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Counteracting Blind Spots on Europe’s Map of the World’s Cultures.
Transnational Initiatives for Exchange, Translation and Networking

Sigrid Weigel

Launch of the platform mohit.art, December 10, 2021, Freifläche, Berlin: Keynote Counteracting Blind Spots on Europe’s Map of the World’s Cultures. Transnational Initiatives for Exchange, Translation and Networking, Sigrid Weigel, literary and cultural studies scholar. Followed by a discussion. (In German)

Counteracting Blind Spots on Europe’s Map of the World’s Cultures. Transnational Initiatives for Exchange, Translation and Networking

Five years ago, the Goethe Institute opened Vila Sul in Salvador-Bahia, a city with an Afro-Brazilian character on the Atlantic coast in northern Brazil. The concept underlying its residency programme extends significantly beyond the previous orientation of the Goethe Institute’s activities. The Villa’s homepage notes that in an increasingly globalised world, cultural networking is one of the most important instruments and “the residency format is particularly rich, as it allows for long-lasting encounters and fuels new creative (co)elaborations”. In that respect, Vila Sul reflects recent developments in cultural foreign policy,1 which has long ceased to focus primarily (in addition to teaching German) on conveying a “balanced image of Germany”, which in 1982 was still understood to mean “an image of our country’s past and present intellectual and artistic creativity”.2 Since then, there has been an increasing focus on networking and cooperation between artists, people working in the cultural sector and civil society initiatives from Germany and the various partner countries. However, the Vila Sul programme also points beyond this, noting that new approaches are required “that make action possible in various ways, as well as allow for multiple outcomes. In this world searching for a new order, the bilateral dynamics of here and there are no longer sufficient.”3 In that spirit, the programme has a thematic focus, namely the problems and perspectives of the Global South. The online platform Music in Africa, founded in 2013, is a comparable initiative; it fosters communication within the African music scene, enabling networking between a range of musicians and groups with diverse styles and highly heterogeneous musical traditions; the platform is now managed by a pan-African foundation.4 The over 100 residency participants who have to date spent several months at Vila Sul come from a whole host of countries around the world, many from various regions of Brazil and only a small proportion from Germany.

That clearly distinguishes Vila Sul from Villa Kamogava in Kyoto (Japan), the Goethe Institute’s artists’ villa, which was founded only five years earlier and “offers German artists and people active in culture the opportunity to live and work in Japan on a three-month scholarship”.5 Its concept is thus similar to that of one of the oldest and most venerable German residency programmes abroad, Deutsche Akademie Rom Villa Massimo. Established in 1957, Villa Massimo evolved from the artists’ residency founded in 1913 by Jewish patron of the arts Eduard Arnold and nowadays falls under the aegis of Germany’s Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media. The support provided to the artists, which allows them to spend up ten months in Rome and fosters “inspiration and artistic creativity without financial constraints”,6 does not take the form of a scholarship, but is granted instead as the prestigious Rome Prize. Although this programme still adopts a clearly conventional approach, for example, awarding the prize in genre categories – visual arts, architecture, literature and music (composition) – nowadays even such traditional institutions strive to engage in exchange and dialogue with the local artistic and cultural scenes and to realise joint projects, events and exhibitions.

The differences between Vila Sul and institutions established in the Federal Republic’s early years are symptomatic of a radical transformation in how cultural foreign policy is understood. That is because the various German foreign institutes, programmes and initiatives all around the globe, each with its own cultural policy profile, bear the signature of the period in which they were established. Whereas after 1945 the aim was primarily to restore Germany’s reputation in the world, more recent projects respond to the dramatic geopolitical shifts and upheavals of a globalised world – with its ever-widening gulf between the winners and losers of globalisation (both internationally and within Germany) and in the light of the climate catastrophe, entrenched crises, civil wars and military conflicts, with rapidly growing migratory flows worldwide, new autocracies, the shadow sovereignty of transnational companies, and loss of political control over financial markets. Nowadays engagement through cultural policy concentrates on multilateral initiatives for transnational networking of protagonists, ideas and issues, whose potential lies precisely in the way that they operate below or beyond the reach of international diplomacy’s instruments. This reorientation picks up on an insight that Martin Kobler, for example, describes looking back on his time heading Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer’s office7; he takes the view that it was a mistake to concentrate primarily on security policy issues during that period and to put culture on the back burner. “Kosovo, Iran, 9/11, Afghanistan, the Iraq war: that’s what we focussed on back then”, Kobler comments. He explains that it was only with hindsight that he realised the role culture could have played: “Especially in challenging times, you have to keep the lines of communication open; the more difficult the political situation, the higher the cultural budget should be!”8

