Towards Stronger Peripheries – Report from the Stronger Peripheries project conference in Belgrade

The PP Arts pillar strives to create learning, development, and networking opportunities for local artists and professionals through international collaborations. To this end, we invited students from Károli Gáspár Reformed University’s theatre studies program to join the Stronger Peripheries project conference in Belgrade, which explores theatre and social theory. The university selected Boglárka Bozsaky, a Master’s student researching participatory theatre, who has provided a report on the conference. Read her insights below.

“The international conference Towards Stronger Peripheries: New Coalitions and Policies of Solidarity, co-organized by the Belgrade Faculty of Theatre, was the final event of the four-year Creative Europe project, held from 28-31 May 2024. As the title of the conference itself underlines, the presentations, discussions, workshops and artistic programmes are centered on the mechanisms of representation and self-marketing of the arts, community theatre, cultural peripheries and the politics of decentralization and decolonization in culture. There was special emphasis on the analysis of the relationship between North and South in theatre policies and practices, the autonomous actions of the South European art scene and the development of appropriate support schemes. The Southern Coalition is an informal network of eleven prominent arts organizations and three research institutes from ten European countries. The network aims to overcome isolation and to develop the skills and participation of artists, cultural professionals and audiences.

Key presentations included Ksenija Markovié Bozovic’s presentation on the results of the focus group research in Southern Europe, Margarida Perestrelo’s audience analysis toolkit, José Vicente Pestana’s (University of Barcelona) presentation on the challenges of artistic cooperation between Europe and Latin America, Ana Letunic’s presentation on collaborative decision-making, Lluis Bonet’s presentation on international cultural relations, and Pedro Costa and Ricardo Venancio Lopes’ presentation on cultural policy. The conference was complemented by an immersive performance by Slovenian artist Neja Tomšić entitled Circle. The performance told the story of a park in Alexandria through various installations and audible stories arranged in the space. At the end of the performance, the audience could walk around these installations and look at the actual park in a photo album, comparing it with the one they had imagined. If I had to highlight a defining moment of the performance, for me it would be this photo album, because compared to my previous expectations, when I had only heard the history of the place, the photo album presented a completely different picture of the park. Both the stories I listened to in the dark, in other words the passive engagement, and the walk through the installations, which can now be understood much more as active engagement, led me through the history of the park, highlighting the social and political tensions that the context creates.

Of the conference agenda, the most interesting for me was Pedro Costa’s Participatory Artistic Practices in Southern Peripheries: Impact and Challenges, which explored, among other things, the types of participation and the different levels of involvement, with a focus on active and passive involvement, as well as the possibilities of social and artistic participation. Due to lack of time, little was said about the research, even though participatory forms of theatre are playing an increasingly important role in the current art world, making its study more important and urgent. In addition, Eleonora Belfiore’s presentation on her Aberdeen project, which focused on the possibilities of care in relation to polarized societies, was particularly memorable. Belfiore distinguished four steps of caring: attentiveness, responsibility, competence and responsiveness, and these steps can serve as a useful starting point for any project like the Aberdeen one. The example of Aberdeen could, in my opinion, also serve as a good example for municipalities on the periphery of Hungary, where initiatives such as this are increasingly needed in the current social situation.

Furthermore, the discussion with the invited artists and the presentation of their projects was also very fascinating, including the privileged position of artists, the possibilities of cooperation, the use of people’s stories, and, a subject that was particularly important for me, the situation of artists in different countries – the invited artist Nóra Juhász spoke about the situation in Hungary. Nóra experienced both the difficulties and opportunities of the Hungarian centralized theatre world as well as the situation of German cultural policy, which two contrast sharply not only because of their theatre funding system but more because of their attitude towards art and artists. I was glad that Nóra thematized the difficulties of the polarized artistic community in Hungary, even if it is not so different from the cultural policies of other Central European countries. On a related note, however, it would have been appreciated if the conference had provided more space for discussion about these issues, as well as for artists to get to know each other and present their projects. Apart from the fact that each artist came from completely different backgrounds, each of them focused on the contrast and diversity of social responsibility and their individual experiences, which is why it was especially intriguing to listen to so many different project presentations, and I would have enjoyed to explore this topic further, either by examining the difficulties of practical implementation or by exploring the reflections of the audience, as more detailed professional summaries could have complemented the mainly theoretical presentations.

In summary, an engaging and varied programme was delivered over the four days, the conference also offered a platform for reflection on the presentations, with focus group discussions, the only downside I could point out is the lack of time. With only 15 minutes per speaker, there was often only time for half of the presentation, and I found it difficult to participate in the small group discussions, as I felt I needed more time to discuss a topic. I would have liked to have heard more detailed and longer presentations on more topics, and perhaps a parallel programme could have been a solution. But apart from that, I was pleased to see so many presentations on the conference programme, and to hear about a wide variety of topics, including some that I would be unlikely to have heard otherwise. The situation of art and artists is only worth talking about in comparison to cultural policies in different countries and in the light of current social conditions and the increasingly important role of social media, and the conference did that, even if not in detail, by merely highlighting these differences and opportunities.”