Chôros : an alternative cultural diplomacy

This article is a case-study of Chôros, it presents how the collaboration has changed cultural organisations’ vision of the audience and revealed their interest in carrying out cross-sectorial partnerships. The potential impact of the international cooperation on local ecosystem is also revealed, and how it was perceived by local authorities.

At the global level, Chôros was an opportunity to experience what a cultural meta-organisation led by small actors could be. It has been a demanding process for staffs, but showed its capacity both to challenge new art forms as elements of communities change-making, to become an innovative vehicle for strengthening local democracy and to promote new cultural diplomacy channels.

Chôros is a cooperation project experimented from July 2015 to September 2016 with the support of the European Union’s Creative Europe programme. By means of performing arts’ practices, this global action aimed at creating the ground for a culture driven cross-sectoral platform addressing societal issues common to partner cities (poverty, migration, relation between generations, new relations to work, freedom of expression).

Theatre company Image Aiguë (France) initiated the project with four partners of this first experiment being:
Sarajevo War Theatre – SARTR – (Bosnia-Herzegovina),
 International Bureau of Caucasus Foundation (the Netherlands and Georgia), 
Théâtre Nomade (Morocco),
 Sete Pès (Portugal).
The trans-regional dimension of the project was particularly remarkable for the EU as for the first time a cooperation involved organisations from the EU (France, Portugal) and three partner regions : Georgia (Eastern Partnership), Morocco (Southern Neighbourhood) and Bosnia-Herzegovina (Potential candidate).

However what united partners,  more than a geopolitical strategy,  is their cultural commitment into the community social change of their community, as well as their expectation to solve specific issues through a global approach. « We realized the social responsibility of our art. Not only state and our citizens are responsible for budget collection to support culture and art, but we also have responsibility to listen to our citizens. »

Partners were sharing a common interest in theatre and performing arts but each through different practices : two are independent artistic groups producing and touring their own shows, one is a public repertory theatre but with a guests programme, two are academic and engineering organisations particularly working with local authorities.
This diversity of positions, practices and even professional cultures needed to be combined with each partner’ specific expectations about local contexts.

So then Théâtre Nomade was expecting to train its young performers to new theatre techniques, Caucasus Foundation aimed at showcasing artistic approaches as civic tools, Image Aiguë needed to experiment transmission processes.
Also, a catalyst element was the long-term relations Chôros’ partners : whether through former active cooperation, participation to international networks (Civil society initiative A Soul for Europe, performing arts network IETM) or peers’ recommendations. Thus at the root of Chôros there is an informal community of like-minded people, that had known each others for a long time and sometimes even were already involved into cooperation.


A cultural cooperation inspired by an artistic approach

Chôros was an initiative from theatre company Image Aiguë, based in Lyon. The group has a strong international background as it has worked in about 40 countries worldwide for both producing creations and touring. Also the company led several EU funded projects, it has inherited important skills in their conception and management. The administrative ability has been an important reason for the success of the project, yet the essence of the project itself came from the artistic approach of Image Aiguë and its artistic leader Christiane Véricel.

In an interview, she describes the artistic approach she pioneered with Image Aiguë:

« When I founded Image Aiguë, 33 years ago, I wanted to bring together on the stage people of different ages and cultures, and to invent a theatre that didn’t start from the text, so that people could communicate between them, about shared interests, everyday life, the difficulties to survive, to live together, to get fed… A universal method where everyone could express themselves in theatrical form.

The second point was to bring out the value of these people on the stage, especially children, to make the best of their personality and culture. My idea was that the audience, watching all kinds of culture on the stage – I worked in the so-called “immigrant” or “difficult” neighbourhoods – would then be more tolerant towards these cultures.

We started on a local level and then went abroad, very far away, and only later we refocused on Europe, because we wanted to tell the public that this kind of theatre could help understand and build Europe. It helped understand that the Maghreb child or the Asian youth or the German immigrant, or someone from France, all these little bits of personalities were building Europe together, that Europe was not something coming from the outside, but it also expresses the European citizenship, and each of us contributes to it. »

This extract tells about the history of the company and evolution of the artistic process, all aspects that are similar to those who guided the cooperation process: gathering people from various background, addressing social issues, cultivating the diversity of participants and audiences, traveling internationally and welcoming, considering individuals as active citizens. The artistic foundations of Image Aiguë was reflected in the basics of the cooperation, offering not only a reference experience but a fertile cultural pattern from where to grow synergies between cultural organisations.

Concrete implementation

The project was implemented in two sets of activities in each city:

  • Theatre exploration of cities: was a set of theatre workshops and research trainings, performances in non-theatre venues, performances with young actors from participating cities. The objective was to explore each city through theatre, in other words through its inhabitants considered as theatre-makers: actors or audience members. This constituent called the theatre’s ability for a peaceful place of exchange and dialogue, and the “inclusive” qualities of Image Aiguë’s method.
  • 
Capacity Building activities were an ensemble of meetings and conversations with local organisations (culture, social, policy makers), cities visits and workshops between partners for running and learning from the project.