I would like to add one small yet significant own observation to this point about the potential afforded by culture, especially in difficult, tense circumstances too. Against the backdrop of the conflicts and enmity, couched in heightened nationalist rhetoric, that after the war continued to unfold between the ethnically cleansed states that had emerged from the wars in Yugoslavia, a summer school on the topic of “Public History, Contested Pasts and Politics of Mourning” was organised in Belgrade in 2019, attended by young scholars from Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Poland, Belgium, Austria, and Germany. Common features rather than national differences became apparent in their critical case studies on the politics of commemoration in various Balkan countries, which revealed patterns of structural similarity – national myths sustained by formulaic pathos and martyr narratives. Such moments of understanding across political divides should not be underestimated, especially since they are accompanied by an index to the future thanks to their protagonists from the younger generation.

Launch mohit.art — © mohit.art
Launch of the platform mohit.art, December 10, 2021, Freifläche, Berlin: Sigrid Weigel.

It is therefore no coincidence that Vila Sul was initiated by a practised and convinced cosmopolitan. Katharina von Ruckteschell-Kate, born in Germany and raised in New Delhi (India) and Bangkok (Thailand), now heads the Goethe Institute in London, having previously taken on this role in Johannesburg and Sao Paulo, in each case also responsible for the region in question, i.e. sub-Saharan Africa, South America and now north-west Europe. These experiences underpin her conviction that forging bilateral friendships is no longer the whole story, but that the focus is rather on “tackling shared issues and challenges together with the world. That is how we established the multilateralism that we are now fine-tuning. We increasingly offer platforms where we address global issues and invite international groupings to participate. Today, cultural relations is all about learning and producing together.” Against this backdrop, she takes the view that Europe apparently has a great deal of catching up to do, noting how dreadful the situation is in Europe in terms of racism and colonial thinking: “Migratory flows since 2015 have again exacerbated this dismissive attitude towards everything that is foreign and looks foreign. I must say that it is shocking if you come from the Global South as I do. Racism exists everywhere, also in Brazil and South Africa, but I found it pretty pronounced here. That means there is also a lot of work to be done in this respect here.”9

Such an inversion of the gaze – looking at Europe and Germany from the vantage point of other countries – requires international cultural engagement to be understood not as a one-way project, as manifested, for example, in cultural foreign policy concepts involving “competition between narratives” or “soft power”10 that aim to convey “our values” to other countries and consolidate those value systems there. In contrast, genuine cultural exchange includes our own learning processes, confronting the blind spots of our cultural map of the world, as well as our ignorance about other ways of thinking, living and producing, while also engaging with the dark sides of European history, with colonialism and the sense of superiority that is deeply rooted in the European unconscious. Genuine reciprocity is the only way that artistic and cultural exchanges can contribute to learning cultural multilingualism, which is such an urgent prerequisite for living in a globalised world.

Given the dramatic shifts in the economic and geopolitical balance of power in the age of globalisation, reconceptualising cultural policy from scratch is in any case indicated. However, practice in international cultural relations has been accompanied from the very beginning by debates about the need to steer a fresh course or adopt a new focus. That is not necessarily a bad sign, as the goals and expectations of such cultural relations, as well as their difficulties and limitations, require constant reflection in the face of evolving challenges and circumstances in the partner countries or acute crises and emergencies on spot. However the regular recurrence of the same contentious issues in discussions and publications addressing these topics rather testifies to the extent to which considerable portions of the debate are in many respects lagging behind altered circumstances and developments in practice.

