Art attack | Monocle

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The way that a place is perceived is down to more than just its president, its policies and the frequency with which it drops (or doesn’t) bombs on its neighbours. As a dignitary visiting a questionable corner of the world – or even the only superpower we have left – you’re more likely to be ushered in the direction of indigenous theatre, the top goal-scorer, the picturesque cheese-making region. Soft power is all this other stuff.

While politics, business and military manoeuvres often seem selfish or brutish; culture, media and sport are all national exports in the enviable position of appearing to give something back to the rest of the world, to comment on it and enrich it. The goodwill notched-up by cultural contact is precious but precarious. Used without subtlety, it looks awful.

Monocle has investigated the national brand-building performed by rolling news channels, and conclude that nationally flavoured news is still a decent way of shop-windowing your country to the rest of the world. Up to a point. CCTV, China’s unfortunately abbreviated news network, is planning to add a Russian service to its paint-dryingly dull English, Spanish, French and Arabic channels, while Iran’s state-run Press TV’s tagline “a voice for the voiceless” has been enjoying high visibility on London’s buses, generating more derision than viewing figures.

How does this nebulous world of soft power and cultural diplomacy work? Which institutions plan the next move? Which countries are being courted, and by whom? And who makes the packed lunches for the philharmonic orchestra’s coach-trip? Monocle visited Beijing, Nairobi and New York and took a bus a few London blocks to visit the British Council to explore the programmes that aim to plant a friendly cultural flag in corners of foreign fields.

Confucius Institute, China

Founded five years ago, China’s Confucius Institute now has 339 branches, taking Chinese culture to hungry Sinophile students.

On a breezy summer evening on the edge of Beijing, 1,400 secondary school students from the US and UK have assembled for a closer look at China – 17 days of sightseeing, cultural studies and language classes, with all costs beyond airfare and visas paid for by the Chinese government. The Chinese Bridge summer camp is among the most ambitious undertakings of the Confucius Institute and government department, the Office of Language Council International or Hanban.

Now boasting the world’s third-largest economy, China’s influence is increasing dramatically. But it suffers from an image problem: still an authoritarian dictatorship run by the Communist Party, it has been criticised for human-rights abuses and general disregard for democracy. Enter the Confucius Institute, a network of institutes designed to breed familiarity with China through language studies and cultural programmes and teach the world that China is about more than Tibet and Tiananmen.

China’s new confidence is nowhere more evident than at the Chinese Bridge camp. Students are taken first to the Great Wall, that symbol of the country’s power and endurance, before a tour that includes Tiananmen Square (just don’t mention the summer of 1989) and the Forbidden City. After a gala opening ceremony, the students are dispersed in groups to the provinces for two weeks of intensive language and cultural study.

While some of the students are already young Sinophiles, others have no preconceived notions and little idea of where they’ve ended up. “I was expecting something different than this – more of a city,” said Courtney Smith, a 17-year-old student from Rhode Island. “It’s a good idea. We’re meeting new people and learning about the culture, the differences in food… They’re learning about us too.”

Officials with the Confucius Institute acknowledge their programme, only five years old, has more work to do to polish China’s world image. But the summer campers seem only too happy to enjoy the fruits of their efforts. “I wanted to see what the environment was like, learn the history and culture, and brush up on my Chinese,” says Gregory James Sanders, a 17-year-old British student. “I’d certainly say we’re impressionable young minds and we’re open to learning new things,” he grins. “We came with high expectations, and they have definitely been met.”

Confucius says…

Founded in 2004. Programmes are primarily focused on language instruction but also include cultural events around major Chinese festivals and sponsorship of arts performances. Currently it has 339 institutes in 83 countries, with 1,500 teachers sent from China plus several thousand local staff. There are 92 institutes in 26 countries in Asia; 91 institutes in 11 countries in the Americas, 11 institutes in Australia and New Zealand, 122 institutes in 28 countries in Europe and 23 institutes in 16 countries in Africa.

Wang Yongli Deputy director-general of the Confucius Institute in Beijing and its parent organisation, Hanban

Why was the Confucius Institute set up in 2004?
After 30 years, development of our economy has improved so much. We want to learn with other countries very much. But there are still some foreign friends who don’t know us well, so we hope through cultural activities they will come to know and understand us. It will promote collaboration in other fields.

