Conference on “Agro-food Traditions as Cultural Heritage: Research, Safeguarding, Promotion” at the Agricultural University of Athens, Athens 19/05/2017

Last week,  the conference on  “Agro-food Traditions as Cultural Heritage: Research, Safeguarding, Promotion” took place at the Conference Lecture Theatre of the Agricultural University of Athens. The event was organised by the Directorate of Modern Cultural Assets and Intangible Cultural Heritage (DMCA&ICH) of the Ministry of Culture and Sport in collaboration with the Agricultural University of Athens. The conference attracted many local producers as well as academics and students (undergraduates and postgraduates) from the Department of Science of Nutrition and Dietetics (Harokopio University), MA in Folklore and Education of the Department of Primary Education (University of Athens), MA in Folklore Studies-Theory and Application of the Folk Culture of the School of Philosophy (University of Athens) and from the Agricultural University of Athens.

The slide reads: Pastoral festivities – Pig-slaughterhouses

The conference became a meeting point to bring closer academia, cultural administrators and decision makers relevant to Agro-food ICH (DMCA&ICH, the Ministry of Agriculture, and museums), producers and students. Most of the presentations highlighted Greek Agro-food products without showing how are they are also part of a local Intangible Cultural Heritage. However, this made the need for interdisciplinary collaboration apparent and it was discussed during the workshops that began after the end of the main presentations. During one of the parallel workshops entitled “Research and Promoting of the local Agro-food Traditions”, various successful collaborations of folklore researchers with agro-food scientists were presented. This acted as a guide for future successful collaborations and as a prime example of how agro-food Traditions can be understood as Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Workshop: “Presentation of European and Local Programmes and Policies that are related to the Promotion and the Funding of Proposals for the Recognition of the Agro-food Traditions as Intangible Cultural Heritage”

The other parallel workshop was entitled “Presentation of European and Local Programmes and Policies that are related to the Promotion and the Funding of Proposals for the Recognition of the Agro-food Traditions as Intangible Cultural Heritage”. The centre of the discussions was the possibilities and the procedures that entrepreneurs and organisations have to follow in order to attain funding successfully. However, funding and sustainability were topics that were discussed or mentioned numerously in the conference and not only to this workshop since it was one of the main concerns of the audience.At the end of the conference, representatives of the DMCA&ICH made an open call towards the audience: “we would like to give an opportunity to the students and other specialised scientists to become Cultural Brokers {mentioned both in English and in Greek}” between the holders of Agro-food Traditions and the policy makers. They also explained that their intention “is to open the field of folklore to the public (δημόσια Λαογραφία)” and they are keen to support every individual or organisation that is interested in engaging in the field of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

The complete programme of the conference (in Greek) can be found on the website of the DMCA&ICH: http://ayla.culture.gr/?p=773

Intangible Cultural Heritage “Information and Awareness Raising Event”, Nestáni, Peloponnese 22/4/2017

Interview of the Director of DMCA&ICH to a journalist of the National Television Channel. On the left, a visual anthropologist was recording the event.

One day before the ‘Custom of Ágios Nikólas’ (το εθίμου του Αγιώργη), the most important event of the year for the Nestánians, the Intangible Cultural Heritage “Information and Awareness Raising Event” took place at Nestáni, a village of 669 permanent residents (2011 National consensus). Despite the rainy and cold spring weather, the room that the event took place was crowded by the locals, politicians and the media (including press from the National television channel) (pictures 1 & 2).

The event was co-organised by the Directorate of Modern Cultural Assets and Intangible Cultural Heritage (DMCA&ICH) of the Ministry of Culture and Sport, The Administrative Region of Peloponnese, the Municipality of Tripolis, the Nestáni Progressive Association and the Nestáni Association for the Support of Local Customs and Research. The first aim of the event was “the presentation of the [2003] Convention for the Intangible Cultural Heritage and the possibilities that offer to the local communities for the study, safeguarding and the promotion of their ICH” (http://ayla.culture.gr/?p=757). As in most Information and Awareness Raising Events, Ms Villy Fotopoulou, the Director of DMCA&ICH, opened the floor and explained the 2003 Convention to the audience.

The second aim was the discussion and safeguarding of the annual ‘Custom of Ágios Nikólas’ and its potential inscription on the National Intangible Cultural Heritage Inventory. In contrast to the last Information and Awareness Raising Event that conducted in Crete (https://frictions.hypotheses.org/349), in Nestáni the speakers were the local MPs, the presidents of the cultural associations, the priest and the president of the village and other political figures. All the speakers highlighted the importance of the inscription of the ‘Custom of Ágios Nikólas’. Some of the speakers focused on the “amount of cultural heritage that exists in the village”, while others talked about the custom or how the village will be recognised by its inscription. When the speakers finished, the audience left satisfied discussing their ‘customs’ and the future inscription of the ‘Custom of Ágios Nikólas’ on the National Intangible Cultural Heritage Inventory.

