15 Feb 2021
This text is the first in a series of close studies examining the cultural exchanges between China and the Balkan region under the BRI, taking art [events and exchanges] as its main focal point. In this introductory text I will explain my research process for mapping these activities. I will then present both the ambitions and challenges of intercultural exchanges, using Slovenia as an example. In future texts I will analyse some of these exhibitions I have investigated, with the hope of creating a dialogue around whether these exchanges are living up to their full potential of shifting away from classical national narratives and providing a common ground for different identities.
Before I began this project with As you go… the roads under your feet, towards a new future, I only had a basic understanding of what the BRI was. Like many others here in the Balkan region, I have also heard of the ongoing Chinese investments – investments which initially appeared to only occur within the infrastructural sphere. What I have found, however, is that the BRI promised more than that. It promised cultural bonding above mere economic cooperation. Yet, whenever the BRI is mentioned, other spheres, such as culture and art, seem to remain of very little note. As I began my investigation, I realized there was an absence of any systematic research on these topics – gathering data and developing a concise method of collating it, presented itself as the greater concern before even beginning to open up [a] discourse on cultural exchange and interconnection.
To begin this dialogue of cultural interweaving, I have decided to focus on cross-institutional artistic exchanges to identify both the frequency and motives of these relationships. For this purpose, I used two methods: the primary method was directly addressing art institutions by sending them a questionnaire, while the other was manually collecting data from the internet for any additional exhibitions. The questionnaire included identifying whether any exhibitions and exchanges were currently underway, what kind of art was being exhibited or exchanged, the motivations behind these collaborations, and if there were any abnormalities across audience engagement and reception. For institutions that did not have any such exchanges, I asked why that was – did they decline them for any reason or were there simply no opportunities (perhaps due to a lack of funding, governmental or structural support, amongst other institutional roadblocks)? This questionnaire was sent to thirty-six  institutions from Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Kosovo. Some of the institutions were nationally owned museums and galleries (of both artistic and historical content), while others were privately owned galleries. Of the thirty-six museums and galleries I reached out to, twenty have replied.
Following this, I started documenting all available data that was brought to my attention. I encountered several problems during this stage. Firstly, I did not receive responses from all institutions – most notably I received none from privately owned galleries. This could, however, also be due to many things: the ongoing pandemic that has shut down galleries and museums in many places and – as I later came to notice – the fact that most of these exchanges were primarily happening through state owned institutions. The second problem I encountered was that for many of these events and cultural exchanges, I was only provided with sparse data. Thirdly, I was unable to gather any data on audience reception. This last problem proved the most difficult as I was most interested in examining how local audiences perceive not only the Chinese art being exhibited, but also in a broader sense, the cultural interweaving of China within these regions. In the future it would be interesting to focus further on this aspect since there are a lot of discrepancies in opinions on other aspects (such as on the infrastructural and economic investments) of the BRI. While the West seems to be very suspicious of China becoming a global superpower, the Balkan region – which is heavily influenced both by the West and the East – doesn’t have such a narrow perception.
Together with other partner cells and the editorial team, we decided it would be interesting to present this collected data on a map. This map provides details on both local cultural events and its connections to China. All exhibitions are also described, accompanied by some images from the exhibitions. The map is intended to be alive and continuously growing – the biggest ambition is currently to expand the scope of this map to encompass Central Asia and other localities participating in the BRI.
I approached my research this way to systematically examine the ways in which art under the BRI ought to, on the one hand, deepen the bonds amongst participating countries and on the other, shape their perceptions of one another. Art, besides being a tool of expression, greatly impacts cultures and societies; it is continuously shaping our realities, while also allowing us to more deeply understand the past and the present. This understanding is not only constructed through artistic content at any given time in any specific space, but also through cultural policies and curating. Cultural policies and curatorship prescribes the limits and protocols [within] which art can shape the future, and how the past and present can be understood.
Intercultural collaborations within this sphere have a great potential to move away from classical national narratives, which too often look for an enemy – within or outside – as a common denominator, consequently weaponizing audiences against this predetermined opposition. Whether these intercultural collaborations are even possible however, remains in the hands of individual governments and private bureaucracies who choose if, how, and when they will collaborate.
