Photo of an English street hung with bunting. A man in a pink suit stands with his back to the camera on top of a rola-bola - a plank of wood balanced on top of a football sized cylinder. Smiling rows of audience members are sat on deckchairs or standing behind them watching him. Much closer to the camera is a red street sign that says Road Closed and a traffic cone. A digital edit has added a layer over the photo that covers up the word Closed with the word Open.

Focus-UK: A Flemish Connection

Report from: Smells Like Circus ‘Professional Programme’, Gent; 16th January 2024

This article reports on the closing event of a knowledge exchange and networking programme run by Circuscentrum to (re)connect Flemish and British circus sectors. During this year’s Smells Like Circus festival, Circuscentrum have curated a Professional Programme in collaboration with digital platform Around About Circus, and Day One includes the closing event of the Focus UK project. Attendees were invited to two panel events with participants in the project, followed by a collaborative ideas-mapping session to plot ongoing developments that can continue to strengthen the relationships into the future.

Since June 2022, delegations of Flemish artists and sector professionals have embarked on curated trips to visit UK festivals and institutions, and selected British speakers have been invited over to Flanders to share their expertise. An additional delegation of British programmers were brought to visit Vitrine PERPLX festival to get acquainted with one of the region’s four dedicated creation centres for circus and to discover a further range of new Flemish productions in action.

While Brexit is often a dirty word in British cultural circles, this project is an example of some more positive outcomes stemming from the UK’s departure from the EU. Between January 2020 and December 2023, the European Council made funds of €5.4 billion available to organisations and operations within member states to counteract the negative consequences of Brexit. Circuscentrum – the Flemish support and advocacy organisation for circus in the region – successfully applied to this Brexit Adjustment Reserve (BAR) and set wheels in motion to reignite working relationships and cultural exchange between Flanders and the UK, building new connections and re-establishing older ones.

An introduction from Circuscentrum’s Director, Noemi De Clercq, describes some of the challenges encountered along the way: strikes, Covid-19, paperwork and transport failures all featured. But what emerged was the value of a ‘conscious re-examination’ of the Flemish-UK relationship and the revitalised possibilities for exchange that emerged. Most importantly, she explains, ‘We are convinced it doesn’t have to stop here’. Today’s presentations are a chance to acknowledge one ending, but also to look forwards to future developments.

The first of the day’s panels focused on the Networking & Exchange element of the programme. Five of the Flemish delegates described the various reasons that drew them to take part: to see new methods of working, to discover new touring practices, to pitch products, to explore new work and meet with new ideas, and to spend time with the circus sector to get to know the people behind the jobs. I was especially interested to hear the perceptions that emerged of the British sector from the Flemish perspective. We come across as more of an industry than in the more artistically driven conditions of Flanders, having to rely more heavily on private and commercial income streams. Our necessity revealed new possible avenues to the Flemish contingent who are used to working predominantly within public subsidies. There are also a higher proportion of companies working with a producer in the UK. Although we often feel there aren’t enough circus producers to go round, it appears the situation is even more difficult in Flanders, where artists are still having to take on all the production roles for themselves to an even greater extent than in Britain.

The third major observation about the British sector was that we are far more successful in our attempts to build diversity and inclusion into our circus practices than our Flemish counterparts. While we recognise there is still a long way to go, we should congratulate ourselves for the work we have already done along the way, which looks aspirational to our Flemish colleagues. On the other side of this, our Flemish colleagues should be hugely proud of the superb central advocacy organisation Circuscentrum which has pulled their sector together and propelled it forward over the last 16 years. In the UK we have tried many times to create a similar organisation and have so far struggled to make it a reality due to our restrictive funding climate. (For anyone interested in our most recent efforts, they can be found under the Circus Change Up banner, which received some initial start up money but is currently held together by voluntary contributions of time and expertise).

During the panel, Jenna Hall from Circusful in Northern Ireland (formerly Belfast Community Circus School) raised the important point that this first iteration of a Focus-UK project had only actually visited organisations and venues in England, and that there are three other nations to consider in order to get a fuller picture of how the UK scene functions. The will to continue deepening and growing the bonds between Flanders and the UK seems to be strong, so hopefully this will be a feature of future editions of the exchange.

A second panel before lunch, on the topic of Promotion and Presentation, includes Joe Macintosh from Out There Arts, an independent arts development charity for street arts and circus based in Great Yarmouth, England. Joe reiterates the importance of this will to move forward and make things happen. In the UK performing arts sector, he explains, ‘Hard times are the norm. Our job is just to do our best, not wait for ‘the good times”. And, although the funding available in the UK is low, a small amount of money can go a long way to greasing the wheels of will, as he puts it. The most important thing is to keep the desire to work together strong and build from there. Within the UK, only a tiny proportion of work is made with an international audience in mind, something that is much more central to the Flemish way of working. Here, again, is a great opportunity for transnational knowledge sharing, along with the reminder that the British sector should embrace the value of ‘entertainment’, which is often looked down upon within the elitist environment surrounding much artistic policy, but which creates great success for visiting Flemish companies. (And, according to Senior Relationship Manager Jon Linstrum, Arts Council England are very keen to fund International exchange projects…)

As the morning comes to a close, a member of the audience comments, ‘It’s a cliché, but together we can become stronger.’ It’s with this motivation in mind that we enter the afternoon session of idea generation for moving forwards. We are split into five groups, and separated out around the room to address five prompts laid out in a circuit. A timer sounds and we move to the next station to offer our thoughts on the next, and so on.

  • Which policy instruments are needed in order to make co-operation between regions more sustainable?
  • What are the main challenges and opportunities to continue the co-operation with a focus on presetation of creations/touring?
  • How can we continue to facilitate knowledge exchange and what are current needs and opportunities?
  • What are possible ways to invest in artistic creation in a sustainable way?
  • What is the feedback you would like to give on Focus-UK (and twin project Focus-France that was also presented over the course of the day) that can be taken into account for future bilateral or multilateral co-operation?

Repeated reflections were voiced on the need for sustained contact over longer periods of time – and repeated contact between the regions already introduced – to deepen and strengthen the connections into the future. Tools such as an information platform for European and International funding avenues, instruments for knowledge and resource sharing, and internationally functioning booking agencies were raised as valuable assets to work towards. The introduction of long-term thinking into the conventional practices of creation and education was also highlighted as an important and necessary shift.

The day was brought to a close by Bart Temmerman, the Secretary-General of the Department for Youth, Culture and Media. He offered the positive observation that, ‘despite Brexit, the UK seems closer than ever for the (Flemish) circus sector’. It was also heartening to hear him acknowledge ‘circus lovers’ as well as professionals within the scope of his observation. Collectively, we can work better – and in new and interesting ways – have more impact on audiences, and focus on looking after ourselves at the same time.

Finally, his remark that it was ‘so good that we are in this space together’ reiterates the importance of live events such as these facilitated by the Focus-UK project, in order to maintain our connections as colleagues across borders. As Liv Laveyne succinctly phrases it in the project report, ‘we are a bridge to each other.’

Photo of a large sheet of paper covered in writing. In the centre is a red handdrawn circle containing the words Artistic Sustainability. Lines drawn in biro stem from this circle to connect with other written phrases, some of these are circled or underlines in red and green, such as Health, Trust, Ecological, Audience Building and Time

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