© Veerle Vercauteren

United Music of Brussels: another day, another time

a conversation between Hans Waege, Paul Dujardin and Peter de Caluwe

United Music of Brussels ('UMOB') came into being after the terrorist attacks in Brussels in 2016 and primarily wanted to connect people and revitalise urban society. Due to the strict security protocol, UMOB's nature of connection is affected heavily. La Monnaie, Belgian National Orchestra and BOZAR have decided to postpone the fifth edition of UMOB. Read the full discussion with the three directors about the postponement of United Music of Brussels and the recent decisions of the government.

What were the factors that ultimately led to the decision to postpone United Music of Brussels this year?

Hans Waege: The strict safety protocol, even with fewer locations than previous editions, was simply too restrictive. Just disinfecting the stage and all the equipment when changing over between ensembles would take up so much time. On top of that, you had the sanitary measures for the audience, particularly in view of the precarious situation in Brussels. The amount of people and resources needed just for a scaled-back version was unjustifiable. And the bare bones that remained were simply no longer in keeping with the soul of a project like UMOB, which goes out into the streets to actively seek out new audiences and celebrates its links to the city.   

Peter de Caluwe: It was a very difficult decision and we really fought extremely hard to allow it to take place. But what was left over would have only reached our existing audience, and that’s not what UMOB is about.

Paul Dujardin: Over the last three weeks, we’ve seen total chaos in the decision-making in response to the situation in the province of Antwerp, with measures being set and then revoked a week later, such as the cancellation of all events. We must now devote our energy to an overall relaunch and to the core business of our new season. We must implement the new framework, which is actually an old framework, as it has been in place for our sector for a long time. And let’s be totally clear: UMOB is not the only victim. Look at the municipal authorities’ plans for summer events that cannot take place. It’s clear that we now need to adopt a longer-term perspective.   

HW: And although UMOB was already something of a shop window for the cooperation between the three institutions, that cooperation has only intensified behind the scenes in recent months. Looking at the cooperation in terms of hygiene, the enabling of certain projects of the La Monnaie orchestra at BOZAR, the potential relocation of a La Monnaie opera production to BOZAR, the consultation between BNO and BOZAR on fulfilling the symphonic role now that it is impossible to host major international orchestras, and so on... All of these collaborations will now ensure that we can actually offer a proper programme of first-class classical and symphonic music, and - as we are all struggling financially - make it as affordable for the community as possible.

PDC: It’s not the end of UMOB, either. We don’t know when exactly the fifth edition will take place or what form it will take, but the sixth edition is already in preparation. That will also look totally different given the new perspective. It’s certainly not the end of UMOB; it will continue to evolve.    

© Illias Teirlinck
© Illias Teirlinck

The cultural sector says it has been hit harder by the coronavirus measures than some others which have seen a greater degree of easing. Do the new measures [up to 200 people indoors, 400 people outdoors, exceptions for permanent infrastructures at the discretion of mayors, announced on 20 August] go far enough? The sector’s request of taking into account the capacity of each venue rather than working with absolute numbers was not granted. 

HW: Of course, we’re not the only sector that has been hit hard. Look at the entertainment industry overall, and sports too. The shopping streets are empty since we have been forced to shop alone, and that affects a lot of independents who enliven our city centres, along with restaurants, cafés, and the arts. They all work together and mutually strengthen each other. But there’s no doubt that our industry has taken a heavy blow, with measures that are drastic in comparison with countries like Austria, Germany or the Netherlands. There are totally different perspectives on the international level.

Increasing the capacity now is of course a step in the right direction, and the possibility of adjusting that capacity according to infrastructure and protocols, in consultation with local authorities, opens up new perspectives again. And I hope that priorities are established for this.  

The right to life is not the only thing that matters, as essential as it is. There’s no such thing as a risk-free society, otherwise we’d have to ban cars. Risks have to be assessed. The right to work is also a right that is enshrined in the constitution. But when I see artists - especially artists who are not affiliated with a major institution - having to sell their instruments or move back in with their parents, then it is surely a matter of urgency that they are provided with aid to prevent such situations. And I’m still very disgruntled and unhappy about that.

PDC: A shift is clearly underway. There is goodwill, and our sector is finally receiving some attention. But we have to eventually make people trust that we know what we are doing. We are not going to do anything irresponsible or break the rules in any way. And that trust isn’t there yet. A set number of visitors, regardless of whether it’s for the Forest National, BOZAR or the KVS, venues that have nothing in common with each other, makes no sense. Placing that decision in the hands of mayors now seems even more hazardous to me.   

