Culturescapes: Exploring the cultural
landscape of China today
by Michèle Vicat
Jurriaan Cooiman, photograph Michèle
in Basel, Switzerland, Culturescapes explores a different
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.
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
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.
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.
Urban Forest. Courtesy Culturescapes
How do you choose a country?
do research and I also have my own preferences based on my
own subjective feelings.
with Eastern Europe. The Iron Curtain was there for
half a century and we were not aware of the specific cultures
Then the wall fell, the curtain was open, but we continued
to look at the whole region as being the East. I thought
have more specific information about what Estonia is,
for example, and we needed to find out how it was different
or Romania. There are huge differences between these
and not only with the language. I wanted to know each
relationship with its neighbors. At the beginning,
the choice was made according to this consideration.
I recognized that the process would repeat itself and
would not be interesting. I started to go beyond it
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
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
be interested in China because it will be
a major player in the next century. The Chinese
a lot about us
and we know
little about them. Culturescapes offers the
possibility to learn more. It makes many
We have 40 to 50 different institutions collaborating
in the framework of Culturescapes.
For example, Festival Images
the Théâtre du Grütli in
Geneva, the Kunst Museum in Bern, the Stadt
Basel. They all
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
On the one side, it is something that is
Swiss whether China is involved or not. We
We are showing that we can work together
because culture is very important. I want
to raise that
but for that
to have a certain critical mass. If we are
doing it together, we have weight. If everybody
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,
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
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
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
artists abroad. But, next year, I would
like to have a strong presence of Swiss
with our next
program in Israel.
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
about China’s economic
power, about human rights,
about minorities, about Tibet,
Square, Taiwan. Things are
there somewhere in the air
being in contact
I can approach
questions through personal
contact. The answers or parts
of the answers
From what I
level, it would be very interesting
if more people could have this
kind of relationship.
me that it
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
I do not differentiate between
art forms. We could have done
a Culturescapes about
or about literature,
We did not do this. We have
four major themes from which
you can learn about China or
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
not about something: what
the Chinese are doing now,
population growth, the
growth of economic power,
with the West,
and how the
Chinese digest their
last 30 years
of history, what happened
with the Cultural Revolution,
the artists who come here also meet the local population?
It depends. Some artists
stay here for two or
is a competition
and they are
with Swiss institutions
and with local groups.
have a talk after
the show. If artists
stay longer, they are
to express what
focus on the work,
otherwise we have to organize lectures.
Did you encounter difficulties
with the program?
Was China a more challenging
It was more complicated
because of the
distance. On the other
hand, it was easier
culture is the
of Culture. The
program was mine;
they did not
with the program.
it took a long
time to get
them what I
really wanted to
do. From the beginning,
I put everything
the table and we
started to know
each other. Gradually,
bring the questions,
on the discussion
bring the major
points, the most
finally the program
starts to find
a way. You can only
sides. This finally
very well. My main
contact was the
Chinese Attaché Culturel
at the embassy
here in Bern. He
German. He understands
also that things
develop along the
road. He listened
and we understood
not at the level
but at the
of putting the
I had to
be on top of it.
I went to China
in charge at the
twenty times. There
were several cities
Beijing and Shanghai.
So there were different
These are huge
and when they come
everything is so
So, we did
How did you locate
events and groups?
I worked with
They gave me
You start with
a small network
and then it gets
bigger and bigger.
have to sort
It is a process
it is a very
some things that
you learn about
too late to
when it is
possible. I benefited
from the input
of some experts
We did a
a bigger group
of Swiss curators
and theater directors
to find what
on the Chinese
10 days between
and ended up
with a huge program
I started to
of Culturescapes to sort
could be done.
Theater from Quanzhou.
What do you hope
to get from
this program on
do you expect
this program could do
I was preparing
it, I would
China. That would
main part. I feel
fears about China.
in Switzerland’s federal system. If they are
they are weak. There are different parts of the agenda
I hope can be developed. On the Chinese side, it concerns
The next step will be to compare what they do with what
This day is not the only day: there are many days. We
are not only “we” but also many “I.”
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
a grass roots
organization. Europalia is a
job. I collaborate
I only ask
responsibilities. Europalia was
I did not
I did, I
done a Culturescapes program on
I am not
inside. I am
I know that
a reduced picture
a way to
neighbors. I am
there. I have
more information and the program schedule, see the website