Having a Voice: Peripheries and Participation in the Heart of Cultural Policies

In November 2022 in Lisbon an international conference was held on the topic of cultural hierarchies, peripheries, participation and policies. Here follows the unofficial draft of the conference reflections and conclusions by professor dr Milena Dragićević Šešić who was attending together with dr Jovana Karaulić on behalf of the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade.

The conference “Having a Voice” debated three major issues: 

  • the need to decolonise arts and culture, to decolonise memories and identities
  • to foster participative approach in arts and in policy making, together with accessibility, and 
  • to abolish or reconsider peripheries by reconsidering capitalism in all above-mentioned domains

 The conference raised numerous ethical issues, from the meaning of participative practices, to participatory arts as an agent of social transformations, change, fighting for social and distributive, transitional justice.

Globalisation made even more transparent geopolitical inequalities, privileges, and cultural hierarchies. Relations between developed and underdeveloped (or, developing countries, as a new politically correct vocabulary would demand), are not based anymore on a clear colonial concept, that would not hide relations of exploitation. In the contemporary world, the idea of the necessity, and even task, “ethics” of the developed ones became to be responsible, to “emancipate” and disseminate culture as a universal culture. Thus, relations became more complex, as a discourse of cultural development was hiding a real understanding of the processes of subordination. Especially it became blurred with the introduction of capitalism even in countries that are still naming themselves as socialist ones (like China and Vietnam) / where a dominating modality was a free market and free trade. Both concepts protect ones with capital (investors) - that are coming not as a colonialist, but as investors, often invited by now independent governments. Neoliberal states those economic relations transferred in a cultural field, first through the promotion of the concept of creative industries that could flourish only in strong economies, that can finance not only production but marketing and dissemination.

Postcolonial theory the last twenty years are studying inequities within cultural exchange and collaboration, as well as embedded inequities within the educational and cultural logics of inner development.

Of course, subversivity and questioning coming from peripheries might be acceptable and allowed, but mostly when it questions its own context.

The question is how peripheries are seeing themselves: to what extent induced (imposed) borders are also self-perceived, so the country cannot even imagine seeing itself as equal participant in the processes of political and cultural exchanges and discussions. On the other side, central cultural forces, powerful cultural industries, are ignoring margins, as they see that they do not have neither markets nor economic potentials to be “sold” on global markets.

National educational cultural canons are more or less unified, as Eurocentrism has imposed “universal” approach to cultural history: Greek antique dramaturgy or Renaissance art are everywhere part of general culture, etc. Even neolith cultures or cave paintings and petroglyphs are more known and learned if in France or Spain, then if in Azerbaijan or Kazakhstan.

Thus, not only history, but history of art, literature, film… and specifically theatre, have to be re-discussed and stimulated to introduce different perspectives - plural perspectives, with less eurocentrism (understanding by that Global North, or so-called Western perspective). And, cultural perspective has to come bottom-up, otherwise it would be Western canon and Western taste that would normalize and accept the other only if “interesting”, “oriental”, inspirational for “us”.

In our discussion and processes of collaborative practices, a special attention had to be given to the notion of the cultural hegemony (Gramsci), that is used to characterize reflexive and legitimating interrelation between the social structure and epistemological culture (knowledge production) of ruling groups in class societies (specifically in capitalist socio-political system). Sometimes we, researchers and cultural practitioners are not sensitive on those issues, as we are “allowed” to participate, as a “class” in knowledge production in our societies, accepting all conditions that are imposed, just to keep this right to our social class (reinforced by university autonomy).

Besides global geopolitics that are identifying centres and peripheries based mostly on economic development and acceptance of Western values (thus Australia is part of the Global North as well as Japan who is keeping its cultural traditions but contributes also with its specific creative industries to its global ‘fashions”), there are numerous “peripheries” that are relevant for cultural life and cultural development that are hiding within the Global north itself, thus relevant for our project: Stronger peripheries: a Southern Coalition. 

Thus, peripherality can be assessed from different standpoints:

  • Spatial (within the countries), linked mostly to infrastructural deficiencies
  • Cultural and linguistic peripherality: (non)uses and ignorance of minority languages, and specific minority cultures 
  • Economic inequities (unequal distribution of resources) 
  • Political disparities: power and importance of political parties, dominant and marginal  

But, conference neglected some silenced voices: voices of working class, but also academic voices that are not “fashionable”. How to sustain responsibility of all of us, artists, mediators, managers? How to rethink, all these relations, and among them South-North relations in the arts?

This might be the only way to avoid patronizing approach – as Rita Natalio said – we have to change a system consciously avoiding to use the phrase “giving a voice” to others, as our work should be more related to enabling those who need to take the voice, take the power, take the rights…Taking the voice by peripheral, voiceless, subaltern - has to be supported by all of us, privileged enough to be in situation to re-conceptualize and re-contextualize frameworks of participation. Eventually, our duty is also to deconstruct populist promises to peripheries that they are going to become new centres.

What are key issues of the 3 days international and interdisciplinary discussions:

  • Ethical concerns - in art practices, in empirical research, in theoretical conceptualization, in policy making
  • Power of the arts to re-tell and re-open controversial issues is truly great. We have seen shows contributing to the “creation” of emancipated spectator
  • Art poetics and cultural policies – should institutions and ministries be ignored, or we have to attempt to change them?

The Conference was organized as part of the international collaborative project “Stronger Peripheries: a Southern Coalition” cofounded by the “Creative Europe” programme of the European Union and the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Serbia.

The detailed programme can be found on the conference website HAVING A VOICE Conference and the recording of the majority of the sessions on the Youtube channel of the “Stronger Peripheries” plarform (1) Stronger Peripheries - YouTube.


  • /uploads/attachment/vest/798/Having-a-voice-SHAREr.png