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The Annual Conference 2014

Mar 31, 2015

With great success, the Cluster of Excellence "Asia and Europe in a Global Context" held its 6th Annual Conference at Heidelberg University from October 8 to 10, 2014. Twelve panels, comprising numerous senior and junior researchers from various fields, explored the topic "Cultural Mediation: Creativity, Performance, Display". They examined various ways in which cultural practice is transculturally communicated, negotiated, and contested. Two keynote lectures, by Erika Fischer-Lichte and Nikolas Jaspert, gave inspiration for the discussion. The conference was organised by research area B "Public Spheres".

Opening of the Conference and Keynote Lecture

Christiane Brosius opening the conference

In her introductory talk, Christiane BROSIUS (Heidelberg) raised questions that became central focus points throughout the conference. How did/do individuals, collectives or institutions constitute, appropriate, alter, and circulate cultural goods and processes? How do cultural agents, as mediators or brokers, create in-between-spaces that are characterized by tension, difference and negotiation? And what are the risks of and stakes in mediation?

In line with the Cluster's objective to establish the concept of transculturality as a basic approach in the humanities and social sciences, the opening keynote lecture by Erika FISCHER-LICHTE (Berlin), "Interweaving Performance Cultures: A Transcultural Approach", aimed at a better understanding of cultural dynamics in the field of theatre studies through the introduction of the term 'interweaving performance cultures'. Prof. Fischer-Lichte thereby distanced herself from 'intercultural theatre', a term coined in the 1970s and 80s as a way of reinterpreting the concept of 'culture' in the context of postcolonialism. 'Intercultural theatre', she critically argued, refers exclusively to the transfer between West and Non-West, often resonating with an underlying distinction between the modern and the traditional. It presupposes a culturally fixed idea of ownership of texts and thus views cultural components of performances as separable entities, clearly distinguishable to both performers and audience. By exemplifying and criticizing the rigidity of thinking in binaries such as West and Non-West, self and other, performer and audience, tradition and modernity, Erika Fischer-Lichte set the stage for the specific case studies presented by the speakers throughout the conference.

Click the image to watch Erika Fischer-Lichte's keynote address

Panel Discussions: Mediators and Brokers

From artists, curators, performers, and designers to passengers, missionaries, preachers, and their audiences, an abundant variety of cultural mediators were examined during the conference. With such a rich variety, the question of terminology inevitably arose. A pivotal question concerned the advantages and disadvantages of the two related terms, 'mediator' and 'broker'. How do we create workable distinctions between different types of cultural mediators, and what distinguishes the term from other related concepts, such as broker or go-between? How do we analyze the interplay between textual, oral, and visual forms of mediation? What are the peculiarities and specific contextual characteristics of these mediators and the media they employ? What are their common traits, and how do their practices connect to wider spheres of cultural exchange?

Speaker Anna Andreeva at the Panel on Translating Concepts

Drawing on examples of Christian writings, Buddhist temple histories in medieval Japan, and translations in early modern India and Japan, the panel "Translating Concepts in a Religious Context" focused on the different aspects of translation as a process of cultural mediation. Antje FLÜCHTER (Heidelberg) stressed that the term 'translation' is often used carelessly, and frequently reduced to mere metaphor. She thus emphasized the need for an analysis of the specific conditions of translation. Religious translators, for instance, first required an understanding of the local concepts and beliefs; they needed to draw on extant textual traditions and other practices of religious experts, to find the points of connection to the central aspects of the religious dogmas and concepts they wished to convey. The distinctive conditions of mediation and the lack of systematic research on these topics were common features in the panels, which brought unexpected and often neglected mediators and processes of mediation to the fore.

In the panel "Detecting Performance Brokers: Theatrical Agents, Managers, and Impressarios in Global Theatre Histories (1850-1920)", for instance, the speakers emphasized that theater cannot function as an art form nor as a business without the patronage of professional cultural mediators. Yet their practices, connections, and circuits have been under-researched. These brokers did not leave many material traces, as their work took place primarily backstage. A lack of interest in or even recognition of the performative arts as a business might be another reason for this neglect. The panel "Mediating Asian Christianities: Agents, Practices, Concepts" addressed the need to challenge uni-directional approaches towards mediation. The spread of Evangelical and Charismatic forms of Christianity throughout Asia has not only been underrepresented in the study of global Christianities, but was mainly approached as a Western phenomenon migrating to the East. A focus on border-crossing images and individuals allowed the speakers of the panel "Transcultural Sartorial Mediations: Performing Identity, Nation, and Modernity through Fashion" to explore the dynamics of fashion in 21st-century China and India. By showing fashion in its moving configurations of gender, economics, politics, and identity, Paola ZAMPERINI (Northwestern University) and Laila ABU-ER-RUB (Heidelberg) revealed how fashion editors, designers, and fashion photographers are not just mediators in their own right, but also provide the opportunities and parameters for others to explore, negotiate, and perform – to mediate – status or national identity.

