How artists can rebrand 'soft power' through regional exchange

By Gina Fairley
National Visual Arts Editor, ArtsHub

How are artists bringing new meaning to soft power through exchange and cultural diplomacy across the Asia Pacific? A new report invites further discussion for future policy change.

Under Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, the Federal Government released the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper. It touted the nation’s soft-power strengths and capabilities for greater opportunities abroad, defining soft power ‘as the ability to influence the behaviour and thinking of others through the power of attraction and ideas.’

In the three years that have passed, Asialink Arts has recognised that the conversation has largely stagnated at the top level, and that the opportunity for soft power is one that could, alternatively, sit at the centre of reshaping and strengthening future policy for the arts and culture sector.

So in March this year, as the idea of a pandemic was looming globally and travel was tightening and racism was heightening, Asialink Arts gathered a room of delegates in Melbourne for an intimate conference, titled Public Displays of Affection (PDA).

Described as ‘a cross-sectoral conversation exploring the fundamental nature of ‘soft power’ agendas, and the status of cultural diplomacy, creative exchange and artistic influence across the Asia Pacific’, it put artists at the table with philanthropists, diplomats, government departments and scholars.

The findings from that conference were released recently, with a suite of five roundtables scheduled over the next two months.

ArtsHub caught up with Pippa Dickson, Director, Asialink Arts and co-author of the September conference report. She said: ‘As the conference hinted, we knew there were tensions around the terminology and misconceptions of what "soft power" meant. We think it is urgent. We are heading into an election year in 2021. The "short termism" in Australia comes from our short election cycles, which does not help the situation.’

‘Last year we tried to amplify these conversations in a consolidated way, [and] to potentially play a role in shifting policy decisions and investment in international engagement,’ she said of Asialink Arts' actions to critically examine its own impact, and to refocus its ambition to meet the demands of a rapidly changing region and increasingly diverse arts sector.

‘Our new strategies include a shift from outbound residencies towards mutual exchange and partnerships based on reciprocity,’ said Dickson.

But what does that have to do with soft power, and our confusion of how it is used, and our role in it?

What is Soft Power in Action?

Dickson said the conference title alluded to the discomfort many artists feel about the term soft power, and ‘hinted that international engagements might be recontextualised in ways that reflect reciprocity and the more risky, visceral and organic characteristics of relationships.’

‘When we talk of power, “soft” is about value driven relationships and perception shifts, and are much harder to measure … What artists have said to us is that their artistic engagement and experimentation was most important, and that it was very much around organic relationship building and long-term sustained connections,’ said Dickson.

It is about starting to recognise the diversity of activities, that do not just have a trade or promotional outcome.

‘There is a lot of activity that is happening under the radar, and that is not being funded by government – artists doing it themselves. We seriously want to elevate those voices as well, and only once we recognise them in the conversation, will we get a sense of the true breadth of that environment of exchange – or soft power – that we can properly map and measure,’ she added.

One conference delegate made the point:  ‘Asian societies usually understand culture as "a way of life" whereas in Australia the concept of "cultural industries" or "creative industries" dominates.’

This confusion around language and semantics is creating barriers to engagement. ‘It also applies to the projection of national identity, which in the White Paper is linked with the importance of being ‘recognised as uniquely Australian,’ added Dickson.

Dickson told ArtsHub: ‘Siloing it is the word we used most in the naughties, but we are still battling that today. We talk a lot about inclusivity, but these conversations and decisions need to be inclusive of people outside the arts sector to make change – for DFAT and diplomats and philanthropists need to be at the table with artists.

‘It’s the people-to-people links and long-term relationships – and even the open-ended outcomes of artists – where the reframing sits, and not just the visibility, publicity, promotion and trade outcomes or the perceptions of identity at national level as measurable,’ she said.

There was, however, broad agreement that the term is useful in the context of negotiating government support and investment.

Key Conference Findings

PDA left lingering questions of how we might magnify such conversations around ‘identity’ and values that project Australia as a good neighbour through genuine engagement.

A number of planning or development horizons were identified at the conference. These proposed working areas were not viewed as finite delivery points, but rather open discussion topics to be picked up in the roundtables by the wider sector, over the next couple of months. They are:

  1. Share resources and insights to develop intercultural capability.
  2. Create space for critical discussion on soft-power values to recontextualise relations.
  3. Collaborate on tackling racial injustice to highlight less-heard voices and build equality.
  4. Acknowledging historical injustice towards First Nations cultures, prioritise an ethics of hospitality in relations across Australia and our Asia-Pacific neighbourhood.
  5. Build ongoing conversations around cultural policy to reposition thinking on opportunities and investment.
  6. Acknowledge the different accountabilities of artists and others to develop a nuanced understanding of potential roles in cultural diplomacy.
  7. Connect existing networks to benefit artists engaging with the Asia Pacific
  8. Advocate for cultural diplomacy as a multifaceted process and encourage public and private support

Read the full report and findings here.

The Thorn of Racism

The report found: ‘Racism as an ongoing problem across Australia and Asia, which stymies the public’s appetite for positive international relations.’

Dickson continued: ‘We were already hearing of a growing tide of nationalism with the coronavirus pandemic, with negative sentiments towards China. As the conference was being held, Trump had started to call it the “China virus”, and restaurants in Chinatown were suffering. It was a very tense period.’

‘Any prospect of international travel shimmers mirage-like, with no date for the re-opening of our national border,’ said Dickson at the time of the report release. ‘With this, the pandemic has brought fear and misunderstanding, raising the veil on systemic racism and inciting nationalism.

‘This challenging environment risks governments turning inwards rather than staying the course on deepening external ties with our immediate region,’ Dickson added. ‘Mobility, global citizenry and, ultimately, our capacity to co-create, collaborate, share knowledge and leverage collective momentum are all at risk.’

‘If we are going to project who we are as a nation internationally, then we need to recognise our past – our colonial past – and foreground our First Nations communities. We have the world’s oldest living culture and we have so much to learn around how to co-exist in our region, evidenced by their trade from millennia,’ she told ArtsHub.

Dickson said that while the terms ‘resilience’ and ‘sustainability’ have resonated throughout the pandemic, the overarching aim from the PDA conference and roundtables, is to advocate for policy shifts and increased investment in reciprocity and long-term relationships in the arts.

‘By doing so, intercultural awareness and engagement will increase, and further regional opportunities for partnerships, new markets and audiences will develop. Most importantly, Asialink believes that perceptions of Australia will change,’ she concluded.

Your Voice is Needed – Roundtables for Change

This is a three-pronged conversations: the conference, the report or discussion paper, and a suite of roundtables and call for comments.

The roundtables are designed to delve deeper into those Development Horizons. Starting with five roundtables in Victoria, with the support of Creative Victoria, they are the first in a series of state-based events to be held progressively in coming months. The round tables are 1 hour and 45 mins and Asialink Arts will provide a $150 honorarium to unwaged participants. Further information and the registration will be published in coming days.

‘The ultimate goal of the PDA program is to highlight regional best practices, reinforce the value of artistic exchange and influence, and formulate new investment opportunities for arts and culture,’ Dickson concluded.

Asialink Arts is interested in elevating less-heard voices – to bring those voices and others into the conversation, to learn about best practice in the region, and build new collaboration.

This article originally appeared on ArtsHub on October 6, 2020.