Circus News

A Mobility Perspective on Contemporary Circus

In times of climate catastrophe, refugee crises and Covid-19, the question of the responsibility that artists and scholars have is becoming increasingly urgent. What is the role of circus within society? How far does this form of art and entertainment correlate with historical and contemporary social interests? How does circus research position itself as a relevant field of research within academia in the 21st century? Those questions will be explored within the series Adventures in Circus Research. Facing a New Decade, curated by academic Dr. Franziska Trapp. By featuring circus researchers, we give them the space to explain the nature and significance of their research directly to the circus community and to highlight the practical impact of their research on the circus world and its relevance for society.

In the fourth article of the series, Elena Lydia Kreusch, researcher, artist, producer and programmer, gives insights into her research on contemporary circus mobilities for which she interviewed contemporary circus artists, touring performance venues and festivals in the European Union. According to Kreusch, a mobility perspective on contemporary circus not only has the potential to enable a better understanding of the artistic practice of contemporary circus, but also to create a bridge to some of the important sociological and political questions of our time– be it with regard to questions of work-life balance, ecology or changing mobile realities during a worldwide pandemic. 

As an artist, producer and programmer in the circus field, my “normal” reality for the past ten years has been something like this; being on tour a lot, spending time in different residence venues, having a social circle that spreads out over several continents, collaborating with people from all over the world, constantly switching between languages and rarely seeing my family. And this is a reality I share with most of my colleagues.

View from a plane

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What frequent mobility tends to do is blur the lines between our professional life and our personal life.

No matter how I twist and turn it, I can’t get around acknowledging the central role of mobility within my line of work: Every aspect of our lives -from our access to education, funding, infrastructure and income, to our capacity to create art, to our way of designing our personal lives and leading interpersonal relationships, seems to be intrinsically connected to and influenced by our mobility practices.

What frequent mobility tends to do is blur the lines between our professional life and our personal life; The places we present our work at simultaneously become the places we spend our ‘free’ time (e.g. before and after a show in our hotel rooms, between shows at airports and train stations), the people we decide to work with (technicians, dramaturgs, fellow artists) are often our only social circle and emotional support system while on tour. In short, It becomes difficult to untangle professional and personal relationships, artistic projects and our mobility lifestyle. And for this very reason, I believe it is important to develop a theoretical understanding of circus practice that goes beyond pure aesthetics and art-making, but rather includes the mobility lifestyle as an integral factor within the very production and perception of these artistic practices. 

For my current research, I interviewed contemporary circus artists, touring performance venues and festivals in the European Union. I am interested in theorizing the interrelation between their mobility practice and their artistic practice:

Is our mobile lifestyle part of the performance? How do our artistic decisions influence our modes of travel and vice versa and where does our agency lay within these processes? (e.g. does the ‘transportability’ of a stage design or prop serve as a deciding factor when conceiving a piece, or do we let our artistic visions determine whether we will be able to travel by plane or will need a truck?)

The romanticised travel narratives of circus, that point to a marginalized alternative lifestyle and freedom metaphors no longer apply to contemporary realities.

To date, there is only comparatively little research into the multi-faceted phenomenon of circus mobility, which motivated me to write my MA thesis on the topic in 2013, and to consequently continue my research through my current Ph.D. project. I hope to make use of the “mobility perspective” as a tool to better understand the artistic practice of contemporary circus. However, a mobility perspective on contemporary circus also has the potential to create a bridge to some of the important sociological and political questions of our time:

While contemporary circus might be an extreme example of a mobile profession, it is by no means the only one: Within the arts (e.g. music, dance, etc.), touring is a common tool in order to expand professional networks and renew audiences, gain international recognition and be able to play the same show for several years. However, it is important to underline, that in a broader context of globalisation, (EU) transnationalisation and labour market liberalisation, an ever-growing number of people worldwide experience a pressure to be flexible, to travel and to navigate their way through complex mobility realities and work-life arrangements. 

airport hall

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The romanticised travel narratives of circus, that point to a marginalized alternative lifestyle and freedom metaphors no longer apply to contemporary realities. 

However, there is an interesting twist: The cosmopolitan way of life has experienced an extreme rise in value and status. Circus artists, once marginalized from mainstream sedentary society not the least by their cultural practice of mobility, now ironically find themselves sharing aspects of their mobility realities amongst others –most likely art colleagues– with people such as managers, pilots, consultants, academics, tech investors, politicians, etc.

In this way, examining circus artists’ mobility experiences is no longer an isolated niche interest, rather it could give  insight into the challenges many people in our society face today:

Airport parking lotHow do we navigate the emotional implications and challenges that come with the heightened mobility that our profession requires? How do we find a sense of belonging and of feeling “at home”, let alone create daily routines when we deal with ever-changing spatial and social environments? How do we move through (transitional) spaces and how do we take temporary ownership of them? How do we maintain emotional stability while constantly adapting and staying flexible? How do we maintain stable relationships, when we barely see each other in person? How can having children, or even a pet or a houseplant fit into this reality?  How can we consciously impact our mobility rhythms? How does our mobility practice play into our own self-image and identity as well as our understanding of our art/ profession?

