Being a cross-cultural worker: Experiences, Lessons, Strategies. Interviews - Part II

Juan Duque - Artist

What is your cross-cultural experience (where to where, why)?
I’m originally from Colombia and I have been living for 10 years in Belgium. I’m traveling a lot with, and because of my work since I participate on a regular basis in artist-in-residency projects abroad (Turkey, South-Korea, Mexico, Germany, Spain...).

How do arts workers translate their skills, training, and abilities into desirable traits in other countries?
I work on site-specific installations and my artistic practice departs from what is called ‘post studio practice’. My studio is actually the same as the place I’m temporarily staying (either living, producing or exhibiting). I would say that in a constant mobile practice one of the main positions that every physical displacement conveys is immediacy; immediacy as a response against the precarious nature of the temporal occupation of any space. Immediacy implies to abandon any previous plan, to react, to be open to the unexpected. Immediacy as a direct reaction conveys an instant involvement with the space upon the arrival into a new place, it also involves putting together distant memories from previous experienced places in conjunction with the specificities of the actual location.

To intervene a space under these conditions implies working with places as they are given, limited by the materials available around them. This way of response triggers a set of dynamics and processes that challenges the specificity and the contingencies of location

What are the challenges of living and working abroad? 
More than talking about challenges, I would talk about potentialities. The fact of being an ‘outsider’ brings a fresh view on situations that appear normal to the locals.

Which routines do you develop to make yourself feel home?
 I carry always an archive of images with me. Images bring about memories from places and people I want to keep close.

What are the most important lessons learned?
It is important to get out of your comfort zone. If you want to produce in a context different than the one you are familiar with, you have to unlearn every time and to integrate or to translate that deterritorialization of processes into your own artistic production.

How did the relation with the concept of home change?
It evolves to the grade of ‘temporary occupations’. Home becomes more the situation you set up for a short while, to inhabit, to conquer the place but to know that you soon will be gone.

Any further thoughts on being a cross-cultural worker?
More than a cross-cultural worker I feel related to what is called ‘transnational artist’, an artist who is constantly producing in a context different than the one from which he or she originally comes from. The big challenge of being constantly on the move is to shorten the distance between polarized places and experiences, to manage to work with the cultural similarities and differences in each context.

Find more about Juan Duque's work here.


Emmy Horstkamp - Artist and founder of Munich Artists

What is your cross-cultural experience (Where to Where, Why)?
I moved from the US to Germany because I wanted my daughter to be raised German. Then, I moved from Germany to Singapore because I was in love with someone living in Singapore. Later I moved back to Munich because my family was tired of living in Asia. (I would have stayed if I did not have children.)  

How do art workers translate their skills, training, abilities into desirable traits in other countries? 
This really depends on the country. Knowing what skills are valued or in high demand in a specific country will help you figure how to to translate your skill set to meet their opportunities. 

I have a background in art history but my doctorate is in law which prepared me for researching topics, writing, and showing information in both a persuasive or objective and informative way.  My research, writing and teaching skills are valued in many art related professions and made it easy for me to find work in Singapore, where good writing was in high demand.

In Munich, I have found my project management and networking skills are valuable to art related organisations. I like connecting people, who I feel should meet or who can benefit from knowing each other. This skill is a very American one that is valued in Germany.

What are the challenges of living and working abroad?
My biggest challenge living in Germany is the language but artists are forgiving and we muddle through with a laugh because our desire to work together is stronger than my inability to master the German language.

In Asia my biggest challenge was the culture. In my first work assignment, I worked with Singaporeans and there were certain customs in the work environment that I didn’t understand.  In Singapore, you do not get instructions/directions/orders, you get suggestions. In the West, we can ignore a suggestion but in Asia, the suggestion is what you are supposed to focus on.

What are your most important lessons learned?
Do your homework and learn how to submerge yourself in other cultures. Remember that you have an ethnocentric viewpoint and learn to live with it without isolating yourself.

When you work in another culture, you are missing all those little things that people learn when they grow up in the culture.  Don’t be afraid to ask for explanations.  You will need those explanations to understand more fully the artwork being created, the artists you are dealing with and the society in which the artwork is being viewed.

In Germany, be patient.  If you are starting something new, make sure to plan for the waiting period. We found German artists very sweet but worried that we wouldn’t be around long or, that we wouldn’t be able to change anything. Germans won’t believe any American hype so get busy, work hard, show them that you can get things done.

In Asia, be bold.  I found that Singaporeans liked to say yes to ideas submitted by foreigners because it is better for the foreigner to fail and lose face.  You will find great support for your ideas especially if they are focused on Singaporean artists or the 3 cultures that make up Singapore.

How did the relation with the concept of Home change?
I grew up with three cultures and non of them dominated or solidified a concrete idea of home so leaving America wasn’t difficult for me and I am still grappling with the idea of home.

Living overseas, Singapore is the closest I’ve felt to the idea of home. The Singaporeans have three cultures, three languages and many religions which the Singaporeans have no problem mixing. This mixed identity is very similar to my own and I think the Singaporeans felt this because they kept welcoming me home.

Germans consider me American even though I have a German passport.  Part of this is the language issue so I never feel at home in Germany but I do enjoy living here with my very German daughter.

Further thoughts on being a cross cultural worker?
I submersed myself into the cultures of each country and would encourage all cross-cultural workers to do the same. 

Don’t be romantic about moving to another country. Do your research and read both the positive and the negative.  You will experience some culture shock but if you are prepared, it will not be so painful.

Depending on your nationality, moving between countries will give you a greater appreciation for your own culture. Living in Europe and Asia showed me how lucky I was to be born in America and raised as a first generation American.