This is at least the impression that emerges when reviewing essays from the past two decades that have recently been brought together in a number of publications. For example, the comprehensive volume edited by Olaf Zimmermann in 2018 with essays from the journal Politik und Kultur once again uses the phrase the Third Pillar in its title,11 thus setting cultural foreign policy alongside fields such as diplomacy and economic foreign policy that are considered classical policy areas. This approach however conceals one of the fundamental problems of cultural foreign policy: the way in which Germany’s cultural engagement is entangled in a structural dilemma, unfolding between Germany’s international competitive interests and foreign policy obligations to help shape global transformation processes responsibly, uphold human rights, and support, for example, the UNESCO “Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions”. Moreover, in the debate documented, a wide variety of objectives are on occasion at odds with each other, such as an understanding of culture as an instrument to “promote a positive image of Germany abroad”12 or for crisis management, the view that culture is a wild card in “competition between narratives”, or indeed an approach that couches cultural policy as intercultural exchanges and international societal policy that weaves networks between cultural or educational policy initiatives from Germany and protagonists from partner countries. Ancillary topics in this debate include the controversy over an “expanded concept of culture”, misgivings about instrumentalising or overburdening educational and cultural foreign policy, and concerns that expanding cultural policy engagement could be at the expense of the artistic quality of the projects funded.

However, the practice of artistic exchange and cultural networking must be based on an open concept of culture, precisely because “culture” means very different things in different regions, languages, ethnic or religious groups, as well as being expressed in very different ways. In addition, an expanded concept of culture means something more than and distinct from “tacking on education, religion and science to art as add-ons”, as one contribution in the aforementioned volume (mis)understands the term.13 In contrast, however, a narrow concept of culture that equates cultural policy with promoting art is the product of a specifically European history; in this context, institutions that have evolved through history, such as theatres, museums, etc and in which art is produced, taught and presented are referred to collectively as the culture business. And cultural policy ambitions that go beyond teaching the language or spreading knowledge of artistic and literary works from Germany are by no means at the expense of quality if they make use of the “arts’ cultural-political and civic energy”, Klaus-Dieter Lehmann notes.14 In contrast, arts and artists who are sent abroad to convey an appropriate image of Germany (as in the traditional concept of cultural foreign policy) are reduced to nothing more than their role as representatives of a national culture, as is also the case for artists from other countries and cultures when their works are presented, for example, “as Arab, Muslim art” or interpreted as an expression of “Arab-Islamic identity” rather than being perceived as genuine individual statements. Hans-Georg Knopp’s reference to this trap in intercultural exchanges draws on his long experience as Goethe Institute CEO and subsequently Director of Haus der Kulturen der Welt. Knopp notes the example of “experiences with artists from the Middle East. One fundamental issue for them is that they are not perceived by the Western public as artists, but as Arab artists or as Islamic artists. That would be like describing the most important artists from Germany as Christian artists.” In view of critique in postcolonial debates on the dearth of symmetry in cultural exchanges, the ethnicization of artists from other backgrounds, and the perpetuation of colonial practices in academia and the art world, Knopp calls for the reappraisal of a “concept of dialogue that is defined by Eurocentric and colonial content” and assumes that the “now sometimes arbitrary concept of culture” can only be made more precise in practice.15

