Inspiration from Canadian company The 7 Fingers who have worked ambitiously, risk-taking and cleverly on touring internationally. A conversation with Nassib El-Husseini, CEO The 7 Fingers.
In November 2016 Karen Toftegaard met with CEO for the circus-company and collective The 7 Fingers, Nassib El-Husseini, to ask him some questions about international touring strategies and cultural diplomacy. We begin with a clarification – Nassib is talking as C.E.O. of The 7 Fingers – not as the president in CINARS Advisory Board or as board member of the art council in Montréal, which are roles he also carries out.
Karen: What are your thoughts on the Ministry of Canadian Heritage plans to doubling the funding and focussing on cultural export? How do you think that will affect your long-term international work?
Nassib: We must first give credit to Quebec. Because when support for export was first cancelled by the Canadian previous Government the Quebec Government subsidised the money for Quebec artist, not for Canadian artist. If Quebec keep that support, and there is even more support from the Canadian Government, then we can definitely do more and tour more around the world. We have to plant trees because we use planes and we destroy the environment, but we do our share. And we should do our share more, while doubling the export. So what will happen? First we have a minister who is a drama teacher and his wife is a yoga instructor. They are sensitive to art and creativity. When the minister announced how it’s going to impact us, it can be music to our ears. Artists also are more in number. It will also address the issue of a new discipline. So it is not just export. Some support is specific to works of first nations artists. Furthermore there are new disciplines like multi art, new media and circus, that were all late in the process to the art council – never got enough support as the money was already pledged to the other disciplines. Hence the new support will help new disciplines. Furthermore it can help emerging artists. Because when they arrived, there was not a lot of money as it was already booked. Therefore the funding will serve better, more people and more daring things.
Karen: What have been your strategy to create The 7 Fingers’ international tourings?
Nassib: In the beginning it was talent. If it had not been the The 7 Fingers’ talent there would be nothing. What we did first and foremost in the beginning was to make sure to take risks. When we create a show people like, they book it after 1 or 2 years. What to do with the first year? That was the first big challenge. Now after 14 years we have better luck, because people know us and some will book us even before the shows exist. We make sure to be very present in art markets. We are present here in CINARS (Montréal, ed.), during APAP (New York, ed.) and all the other markets. We have also made our appearances in Edinburgh and places where you can be seen immediately. We are in cities like New York, London, Paris and Berlin on a regular basis, where you have the chance to be seen by multiple. So it’s an exposure thing. And after that it’s good relationships. Good long-term relationships. We also did something on the side, because there is little availability of funding for the pure art form that we do and cooperation work like we do with the first nations. We made the FIBONACCI project a.o.. That means we have another department that does launch plans and put business into action. Working with the business community for special conception for them. Like we did Quebec presences during the Olympic Games and we did the launch of Adidas new clothing.
Karen: How did you do the launch?
Nassib: By being present. We attract attention to event planners and they contact us. Whenever it is our signature we say yes. Whenever it is something, we do not like, we say no.
Karen: What did you do with Bench?
Nassib: It was hot. Maybe too hot for some people. It was underwear.
Karen: So it was also a kind of direct sponsorship?
Nassib: Yes. And now we just started a foundation. Because we do work of pure mediation. We started it, now the first ever fundraiser in 14 years is on December 7th.
Commercial and pure art
Karen: People distinguish a lot between commercial and pure art. For me, artistic companies do not necessarily have to be either or. How do you see it?
Nassib: It does exist and it is very difficult. Some people stay in one world or the other. In The 7 Fingers we are in both, which is not always easy. Some kind of work will not be accepted by this world or the other. Even if the work is to be accepted by a commercial venue it can piss of institutions in the same countries “Oh, we don’t want to work with them”. But we had no choice. We continued our lives to meet the public everywhere. We were lucky, because museums invite us for parties and openings and national art centres invite us, and at the same time we do commercial. Some work can be in only one or the other and some works go to both.
Karen: How do you navigate in that?