While many mobile sectors might share these emotional and logistical challenges, artists, in particular, are facing a high degree of financial precarity: We rely on irregular income to cover our regular fixed costs, which increases the pressure to tour frequently. 

In this regard, the European Union provides one of the most favourable spaces for mobile artists; its varied urban landscapes and its density of cultural centres allow for a very efficient touring environment. That is – given a European passport or working permit.

How do we position ourselves as artists on a spectrum of precarity and privilege? While the financial struggle is very much part of my reality, I also have access to many opportunities that can’t be taken for granted: All my life I was lucky enough to look at the world as my playground: a circus school in the Netherlands, masterclass workshops in France, touring through Europe. A research internship in Montreal? Sure, why not. While I rarely have to think about my passport or visa-related issues, many of my non-EU colleagues do. And looking more closely into unequal access to mobility opens up a space where we can shed light onto our own privilege in a broader societal context, especially in times when politicians weaponize borders and refugees are being denied access or seen as threats. In this narrative, artists that travel gain status and recognition and contribute to the (EU) cohesion process, while refugees that travel become a threat to national identity and national security. Or as Homi Bhabha puts it: “The globe shrinks for those who own it; for the displaced or the dispossessed, the migrant or refugee, no distance is more awesome than the few feet across borders or frontiers.”

Another important and often overlooked aspect that the study of circus mobility can shed light on, is the aspect of ecology. How do we choose to travel and how does this impact our ecological footprint? What is artists’ and art institutions’ responsibility toward society in regards to climate change and how can we move toward a more sustainable mode of operation?

In a highly globalized and mobile world that sees a constant increase in tourism and work-related short term travel, the theoretical figure of the hypermobile circus artist can help us to think through these ecological ramifications and challenges on a global level.

Airplane wheels

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As air travel has gotten cheaper and faster over the past decades, many artists have adapted their scenography and props in order to fit into several suitcases. This allows us to be more flexible, accept more gigs, and enables us to perform at two geographically distant locations on two consecutive days. While we do see a slowly growing consciousness in the field (e.g. artists stating their preference for train travel in their tech riders or hosting institutions encouraging their invited artists to consider this option), there remains a lot to be done in this area. Rendering land travel efficient and economical requires amongst other things geographically sensible touring, a strengthening of regional touring networks and longer accommodation at the hosting venues.

The non-reliance on local networks has also become an issue in the current pandemic. COVID-19 restrictions have brought the activities of the cultural sector to a (partial or complete) stop in many countries and have further revealed the absolute precarity of (self-employed) circus artists and cultural workers. But if a festival didn’t get cancelled due to a local lockdown, organizers face the challenge of how to maintain their international programming due to travel restrictions, flight cancellations, and the temporary closing of national borders.

The circus sector is highly internationalized and mobility is the central part that keeps this construct from collapsing. A globalization that we used to look at as a strength, now reveals our vulnerability. While France with its well-developed national and regional infrastructure of schools, venues, festivals and residence centres might be an exception, the majority of artists are completely dependent on mobility in order to gain access to circus infrastructure that is spread between several countries. But what does this mean for the future of circus and its identity, as for the first time we cannot take geographical mobility for granted? We currently see circus artists explore new formats, media and contexts, turn to localized approaches and create art experiences that specifically cater to smaller audiences. Further, there’s a shift toward virtual mobility, artists performing at online festivals and developing digital performance formats. At the same time, we see a strong counter movement of artists questioning whether it is possible to retain the essence of circus without the encounter with a live audience, resulting in a meta-reflection of the art form as a whole.

So, while it is too early to know how long we will still have to deal with travel restrictions, it seems fair to assume that the current developments have the potential to shed a completely new light on circus mobility and the art form itself. 

Resources

2018 Contemporary Circus Mobilities. In: Performance Matters 4.1–2 (2018): 93–98

2016  Circus Mobilities. Zwischen Alltag und Projektion. In: Universität Wien: PolitiX journal No. 39/2016 ‘Mobilität’, pp. 16-20

All photos courtesy of © Elena Lydia Kreusch. Feature photo: Darragh McLoughlin and Elena Lydia Kreusch (Squarehead Productions, 2017) Photo credit: © Peter Stary

Elena Kreusch
Elena Lydia Kreusch is based between Austria, Germany and Serbia.
Formerly part of the circus company Squarehead Productions, her current solo works focus on the interface of performance and video art (eg. ARTICULATIONS 2019). Her new artistic collaboration with Andrea Salustri - a performative installation project - will premiere in 2021.
She curates the experimental circus festival ON THE EDGE, the residence programme circus re:searched and other performance formats for the Vienna based association KreativKultur which she co-directs. She further works as a freelance producer and artistic mentor for different companies and is currently finishing her PhD thesis on circus mobility.

Elena Kreusch

Elena Lydia Kreusch is based between Austria, Germany and Serbia. Formerly part of the circus company Squarehead Productions, her current solo works focus on the interface of performance and video art (eg. ARTICULATIONS 2019). Her new artistic collaboration with Andrea Salustri - a performative installation project - will premiere in 2021. She curates the experimental circus festival ON THE EDGE, the residence programme circus re:searched and other performance formats for the Vienna based association KreativKultur which she co-directs. She further works as a freelance producer and artistic mentor for different companies and is currently finishing her PhD thesis on circus mobility.