Exploring Cultural Diplomacy Through the Aspen Institute

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Jun 13, 2013

Cultural diplomacy. What exactly does this mean and why organize a global forum around it? When I first met Damien M. Pwono, the Executive Director of the Aspen Institute's 2-year old Global Initiative on Culture and Society, I must admit I was intrigued and impressed, not only by his title but equally by his person.
Founded in 1949, the Aspen Institute engages in cross-disciplinary thinking to address the global challenges and issues facing a post-war world.

The organization provides the following mission statement on its homepage: "The Aspen Institute mission is twofold: to foster values-based leadership, encouraging individuals to reflect on the ideals and ideas that define a good society, and to provide a neutral and balanced venue for discussing and acting on critical issues." The Aspen Cultural Diplomacy Forum is a recent initiative of the Aspen Institute conceived in response to " an increasingly global interconnection of diplomacy challenges and opportunities ... where trends and approaches can be thoroughly analyzed and workable strategies developed." The first forum, held in Paris a year ago, was organized around the theme "Culture in Conflict/Culture on the Move." This year's focus of "Culture & Security" is a natural follow-up.

Under the leadership of Pwono, 78 leaders from around the world in the fields of art, policy making, the law, advocacy, communications, authors, educators, management and local governments (a mayor of a small town in Pennsylvania gave one of the more compelling presentations) were invited to engage in a discourse around creative solutions that, in the words of Aspen Institute CEO and President Walter Isaacson, aid "in resolving conflicts, encouraging tolerance, building peace, creating jobs, and, in turn, fostering sustainable security around the globe."

APT was invited to participate in this extraordinary and encouraging platform because of its unique and forward thinking approach to financial security. What was clear, throughout the conference, is that economic solutions are an integral part of any and all approaches to security. While APT's model has a distinctly defined audience, the objectives of the program models alternative ways of thinking through its approach to established markets and pervasive inequities.

Further to the question of, What is cultural diplomacy?, Damien Pwono's opening remarks in the forum program for this second convening of the Forum on Cultural Diplomacy state, "the goal ... is to engage today's and tomorrow's leaders in the discussion and development of approaches, mechanisms, and actions that use culture as the keystone in effectively addressing and anticipating national, international, and human security concerns." The forum focused on a range of issues threatening security around the world--human rights and civil liberties infractions, war, looting, and criminal acts, environmental and health risks, poverty--and then asked agencies, organizations, and individuals to present their programs that are coping with and addressing these concerns. Topics for the Plenary and Concurrent Sessions included: soft power and military might; living with diversity; strengthening cultural engagements and exchanges; quest for stewardship and cooperative engagement; culture as political priority; mobility and protection of artists; cyberspace and underground battlegrounds; sustainable security; culture of violence as seen in child soldiers and street gangs. The agenda was sweeping and all-inclusive.

Prior to arriving in Aviles, Asturias Spain for this conference--already underway for one full day of discussions that centered on dance performance and the socio-economic conditions that give rise to poverty, cultural barriers, human trafficking and child soldiers--I traveled to Istanbul for the 11th Istanbul Biennale titled "What keeps Mankind Alive?", and then on to India to meet with artists participating in our Indian trust, APT Mumbai. I was struck by how contextual my travels suddenly were in relation to the conference. The curators of the Istanbul Biennale took a decidedly political view in their selection of artists and installations. Collectives like decolonizing.ps (Sandi Hilal, Alessandro Petti, and Eyal Weizman) presented two compelling bodies of work titled Program for an Architecture of Decolonization that look at how Israel's pull back from Palestinian land presents an opportunity for the restoration of human values and cultural healing by re-contextualizing the use and orientation of the Israeli-built architecture rather than destroying the buildings and blighting the land. (And, needless to say, deepening the divide between the countries' peoples.) Igor Grubic's two-channel video East Side Story (2006-2008) in which he juxtaposes documentary footage of violent and intolerant civilian response to gay pride celebrations in Belgrade (2001) and Zagreb (2002) with interpretations of these events by choreographers and dancers staged in the streets of Zagreb where the violence first took place made a deep impression on most everyone I spoke with, myself included. The expression and demeanor of a passer-by as he takes in the performance, underscores the intolerance and prejudice directed at minorities and difference. Mounira Al Solh's NOA (Not Only Arabic) limited edition publication titled Arrest Buried Under Something Else was presented as a sort of performance where individuals were invited to book a "reading" hour during the three opening days. The collection of writings all addressed unwarranted arrests made around the world in the form of testimony, theoretical discourse, and activist manifesto. The experience was made all the more poignant by the room setting and climate of alienation that pervades this year's selection of artists and artworks.

Every time I visit India I am struck by how much I learn about humanity, disparity of circumstance, collective cooperation, activism, and the measure of time. I shared catalog entries and descriptions of Ravi Agarwal's and Atul Bhalla's work that is centered on life along the Yamuna River, which runs through Delhi. Their work is a complex record of the ecology of this river, both as the once clean but now terribly polluted giver of life-water and as the cultural landscape of human exchange, commerce, identity, and heritage. Agarwal also did a compelling project, during a residency at the Khoj International Artists' Association in New Delhi, that targets the indiscriminate use of a barbiturate in livestock to enhance milk production and then resulted in the near extinction of a species of Indian vulture that consumed the carrion.

In each of these examples mentioned here, art and culture are playing a compelling and diplomatic role in shaping thought and advancing change in both public policy and individual perceptions. And, of course, there are many, many more I could point to from my short four-day tour of these two cities.
One speaker asked towards the end of the event: So what are our orders for execution? How do we practice cultural diplomacy? For many this was already clear. As leaders of our respective organizations, we are ambassadors--negotiating, educating, inspiring, creating, and developing through our work and leadership. Each conversation over the three days was cultural diplomacy in action. Each idea shared and contributed to by others, grew the potential of our respective enterprises. It is up to each of us to now further this engagement beyond the walls of the Teatro Valdes in the town of Aviles, Asturias Spain by partnering into the future and returning to the Aspen Institute, our communities, and the world with evidence of our cooperation.