Regional differentiation plays an important role in steering a fresh course in international cultural engagement, for example the Goethe Institute’s decentralisation of programme responsibility, now transferred to various ‘world regions’. As a result, the work carried out within the programme can be rooted directly in each region’s cultural particularities and needs, the specific situation, the individual artists and particular initiatives in those regions.16 Rather than being woven into communication between the head office (in Munich) and individual local institutes, reflection on practical work can now occur through exchanges on shared experiences between the institutes in a region, with the additional benefit of forging networks between protagonists from the region. When participating in one of the regular meetings of the institutes from the “North Africa – Near/Middle East” region I was able to ascertain the advantages of this policy. However, this region is one of the rather sparsely populated zones on the map of worldwide locations, in pronounced contrast to the dense concentration of Goethe Institutes in Europe, or even compared with South America. Moreover, some of the institutes in this region are closed at present due to the current political situation, such as those in Afghanistan and Syria; others are merely offices that simply engage in teaching German, as in Tehran. The online quarterly magazine Perspektiven, in Arabic, English, French and German, and the trilingual (German, English, Arabic) online platform Quantare.de – Dialog mit der islamischen Welt [Dialogue with the Islamic World] compensate for this scant presence in the region.

Launch mohit.art — © mohit.art
Launch of the platform mohit.art, December 10, 2021, Freifläche, Berlin: Sigrid Weigel.

Yet blank areas, grey zones or blind spots involve more than just geographical regions where the Federal Republic’s cultural engagement is underdeveloped. The issue at stake here also concerns blind spots on the notoriously distorted European map of world cultures, a misrepresentation because of its north-south alignment, manifested as a north-south disparity, not to mention its distorted proportions, caused by projecting the three-dimensional globe onto a two-dimensional surface. Nor is this distortion remedied by the various “upside down maps” of all kinds, in which Europe is visibly marginalised – maps inspired by the “Mapa Invertido da América do Sul”, made by Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres-García in 1944 and depicting South America turned topsy-turvy.

There is however something that may well be more serious than such geographical distortions: the blind spots on the European map of world cultures that are produced by stereotypical images of foreign countries and their seemingly homogeneous culture, thereby concealing the immense shortcomings in what we know about their cultural diversity and artistic productivity: the images of foreign countries circulating in the media as screen images for the culturally unfamiliar. The largely unknown contemporary art scene in Iran is a particularly blatant example for the way that clichéd images of the country conceal our intercultural ignorance and lack of awareness. Against this backdrop, the works on the arts in Iran published by the two initiators of mohit.art open up a terra incognita: a world that is completely unfamiliar to most Europeans, for if any association at all springs to mind when hearing the term “Iranian art”, it is usually with the spectacular works of Shirin Neshat, perceived as a contrast to the image of a country still largely bogged down in tradition. Perusing Hannah Jacobi’s Stimmen aus Teheran (2017), which brings together interviews with artists, curators and critics on the contemporary art scene in Iran, and reading Bernd Fechner’s essay on the history of Persian photography and contemporary Iranian photographic art (in the Visual Art in Iran special edition published by the journal Eikon No. 108, 2019), readers’ eyes will widen in surprise – as they discover myriad aesthetic similarities with artistic works from elsewhere in the world in this contemporary conceptual and photographic art, which however at the same time also forms a completely unique artistic universe.

The question Bernd Fechner discusses at the end of his essay cuts right to the heart of the current controversy in the context of postcolonial cultural criticism and global art: “Galleries and artists often feel confronted with expectations that non-American and non-European art should have either ethnical or political connotations. Would Iranian art even be internationally recognized without Persian calligraphy, or rug patterns, and the criticism of the hijab? It has so much more to offer. The obsession with the visual Other is a postcolonial construct. Yet how does art work as a critique of global homogenization without succumbing to folkloristic stereotypes?”17 That question points to an aporia in the current debate on cultural appropriation, because critique of how symbolic or aesthetic elements of foreign cultures are swallowed up produces as its flip side the phantasm of ethnically homogeneous or culturally pure art. However, such culturally pure forms of expression could only exist in homogeneous societies that do not engage in any contacts with other cultures, because cultural transfers, image-exchange and translation have always been part-and-parcel of trade and exchanges between countries and continents. However, in the light of postcolonial criticism of the ongoing asymmetry in cultural interactions, a general suspicion of European culture has increasingly emerged – and consequently of European art history’s aesthetic traditions. As a result, references by non-European artists to anything “European” are seen as subjugation and, conversely, non-European references in the “West” are branded across-the-board as racism or illicit appropriation.