Since April, and fully since the beginning of May, we’ve been drawing up a guide for the sector in consultation with all governments, on all levels and across language barriers. This can be implemented perfectly and can also adapt to the situation as it evolves. I understand that reopening schools is a priority, but why should we have to draw the short straw again? We’ve completely lost sight of the long term.

Let’s aim for 65% occupation of venues, because that makes it possible for us - as long as masks are worn and audience members observe social distancing - to organise that flow. No other industry is better prepared to organise visitor flows than that the events and culture industry. We’re ready.  We’ve also put a lot of work into backstage management. I see how the measures are complied with perfectly during rehearsals. Our audience will do the same. We have an obedient audience. In opera, people don’t stand up, shout, chat or walk around during a performance. We have a situation that is completely corona-proof. But even so, people don’t want to trust us. We’ve got to keep working on that. When the schools reopen, cultural outings will not be allowed. A trip to Walibi is treated in the same way as a trip to a cultural centre, although the two have nothing in common.   

PD: I’m afraid that things are going to become even more polarised in the months ahead. I hope that the dialogue between the producers and the artists is kept alive. We must move further towards what is human. The conversation seems to me to focus too much on umbrella structures rather than on individual projects, themes, and empathy. I have a couple of existential questions. Have we chosen the right path so far in persuading the authorities? We hear news of the lack of motivation among the population, especially young people, to comply with the measures. Let’s concentrate on humans. And on the human experience of culture. We need a specific dramaturgy, with a dash of ‘resist!’

HW: Indeed. Are we actually concerned with the essence of art? We can’t fight against great societal currents, but sometimes we get too swept along in the deregulation of money. Everything is expressed in terms of consumption. Success means lots of people. Success means lots of money. We live in a society where, partly through our own encouragement and partly through obligation, the necessity of things is expressed in purely quantitative success rates rather than content. Art often justifies itself in that way too: “look at our turnover, our visitor numbers, our contribution to the GDP! We are also an economic sector!” That may all be true, but is it actually the essence? 

© Illias Teirlinck
© Illias Teirlinck

News reports claim that the motivation to follow the rules is dwindling. A greater focus on the mental well-being of the population is needed. People don’t feel good. Isn’t that an ideal role for the cultural sector?

HW: The coronavirus demands that we adopt new habits as a society, that we develop a new discipline. We can’t kiss each other anymore, or wrap our arms around each other. We have to find a new way of getting along physically. Most infections and new outbreaks come from family environments, such as family parties and among friends. Not from cultural events or other controlled environments. The world of art and culture, which is also concerned with emotions, is in an ideal position to give people who want to feel things together and be together a place that is disciplined and controlled. There they can learn new habits, and normalise them, so that they can apply them in their private lives. From that point of view, the cultural sector – and of course, the sports sector, for example - can play an important, perhaps even crucial role. We can create a safe place for emotion and ‘togetherness’.   

PD: If those spaces are not there, if that discipline is not there, there’s a danger that unregulated events will take place, as they do under dictatorships. And that’s the challenge of the post-corona era: developing new ethical aspects of coexisting. How do we spend time with each other again? But this also has to translate into politics. And that leaves us in the surreal situation in which we have the protocol ready and waiting, but the world of politics is incapable of developing a protocol to form a government. In a democracy, rules have to be imposed, but that democracy isn’t working so well at the moment.   

What is the most important message for the public now?

PDC: We’re ready and we want to welcome them back in the largest possible numbers. And we know they want to come back. Our institutions are the bond between our own staff, the artists and the public, and we want to revive that community as quickly as possible. We want to present our projects. We have got them ready, we’ve adapted them to the situation as is expected of us, and what’s more: we have provided several different versions. And the public has an appetite for it too: we’ve sold 90% of our our subscriptions! It’s nonsense that people are afraid to go out. Look at other countries: the venues are full. People want to attend performances again. And we have to keep hammering the same point home: it’s safe here. It’s safe to go to La Monnaie, to BOZAR, to symphonic concerts.   

HW: The places we play in are safe. We have strict protocols in place, our staff know what they have to do, and the hygiene measures are strict. Audiences and artists can feel totally at ease with us.   

PD: We have not felt a negative impact among the audience in any of the spaces where our artistic activities have taken place since reopening. We have not compromised on the visitor’s experience. Everyone who has been to BOZAR, to see the major Keith Haring exhibition for instance, has felt safe when they were inside. The combination of content and organisation has clearly created a great deal of trust among the public; you can see it on social media. The enthusiasm is there and the organisation is in place. The three institutions have invested in digital, and that is still important. But everything is in place to start the season in a new, human way, albeit on a smaller scale.