Art & Intercultural Adaptation Conference – Budapest

Social change first happens in the imaginative world


At the end of November I went to a 2 day conference in Budapest about Art and Intercultural Adaptation. I met all sorts of people. There were a lot of Cultural Anthropology students living in Budapest, as well as actors, artists, film-makers and writers from Greece, Spain, Poland, France, Hungary, and Wales. I went along with people I know from Cambridge based arts charity, Momentum Arts, who played a part in organising it along with their European partner organisations. Each organisation gave feedback on a two year long, European funded project, running workshops with recent migrants in theatre, film-making, stop-motions, painting, body-writing, sculpture, poetry, story-telling and how this has helped them to adapt to their new environment. I was really inspired by the speakers and workshops that I took part in. Up until recently I had been working in hostels teaching people how to make stencils and creating stories for clay model animations, and some of the people there were recent migrants who were struggling to fit in and feel accepted into the country. This is why I wanted to go to the conference. There are a lot of issues faced by immigrants and everyone’s story is unique. The project was about empowering people who’ve experienced harsh treatment from immigration authorities, culture shock, isolation, depression or trauma.

One of the highlights of for me was doing a Forum Theatre workshop on redefining the self with Athens based arts charity, Osmosis: centre for the arts and intercultural adaptation. The workshop was all about challenging prejudices and stereotypical thinking in relation to diversity using Theatre of the Oppressed techniques. The Theatre of the Oppressed was born in Brazil in the 1960’s and uses real stories and so in a sense, they rehearse reality, and can use this medium to elaborate on situations allowing the group to offer new solutions to a scenario. The teaching style was highly inventive, using chairs, a table and a bottle of water they gave everyone the opportunity to re-arrange the set up, changing the power balance, to spark off discussion about what makes some people (or chairs) more powerful than others and also most importantly what makes someone oppressed, or a victim. So for example, if someone else perceives another as being a victim, but the ‘victim’ is not trying to change their situation and doesn’t feel the need to, then is this person being oppressed? We played improvisation games involving puppeteers making people into statues, and did some work in groups to act out a scene of oppression with regards to migration. We chose media coverage, some people chose voting rights and another scene was to do with violation of privacy when immigration authorities carry out legitimacy checks on marriages.

Society's prescription for me

I took part in a body-writing workshop with Spanish Artist and Art Therapy Lecturer at the University of Madrid, Marian Lopez. I was really inspired by the subject, as a body artist myself, and was introduced to artwork by Iranian artist, Shirin Neshat, where she writes out part of the Kuran on her hands and feet. In the featured image I’ve included she poses with a gun between her feet. She uses her body to make very powerful statements on society, religion and sexism and I absolutely love her work. She has also made a film called Women Without Men. In the workshop Marian asked us to write society’s prescription for us, the expectations which are put upon us by others that can cloud our sense of what we actually want, somewhere on our bodies, so I wrote all over my chest and arms. It felt great and I want to do it again, but more neatly, and stand absolutely still in town for hours. I’ve drawn pound signs on my heart as I feel that I’m expected to worship money like some kind of new religion, and that I should be buying a house, driving a big car, doing what I’m told and keeping my silly ideas to my silly little self. Well, it’s cathartic, there we go. I said it. Some people chose an activity which was more related to immigration and they wrote on themselves what they have brought with them to a country and what they take from the new one, not necessarily relating to material possessions.


There were so many speakers and workshops jam-packed into two days that it kind of felt like I was there for a whole week. The Artemisszio Foundation, Hungary, were the hosts for the conference and gave talks about their work in participatory film-making with migrants and showed some short films. The techniques are so simple but really engaging and exciting for the participants, and they talked about how the workshops helped to build self-esteem, self-autonomy, and empathy, helps to handle emotions related to uncertainty and to reconcile people with their own personal stories. The participants gave feedback on the project and lots said it made them feel like citizens again, that they felt part of something valid and important. It really made me want to come home and finish off my own stop-motion films (damn editing software) and start making more with other people.

