Culturescapes: Exploring the cultural landscape of China today

by Michèle Vicat

Jurriaan Cooiman, photograph Michèle Vicat© 2010

Based in Basel, Switzerland, Culturescapes explores a different country’s culture each year. The focus this year is on China, its art, film, theater, music, literature and individual performances. The program runs from Septembre to December 2010. We talked with Jurriaan Cooiman, Culturescapes’ creator and director while he was in Geneva for the opening of Butterfly Lovers, a traditional Yue Opera.

How did you get involved with Culturescapes?

I am the founder! I started it from a festival of contemporary music in the mid-1990s in Basel. The concept was to look at contemporary composers in the context that had inspired them or in which they had inspired others. An example is Sofia Goubaïdoulina, a Russian composer. We wanted to see who inspired her and her work, and which poet or painter, on the other side, was also inspired by her work. I was looking at an artistic milieu, and I was looking at it through the eyes of contemporary music. From that perspective, I saw a cultural-scape, like a cultural landscape, which included not only contemporary music from different countries, but also all the other fields. What they have in common is a common language, a common history and common traumas. From these three elements, artists digest the message that they want to explore. As soon as they do that, it is no longer a national theme. It becomes universal.

The framework is culture-scape. China is our theme this year. The framework and the country become a translation of the issues of Chinese society, but following the method of an artist. The method of an artist is never nationalistic.

I founded Culturescapes in 2003. We started with Georgia and then we did the Ukraine, Armenia, Estonia, Romania, Turkey, and Azerbaijan. Now, we are at number 8, China, and next year it will be Israel.

MAD-Chongqing Urban Forest. Courtesy Culturescapes

How do you choose a country?

I do research and I also have my own preferences based on my own subjective feelings. I started with Eastern Europe. The Iron Curtain was there for half a century and we were not aware of the specific cultures on the other side. Then the wall fell, the curtain was open, but we continued to look at the whole region as being the East. I thought we must have more specific information about what Estonia is, for example, and we needed to find out how it was different from Lithuania or Romania. There are huge differences between these countries and not only with the language. I wanted to know each country’s relationship with its neighbors. At the beginning, the choice was made according to this consideration. Then, of course, I recognized that the process would repeat itself and finally it would not be interesting. I started to go beyond it with Turkey.

Why China?

China is the biggest step for our festival. It is the farthest from our civilization, which is based on Greek philosophy, Christian-based judicial principles, Judaism and monotheism. These four elements are very important in understanding our western cultures. China was closed for a long period of time.

I started to do research on China but there were a lot of considerations.

What do you think that Swiss people will take from your program? What do you want that they “learn” or discover about China?

I can only offer possibilities. I hope people can open up and start to realize that there are many Chinas, and that we should be interested in China because it will be a major player in the next century. The Chinese know a lot about us and we know very little about them. Culturescapes offers the possibility to learn more. It makes many connections through cultural institutions. We have 40 to 50 different institutions collaborating in the framework of Culturescapes. For example, Festival Images in Vevey, the Théâtre du Grütli in Geneva, the Kunst Museum in Bern, the Stadt Casino in Basel. They all offer their own infrastructures. Culturescapes operates on the Swiss side. It is expanding the cultural scene beyond a niche, beyond a limited point of view and we are showing that we can do this together. On the one side, it is something that is Swiss whether China is involved or not. We are massaging the Swiss cultural scene. We are showing that we can work together because culture is very important. I want to raise that awareness, but for that you need to have a certain critical mass. If we are doing it together, we have weight. If everybody works alone, we are all small and we have no power.

Was it hard to convince people, to get partnerships?

No. Of course, we are now at the eighth edition. We gained momentum with recognition from the central government in Bern, the cantons, with greetings and patronage from the president of Switzerland, Doris Leuthard, and even from Hu Jintao, the President of China. So, we are recognized, we have partners willing to collaborate because they usually cannot afford to bring groups from China. I did a direct deal with the Chinese Ministry of Culture. It is a huge organization and I managed to have a contract with them, which allows me to bring more than 400 artists to Switzerland. I have something to offer, the partners have something to offer and together we are bringing a higher awareness of culture. It is a win-win situation. Even three times that. Because these groups are coming from abroad, in this instance from China, they are invited for a tour in different cities. It is interesting for the artists, for the Swiss partners, for the Chinese Ministry of Culture, and for the Swiss in general. It is an anti-festival model. With a festival, you have a central venue, at a specific moment of the year. We operate for three months and we are decentralized.

