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Artists Gather Aboard Symbolic, Multicultural Performance Ark

ALONG an industrial quay in Antwerp's historic river port, workmen hammer and weld on a dark brown, windowless floating structure that resembles the Bible's best-known boat.

It is indeed an ark. But instead of providing shelter for animals, this modern-day floating refuge will house young performing artists invited from 14 cities of the world to take part in Antwerp '93.

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"The idea was a place where artists from around the world could come and be themselves," says Mark Hammond, one of Antwerp '93's performing arts organizers and director of the ark's programming. "At first we emphasized a place where young artists would be safe from the commercialism of our time," he says, "but with events in Europe, we've come to see it more and more as a safe place from racism, xenophobia, and hate."

The ark - formerly the Arizona, a motorless, flat-bottomed refueling barge saved from the scrap heap and donated to Antwerp '93 by the European Community's executive commission - will house a 200-seat theater, plus accommodations for 26 visiting artists. It will highlight young, unknown artists, whom Mr. Hammond calls "particularly vulnerable, a kind of endangered species."

"There is less and less opportunity for young artists, with public subsidies drying up, and too often only the commercially promising able to survive," he says. "It's always been hard for youth to break into the arts, but now in many places it's becoming impossible."

He points to St. Petersburg, Russia, one of the cities invited to perform on the ark. "In 1989 they had something like 130 nonestablishment theater groups, usually working out of basements. Today they might have 60, and there are fewer all the time," he adds. "Their week-to-week concern now is just having bread to eat."

The cities chosen to send troupes to the ark - among them Los Angeles; Johannesburg; Montreal; Berlin; Marseille, France; Istanbul; and Ljubljana, Slovenia - all have characteristics associated with Antwerp. From L.A.'s multicultural patchwork to Montreal's struggle with linguistic confrontation, "these are issues facing Antwerp and indeed all European cities today," Hammond says.

Each of the selected cities will hold a week of performances, between May and September. Then the ark, designed to last about 10 years, may become a children's theater. Already Copenhagen, Europe's cultural capital in 1994, has inquired about towing this artists' refuge to its shores.

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