth and sustainability of its current operation. In their turn, the 'new' practices bring with them a rich knowledge and baggage in the field of collective artistic practices. This makes it possible to focus even more strongly on reflection and residency activities aimed at sharing practical experience more broadly, particularly with younger, less experienced artists in a vulnerable position. Intergenerational knowledge sharing becomes a spearhead.

In this way, the history of S P I N will hopefully not only read as a small history of the performing arts in Flanders and Brussels. Hopefully, S P I N's vision also foreshadows a desired future for the broader performing arts landscape. The broader sharing of experience and practices should, to begin with, strengthen the diverse practices of eight artists and art workers. Ultimately, this should also contribute to a more sustainable future for the performing arts landscape: a resilient ecosystem of mutually connected initiatives - diverse, intergenerational and interdisciplinary - in a strong networked constellation, in which artistic agility is propped up from a solid, organizational base.