Conflict Transformation Through Culture

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Conflict Transformation Through Culture

Examining the role of the arts in peace-building

Salzburg Global Seminar has long appreciated the power of culture to transform conflict. When the first fellows met in 1947, former enemies came together to discuss American politics, economics — and culture.

With 2014 marking the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One, Salzburg global chose this commemorative year to focus its transformative power of the arts series on peace-building, peacemaking, and conflict prevention through the arts.

Why do people continue to practice and engage in the arts during times of war and conflict? And conversely, why do people assume that they do not?

As the 63 artists, directors, activists, policymakers, educators, and cultural actors from 27 countries across six continents who participated in Conflict Transformation through Culture: Peace-Building and the Arts could attest: art certainly does still take place during times of conflict – but to what end?

The role the arts can play in transforming conflict varies depending on where, when, with, and for whom the art is being created.

The closer to the space and time of a conflict people are, the less likely the art produced is to center around the conflict. In fact, the vast majority of the art created there – be that theater, music, dance, or any other medium – is focused on anything but the conflict, with the purpose of forgetting about the war.

People there are not creating art because of the conflict, but in spite of it.

Also in this space, one finds a lot of art for children, enabling them to distance themselves from the conflict that engulfs their daily lives. Art participation for children, especially musical, is also valuable in post-conflict situations. As Edinburgh University music professor emeritus and composer Nigel Osbourne shared during the session: “One of the first things that music can do is get children back into being happy and back into playing together and trusting others.” Music therapy can also help children who have suffered “acoustic shock,” helping children reprocess “sounds in a way that is pleasurable and much more stimulating rather than frightening.”

It is not just those who lived through the conflict who can benefit from arts-based peace-building. In Cambodia, Salzburg Global Fellow Phloeun Prim, executive director of Cambodia Living Arts (CLA), works to revive traditional artisanal crafts early lost in the Khmer Rouge-led genocide, and encourage young artists in Cambodia to explore their traditional roots. “Within a generation, Cambodian identity and culture could have been lost forever,” explained Prim.

“Since we started, there’s a whole new generation of emerging artists that have come out of our program… The country can now be seen to be moving forward.”

In Northern Ireland, theater is being used to help confront the aggression and resentment that remains despite the peace agreements of the 1990s. “How do you deal with the levels of aggression that inevitably come from a long lineage of war?” asks theater director Paula McFetridge [link to Paula McFetridge interview]. Her answer has been to enact theater in non-theater spaces – taxi cabs, synagogues, the infamous Falls Road – to help take people out of their comfort zones, challenge community-specific narratives of “The Troubles,” and help individuals and communities rethink the public spaces they have long considered out of bounds.

It is thanks to all these valuable contributions that arts and culture can offer in transforming conflict, aired at the Salzburg Global session, that the European Commission recommended culture should be “mainstreamed” into peace-building activities. This was the leading recommendation made after a one-day seminar entitled Culture and Conflicts: The Case of Ukraine, which was organized in November 2014, at the behest of Salzburg Global Fellow Alain Ruche, as a follow-on event from the April session in Salzburg. Held by the European External Action Service (EEAS) in collaboration with Salzburg Global Seminar and NGO More Europe – external cultural relations [hyperlink to org], the program was supported by the European Union and its Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace (IcSP) with a view to providing a better understanding of the culture-conflict nexus through the lens of the conflict in Ukraine.

As in Salzburg, the follow-on seminar saw intensive discussions among participants, centered around culture as a soft, peaceful tool to address hard, serious challenges and transform seemingly stale, “dead-end” conflict situations; culture as a tool to mobilize and engage the wider population; culture as a means of stimulating dialogue, communication, and eventually understanding; the risks connected to the use and abuse of culture and cultural identities; and the need to integrate culture into general EU policies to make better use of its positive potential. To this end, the IcSP is expected to open a call for grant applications in summer 2015.

“As an institution founded to promote peace and dialogue between former enemies in the wake of the Second World War, and given our programmatic focus on the transformative power of the arts, we are heartened by the EU’s adoption of our recommendations,” said Salzburg Global Program Director for Culture and the Arts, Susanna Seidl-Fox.

Since the session, Fellows have embarked on a number of collaborative projects, including a cultural heritage project in Turkey and Armenia, a project to develop an online platform for filmmakers in conflict areas, and a project for reinventing public spaces in divided communities. A further follow-on session – Living Arts in Post-Conflict Contexts: Practices, Partnerships & Possibilities – is planned for Cambodia in early 2016, led by Fellow Prim and CLA. Fellows are also leading calls for the UN to recognize the role culture and the arts can play in peace-building in the Sustainable Development Goals, the successors to the Millennium Development Goals.

 

“We look forward to following and supporting these projects as they come to fruition,” enthused Seidl-Fox.


Download the Salzburg Global Chronicle 2015 in full (PDF)

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