Do you think that there will be a counterpart of your program in China?

ProHelvetia has been running a counterpart for two years. They brought many events to Switzerland, but they also send Swiss artists abroad. But, next year, I would like to have a strong presence of Swiss artists with our next program in Israel.

RMB City Opera, Cao Fei. Courtesy Culturescapes

What were your impressions about China before you started this program? Are they evolving?

For me, China was the unknown, it was very unclear. You read stories in the newspapers about China’s economic power, about human rights, about minorities, about Tibet, about Tian’anmen Square, Taiwan. Things are there somewhere in the air but now, being in contact with China for two years, I can approach some questions through personal contact. The answers or parts of the answers are more concrete. From what I learned on a personal level, it would be very interesting if more people could have this kind of relationship. It convinced me that it would be fruitful if we could reduce the fear. To talk with Wang Jianwei about the perceptions of reality for example (see Pointer at Work--Welcome to the Desert of the Real).

Is there any program in the festival that you prefer or feel close to?

I do not differentiate between art forms. We could have done a Culturescapes about film, or about literature, or theater. We did not do this. We have four major themes from which you can learn about China or any country.

One is called “Searching for the Roots” (Wurzeln Suchen), which looks at how China connects with its traditions, how the Chinese outside of China deal with their traditions. A second theme is “New Voices” (Neu Stimmen) which looks at the explosion of young talent exploring new creative paths in China right now. These are the two main themes. Then, we have sub-themes on these two themes. We look inside each theme. If you are “Searching for the Roots,” you are looking at “Inside Views” (Innen-Ansichten) of a society working on itself. You are no longer only looking at traditions but at how the young culture of China is being assimilated. If you see “New Voices” in development, they go “Beyond the Wall” (Über Die Mauer) of China. Getting “Beyond the Wall” refers to projects in the festival in all art forms that relate to western influences or Swiss artists. So, “Searching for the Roots” looks inside, and finding “New Voices” pays attention to what is “Beyond the Wall”. I prefer the inside. “New Voices” has no meaning if it is not about something. Tradition is also meaningless if it is not about something: what the Chinese are doing now, how they understand population growth, the growth of economic power, pollution, contact with the West, and how the Chinese digest their last 30 years of history, what happened with the Cultural Revolution, with the numerous famines?

Butterfly Lovers, Opera.
Courtesy Culturescapes

Do the artists who come here also meet the local population? Do they participate in local events?

It depends. Some artists stay here for two or three months. There is a competition for young composers and they are in contact with Swiss institutions and with local groups. But, mostly, artists are invited to bring their show. Normally, we have a talk after the show. If artists stay longer, they are asked to express what they think in addition to showing their work. But mainly, we focus on the work, otherwise we have to organize lectures. Maybe we should think about that…

Did you encounter difficulties with the program? Was China a more challenging project than others?

It was more complicated because of the distance. On the other hand, it was easier because culture is the domain of the Chinese Ministry of Culture. The program was mine; they did not interfere with the program. But it took a long time to get their agreement on the program and I was very slow at telling them what I really wanted to do. From the beginning, I put everything on the table and we started to know each other. Gradually, you bring the questions, the possibilities on the discussion table. You bring the major points, the most important events and finally the program starts to find a way. You can only do this if there is trust on both sides. This finally worked very well. My main contact was the Chinese Attaché Culturel at the embassy here in Bern. He speaks German. He understands the European mentality and also that things change and develop along the road. He listened carefully and we understood each other. So, the difficulties were not at the level of making things impossible, but at the level of intensity of putting the program together. I had to be on top of it. I went to China seven times in twenty months. I met the person in charge at the Chinese Ministry of Culture twenty times. There were several cities involved including Beijing and Shanghai. So there were different city, political and cultural frameworks. These are huge infrastructures and when they come to Switzerland, everything is so small! But the Chinese took everything very seriously. So, we did not face any real problems.