Find more about Emmy's work here.


Sandra Coumans - Developer of membership based European networks in culture

What is your cross-cultural experience (where to where, why)?
After having done a Bachelors in the Netherlands (where I am from), I went to Berlin in the early 2000s because of its art scene and its alternative scene in general, which promised to make it a very exciting place to live. My excuse that allowed me to go and stay there was a double Masters, done as part of the regular German curriculum. There were definitely always many opportunities and a lot of things going on in Berlin, but at the same time it was also extremely difficult to make a proper living in culture, despite my multiple diplomas, having initiated a cultural festival and a generally full CV. That is why I moved to Brussels a few years ago, where I could start to work for the European Commission and where I now have a proper career in the cultural field. Although it was likewise not easy to achieve that in Brussels, at least overall I always had the feeling that I was making progress and coming closer to my goal.

How do arts workers translate their skills, training, and abilities into desirable traits in other countries?
I will turn the question around: how going abroad helped me develop fitting skills for the arts sector. Short answer: the fact of being over and over again confronted with a different reality than you knew before and if you are open enough, realizing that this reality is just as reasonable and liveable as any other, is for me the right kind of experience to work in the cultural sector.

However, in practice that might not always work out the way you had imagined. In Germany, I had the impression it was very difficult to convince people of my skills and I often felt as if I was never German enough. In Belgium, it was the other way around. But Brussels might be a specifically internationally minded city. Language skills are important here: for the arts sector, you basically need to be trilingual (EN, FR, NL), next to any ‘basic’ industry-specific skills and experiences.

What are the challenges of living and working abroad?
Maintaining a proper relationship with my family, which is swings between extremes: either you don’t see them at all and only keep in touch through a distance or, in case you visit them or they visit you, you are around each other 24/7. Either the break is too long or you can’t wait until the next break, there’s not really any in between. The result is that I unfortunately don’t really know my aunts, uncles, and cousins that well.

Keeping up with the news and societal developments and keeping a feeling for what’s happening in those countries that I have been at the same time (which I would ideally like), is an enormous challenge. Let alone stay updated about the arts sector.

Having to start completely over multiple times, from trying to find out stupid things, like how the waste system works or a reliable g.p., to finding long term essentials, like building friendships and a social network.

Plus, the cultural sector is in most countries quite closed: you really need to know people to have access to it and to stay updated of what is going on. For example, it is usually not true that there are no jobs available, they are, but they are often circulated in closed circles.

Which routines do you develop to make yourself feel at home?
Maybe not so much specific routines, but I need basic (at first sight trivial) daily things, which in the end are important for a day-to-day quality of life: easy-to-reach places to get groceries and run errands, a park to do sports, have outside places to relax, good transportation, etc., which all together allow me to do things that are important to me: eat decently, do exercise, meet friends, enjoy culture and stay updated.

Whether I feel at home also depends how a place functions independently of me: how people treat each other, their social behavior, if there is some kind of cohesion, what kind of events it offers, whether it is affordable and welcoming, if a place manages to progress or at least turn to different directions.

And cooking yourself can be very flexibly adapted to the mood of the moment: you can choose from day to day and dish to dish whether you want to eat old-time mum’s recipes, something from the place you live or from a different part of the world altogether.

And if all else fails, I read a book and I am happy.

What are the most important lessons learned?

It has been a hard but effective way to be confronted with myself, what I like and not like, what I am good at and what I am not so good at. I know that, when needed, I can take care of myself and I know I can rely on myself.

I think I am generally a curious person and am interested in the ways different people tick. Moving around has been a very good way to satisfy that curiosity.

A bit of a cliché, but here you go: in a way a lesson learned is that I have been extremely lucky to have had the opportunities I had. Already the fact, that I have been able to go where I wanted, is not at all that obvious for many.

A bit on a different level: I don’t like being ignorant and I think I have learned to understand the world better (on a global scale).

How did the relation with the concept of home change?
I have found a home through the different steps and moves I have taken. Friends and acquaintances have often also moved around a lot, which means that I am now in a situation that I can travel to many different places and I’ll already have a connection with that place because of the people I know.

Any further thoughts on being a cross-cultural worker?
Although culture is a very international field by nature, there is a lot of cross-border exchange, but at the same time, it is also a local scene, which differs from place to place and has different codes of conduct etc. So, that is the trick to me: know about the differences and similarities.


Aneta Rostkowska - Curator

What is your cross-cultural experience (where to where, why)?
My cross-cultural experience was the curatorial training I received abroad which included preparing an exhibition there with an international group of curators. I come from Poland and the training was in the Netherlands. Before that I experienced two long-term stays in Germany, ca. two years in total.

How do arts workers translate their skills, training, and abilities into desirable traits in other countries?
I’m not sure if I understand what ‘translating into desirable traits’ means. Does it mean ‘promoting or advertising oneself’?  If yes, then I don’t know because I’m not so much interested in that. I’m interested in doing very good curatorial projects and I hope working with me is desirable because of that :-)

What are the challenges of living and working abroad?
Cultural differences. You have to adjust to another culture somehow. Find valuable things there and still maintain what is good in your own cultural background.

Which routines do you develop to make yourself feel home?
Developing a circle of friends. Finding places where you go on a regular basis. Taking up new habits/ routines.

What are the most important lessons learned?
After spending a long time abroad probably you will never feel really at home anywhere.

How did the relation with the concept of home change?
You become more aware of your cultural heritage, also more critical.

Any further thoughts on being a cross-cultural worker?
We live in a global age. We have internet and quite easy access to other cultures. Maybe being in-between cultures is a general contemporary condition that we experience? A condition that we have even if we work in only one country?

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