Appunti di Cooperazione Internazionale
Over the past few weeks, I have had the opportunity to engage in a mentorship experience during the digital festival entitled ‘ARTS ACCESS’, organised by the British Council in Kiev in partnership with several organisations working in intercultural relations at an institutional level. The underlying theme of the initiative was the ambitious, urgent and sometimes overworked concept of ‘inclusion’. The festival took place from 3 to 5 December with an artistic programme open to the public and curated by the British Council together with the Goethe Institut. Parallel to the performances and shows that were aired, meetings, panels and networking events were held with the aim of encouraging cultural relationships between different independent artists and cultural organisations eager to find potential partners to work with in the future. As a cultural producer, it was certainly a great opportunity to get to know, albeit from a distance and always confined to the home, different artists and organisations working in the performing arts at various levels, from the UK, Georgia, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Belarus.
In this article, I want to talk to one of the key figures behind the scenes of this event to explore together the challenges and achievements of a digital initiative dedicated to the theme of intercultural inclusion. The interview, conducted remotely, was with Anna Bublova, from the British Council in Kiev.
Anna, can you tell us specifically what your role is?
I am the Head of Arts Programme at the British Council in Ukraine. Since 2014 we have had a quite extended arts programming in Ukraine covering various sectors. Kiev’s objective is building links between Ukraine and UK, establishing a common cultural space, intensifying the links between the two communities. Beyond the bilateral relations, if we have a chance to collaborate with other organizations like in this case the Goethe Institute and the Creative Europe Desk, we try to seize these opportunities, pulling together our human and financial resources.
How did the ‘Arts Access’ festival come about?
Both Goethe Institut and British Council work on programmes which tackle the issues of inclusion, mostly in and through the performing arts sector – the showcase was mostly represented by the performing arts and that’s the reason for it. However, we are aware of great artists coming from the music sector. We worked a lot on the practical level, but we understood that in order to move to another level, you do need to engage the communities and bring various organizations working in different fields together. We had additional funding this year, so we could find partners interested in this agenda. We invited the Goethe Institut and the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation – the Ukrainian Funding Body which provides grants for the cultural sector, who were interested in the same area. A funding partner is the House of Europe, a multi-year EU programme of funding which aims at connecting Ukraine and Europe. It’s run by the Consortium of Partners – EUNIC, but the leading partner is the Goethe Institut in this case. It’s a big programme which runs grants, but also capacity-building cultural programmes and supports in many ways the cultural sector in Ukraine, brings it closer to the European space. Three years ago we started the Grand Programme for the Inclusive arts: disability arts organizations can apply for funding. So we brought them in, and they recommended also the Creative Europe Desk. The strand of Programme Design was so composed. The panel discussion was coordinated by the British Council. The networking session was curated by the Goethe Institut. The showcase element, an obvious choice to talk about the artists but also to show their work. The difficulty is that the majority of artists do not have high-quality video material and that was one of the challenges.
How did you decide to convert this initiative to digital from 3 to 5 December?
Going online was very obvious, even when we were applying for funding in May. As organizers, it was also a testing ground. The networking session was very effective, and I guess that even in the post-pandemic it will be kept online, because it is absolutely safe, ecologically sustainable, and the whole issue is the programming: you need a good programming team, good facilitators, good mentors. But that is also the chance to work with people from other parts of the world, it turned out to be an excellent tool. The panel discussion worked well, we pre-recorded it. When you put people together, the first half an hour is a kind of a warming-up, a lot depends on how good your speakers are – two discussions worked really well, it was almost like a dialogue which was very interesting to follow. I think that showcase element is the hardest one – you would like to attract a lot of people, always competing with other offers online, especially when it’s marked as inclusive arts. One of my learned lesson is that it would be beneficial to include the inclusive arts into the major festivals. If you run a theatre festival, it is necessary to include work done by disabled artists or inclusive companies.
How many applications did you receive and how did you select the artists online? Also, what were the objectives of creating a section dedicated to performing arts professionals in a series of online meetings?
Each strand had its own objectives. For the networking session it was very straightforward: giving the opportunity to various organizations who never met each other before to work together. Why did we make this at this particular time? Because in Ukraine there are a number of international funding opportunities, or a number of organizations are offered international opportunities, so we wanted the organizations to know more about these organizations working here in Ukraine and possibly using these funds to work jointly. For the networking part we received around 90 applications from around Europe, our target was about 50 organizations, but we got more.
What was the response of the audience? Have you monitored access to the site? And what has changed in terms of participation?
Impact is still to be assessed with the joint projects in the next few months. Another round of evaluation in 6 months’ time will make us see if partnerships are still in place. In terms of targets, we would like to have many more people – 3000 people were watching the showcase. We expected more, but if you compare this with the regular numbers in theatre venues, considering all restrictions and protocols, it’s still a high one. What was interesting is that the rate of engagement was the highest one the communication team has experienced in all the projects we had in the past. The audience of the panel discussion was also very high. Online has its benefits.
When it comes to inclusion and accessibility, what does digital add and what does digital take away from cultural fruition?
Technology in a way helps disabled artists and people with disability to communicate with the world. They use various programmes: online media allows us to get closer to our audience, especially in Ukraine where accessibility is very difficult, cities are not accessible. However, I think that face-to-face stays a very important element of our interaction with disabled artists. Even though technology gives opportunities to communicate with the rest of the world, I think that nothing can really replace the touch and the human interaction, the emotion which is very difficult to transfer through online media. But online helps us to keep in touch and get closer. During the panel we could include an artist with hearing impairment who is not able to use the voice recognition: thanks to a typist we could include her in the discussion. Like her, other artists could be included into the process.
Many professionals in the field of performing arts, when it comes to the term “inclusion”, feel a certain “fatigue” in pointing to the concept like if it were always necessary to stress it. I think that in the reflection on making artistic experiences more inclusive, we should never overlook all those components that concern intercultural dialogue, the differences that operate at a socio-economic and political level and that change according to geographical contexts. What is your point of view and how does the British Council deal with this issue?
It’s probably difficult for me to answer on behalf of the British Council. In UK this comes from the social movements in the 60s and 70s, they feel comfortable and confident in what they are doing. I think integration into the mainstream is happening in the UK at the moment: in 2018 the British showcase at the Edinburgh International Festival included performances from disabled artists as part of the programme. So it’s moving in that direction, artists with disabilities had less chances in the past to practice, to get better in the artistic profession because of the lack of access towards education and of opportunities. I think that one of the issues is how to deal with the impairments existing. Iva Styshun, an artist who took part to the panel discussion, shows it really well: she says that the colleagues with whom she studied at the university succeeded, but she cannot really be part of this success story because her disability really stopped her from graduating and getting into the knowledge she needed to make a successful career. You have to keep that in mind. Even though we might be fatigued by the label “inclusion”, we should move to making our work more accessible, open up opportunities and figure out how they can be included into the creation of their art product. When it comes to “inclusion”, a lot of organizations are not really interested in the subject but because they’re able to generate some income, to obtain funds, they simply consider it a useful word. We need to be aware of it, probably try to question ourselves, questioning why we are doing it.
What’s the future of the British Council’s projects in Ukraine with Brexit?
I will not be able to answer this question, and I’m not sure that at the moment anyone knows. Everybody is waiting for the final negotiation which will bring some clarity. Now I can’t really say. We are part of the EUNIC cluster, we do collaborate with other EU partners. I think there will be some implications with other organizations applying for Creative Europe, but in terms of our work in Ukraine I think one way or the other we will continue to collaborate with other European partners.
I cross my fingers for cultural cooperation to go ahead, intercultural dialogue always finds its way.