What is the Confucius Institute’s role?
China is like a giant that has suddenly appeared in civilised society and some foreign friends want to know about our culture and language. We began the Institute so they can get to know us and we can communicate with each other. Chinese culture is the only one that has been non-stop for 5,000 years. As a part of world culture, we should help create a more harmonious world.

Do you think China is misunderstood in the world? How does the Confucius Institute address this?
It is a long process. We sent all these Chinese teachers to other countries to help our foreign friends understand us. Every summer, 4,000 students and 4,000 teachers come to China to do research. It helps for people to meet so we can know and understand each other.

What are the greatest challenges you face?
There are three challenges for us. First it’s about teachers. Classroom discipline and management [in other countries] are very different from China. Second is teaching material. There are many Chinese-English and Chinese-French textbooks but we are still short of rare foreign language books. Third is teaching method. Domestic teaching methods are very different from other countries’.

British Council, UK

Set up in 1934, the British Council’s methods may have evolved but its mission to use arts as a diplomatic tool remains undimmed.

Despite being a non-departmental public body run “at arm’s length” from government, the security booth at the the entrance and its location just off The Mall – minutes away from both Westminster and Buckingham Palace – hint at the political role the British Council has played throughout its 75-year history.

The British Council was established with the support of the Foreign Office in 1934 during a shaky time in Europe, with the intention of strengthening Blighty’s reputation abroad. Its core belief was and is that culture can do for the UK’s image what the clenched fist of its government or cocked rifle of its military cannot. Cultural relations are central to the council’s missions today, occasionally stepping in as an apology on behalf of Britain, instead of just a promoter thereof. For example, hot on the heels of British troops pounding into Iraq was the British Council, carrying 55 tonnes of books to Iraqi universities.

The UK’s second largest charity, the British Council operates in over 100 countries worldwide, from Uzbekistan to Uganda, Kosovo to Kuwait. Most of its annual turnover is made from teaching English in foreign territories (still the Council’s cash cow, bringing in £232m for them last year), though its Arts division is what gets the council its front pages. It boasts one of the UK’s best art collections, having amassed roughly 8,500 works since 1934 (the National Gallery round the corner owns a piddly 2,300). The British Council Collection includes works by Patrick Caulfield, Rachel Whiteread and Henry Moore, and spends much of its life touring overseas, rarely being exhibited in the UK. To this day, the British Council’s party trick is its spot at the Venice Biennale showcasing British artists such as Tracey Emin and this year’s Steve McQueen.

There have been a few turbulent years of funding restructure and a rethinking of who its support could most benefit (office and library closures worldwide have been well documented). But new Arts Group leadership is striving to return the Council to its original mission of bolstering connections between Britain and the rest of the world through cultural relations.

Rebecca Walton Director of arts, British Council

How do you see the position of the arts in the British Council since taking up the directorship in 2008?
We’ve really been striving to pull it right back alongside the main purpose of the British Council, which is cultural relations. The arts are the most powerful tool you can have to build a dialogue discussion across boundaries. It was only very recently that I heard a member of the Foreign Office say for the first time that arts are now as important as sanctions in the toolbox.

How important are diplomatic relations to the council?
We want people to become more inclined towards the UK and more sensitive to the positive benefits of the UK in the world.

Which territories do you currently have your sights on?
We want to focus on the BRIC countries. Russia is a difficult area politically; arts must be the way to stabilise that situation. Also, in the Gulf we’re just growing our presence. We’re extending playwriting development work down there, which is about writing about areas of interest for younger people, seeing what can capture their interests. We’ve had this going on at the Royal Court with readings from the Near East and North Africa and we want this to go down the Gulf as well. As a country, we do the longer-term stuff; there are occasions when I think the UK needs to do more of the big bucks projects, when it can change the atmosphere of a city quite viscerally, like France’s Louvre in Abu Dhabi.

Goethe Institut, Nairobi

With little government backing for the arts, international organisations such as Germany’s Goethe Institut are crucial in Kenya.

Johannes Hossfeld, director of Nairobi’s Goethe Institut doesn’t want to bring German culture to Kenya. He wants to take Kenyan culture back to Germany. “We are not a national showcase any more,” he says. It is a trend that other cultural centres in Nairobi are beginning to follow. The Alliance Française regularly showcases Kenyan artists and performers, while the British Council has established WaPi, a monthly series of performances and workshops featuring hip-hop, poetry and graffiti art.

It is a policy partly borne out of the legacy of colonialism. There is a sense of unease in promoting European culture in a part of the world once ruled by Europe. “It’s out of the question,” says Hossfeld, who estimates that the Goethe works with around 700 local artists a year. The British Council has also found that there’s less need to bring Shakespeare to Nairobi when it’s already taught in a lot of schools.

