From Asia to Austria and Back Again: Building Creative Networks Across the Globe

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Nov 29, 2019
by Oscar Tollast
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From Asia to Austria and Back Again: Building Creative Networks Across the Globe

YCI Fellows from East and South Asia reflect on the impact of their experiences in Salzburg This mural is part of the Smile at a Common project in Manila, the Philippines, led by YCI Fellows Ralph Eya and Katharina Kapsamer

Since 2014, the Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators (YCI) has sought to provide a space for change-makers around the world to hone their talents and help them drive social, economic and urban change in their communities. As part of this process, participants have been able to learn new skills and gain a better understanding of they are and who they want to be. As the YCIs continue to grow, personally and professionally, they look to expand their horizons and their networks.

The YCI Forum now has a global network of 300 Fellows, all of whom are either designing collaborative projects, building skills, gaining mentors, or bringing people together in their respective regions to advance change. The YCI network spans the globe, with 21 “hub” cities and regions in 40 countries across six continents. Growth of the network in East and South Asia is especially strong. More than 60 creative change-makers from Japan, the Republic of Korea, Hong Kong SAR, Cambodia, Laos, Philippines, and Vietnam have all convened in Salzburg.

Throughout the series’ history, YCI Fellows have a tendency to try and find answers in the most innovative way. It’s a view shared by Chunnoon Song-e Song, who attended the YCI Forum in 2014. Song, from the Republic of Korea, said, “When I joined Salzburg Global Seminar, it was really an eye-opener for me because it was when I was starting to think whether culture is an essential thing in your life.”

At the time she was responsible for the Virtual Collection of Asian Masterpieces, an Asia-Europe Museum Network project encouraging cooperation between museums in both continents. When she returned home from Salzburg, she thought, “What’s the point of showing the objects that people can not actually see?” She therefore decided on a dramatic career change and took on a job with UNESCO to work in Afghanistan. She wanted an answer to the question: does cultural heritage matter in a country which is experiencing conflict?

Speaking three and a half years later while at another Salzburg Global program, this time specifically on cultural heritage, she said she found an answer. “Culture actually matters to people – really matters to people… Often some donors, who are not residing in Afghanistan, they would ask, do you really think that culture matters in Afghanistan when children die [from] starving and etc.? I tell them you should have an interview with the Afghan people. They feel depressed without culture.”

Another YCI whose experience in Austria opened her eyes to new possibilities was Phina So, from Cambodia. She attended the second program of the YCI Forum in 2015. As well as then being a researcher at the Cambodia Development Resource Institute, she was the leader of Women Writers Cambodia. She wanted to empower and connect writers and leaders through literature.

So said, “It was a great experience to meet and learn from many inspiring cultural leaders from around the world… I felt so overwhelmed that I wanted to quit my full-time job as a researcher and wanted to move [into] the arts completely.” And that’s exactly what she did.

Now working for the non-profit organization Cambodian Living Arts as a knowledge, networks, and policy program manager, So has more time to focus on arts and culture. She said, “Moving into a field, especially [the] arts, is a big decision. I would imagine I would not dare to make such a decision. However, after the trip [to Salzburg], I [felt] more confident to make the decision and dare[d] to dream bigger.”

In her role, So is involved with work on cultural leadership fellowships, mobility grants, and organising cultural exchanges with other professionals in the region. The Mekong Cultural Hub, an associated initiative which grew out of the YCI Forum, provides opportunities for creative cultural practitioners in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Thailand. For So, it is the “focal point” of contact whenever cultural exchanges are organized.

“Through these cultural exchanges, we grow the networks of arts and cultural professionals from the Mekong. Now the Mekong Cultural Hub has become a sister organization,” So said.

The importance of building connections through shared experiences cannot be taken for granted. Yu Nakamura, from Japan, attended the third program of the YCI Forum in 2016. Nakamura said her biggest benefit from the experience is the connections she has been able to make and maintain. She said, “I know if there is [a] new cultural project that I want to make, I know there is someone I might be able to talk [to] or ask.” Nakamura has already worked with several YCI Fellows, including Joo Im Moon from the Republic of Korea, and is now planning a new collaboration with YCI Fellows from New Orleans.

Arriving in Salzburg in 2016, Nakamura introduced herself as someone who “tries to preserve traditional recipes from octogenarians.” Three years later, she can safely say she’s succeeded. Since leaving Salzburg, Nakamura has published a book called Grandma’s Happy Recipes Storybook. She’s also produced a 10-part YouTube series featuring some of the grandmas she spoke to. The first video in the series has more than 4.8 million views. “I became [the] person [where] I can just move forward without listening [to] too much of [the] noise that tries to stop you from challenging,” said Nakamura.

Now based in Bangkok, Thailand, Nakamura has a new mission and a new business: Taste Hunters. Along with her husband and a friend, she imports natural wine and craft sake, working with family-run, environmentally friendly producers. Nakamura said, “We are working to create a world in which various flavors can always exist on an appropriate scale rather than being dominated by monoculturization.”

As well as wine and sake, Nakamura has also developed a coconut flower sugar brand called Coconuts Nakamura – almost famous. While it may not be “world-famous” yet, her work in this field has still managed to attract the attention of the Japan Times, Japan’s largest and oldest English-language newspaper.

Another YCI Fellow based in Southeast Asia making headlines in 2019 is independent art practitioner and cultural worker Ralph Eya. In July 2019, Eya appeared in the Manila Times after collaborating with Salzburg YCI Katharina Kapsamer for a public wall mural as part of the Smile at a Common project.

Eya and Kapsamer both met while attending the fifth program of the YCI Forum. Their project was a “creative fusion” of Kapsamer’s urban adventure project “Smile At A Fire Hydrant” and Eya’s new genre public art initiative “We Are Common.” Smile at a Common attempts to influence people’s perception of themselves and inspire attitude change by forcing people to confront their sense of identity and togetherness.

Building off this success, Eya returned to Salzburg a few months later to be a facilitator for the sixth program of the YCI Forum - a scary, exciting, nerve-wracking, and amusing experience. Eya said, “I cannot define it in a very particular way or… a black and white way – probably a rainbow, probably a spectrum of colors of emotions. That’s how it feels.”

A year or so had passed since Eya’s first visit to Salzburg, which provided time for the practitioner to reflect. Eya said, “My intent back then was to really elevate artistic practice into more engaging cultural work in the Philippines… and to create probably not just an influence, but to activate people more and activate spaces back in my country… So I think I was able to… elevate that into a wider scale. I’ve been working around in the entire country now, not just in Manila and [I have] also been building a lot of relationships with my fellow people.”

The YCI Forum is about to enter its seventh year and will continue to support the growing network of cultural change-makers, in Asia and around the world. As famed anthropologist – and founding Salzburg Global faculty co-chair – Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”