How did you locate these cultural events and groups?

I worked with Swiss cultural institutions that are already working with China. They gave me advice. You start with a small network and then it gets bigger and bigger. Then, you have to sort it out. It is a process of elimination and integration. Clearly, it is a very subjective program. There are some things that you learn about too late to include. You include things when it is possible. I benefited from the input of some experts in China. We did a research trip with a bigger group of Swiss curators and theater directors to find what was on the Chinese side. We spent 10 days between Beijing and Shanghai and ended up with a huge program and I started to work with my colleagues of Culturescapes to sort out what could be done.

Marionnette Theater from Quanzhou.
Courtesy Culturescapes

What do you hope to get from this program on China? What do you expect that Swiss people would get from it?

If this program could do the same for a Swiss audience that it did for me while I was preparing it, I would be very happy. Reducing the fear of this huge country that is China. That would be the main part. I feel that there are so many fears about China.

For the cultural institutions, the festival should make them realize that they should work and stick together in order to have power in Switzerland’s federal system. If they are small, they are weak. There are different parts of the agenda that I hope can be developed. On the Chinese side, it concerns fear. The next step will be to compare what they do with what we do. This day is not the only day: there are many days. We are not only “we” but also many “I.”

One of the major goals of Culturescapes is to learn from the differences…

Yes. This is the aesthetic field where, for example, Wang Jianwei says, “this is my method. I can only show parallel worlds in this way.” We should start to see this difference, get really into it, and then get something from it. The cultural field is often very easily presented like fast food. People can have a clue very quickly. But, for me, this is not going very far. With certain artists in the program you need a longer time. And with some others it goes very quickly of course. It is nice to have jazz singers like Coco Zhao and Wu Na, spending three weeks all over Switzerland. With someone like Wang Jianwei, you need time and you only get a certain amount of what they bring.

Pet Conspirency, Music.
Courtesy Culturescapes

Most of the time, people look for a traditional or more conventional presentation of China. That was one of the comments of Wang Jianwei after the presentation of his play “Welcome to the Desert of the Real” at the Théâtre du Grütli here in Geneva. Wang Jianwei said that the audience in the West tries to find a story that is “Chinese” in its form and in its context.
People are very skeptical about the idea of introducing contemporary Chinese culture while there are questions about minorities, Tibet, human rights. That was one of the major criticisms made by Belgian journalists at Europalia/China. Do people react the same way here?

May be less so because we are a grass roots organization. Europalia is a top-down organization. It is based on the desire of two governments to work together on cultural issues. They are not good at that because this is not their job. I collaborate with the Ministry of Culture but I do the job. I only ask their support. Even if the Swiss government made greetings and gave money, they do not do the job. They do not want to do that job. You have to be very clear in separating tasks and responsibilities. Europalia was over ambitious, much too big. It was serving too many purposes.

I am not involved with the question about Tibet. I did not incorporate it in my program. If I did, I would have done a Culturescapes program on Tibet. The moment you try to incorporate all these themes together, people would have the feeling that it is one or the other and I am not so sure about this.

Now, you are putting together your next program on Israel. How do you see it?

It will be on how Israel is looking at its problems from the inside. I am not incorporating Palestinian artists because it would give the impression that they are doing collaborative work. For this reason, we stick with the Israeli side, showing their problems. I know that it is a reduced picture of the area but it is a way to show how Israel is coping with the fragmented sections of its society. How they face their identity, their position toward minorities, meaning majorities, as neighbors. I am very inspired to go there. I have already been twice and you can very quickly grasp substantial elements.

Yes, it is heavy…

As well as it was for China and will be with our 2012 program on the United States!

It is healthy to follow your own agenda and not to compromise with governments?

That’s correct. In exchanges with the Chinese Ministry of Culture, it is very interesting to deal with them as an independent organization because they have their own ideas about what culture is. I have something else in my mind. Who has the truth? It does not matter because you work on it. Why should I tell them that they are wrong? It is a process of understanding. We have two legs. We have to balance them and we cannot say it is one or the other.

For more information and the program schedule, see the website at



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