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Blog - IETM 2: The Maze of Cultural Mobility

Tanuja Amarasuriya, Director of Research at Theatre Bristol, reflects on one of the most interesting sessions at the recent IETM plenary in Bucharest, and asks if we can start trying to navigate cultural identities rather than solve them?

IETM stands for Informal European Theatre Meeting and it’s a great way to reflect on your own culture in an international context. And the thing about IETM is that it isn’t just European, and there’s often a great mix of international perspectives. 

One of the most interesting sessions I attended at the Bucharest meeting was about Cultural Mobility. The panel included the Director of Arts at British Council Nigeria, Independent Producers from Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Moldova and Romania, the General Manager of On The Move (an organisation which helps people navigate cultural exchange opportunities), and was moderated by a Producer from France. Add to that the contributions from the floor which took in experiences from Poland, Ukraine, Sri Lanka, Scotland, Italy, USA, England and more... so it was a pretty international discussion. 

What I found really interesting was that what I’d expected to be a fairly practical discussion ended up focusing more on cultural identity and assumptions. We did talk about the MASSIVE problem of visas and how host organisations need to be much better at helping visiting artists, but we spent much more time discussing what equitable cultural exchange really means – especially when one culture is more dominant or richer than another.

In England, when it comes to touring, there’s a tendency towards thinking about “international touring” as if it’s all one thing. Of course, we look at the practical specifics relevant to different countries, but it’s rare that we really get under the skin of the cultures we’re visiting because so often we’re only there for a short time, and most likely in the bubble of a festival anyway.

It was interesting to hear for example:

There are over 300 distinct cultures within Nigeria, but internal travel is so difficult that it’s easier for artists to exchange internationally than within their own borders.

Indonesia is remote from EVERYWHERE and as such a huge archipelago, where it’s expensive to travel between islands, there is no such thing as ‘Indonesian culture’.

The Moldovan theatre ecology is reliant on international touring to bring money into their sector and actively uses intercultural dialogue to help develop their internal culture socially as well as artistically 

Kazakhstan is a very young country, with over 130 core ethnicities. Over half its citizens do not know their ethnic background because it is so mixed. The Kazakhstan culture is only just developing and there’s a desire for external dialogue to help influence how its culture develops.

Romania has a very closed attitude to cultural mobility based mainly on transactional (import/export) style touring. It’s incumbent on adventurous independent producers to go out internationally and discover what there is to learn from other practices in order to generate a stronger conversation about cultural mobility within Romania. 

The regional competition in areas like South East Asia heightens the impact of international touring into the region. Those countries are in competition with each other, so where you tour to can significantly affect the political and economic status of those countries in relation to each other.

Even these small individual insights give a sense of the very different opportunities for intercultural dialogue with these different countries. And more than anything, it’s a salutary reminder that even when we’re doing ‘cultural exchange’ we’re never talking to all the cultures of a place.

There was a lot of discussion about external expectations and cultural stereotyping. Ojoma Ochai from British Council Nigeria talked about the perception that UK culture was basically London and Shakespeare – and how hard it was to tell the story of how varied British culture is, in Nigeria. So if it’s hard for a rich, dominant country like ours to have its various cultural stories heard, how hard must it be for less privileged countries? One artist said that as a Romanian woman, she was expected to make work about the sex trade (and lost a gig because she refused to kowtow to that expectation). As Ojoma Ochai put it: “programmers need to have the humility to be mindful of their own biases” and be open to seeing and embracing different notions and aesthetics to what they think they ought to be programming and to what constitutes ‘good art’.

And if you’re visiting a country with a less developed infrastructure – particularly if you’re coming from a colonial or otherwise privileged country – how do you manage the concern that you’re bringing a top down approach? This provocation came from an Italian artist who had been doing a residency in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is my country of birth and having lived in England since I was tiny, I feel in negotiation with my Sri Lankan-ness all the time – so this comment really chimed with me.  It’s easy to assume that ‘making things better’ equates to ‘doing things more like we/they do it.’ Sri Lanka definitely looks to the west as aspirational and these hierarchies are often entrenched and hard to break down, no matter which side you’re coming at them from. Strong local hosting is really vital to encouraging more genuinely 2-way and collaborative dialogues to happen. 

The discussion touched on personal and cultural identity a lot. For me personally, I found it really affirming to be part of a discussion that actively sought out and embraced the complexities of negotiating culture and identities. The conversation around culture and identity in the UK often feels dishearteningly binary, blind to its biases, and eager to solve rather than navigate. But the number of different perspectives in that IETM conversation made it impossible to simplify, which was great.

Inevitably, given we were paid up attendees of an international network event, the one consistent element was a commitment to cultural exchange. Mobility is about tolerance and being plural. One producer talked about mobility as “an impulse” and essential to what we do as artists and producers.

Visas are probably the biggest challenge. And after that, it’s probably the fact that the value-led, personal approach to cross-cultural conversation, which we all know is the most humane and influential in the long term, is often at odds with the politics of the funding it relies on. Funding tends to be about the branded export of culture and national identity (usually identity in the singular), rather than actual dialogue. But you know, there were definitely funders taking part in this discussion and there were collaborators from all over the world who clearly want more of the good stuff… so let’s keep moving, talking, listening and trust in the long term.

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