Second Keynote Lecture

Attendants at the second keynote lecture

In the second Keynote Lecture, "Cultural Brokerage: A Medieval Mediterranean Perspective", Nikolas JASPERT (Heidelberg) identified specific characteristics of mediation by differentiating between manifest and latent brokerage. The Medieval Mediterranean, as the meeting point between Asia, Europe, and Africa, offers a vast array of examples for these processes: slaves as involuntary brokers in a new environment, missionaries actively transferring cultural content, or Jews as diplomatic envoys in Christian and Muslim courts. Cultural brokers, mediators or 'uomini virtuosi', whether intentionally or unintentionally, have always been key figures in matters of trade, diplomacy and war. Elaborating on Medieval lordship as a process inherently based on reaching a consensus, Prof. Jaspert further argued that brokerage is often a very pragmatic undertaking that can leave its authors in a vulnerable position.

In conjunction with nuances between manifest and latent brokers and messy endeavors for consensus, the media and places in which cultural brokers operate revealed their often unexpected, unintentional, and ambiguous disposition. Fischer-Lichte, for instance, located performance within a liminal space; it comes into being only during its course and thus is unable to transmit meanings inscribed in the text. This repositioning reduces claims of authenticity and enables the theatre performance – as in-between space – to test and experience interwoven cultural diversity.

Click on the image to watch Nikolas Jaspert's keynote address

Panels: Communities and Forms of Mediation

Panel Chair Roland Wenzlhuemer

In the panel "Social Orders in Transit: Passenger Communities during Long-Distance Ship Passages, c. 1770-1945", ships were taken as exemplary historical in-between spaces, where passengers would find themselves in a liminal phase of partial social suspension, faced with unprecedented challenges, such as the mixing of classes and sexes, unthinkable on land. On the one hand, this required a renegotiation of the social order, often accomplished through group- and identity-building processes such as the 'crossing the line' ceremony. On the other hand, ships could also appear as miniature environments, in which the modern world was reenacted on a small scale. As such, they became contested spaces of imperialism in practice, reinforcing the confinement of labor deep in the invisible belly of the ship through spatial configuration and soundscape, whilst the deck became a space of leisure for the bourgeois class.

Several panels also stressed the importance of distinguishing between particular forms of mediation. The panel "The Display of Words and Narratives in Museum Space: a Transcultural Reading" took author museums and contemporary art galleries as fields where the visual narratives and gallery texts function as underestimated yet crucial media. Writers of such museum texts are unknown, latent brokers who hoist the artist or the novelist on stage as manifest mediator, (re)creating 'the artist' and 'the author' in the process. In the panel "Auditive Mediation of Cultures: Sermon, Prayers, and Recitation", attention turned towards the vocal recitations of poets and preachers, and the way they create emotional responses in communities through the effect of speech. The panelists showed how the wide range of genres of Islamic sermons and the mediating and framing of text through vocal practice are influenced by the introduction of new rhetorical styles and revolutions in media technology. The role of locality and the bodily presence of the performers, which were emphasized by the speakers, where put to a practical experiment in the panel Life-Action Roleplay; or the Performance of Realities. Björn-Ole KAMM (Heidelberg) and Julia BECKER (Dortmund) guided the conference participants through a 90-minute collaborative performance ethnography (introduction, experimental phase, debriefing). The active participation of the audience embodied the active inter-weaving of new material-semiotic fabrics by undoing the fabric of the public sphere called "conference panel". The LARP, entitled 'Staying Alive', served as a tool to step outside the conference environment and to play with collateral realities. It thus established the audience/players as cultural mediators between these different cultural realities.

The digital presentation of data was the topic of the Panel "Heidelberg Research Architecture (HRA): Digital Resources and Scientific Annotations". Speakers introduced the means, tools, and objectives of a concrete ongoing project (The Hachiman Digital Handscrolls Project, HDH) to enhance the digital presentation of movable text-image formats. The panelists discussed the developments in digital image discourse and methods of visual argumentation with a focus on the HyperImage annotation environment and its components. The main objective of the project is to mediate historical artifacts for contemporary viewers and facilitate access to historical, literary, and visual knowledge. The HDH Project, serving as an example of the possibilities of such new digital methods for both analyzing and presenting vulnerable, delicate objects, involves the digitization of six sets of handscrolls (approximately 20 meters each). One of these digitized and printed handscrolls was unrolled during the panel presentation, running along all four walls of the room and thereby captivating the audience in its midst.

Melanie Trede showing digitalized handscrolls

Panels: Political Limitations for mediators

The conference also addressed the political circumstances that might limit the roles mediators want or are asked to play. Violence and friction, as Nikolas JASPERT argued, is an often-neglected part of mediation. More often than not, it is a pragmatic undertaking, contrasted with notions of harmony and tolerance generally associated with mediating practices.

