Art and cultural coexistence:

Respect

The initiative

In 2006, civil society organizations from Latin America, Germany and Eastern Europe embarked in the project “Respect” initiated by Inés Sanguinetti of Crear vale la pena, and me. Artists from Argentina, Germany, Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Check Republic, Rumania and Switzerland met for a three week residence in Germany and Slovakia, working – creatively and conceptually – on the issue of social and cultural coexistence in their respective societies. Prior to the residence, they had prepared this encounter during six months, developing and interchanging their specific experiences and views concerning respect. The initiative was financed by the Kulturstiftung des Bundes (Cultural Foundation of the German Government) as a part of its strategic program for intercultural dialogue and East-West integration within the European Union.

Our idea was to break out of the habitual model of bilateral interchange between Western Europe and civil society in developing countries. Hence we proposed a learning triangle between the South (Argentina), the North (Germany) and the East (new members of the European Union). At the same time we committed ourselves to this project not merely being an interchange between the participants, but becoming a process of joint development work. This triangular dialogue was supposed to generate results that would be stimulating and useful also to third parties, namely other players in the various societies represented in this project.

The participating organizations were selected on the basis of the following criteria: track record, artistic work, institutional strength, multiplication potential, and intellectual capacity. All were engaged in the area of art and social transformation in their respective home countries:

  • Cactus Junges Theater, Germany
  • Crear Vale la Pena, Argentina
  • KinderKulturKarawane, Germany
  • Truc Spheric, Slovakia
  • Fundatia Parada, Rumania
  • Activnagruppam Slovakia
  • Dance BG, Bulgarien, and
  • Individual participants from the Check Republic and Switzerland.

Theme, objective and implementation of the initiative

At the heart of the project was the following question:

What is the meaning of “Respect” in different societies in which coexistence is marked by a growing proximity of diverse and diverging ways of life, beliefs, values and social and cultural codes?

Our starting hypothesis was that there exists a significant difference between tolerance and respect. In everyday life, the term “tolerance” often camouflages the fact that we close our eyes or look the other way as long as “the others” do not cross the dividing line between them and us. Understood this way, tolerance is a unilateral gesture, often a mere laisser-faire, and almost always cementing an already existing distance. On the other hand, “respect” means opening the eyes, directing one’s view onto to others and their otherness, and sustaining the observation of what separates us. While tolerance – according to our initial hypothesis – only deepens social and cultural dissociation, respect turns otherness and diversity into building stones for the bridges across dividing lines.

The central objectives of the initiative were:

  • Interchanging and correlating the participants’ everyday experiences concerning respect in their particular contexts;
  • Developing a body of thought on the practical significance of respect for social and cultural coexistence;
  • Representing these results creatively, conceptually in such as way that third parties will benefit from them.

The work evolved in three subsequent phases:

  • Pre-production phase: decentralized in each country – the goal of this phase was setting in motion the reflections and creative improvisations on respect, and developing jointly the artistic and intellectual concepts. In parallel we designed a learning architecture to capture and integrate the manifold experiences and views, the project organization and the logistics for the residence in Germany;
  • Production phase: joint artistic residence – during the residence in Germany and Slovakia, the participants deepened their reflections and created an interdisciplinary stage performance, which integrated the artistic and conceptual results presenting them to the general public in Germany and Slovakia;
  • Post-production phase: decentralized – in this phase we composed the produced materials (images, video, and concepts) to a documentation to be distributed in the represented countries.

The land of questions: the intellectual production

In the intellectual production we let ourselves be guided by the image of the land of questions into which we all entered as strangers. We wanted to push the intellectual production beyond already known ideas and existing suppositions. For that purpose we formulated thought-provoking thesis, for instance: that, understanding respect as the recognition of otherness, the basis for peaceful coexistence does not consist in the notion of equality of all people but their difference. We asked how respect and self-respect relate to personal independence and individual autonomy: two notions greatly worshiped in all the societies represented in this project. We explored the correlation between respect and social belonging, especially as regards the notion of sameness of group members, and the dynamics of exclusion and self-exemption. We investigated the interdependences between respect and competition, for instance regarding personal talents and the unequally distributed and developed capacities of people: what does it signify when a person desires to cultivate her or his particular talents striving to excel others?

Such questions – out of the ordinary for many – constituted a great and even emotional challenge for the participants, because drilling deeper and deeper also meant getting closer and closer to existential images of life and of man. It was precisely this difficult penetration of the theme, which created a key stimulus for the artistic production.


The empty space: the artistic production

In the artistic production we were guided by the image of the empty space into which we entered leaving behind the baggage of existing experiences, knowledge, conceptions and convictions. Instead of telling and showing each other what everybody had brought along, we aimed to discover one another. During the residence we created a stage performance integrating various disciplines (theater, dance, circus, music and visual art). Respect being the topic, the principal challenges were: how to represent in a performance yet to be designed contents yet to be developed? How to integrate artistic disciplines without diminishing each one’s particularities? How do 50 participants from several countries, who had never before worked together, jointly write a script – even more so as there was no one common language: each single spoken word must be simultaneously translated, by the participants themselves, into at least three other languages so that all would be able to understand everything? The answer was: we created an empty space – a symbolic empty stage for the questions and a real empty stage for the performance – that the participants explored and conquered.

The role of images

Apart from my function as co-leader of the initiative, together with Inés Sanguinetti (Crear vale la pena) and Barbara Stemmler (Cactus Junges Theater) and Ralf Classen (KinderKulturKarawane), I was responsible for the visual design of the project.

During pre-production I created a collection of some 50 images of Mr. Fivehair that, distributed to all participants, were to trigger their artistic and intellectual work. These images and their accompanying short texts aimed to give access to some of the enveloped dimensions of the topic “Respect” and to provoke uncommon views, thoughts and emotions. Considering the multilayered and even conflictive aspects of the questions, the images also helped the participants to approach the theme in a very personal manner without having to feel ridiculous or belittled by benchmarks of language skills, educational level, subject matter knowledge, social status or cultural belonging.

During the residence, more images emerged that inspired the reflection sessions and captured what the artistic and intellectual work was producing.

Considering the very short time available for the production of a stage performance for the general public, and taking into account that we were going to perform in two different countries, we opted for the concept of the empty stage. Images of mine, interwoven with video clips of two visual artists from the Check Republic, were projected onto the stage. The great challenge consisted in integrating these projections with the movements of the dancers and actors, and the music.

During post-production the images entered the artistic-intellectual documentation of the initiative. In the framework of a follow-up project of Crear vale la pena (Buenos Aires) and the city of Kiel (Germany), the images are today deployed in the formal education at public schools.