For instance, let us look at the current state of art in Slovenia. Ever since Slovenia became a capitalist state, it left art partially in the domain of the government and partially in the domain of the free market. Art in the domain of the predatory free market has its own problems: subjected to competitiveness, artistic objects and practices are placed at the mercy of the logic of profit-driven, capitalist motivations – left to die as soon as its monetary value drops too low. However, since BRI projects are mostly funded and held by state institutions, for now, this stage of the research will focus on this particular domain. Let me preface this by saying that all curating is some form of narrating and mediating meaning(s), though this example will focus on cultural policies which determine in whose hands the curating will be. In Slovenia, state-owned art institutions enjoyed relative autonomy albeit with insufficient financial support – particularly in specific fields – being their main problem. Aside from the prevalent nepotism in funding (and the subsequent responsibility that would attach itself to the beneficiaries), there was not much state intervention into the curating itself. However, this drastically began to change since the undemocratic rise of the 14th government of independent Slovenia, right before the pandemic of 2020.
The undemocratically established government is using tactics that have proven detrimental to Poland, Hungary, and Russia. In addition to drastic funding and budget cuts (alongside overall rhetoric and the replacement of leadership roles), [the government] has taken to directly attacking media outlets, research institutions, and museums. Academics who specialize in the fields of Central and South East Europe pointed out in an Open Letter to Janez Janša, Prime Minister of Slovenia in 2020: “The frequency of such interventions and the many clear signals that [are only] more are to come further prove that these are not normal personnel decisions, but rather the first steps in an attempt to curtail the independence of scholars and to place narratives about the past under government control.”  This becomes even more evident when we look at which institutions are being attacked: the National Museum of Contemporary History, which holds a permanent exhibition of Slovenia in the 20th century, directly addressing our past as a member state of former Yugoslavia and our gain of independence;  the National Gallery, and the Modern Gallery – both some of the most prominent and well-known art institutions in Slovenia.  In addition, the government is planning to open the Research Institute of the Venetic theory,  which suggests that the origins of Slovenians do not begin with Slav settlements but rather, reach back to ancient times. This theory is widely considered a pseudoscience and has been rejected by scholars. Our prime minister, however, holds yearly meetings for supporters of this theory, and when considering how they like to rewrite our history, it should also raise alarms that they are planning to open the Museum of Independence of Slovenia.  The current enemy threat being constructed is our history as a member state of Yugoslavia, the Yugonostalgia many people still feel, non-catholic nations, and anyone who lies left to the [government] on the political compass.
Clearly, these are attempts to not only shift the cultural sphere towards a more patriotic and nationalistic narrative, but a narrative that is directly in support of our current prime minister – his role in the battle for independence and his personal beliefs. I would like to argue that these current changes within the cultural and art spheres in Slovenia are what could be considered some of the worst approaches possible. Art in this scenario is not being mobilized, in a romantic sense, to enable a peaceful coexistence of identities, but rather, is being used to annihilate some to push others forward. In the context of intercultural interweaving this could mean a step backwards, since focusing on enemies and weaponizing audiences does not leave much space for a friendly co-existence. In terms of the BRI, we are yet to see where this will place Slovenia. Our prime minister has, in American fashion, began engaging in conspiracy theories about China, where he points to the supposed political interference of China with his opposition.  At a fundamental political level, this paranoia doesn’t bring much optimism in relation to the potential of future cultural interweaving and exchanges. Even the connection between Slovenia and Hungary, which our current government considers of utmost importance, is only happening directly through the military, and a mutual support of hate-driven, local news-media.
On the other hand, the BRI greatly emphasizes a peaceful coexistence of identities. From what I have gathered in this first phase of my research, it appears that these exchanges are an effort to bring cultures closer together through mutual and empathetic understanding, which has been overtly stated on most of the observed exhibitions. This understanding is being created through a bilateral exchange of artefacts, meanings, technical knowledge, and human resources.
In conclusion, intercultural interweaving has a great potential of shifting away from classical national narratives that forge bonds as a response to the presence of a threat. National identity itself is constructed through these mechanisms (ie. the search for a common enemy), so a greater understanding and knowledge of different cultures is needed to look beyond this. Participating countries have already agreed to these processes of interweaving, and as politics and culture remain ever changing, the consideration of current cultural policies and their changes is always necessary. And when considering that to curate is to narrate, another analysis will be needed to betterfully understand exactly what narratives are being told and how much positive potential they actually hold. In the future, I will attempt to do such an analysis of the exhibitions presented on the map. This will, I hope, allow for a deeper discourse and engagement on whether these projects are living up to their full potential of being used as a force for cultural harmony than separation.