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House of World Cultures

Centre for contemporary outer-European arts, Berlin. Interview with the director Dr. Hans-Georg Knopp.
By Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt | May 2003


The House of World Cultures has set itself the task of presenting cultures from outside Europe through their fine arts, theatre, music, literature, film and the media and engaging them in a public discourse with European cultures. The House of World Cultures’ program focuses on the contemporary arts and current developments in the cultures of Africa, Asia, and Latin America as well as on the artistic and cultural consequences of globalization. It gives priority to projects that explore the possibilities of both intercultural co-operation and its presentation.
(From the website of the House of World Cultures)
From 20 March thru 11 May 2003, the House of World Cultures presented the extensive program "DisORIENTation. Contemporary Arab artists from the Near East" (see our tour of the exhibition). We have interviewed Dr. Hans-Georg Knopp, director of the House of World Cultures, as to the show and work of his institution in regions focused on by our online magazine.

Haupt & Binder: With DisORIENTation running at the same time as the war in Iraq, the show was catapulted in public perception into the context of current news. This is why, in your press release, you underline the fact that this project started well before the most recent events – even before September 11, 2001 – and is inscribed in the continuity of the work of the House of World Cultures with art and culture in the Near and Middle East. Did we understand you correctly to say that, since your house was opened in 1988, there have actually been 800 events encircling this theme?

Dr. Hans-Georg Knopp: Yes, we have organized 800 individual events, not however exclusively on contemporary art from the Arab world. For instance, The House of World Cultures took over the wonderful exhibition "Gardens of Islam" (1993), which concentrated on cultural-historical aspects, from the Lindenmuseum in Stuttgart. Some years ago, however, the concept of the house was revised and has since focused on contemporary art. There have also been many projects from the field of literature; this was in part due to the fact that a former head of the literature department, Kurt Scharf, was he himself a translator from Persian into German.

H&B: Since September 11, 2001, an institution concerned with the mediation of and dialogue between cultures is surely – if willingly or not – increasingly confronted with the thesis of the "clash of civilizations". How does the House of World Cultures react to this?

Knopp: One of the most unpleasant points with Huntington is his unbelievable simplification. This happens also in the media that spread generalizations: Arabs are like this, Iranians like that… These generalizations must be set against projects that treat the theme in depth and show differentiation.

In DisORIENTation, it is very easy to recognize that the Arab world is not monolithic. Whilst preparing the exhibition, we learned only relatively late the religion of some of the artists and talked with them about it. They immediately said that they did not wish to be defined through their religion – as is usually done in the West. Not only Muslims live in the Arab world – the curator, Jack Persekian, for instance, is Armenian. It should always be clear that specific individuals stand behind our projects.

H&B: DisORIENTation has met with widespread interest. Do you have the feeling that you have actually reached the people you aimed at and been successful in mediating such a differentiated image?

Knopp: Yes, of course – the, I must say, unhappy circumstance that the war in Iraq began on the day of the opening led to an enormous interest for DisORIENTation. However, we have also seen disappointed visitors quit the exhibition because they were apparently expecting something else. Most of the installations are not immediately accessible to the viewer, but are effective in activating our thoughts over a longer period of time. This is similar to what happens in theatre, film, and literature.

Anyway, I believe that the effects of cultural exchange are not immediate. Therefore, I am against the concept of "instant curator" or "instant project". If I organize a project on the Arab world today, I cannot expect that the day after everyone will have more differentiated thoughts on the subject.

Since many people in this country have been concerned about the war, DisORIENTation has attracted new visitors’ groups that have come out of curiosity, although they usually have no particular affinity to contemporary arts. And that gives me a positive feeling. People can change their attitude. This, however, needs time, is a lengthy process, and affords hard work not only from the House of World Cultures, but also from other institutions, particularly the media.

This is why we have been negotiating a program with the Deutsche Welle on the media coverage of the event. As a journalist, one should always question the choice of images when reporting on another culture and consider the inherent danger of generalization. In a few years to come, we are planning a project under the title "Inventing the Other"; the fact that the image of the "other" is created by our own imagination is an important contemporary issue.

H&B: We have noticed that the projects of the House of World Cultures have increasingly been realized in the passed years in co-operation with curators from the regions concerned. Is this a general policy of the house?

Knopp: This is indeed a very important concept. It is linked with the question – when we take the word "dialog" seriously – of how successful we are in proceeding with our projects on this level. We have all heard of these curators, who travel somewhere for 3 or 4 weeks, return with 40 works, and claim that this is the contemporary art production of the country concerned.

We, on the other hand, are interested in a dialogic process. When we present a project here in Berlin, then we also wish to mediate the context of the countries of origin. I well know how difficult the question of contextualization is; but the work with local curators enables us to get closer to our aims.

However, we would like to improve something else: we wish to relate to the public the elaborative process of a project, which can go on for years. This is often just as exciting as the end product.

H&B: What are the difficulties with this type of dialog? Are you not sometimes confronted with mistrust?

Knopp: That is an important catchword. In the house here, we regularly stand in front of the question of how to work together on a basis of trust. In the preliminary workshops, we must be able to discuss issues openly and without keeping things at the back of our minds, and I believe that we have been very successful in this.

H&B: Which are the projects that are planned and maybe already in preparation that are concerned with the Islamic world, in all its differentiation?

Knopp: One has to be careful with the use of the term "Islamic world", I do not want to define it in a religious way. Let us talk of the Near and Middle East. In precisely one year from now, we are planning a project with Iranian artists, under the premise that Iranian artists do not only live in Iran. The head curator will be Rose Issa, who has already often worked with Iran and has a very good knowledge of the country. We will also consult young advisors such as Tirdat Zolgadr, an Iranian living in Switzerland.

Then, our project on South Eastern Asia planned for 2005 will certainly address Islamic issues. Indeed, Indonesia is the country with the highest Islamic population. I myself lived there for five years. I was in Indonesia again last December and did some research on the different aspects of Islam; I also spoke to Mohammad Goenawan and others on the theme, since that of course is a question of high concern to us in Malaysia, where Islam is the state religion, and in the entire region itself.


Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt

Publishers of Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art and of Nafas Art Magazine. Based in Berlin, Germany.

(From the German: Helen Adkins)

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