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'I don't see Le Guess Who happening on a grass field'. Johan Gijsen on postponement of critically acclaimed festival

'At the beginning of March we were still having a bit of a laugh about the virus, but a week later it became clear to me that we would be in serious trouble this year.' Johan Gijsen, director and founder of the Utrecht festival that brings together the most surprising artists from all genres of the international music world every November, is still visibly affected by the decision he had to announce on Tuesday 19 May. The 2020 edition, like so many other festivals, will be postponed until 2021.

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'We noticed in the booking process that it was getting harder and harder to reach people. There were also fewer and fewer people willing to engage with us because the world looked so uncertain.' At first, there was even the idea of embracing the programmes of other Utrecht festivals in the autumn: 'Le Guess Who has all the music, from freestyle jazz to classical to medieval and hip-hop, so it felt really good to have those conversations. But every idea we came up with could be thrown in the bin a week later.'

1,500 passe partouts already sold

That indeed makes planning difficult. 'We kept our nerve, but three weeks ago we really got to the point where we had to decide that it was no longer justifiable. We always sell a lot of passe partouts for the next edition after the edition. We had already sold more than 1,500 passe partouts to people from all over the world. Even now, I can't imagine how I could lose 1500 people in November. These are people who come from everywhere, from Moscow to Mexico. You have to give those people clarity. If we cancel now, the damage is still limited. If we go ahead n still have to cancel in September, the damage is incalculable'.

'The regular programme has room for 250 acts and we were on a third with the programming now. We were also able to make good deals with all those artists. Most of them will also go to next year. Le guess who also has a very good reputation among artists, so most of them understand it too. They too need security.'

Representing the underrepresented

Gijsen is not worried that acts pushed on to next year will have to cancel because so many other gigs and festivals have been pushed on to 2021: 'The acts we programme usually come from very different corners of the music world. It could be a Pakistani singer, or someone who hasn't played for years. I don't expect us to have people with too many bookings. I do notice that there are very few places to play now. That could be tricky.'

'Our subtitle is 'representing the underrepresented', so we offer a stage to artists who are rarely or never heard, in the Netherlands and Europe. Those artists will have an even harder time now. On the other hand, it makes a festival like Le Guess Who even more urgent than it already was.'

'It is precisely about those small booking agencies, the small agencies, the small management agencies. Those are all very vulnerable and don't have deep pockets. That does worry me a lot.'

During the sandwich

The festival itself is a huge event. Not only are all the halls of TivoliVredenburg in use, but dozens of venues spread across the city, from churches to the Central Museum to small galleries. There are hundreds of people at work, and thousands of spectators. It can take a beating and so can the core team of 10 to 15 people who keep it afloat during the year. That is now condemned to working from home.

'That's terrible too. You can think up ideas at home, but you don't get your inspiration from behind your screen. Inspiration comes from meeting people, from walking around outside and getting to places because you absorb art, because you see something beautiful. That's a miss. In the office, we all work at the same very large table. We don't have separate desks. As a result, there is interaction all day long. During lunch, we talk a lot about our mission and vision, and all ideas are welcome. You miss that a lot now. We keep the team together by zooming in once a week for an hour, but then it's still very much about how everyone is doing.'


'I am proud of how positive my people have remained. They have to pull everything out of their toes. It's like trying to build a foundation on quicksand. Every day you put a few bricks on top of each other and in the morning you wake up and see that the bricks have disappeared again and you have to come up with something new.'

I do expect that in November, on the days when Le Guess Who would take place, we will do some more activities in the spirit of the festival, but with a much more local character. I also see that as our duty, and everyone wants that too. we will work that out in the coming weeks.'

One and a half metres

He thinks about the future of the one-and-a-half-meter society every day, says Gijsen: 'But even that future perspective changes every week. I also understand that it is very complicated for all governments, but there must be clarity by the end of the summer. You can't invent something when you don't know what the world will look like in a few months' time. If that clarity doesn't come, we'll just keep sitting at the drawing board. There are also a lot of things outlined now that I don't even want to think about. Our success is bringing people from all over the world together and having them enjoy very special art in a very intimate setting with each other. I can't move that to a lawn. Many of our artists are also very avant-garde. You really have to experience that, you have to be on top of it.'

With a hundred people in the Grote Zaal of Vredenburg? 'We present quite a lot of artists for whom there is very little audience, but with us they are in front of two thousand people. I don't see it in any other form. We had a Bulgarian choir in the Domkerk, and I call that an intimate setting already. That was goosebumps running down your spine into your buttocks. If you have to do that on a lawn, it just blows away.'

A decimation of the audience due to social distancing will be a challenge anyway: 'We largely fund ourselves. 73 per cent of our costs we cover with ticket sales. If we are allowed to sell fewer tickets, we will have to get money from elsewhere. There are still challenges there.'

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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