Francois Matarasso

Much discussion took place around the value of art and why it is important in society. It seems that there are a lot of funders out there who give grants to arts charities to do this work and the charity then has to justify how each participant is then better equipped to get a job or go to college, or move on with their life in some way that doesn’t involve being on benefits. It was very refreshing to hear Francois Matarasso, the keynote speaker, talking ever so freely about the fact that he does not do his work for socio-economic reasons, but for a reasons much more powerful yet difficult to quantify. He’s based at the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen and his recent project, Bread and Salt, is about finding a home from home in art. Offering bread and salt to a stranger is an old tradition, and he says ‘The bread gives life and the salt gives flavour’.  He comments on how what is being offered by an artist is quite often measured by who is offering it. The EU claims to allow for full, free and equal participation, but he feels that immigrants are only given conditional participation and often can’t defend themselves against prejudices. For example, he helps many immigrants to establish themselves as artists, writers, comedians, actors or whatever they happen to be. One writer and comedian, Aziz Aarab, wrote a book about growing up in a tough immigrant neighbourhood but the publishers wanted him to change the story so that the image of his father was stricter. So that it was more in keeping with common stereotypical views. He refused to change the story so in the end he self-published.

Results from the paper modelling workshop

Other speakers were Elan Intercultural from France, who talked about the art of adaptation. They are an arts charity doing work in contact improvisation, shape poetry, and gave an interesting talk on creating inner landscapes relating to how identity is always open and changing, relative to surroundings and people. TAN Dance from Swansea were also there giving a talk about an inter-generational dance project they ran with refugees and asylum seekers in Wales. I also went to a really fun workshop with them. We worked in groups to make a paper sculpture of someone or something that we could all relate to. My group made Medusa’s head as there were people in the group from all over Europe but we were all familiar with Greek mythology.

I got so much out of going to the conference and it was just great being around so many inspiring people. I came back to England with a renewed sense of passion for what I do and I’m so glad I went. One of the main things I got out of the conference is that it’s ok to not know what you’re doing. The creative process can be really frustrating and confusing but maybe you’re not supposed to understand it, you’re just supposed to go with it. If you knew what you were going to make before you made it then that doesn’t leave much room for any creativity. It’s all about just enjoying to process I suppose. So that’s it.

5 thoughts on “Art & Intercultural Adaptation Conference – Budapest

  1. Sounds like such an inspiring (and fun!) conference. I know from living abroad how stifled you can feel in terms of being able to express yourself, show your real personality and truly connect with people. I can imagine using art to ease yourself through the process of adaptation would be really therapeutic – not to mention the creativity that’s possible when cultures collide! I love the picture of you with the writing all over you. Made me think of that steamy Ewan McGregor film – Pillow Book 🙂

  2. Great to read your post. I had Augusto Boal’s ‘Games for Actors and Non Actors’ out from the Central Library recently – fascinating and inspiring to read his accounts of forum theatre work in a range of situations. Describes a lot of theatre games also. I like the sound of Osmosis’ work. My Gruntvig grant came through so I should be heading to Paris next March to spend a week with Elan. I like the sound of Francois Matarasso also. I think it’s very worthwhile to remember that pursuing one’s artistic aspirations is just as valid as following a more conventional career path. In terms of the realtionship between workshop leaders and participants also – why should we as artists leading workshops (and hopefully making some kind of living from our creativity) not be encouraging participants to aspire to do the same? It is important to work with participants to establish what is more of a priority. Having money to eat and pay rent probably comes first but Capitalism is not always and certainly not the only answer! (As I am going to write on T-shirts when I get a chance to print them up in the New Year)…

  3. Great news about going to Paris Hugh. Elan Intercultural are a great organisation, well they all were really. So inspiring. I totally agree with you there Hugh. If someone wants to do something creative with their life, doing something like this can be just the thing that sparks off their imagination. And yes, if i’m able to give any advice about any job it’s the one that I’m doing right… – do you want to borrow my printing screen and squeedgie for your t-shirts.

    Anna – I thought of you when I was away learning all this stuff actually. I will have to check out this steamy film of which you speak.

  4. What an interesting post – it’s always good to hear about one’s experiences from another perspective. I’m glad you enjoyed my talk but I’d like to clarify one thing. The people whose experiences I spoke about in my talk haven’t needed help from me, even if I had any to give. I’ve met them as part of the Bread and Salt project, and they’ve generously shared some remarkable experiences with me. My task is to tell those stories as well as I can in a wider context and in doing so – I hope – to open some new perspectives of my own on ideas and arguments that have become stale through over-familiarity. The work will be published in June 2013, but you can read some of it ‘in progress’ here:

    • Hi Francois
      Thanks for reading my post. I’m new to WordPress so really good to see that it works. Also thanks for the extra information and I will definitely keep an eye on the project. Wishing you all the best for the future.

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