International Cultural Exchange – The Benefits and Challenges by Kalina Wagenstein

Does one even have to make an argument for the rewards of working internationally? The merits are easily grasped. It broadens horizons, changes perspective, helps you leave your comfort zone and stretch yourself.  It introduces you to new people, builds friendships and creative interactions that may last for years, and, besides, traveling is really fun.

But beyond the obvious benefits, the challenges begin. First, creativity in the context of a foreign country requires a big investment – financial of course, but also time and effort. Often, travel and participation in such projects impinge on every-day professional plans, and serious catch-up is required afterward.  Let’s not forget cultural differences, specific artistic systems and practices, as well as the pesky language barrier.

And if, in a small country like Bulgaria, where I work, international projects are one of the rare ways to broaden the scope of artistic activity and reach new audiences, in countries offering many more opportunities as well as cultural diversity within its own borders, one might start and end one’s career without ever feeling the necessity of doing international projects at all.

This is why there are programs that encourage professional meetings of artists from different countries that they might work together, discuss issues that concern them, seek common solutions that benefit their creativity and, more importantly, benefit their audiences, which are, in fact, all of us.  Interestingly, despite the different backgrounds and contexts, it often turns out that the challenges of being an artist are the same: financial and political crises, the status of artistic activity, the place of the artist in contemporary society, and the question of how our work helps people in their daily lives and our awareness of this.

Conference Derida Dance Center
Courtesy: Art Office Foundation

International collaboration helps artists in many ways: in professional development, meeting people who work in the same field but under different conditions, in generating new ideas and creating a sense of community. However, it also requires a special effort beyond what we are used to in our routine activities. It presupposes a certain acceptance of otherness, of people’s opinions, of new culture, a readiness for trial and error, and for open dialogue. As enriching as it is in the end, it is a complex process.

How do we strike a sensible balance so that we can continue to meet and work together, with minimal damage to the planet, and at the same time be budget-conscious?

One potential solution is to take advantage of online communication opportunities. This area has developed tremendously during the pandemic and associated lockdowns and continues to provide a variety of options. However, it will never fully replace human contact. And it shouldn’t.

Each and every one of us must think about our carbon footprint daily

This is precisely why hybrid formats need to be further developed, for example, online rehearsal periods for international work made by artists collaborating from multiple countries, conference links preceding live meetings, and replacing, at the very least, short flights with train and electric-vehicle journeys.

Еnvironmental, geopolitical and economic challenges demand that we rethink our ways of working. New technologies present both opportunities and threats to shape the future of international collaborations. We must be aware of these issues and join forces to find sustainable and innovative solutions.

It is essential to preserve the possibility of immediate communication between artists, because this enriches everyone – the artists themselves, their communities, and audiences who experience unfamiliar methods, ideas, and points of view; this broadens their horizons, too. The success of this effort is up to the artists’ guilds and unions, but also up to service organizations that support their work, and ultimately up to the donors and governments who have to devote public resources to make it happen.

There is no shortage of good practice, both in Europe and in the United States, but it needs to be recognized and celebrated so that it can be multiplied.

Art Office Voice Practice, New Bulgarian University
Courtesy: Art Office Foundation

The European Commission has set up numerous programs that focus on international cultural cooperation and the interaction of artists and cultural operators from different countries on the continent, the largest of them being Creative Europe. Between 2021 and 2027 it will have a budget of €2.4 billion, a significant increase compared to the previous programming period. The main objectives are to preserve, develop and promote Europe’s cultural and linguistic diversity and heritage, and to increase the competitiveness and economic potential of the cultural and creative sector. This and other programs like it show the importance attributed to cooperation and the exchange of ideas among the artistic community.

An organization in the United States that has been making a serious effort to expand its international activities for nearly fifteen years is The Drama League of New York. Through their programs, more than a hundred American theatre directors and other theatre-related professionals have met foreign colleagues, visited various countries, participated in debates and meetings, and staged productions on European stages. This has been made possible both by the extraordinary dedication of the staff and board of the organization and with the help of their grant-makers, notably including the steadfast commitment of the Trust for Mutual Understanding, a leader in American and Eastern European cultural connection.

The most recent initiative of The Drama League, which lasted for more than six months, was the unique International Directors Summit, which brought together directors and cultural managers from the US, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Georgia, and Ukraine. Participants had the opportunity to discuss topics ranging from the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic to the many crises that surround us through the lens of directing and theatre in general in the development of contemporary society. Stage directors spoke about their creative explorations, the plans and ideas that inspire them, and potential common actions and approaches that would improve the state of affairs and working conditions. The meetings were extremely stimulating and connections made will certainly not cease with the completion of the current project.

A workshop with deaf and hearing actors, implemented by Art Office Foundation, Sofia and Fattoria Vittadini, Milan Courtesy: Art Office Foundation

International cooperation is also about lifelong learning. A few years back we launched our first project for empowering deaf artists, together with partners from Milan, Italy. They were way more experienced than we were at that time as they were organizing a yearly event called The Festival of Silence which gathered deaf performers from all over Europe. We were very enthusiastic about bringing the good practice to Bulgaria, but had to seriously master our skills on working with this community; knowing more about the specifics, the sign language(s), the way deaf performers operate in principle.

After two very successful workshops and many meetings and discussions, we became a part of an international network and produced the first local show for an audience of deaf and hearing children, Beyond the Wall, which includes sign language and teaching kids to accept differences and be tolerant, but also to open up and engage in communication. Now we are helping other Bulgarian artists who are willing to get involved in such initiatives.

The last few years have also offered us additional challenges – in the face of a pandemic and then a global economic crisis and military conflicts, creative interactions have become particularly difficult. Familiar ways of working needed to be rethought and new and different approaches needed to be found. Before 2020, international travel had reached an unprecedented level; now we have to take into account various restrictions, as well as the steep rise in airfares. The impact of air travel on climate change cannot be ignored, and each and every one of us must think about our carbon footprint daily.

International cultural cooperation is precisely about this vital connection – to advance artists in unexpected directions, to help audiences broaden their knowledge and interests, to remain curious about new developments, to provoke the improvement of the professional field, and, ultimately, to create conditions for understanding, mutual respect and acceptance of the other. No matter what difficulties are encountered along the way, these goals are worth the effort. If we challenge ourselves through encounters with others, we are sure to help both our own careers and the people who will empathize with what we have created.

Kalina Wagenstein graduated from Sofia University in Journalism. She has worked for the Bulgarian News Agency, the National Film Centre and the National Film Archive. She has been the Bulgarian representative at the EURIMAGES Fund of the Council of Europe, which supports co-productions between European film companies. In 1999 Mrs. Wagenstein took the lead of the Sofia office of the Swiss Cultural Program in South-Eastern Europe and Ukraine. During the nearly ten years of its operation in Bulgaria, the program supported more than 400 projects in culture and arts, some of them with regional (Balkan) dimensions. In 2007 she created the Art Office Foundation. It was registered as a non-profit organization in public benefit engaged with promotion and circulation of performing arts, working with Bulgarian artists and their artistic production in the country and abroad. Mrs. Wagenstein had attended numerous trainings in cultural policy, project management, NGO management, fundraising, etc., in Bulgaria, France, Switzerland and Hungary. She performs trainings in Project Cycle Management and Marketing Communications for Bulgarian NGOs. She speaks English, French and Russian.

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