The local priest

After the end of the event, some villagers stayed behind with representatives of one of the cultural associations which contribute on the organisation of the ‘Custom of Ágios Nikólas’. A heated debate broke out arguing if a horse would participate in the Custom since it is a newer addition to it. Although the horse was added some years ago and no one opposed to it, that time the Custom would be recorded as part of an ethnographic documentary. Some of the villagers wanted to “preserve it in its authentic way, as it was done at the times of our mothers and grandfathers”. The rest of the villagers were arguing for the dynamic aspects of the tradition, but no agreement came between them. The convener of the discussion invited the representatives if the DMCA&ICH to give a solution. The representatives explained to the villagers that they have no right to decide for their traditions while they reinforce the idea that the traditions are dynamic and they are changing and evolve as time passes. The time passed, and the villagers left without knowing what would happen the next day. When the morning came, the ‘frictions’ continued, and the ‘Custom of Ágios Nikólas’ took place with even more changes than the last year since the villagers tried to do their best to safeguard it against the others who had a different interpretation of safeguarding.

A brief video which shows parts of the ‘Custom of Ágios Nikólas’: https://youtu.be/7ARPXf2n8cw?t=2m13s

Intangible Cultural Heritage “Information and Awareness Raising Event”, Agios Nikolaos, Crete 5/4/2017

Working on the UNESCO Frictions project, I attend Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) related events in Greece. This event was organised by the Directorate of Modern Cultural Assets and Intangible Cultural Heritage (DMCA&ICH) of the Ministry of Culture and Sport in collaboration with the Region of Crete – Lasithi Regional Unity and with the support of the Cultural Associations of the Prefecture of Lasithi.

“The event [was] addressed to local authorities of Eastern Crete (municipalities, development companies, etc.), national and cultural associations and local folklore, historical and other museums and archives of the island, as well as those involved in the recording and study of the folk culture and traditions of Crete, but also to anyone interested in it.

On Wednesday 5/4/2017 [they had] the opportunity to discuss the various aspects of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Eastern Crete, the possibilities offered by the [2003] Convention for the promotion of these cultural traditions and their use for the benefit of the sustainable development of the local communities.” (DMCA&ICH website)

The locals replied to the invitation arriving from much earlier to the room and very soon many people were standing at the back since all the chairs were full. The event began with the Director of DMCA&ICH, Ms Villy Fotopoulou, presenting the 2003 Convention as well as how the DMCA&ICH implements the Convention. Soon after representatives of local ‘communities’ who are preparing a submission or already submitted an element to the DMCA&ICH for inscription on the National ICH lists, presented their work. This provided an example to other ‘communities’ on how to collaborate in order to also draft their own nominations for the inscription of their cultural elements on the National Inventory of the ICH. A few other presenters followed an alternative strategy and presented the actual elements and not the nomination procedure. The audience welcomed both presentation formats and stayed until the end of the event which closed with a brief discussion of the audience with the presenters.

This event was an opportunity for me to come in contact with Cretan cultural associations that engage with the implementation of the Convention. This first contact has already shown some ‘frictions’ between the various interpretations of the Convention by the various participants. These frictions will be explored further in following posts as the Greek part of the research project will start to unfold.

China’s Great ICH Wall…

About one month ago, I arrived in China to study Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) as part of our UNESCO Friction project. It is about time to take a stock of some of what I have encountered and found so far. This is of course not to be taken as a well-thought-through or fleshed-out summary. I am merely pooling together some random thoughts and experiences. In a nutshell: I have come across a lot of references to ICH, but I have rarely had the chance to see what really lies behind them. Or more metaphorically, it has been a lot of “bark” and not too much “bite”. I have had the feeling that there is a “Great Wall” protecting not Chinese ICH itself, but the process of defining, selecting and protecting it; I have been coming across (or running against) this invisible “Wall” many times already; it is embellished with banners telling us what lies behind it, but prevents us from ever really seeing it or getting to it and thus understanding how ICH protection really works in China.