Nassib: We just take risks, and we do not always succeed. We force our way.
Karen: How do you do that?
Nassib: By auto production in Paris, commercially for example. Transforming a touring agent into a risk-taking producer in exchange for touring all of France in the same basket. You take risks on Paris and you mitigate with the rest of France. So you don’t wait for institutions to invite you to Paris.
Karen: So you forced your way in how?
Nassib: Commercially, you book a commercial theatre. You take a risk. If you do not sell tickets, you lose. But you don’t wait. Some things we do not do for business, but for love and solidarity. Like we are going to Bataclan (where the tragedy happened in Paris, ed.) next month. Maybe people won’t come.
Some would say that it is a cemetery, but we think it needs love. Lebanon was a cemetery. I come from there. Tina comes from there. We party. We live. We make art. We dance. And life must continue. So some decisions we take is not just business. We jungle with both solidarity, commercial, pure art and entertainment. And 100 percent art for art. We have multiple artistic directors that we cherish. They do not want to do the same thing in their life, they need to express their art, and we accompany them. Therefore it is not a jail. It is openness. And you cannot be open and restrict yourself. We respect other colleagues, who have their speciality or a way to understand and live art in just one or the other, but we do not have it in The 7 Fingers and we hope for the patience and love to accept us the way we are. I would say that we are multiple and atypical. But it is not easy.
Karen: But you are juggling it all. Of course you are. You did manage to create this international tour in praxis. Where does it make the most sense that you go?
Karen: Yeah. Financially, but also thinking of solidarity. Perhaps using the terms, you described before.
Nassib: Well first for sure, as I mentioned already, the cities that open the world (New York, Edinburgh, London, Paris etc.) They are key gates. And then there is the showcases. And sometimes we have the chance to stay at a place for longer. TRACES stayed in New York for one year and a half. That gives us attention from the world and that makes a big difference. Sit-downs are a priority instead of hopping from one day to another. Even if it is in a village somewhere, it is a sit-down, because it makes time for people to enjoy and for people to come. In Denmark, every time we were invited we were invited for substantial time that helped us a lot in the Scandinavian world. Because when you are there for months, then you can invite people and meet people and the artist can learn about the city. In Mexico, we had that chance twice for 70 shows in a row.
Obviously for us there is a natural market, which is the USA, because of the distance and demography and middleclass that can pay for tickets. So naturally, we just take a truck and go, instead of planes. Some markets we love the people, but it is so difficult. Like when you go to Australia, if you only have one set, if you do not go by plane, then you are going to lose the other dates in Europe. For us, France is key, because they have 1600 subsidised cultural houses, which is unique in the world. If France stops supporting art, many artists in the world will suffer. Where in the world do you have another country with 1600 subsidised cultural houses that can buy art? Nowhere! It does not exist in the UK or in Germany, it does not exist anywhere else than in France this density of support. So France is key. And Europe is key because Europe has density and distances are reasonable. When you are in Belgium, you can go to Holland and France and Denmark and England, the geography helps and the density and love for art that the citizens have. And now, who can ignore China? India is not ready for us yet. We do not hear much from India except for special events. China has citizens of the world coming in numbers and becoming open to art and culture and they have humongous numbers of theatres. That means China is becoming our next big challenge. To be there. With Russia we have strong friendships. We have a show, PRINCESS OF CIRCUS that will last for 5 years, not every day but every few months in rotation at the MTM.
Death gives us back our vulnerability
We hope to come back to Denmark. We want to come back to Denmark and honor the memory of Martin Tulinius (Artistic director at Republique Theatre who died October 2016 and who co-directed shows with The 7 Fingers, ed.).
Karen: The whole theatre world in Denmark was very touched by his death.
Nassib: It brings us back to our vulnerability. His youth, his joy, his contagious good energy. It is a lesson for all of us. And it can happen to all of us, so we think of him and his family and his team. But it is also a wake-up call for all of us. We should all be like Martin, contagious with good energy until the last minute. So he is a lesson to us. He kept working to the last second.