This new source of funding has contributed towards a cultural renaissance in Nairobi. Over the past three years there has been a noticeable increase in the number of venues, shows and artists in the city. But Kenya remains a troubled state: with the country struggling to find enough food or water for the population, the Kenyan government has spent next to nothing on supporting art and culture. Artists have become reliant on foreign cultural centres and foundations. “The European arts scene is incredibly subsidised,” says Hossfeld. “It is completely lacking here. We’re filling a gap.”

Centres such as the Goethe and the Alliance, both in the centre of Nairobi, also provide some of the only decent venues in the city. The relationships can have odd consequences. At a recent Wapi event at the residence of the British high commissioner a graffiti artist produced a mural on the living room wall depicting Dedan Kimathi, a hero of the Mau Mau struggle against British colonial rule.

Ato Abe
Artist, 27

How would you describe your work?
I’m continually asking, what is Africa? The idea of Africa. What does it mean to be African, particularly in the 21st century? I started as a painter but then moved into performance and installations.

Is there much funding for artists in Kenya?
From the government, no. Nor are there many grants available. I did a show at the GoDown [a Nairobi arts venue] and ended up spending a lot more than I made.

What difference have the foreign cultural centres made?
The Goethe is giving me a platform to voice ideas, to bring ideas to fruition. It’s one thing to say “I want to do this” but no one’s backing you up. If you can present your ideas, the Goethe will give you free range.

How does politics influence your work?
You can’t do art that’s not political. I’m quite an activist. For Kenya the politics just isn’t working. I don’t understand how politicians talk to people. I don’t get their reasoning. It scares me. I don’t know what they’re doing to this country.

NY400, New York

The Netherlands’s link with New York is brought into focus as the city celebrates 400 years since settlers arrived. It’s time to go Dutch.

Near the tip of Manhattan, just outside the entrance to the Staten Island Ferry and Battery Park, the Netherlands has donated a $2.4m (€1.7m) gift to New York celebrating the 400-year anniversary of the Dutch connection to the US. The New Amsterdam Plein and Pavilion, designed by Ben van Berkel of UN Studio, functions as a shelter for food and information and the main attraction in a very active transit hub, but equally importantly as an abstract symbol of Dutch culture.

“The architecture is not really representing a particular political idea with an overstated message, but it supports a political and cultural field,” says van Berkel. “Up to 70,000 people are passing by every day and millions in a year, so it becomes an ambassador for Dutch culture. We are a little place, Holland, and over the centuries we always like to be connected to other places.”

The purposeful abstraction of the flowering form, lit at night by LED strips that constantly change colours, reconciles the often highly articulated geometry of contemporary Dutch architecture with the traditional representative function of public sculpture. Its bent and curving petals twist out toward the ferry terminal, the harbour, the financial district and the street grid of Manhattan, before curling down to support walls and merging with the sidewalk. “We wanted to invite people to perceive the object in many ways,” van Berkel says. “Its sculptural quality generates many entrances into the surroundings.”

Floris van Hövell
Counsellor of public diplomacy, press and culture, the Netherlands Embassy to the US

What is your job as public diplomat?
For the last year or so I’ve been coming to New York to work on NY400, which is celebrating the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s arrival in what is now Manhattan. We’re using a number of cultural elements to portray the Dutch as a progressive, culturally advanced country. We’re also talking about Dutch skills in water management, flood control and climate change issues.

What’s the relationship between public diplomacy and business?
A country’s reputation is immensely important for companies and the Dutch are already the fourth largest investor in the US. We have an interest in a strong bilateral relation with the US on many different issues, whether it’s climate change, security or Afghanistan.

Why has the embassy been so active in promoting Dutch design?
Dutch design is a very strong sector. Droog just opened its own store in Manhattan; architects such as Rem Koolhaas and Ben van Berkel are working on projects in the US; G-Star and Viktor & Rolf are doing very well in fashion. We are trying to build on those sectors that are already strong – design, architecture, fashion. We believe they reflect the Dutch open mind.

What is the broader message of NY400? We want to talk about our shared history and shared values. At the time of the settlement of New Amsterdam, the Dutch 17th-century republic was tolerant of many different nationalities, races and different religions. Many of these values permeated the American constitution: tolerance, entrepreneurial spirit, respect for one another’s opinions.

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