The implementation process was not sophisticated : both sets of activities were executed (with local variations) starting in Porto, then Casablanca, Sarajevo, Tbilisi-Batumi, and finally Lyon. But then we had the capacity to be more agile in adapting the process to partners’ capacities, agendas, logistics events, etc… In particular, we were able to work out the tension born from the daily struggles in our organisations and the necessary investment in time, money and energy.

The fundamental objective of Chôros was not to produce the planned outputs but rather to build our own global and collective experience (Are we capable of cooperating internationally ? What for ? For what return on investment ?). Starting from common affinities, our organisation engaged into a common action not following an existing framework but rather to create the possibility for “useful” cooperations to happen. The trans-regional interaction (partners are from the EU, North-Africa, South-Balkans, Caucasus) that aroused the EU interest was more a coincidence than a geopolitical strategy in itself.

Lessons from Chôros

What we did with Chôros could be considered as a “sandbox” in computing: a specific environment offering ressources for training and innovating. To stick to the theme of culture as a tool for diplomacy, I will tell about the issue of the inter-relation between the local and global levels we experienced in Chôros, our organisations being active in the cooperation at all levels.


At the local level

As mention before, Chôros was conceived and implemented by small, mainly non-institutional, fragile organisations. This situation brought about a tension for people involved in the cooperation between the daily struggle to run their organisation and the necessary involvement in the implementation of the project (in terms of time to allow, agenda, staff’s workload, etc).

Of course the project had an impact on individuals (all staffs members were not involved) as Cindy Leclère from Théâtre Nomade says : « Abdenbi [Moroccan performer] participation was a way to open his work and his mindset by exploring in a completely new context: out of the company and out of his country far from his current value and way of working ». But the issue is yet how impacting on people is also impacting on organisations. This situation aroused the issue of “internationalisation” of cultural organisations and how to include the global dimension in the structure of local players.

Chôros also brought us to look at the ecosystem of cultural organisations by means of confronting with other mindsets and approaches and an opportunity for experimenting through the implementation of activities. In particular, our capacity to create links through artistic and cultural activities aroused and conversely our need to consider a more transversal approach to take part in social change :

  • audiences: to conceive new production and mediation formats to open performing arts to wider audiences (children, old people, internal displaced persons, migrants, etc…) and to involve un-conventional partners (like amateurs, volunteers or children) in those.
  • 
partners: to carry out new partnerships with organisations from education, social inclusion, civic education, local development, etc… to enrich our role in the community and being ourselves more included.

The project also helped partner organisations to gain an international expertise at local level, but to that need to be nurtured on the long-term (by participation to event, network activities, support of other organisations, publication of statements…). However, local authorities considered this profile with indifference (as cultural diplomacy mainly spreads through institutional channels), sometimes suspicion (as it may be an open-door to foreign influence) or interest (particularly when mobilising important EU fundings).

At global level

At global level the main result is, despite the administrative weight of such EU funded cooperation, our capacity to create a small form of cultural meta-organisation involving each partner organisation at every level of the implementation (from the definition of activities, to implementation, evaluation… not only in its city but in all cities where we carried Chôros out).

This approach was based on the idea that “we can share our problems, but also our solutions” and a collective and fair mechanism to balance gaps between partners (agile method, knowledge sharing, financial solidarity). It resulted in a strong feeling of empowerment and sense of belonging to a common project (“I was not Hana from SARTR, but Hana from Chôros”).

This global collective approach has been essential to foster partners’ cultural innovation skills : how new artistic experiences and mindsets from foreign partners (but it could have been from local partners) are meeting my own concerns. For example, the cooperation between artists from Image Aiguë and Théâtre Nomade not only carried out new skills to Moroccan performers but the idea to adapt a performance the french company with Théâtre Nomade performers to be toured in Casablanca neighbourhoods.

However, innovation was particularly obvious in the way we can challenge artists and offer new sources of inspirations through addressing a more diverse audience, the cross-sectorial mobilisation of partners, a global and systemic awareness of issues we deal with locally. In that sense, one of the success of Chôros is for small cultural organisations to take part at revitalising their city by feeding urbanity with unexpected and otherness, to use geographer Jacques Lévy’s words.


Conclusions

Partners of Chôros are still assimilating lessons from this experience and disseminating its results. Not only a project, Chôros has been a cultural framework that, like open source software owned to those contributing. New developments are on the way, in Malta and other countries, but we certainly need to better formalize this approach in conceiving and implementing our cooperations.

From this experience, Chôros, emerged a form of unconventional or alternative diplomacy. Creative cultural and artistic organisations are able to put citizens, individuals into work to comprehend the complexity of our society and gain new acting skills on their environment.

Such projects help individuals to take part in the circulation of ideas, cultural goods,  information, particularly those less considered as citizens (because of social, cultural, economical, administrative situation). A bottom-up  approach driven by culture that  encourages both stronger local democracies and a better democratic globalisation.


I wrote this article for the « Living Cities, Liveable Spaces: Placemaking & Identity » conference organised by Valletta 2018 foundation

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