What if artists, curators and art critics act as cultural mediators in moments of political tension, like imminent warfare? Which strategies do they pursue, and how do they employ their mediative skills for their own artistic or intellectual objectives? How do they navigate critical issues vis-à-vis intense xenophobia, racial prejudice, severely restricted or controlled freedom of speech, and issues of gentrification in urban planning strategies? The panel "Mediating Art and Art Criticism in Times of Crises: Japan, China, and Europe in the Mid-Twentieth Century" assembled three papers from the field of art history, focusing on the relation of art and politics. It highlighted the vast distribution and translations of German philosophers and leftist writings and analyzed their importance for the resistance movement in Kyoto, Japan (Michael LUCKEN, Paris).

Panelist Sarah Fraser

Using the example of curator and museum director Otto Kümmel and the 1939 exhibition of Japanese pre-modern art in the Deutsches Museum in Berlin, it looked at the relation between colonial/political interests and the accumulation and exhibition of art and artefacts (Melanie TREDE, Heidelberg). The panel also offered an insight into the transcultural situation of China's art production after 1937; artists' works were shaped by the concentration of academic life in the center, related ethnographic encounters, the rediscovery of folklore, archeology, and ethnic minorities (Sarah E. FRASER, Heidelberg). The panel "Building the City Image: Culture, Creativity, and Contemporary Art" focused on notions of global urbanism, 'city image building processes' as part of urban development programs, and the related promotion of creative clusters and a creative class. Artists hereby become in-between, latent and sometimes manifest mediators between the public and the city's less-fortunate inhabitants.  They also become important agents in the negotiation between the use of spaces and the purpose of urban art images (commercial, branding, personalizing space, improving the city, giving back to the community, accepting commissions). Art hubs can themselves be seen as in-between spaces, a location for the negotiation of autonomous space for experiments and city politics of urbanization, state control, and profitability. Examples from China, Japan, and South Africa underlined the slippery nature of similarity across global cities that 'brand' creative industries which need to be studied in their particular emplacements.

Panel on Migrating Images

In the panel "Migrating Images as Transcultural Mediators", Cathrine BUBLATZKY (Heidelberg) focused on moving images and their relation to political agendas. With "I love my India", Indian artist Tejal Shah created a dialogue between the artist and the audience, turning the latter into an accomplice in seeing/not-seeing the "communal riots" between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. In the context of the 'Indian Highway' travelling exhibition's arrival in China, this artwork faced censorship, turning the exhibition into a contested space. In the same panel, visual artist Angelika BÖCK examined politics of art related to research and the position of the artist. In 5 ongoing projects, she promotes a dialogical strategy of framing the artist as a subject to be studied by other contributors. The role of the artist as the sole performer and the status of the researcher as an outside observer are called into question.

Concluding Roundtable Discussion

This critical reflection resonated with concerns about the position of academics, addressed during the roundtable discussion. Focusing in detail on the intricate processes of mediation might lead to negligence of the 'big picture'. The multitude of transcultural connections should not overlook the fact that there are borders, and attention towards the obstruction and malfunction of transcultural mediation, combined with a scrutiny of the responsibility of academics, is essential. Yet this can only encourage further research into the workings of mediation, in both their successful manifestations and their failed attempts. By analyzing both emerging technologies of mediation and hidden and latent forms of mediation that have been overlooked, by identifying a wide range of mediators, and by looking at both the political and material conditions and obstructions of mediation, the conference served as a great vantage point for such future explorations.

Christiane Brosius chairing the final roundtable discussion.

The 6th Annual Conference Cultural Mediation: Creativity, Performance, Display, organized by Christiane BROSIUS, Hans HARDER, Melanie TREDE, and Laila ABU-ER-RUB, brought together scholars and practitioners from a wide range of disciplines and fields of practice. In so doing, it became a site for cultural mediation in and of itself, resonating and enriching the outlook of transcultural studies at the Cluster of Excellence "Asia and Europe in a Global Context". We are confident that this fruitful interaction across disciplines and practices will continue in the future, not only refining our understanding of the intricacies of cultural mediation, but opening up new pathways for future collaborations as well.

Additional information

About the conference

The Annual Conference 2014 "Cultural Mediation: Creativity, Performance, Display" took place at the Karl Jaspers Centre from October 8 to 10, 2014.

About the organisers

The conference was organised by research area B "Public Spheres". Involved were its speakers Christiane Brosius, Hans Harder and Melanie Trede as well as coordinator Laila Abu-Er-Rub. Besides their work in research area B, the organisers also have other functions:

Prof. Christiane Brosius is HCTS Professor of Visual and Media Anthropology.

Prof. Hans Harder is Professor of Modern South Asian Languages and Literatures (Modern Indology) and Head of the Department of Modern South Asian Languages and Literatures at Heidelberg University.

Prof. Melanie Trede is Professor for Histories of Japanese Art at the Institute for East Asian Art History in Heidelberg.

Laila Abu-Er-Rub is also Coordinator of the HERA Joint Research Programme "Cultural Encounters" No. 586 "Creating the 'New Asian Woman'".

About the authors

Marlène Harles is in the Graduate Programme for Transcultural Studies (GPTS) at the Cluster and member of research project B20 "Rethinking Art".

Martijn de Rooij is also enrolled in the GPTS, working on his doctoral project "Shifting Art Frames in Kolkata".


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  • Participants at the Annual Conference