Over the past weeks, whenever people asked me what I am doing, I would say that I am studying “ICH in China” followed, if necessary, by a brief explanation of what ICH is (supposed to be). I would then usually get a reaction along the following lines: “there is simply too much of it (ICH) in China,” “China has such a long history and rich tradition, ICH is such an essential part of our country,” “China is a great cultural power” (文化大国)” etc. etc. Explaining what ICH means seemed like a cue for people to ascertain that ICH and China are like chalk and cheese, they simply belong together. ICH, loosely defined as being about “tradition,” “culture,” and “cultural practices,” is indeed found everywhere. One encounters it all the time in everyday life; and, evidently, even more so, when one actively looks for it. Since I arrived in China, there has not been a single day on which I did not discover a new website or WeChat account dealing with something related to ICH. There are shops, museums, badges, signs, brochures and so on that all allude to something “old,” “traditional” and “cultural”, sometimes explicitly using the ICH label, sometimes not. Just yesterday, I walked out of my compound to buy a few groceries, when I came across a small shop selling “Dezhou Braised Chicken.” Underneath the sign “德州扒鸡,” it reads “National-level Intangible Cultural Heritage” (国家级非物质文化遗产). (See photos below).

When asked why they advertised their products with the national ICH slogan, the shopkeeper referred to the long history and the fact that Dezhou braised chicken is famous. A standard answer; but it is undoubtedly true that Dezhou braised chicken is known by (I would imagine) over 80% of China’s population, which, in turn, makes one wonder why the shop feels the need to emphasise/add to the “value” of a well-known product with a label that many people are not so familiar with.

In any case, the point is that ICH is indeed everywhere in China, one finds it at every corner. And this is not least a result of the government’s heavy promotion of heritage in general and ICH in particular. Since 2006, for instance, the second Saturday of June each year marks the “Chinese Cultural Heritage Day” (since 2016, it is referred to as “Cultural and Natural Heritage Day”), when all of the country’s heritage—cultural, natural, intangible—is celebrated and further engrained in people’s minds (officially, the day exists to “increase society’s awareness of heritage protection” 增强全社会的文化遗产保护意识). 

Getting a glimpse behind this facade, behind these slogans, banners and behind the constant talk of “tradition” and “culture”, however, has turned out to be challenging. I have been searching for a “VPN” to “jump the great ICH wall” (翻非遗的墙) of China. But it is just as it is with connecting to a VPN on my computer: not impossible, but extremely difficult, time-consuming and requiring patience.

The question is: what could possibly be so sensitive about ICH that officials are afraid to let anyone take a look at it? I am, at least judging on people’s reactions to the ICH label, interested in learning more about “China’s rich tradition and culture”. Isn’t that something to support?

“ICH is a government project,” I learnt from someone working within a government organisation on protecting “folklore culture” (the predecessor of ICH in China). This is a rather “intangible” and quite broad statement that is nevertheless quite telling. ICH is a government project precisely because it links to global diplomacy, of which UNESCO and its lists are undoubtedly an inherent part. To just give one recent example, Indian media recently reported on its plans to submit Tibetan medicine to be added to the “Representative List,” which is a clear affront to China that quickly followed suit to announce that it would also submit Tibetan medicine (more here). The diplomatic importance and political significance, but also sensitivity, of this case is an extreme example, but very much representative of what ICH is really about. ICH, at least at the level of the UNESCO lists (and to some degree also the national lists) is highly political. This is also why we are never fully allowed to look behind the “Great ICH Wall”. The ICH that we get to see, hear and talk about is not “raw” ICH, it has already been processed and “cooked”. For instance, while diplomatic skirmish has been going on between China and India over the “ownership” of Tibetan Medicine, some interlocutors at Traditional Chinese Medical (TCM) clinics and research centres were happily talking to me about the long tradition and the ICH qualities of TCM in general and the already inscribed acupuncture in particular. Clearly, however, this was already processed ICH that had been made visible for all of us on the outside of the “wall”.

An Urban Neighbourhood is Trapped in Transformation: The Past and Present of Old Qingdao (城市空间的转型困境:青岛老城区的历史与近况)

By Philipp Demgenski

Public talk given at the Research Centre for Land and Cultural Resources at the Department of Cultural Heritage and Museology of Fudan University, China.

The talk was the seventh in a series titled “Fudan Cultural Heritage Preservation Series”. 5. April 2017 at Fudan University, Shanghai, China.

The talk was given in Chinese and addressed the problems revolving around a run-down inner city neighbourhood in the northeastern Chinese city of Qingdao that was not so long ago rediscovered as a place of historical and cultural importance. So-called experts have been calling for the preservation of its “tangible” artefacts, namely the architectural remains. The talk questioned the distinction between “tangible” and “intangible” by focusing on how the neighbourhood, its architecture and spatial composition had specific meaning and “use-value” to different predominantly disadvantaged urban groups. The talk also highlighted that the neighbourhood itself is an evolved urban entity whose value is to be found in its transformation over the past century, a transformation that is still ongoing. Finally, the talk addressed some more fundamental issues pertaining to urban development and so-called “preservation-oriented redevelopment” projects in China.

A summary with photos can be found here (in Chinese).