However, such debates largely rage in an abstract theoretical space, whereas they can be rapidly set straight by gaining insights into and engaging with artistic works from other countries. Hamburger Bahnhof. Museum der Gegenwart is currently showing the exhibition “Nation, Narration, Narcosis. Collecting Entanglements and Embodied Histories”, featuring works from museum collections in Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore: paintings, installations, photo and video works in which artists from Southeast Asia address their countries’ national narratives and the impacts of economic transformation processes in their societies. In this context, it is striking that the forms of artistic expression they choose when tackling the socio-cultural and ecological eruptions that this entails make use of the same formats, media and techniques as those employed by artists in Europe or the USA. Traditionally, the use of specific forms and materials, along with the choice of particular techniques numbered among the specific features of individual cultures, although many of these traits also appeared elsewhere as a result of trade, travel, migration and exchanges between artists. At the same time, the development of printing and reproduction techniques in the early modern and modern era has strengthened the connective threads running through the arts in various countries and cultures. With the invention of photography, if not before, media techniques and formats have accelerated the development of a globalising art scene. When artists use these means creatively to express the specific questions and problems, longings and fears that concern them, the individual and cultural idiosyncrasy of their works is not in jeopardy. Opportunities to see such artistic works from regions that are far away and unfamiliar to us gives us an opportunity to take a step forward, moving towards cultural multilingualism.

1 On perspectives concerning cultural foreign policy in the era of globalisation cf. Sigrid Weigel, assisted by Zaal Andronikashvili, Christian Schön, Transnational Foreign Policy – Beyond National Culture. Prerequisites and Perspectives of the Intersection of Domestic and Foreign Policy (Stuttagrt: ifa-Edition Kultur und Außenpolitik, 2019). In: https://www.ssoar.info.

2 Auswärtiges Amt, ed., Zehn Thesen zur kulturellen Begegnung und Zusammenarbeit mit Ländern der Dritten Welt (Bonn: Auswärtiges Amt, March 1982), 14.

3 https://www.goethe.de.

4 https://www.musicinafrica.net.

5 https://www.goethe.de.

6 https://www.villamassimo.de.

7 He later headed the German Foreign Office’s Department for Cultural Affairs and subsequently held various diplomatic roles as well as UN positions in crisis areas.

8 Martin Kobler, quoted in Carola Lentz and Marie-Christine Gabriel, Das Goethe-Institut. Eine Geschichte von 1951 bis heute (Stuttgart: Klett Cotta 2021), 178.

9 Katharina von Ruckteschell-Kate, quoted in Lentz and Gabriel, Das Goethe-Institut, 238 and 240 f.

10 For a critical analysis of the origin on the implications of such concepts cf. Weigel, Transnational Policy, 22-30.

11 Hans Zimmermann and Theo Geißler, eds., Die dritte Säule. Beiträge zur auswärtigen Kultur- und Bildungspolitik (Berlin: Deutscher Kulturrat, 2018).

12 Monika Grütters, “Brücken zwischen den Menschen. Zur Funktion von Kunst und Kultur (2010),” in ibid., 55.

13 Max Fuchs, “Deutschlands Bild in der Welt (2006),” in ibid., 41 f.

14 Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, “Es gibt kein getrenntes Innen und Aussen,” in Johannes Ebert und Olaf Zimmermann, eds., AKBP. Ein Rückblick (Berlin: Deutscher Kulturrat, 2020), 22.

15 Hans-Georg Knopp, “Kunst im interkulturellen Dialog (2007),” in Zimmermann and Geißler, eds., Die dritte Säule, 251-254.

16 Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, “Klassiker mit neuen Zielsetzungen,” in Ebert and Zimmermann, AKBP. Ein Rückblick, 41.

17 Bernd Fechner, “Visual Art in Iran. Attempt at Orientation,” in Eikon. Internationale Zeitschrift für Photographie und Medienkunst, no. 108 (11/2019): 68 ff.