Peacebuilding and the Arts

Immersing audiences in ‘pockets’ of arts and exploration!

an urban scene

From Teaser Campaign series POCKET/HEADS, by young visual artist Ozan Tezvaran.

Photo Credit: Buffer Fringe

By the Buffer Fringe Festival Team 

The Buffer Fringe Performing Arts Festival returned for its 9th edition, with a renewed commitment to its mission of social justice and peacebuilding.

Through the transformative power of the arts, an innovative collaborative structure, and international participation, Buffer Fringe 2022 – organized by the Home for Cooperation – featured collaborative original artistic work from Cyprus, Spain, Greece, Lebanon, Germany, France, and the Netherlands.

BF 2022 took place on October 7th, 8th, 9th in three venues across the dividing line of Nicosia and in the buffer zone itself.

In a unique collaboration with IMPACT and Brandeis University’s Program in Peacebuilding and the Arts, the Thinking Partners Program we’ve been experimenting with creates a system of artistic support and collective practice integral to the alignment of our work with our mission. This year, as a part of this program, our artistic team worked with International Community Arts Festival of Rotterdam (ICAF) collaborators Jasmina Ibrahimovic, Anamaria Cruz, and Amy Gowen to tackle curatorial themes of audience reception/engagement, conflict transformation, and identity/community relative to BF2022’s theme of “Pockets (beyond).”

By immersing audiences in the theme of Pockets (beyond), the Festival aimed to initiate a discussion on who is visible/invisible and why. Pockets (beyond) became a space to start thinking about difference and identity, past and present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion, transferring agency back to the marginal, the forgotten, and the invisible. This theme emphasizes the Festival’s manifesto, pledging a commitment to creating space for arts interventions that deconstruct and decolonize dominant divisive narratives locally and internationally.

Space as a Pocket
An important pillar of the discussions in the planning of the Buffer Fringe Performing Arts Festival was the use of space, employing the physicality of the venues as a means for creating wider impact. Each day of the Festival took place in a different space, not only in terms of its geographical location within Nicosia, but in its character and social context. Creating a dynamic relationship between artist, audience, and space became fundamental to the transformative goals of the Festival.

The first day of the Festival took us to Rüstem Bookstore, an important cultural center in northern Nicosia that has endured many cultural shifts since its founding in 1937. The space was curated by Raffi Feghali from Lebanon, whose aim was to explore the relationship between narrative, identity and space. The bookstore itself has grappled with its own turbulent identity, going from a meeting place for Cypriot intellectuals and British colonial elites to publishing Turkish Cypriot political books after Nicosia’s divide. Feghali had a unique curatorial project before him, as this is a space that is already saying something, so the artistic interventions had to be in conversation with the space, rather than boisterous voices talking over it. This is to say that Rüstem had a cultural fingerprint, a community and a history that is just as much a part of this day as the performance pieces that temporarily occupied the space. Feghali’s task was in marrying his own perspective and journey exploring his identity with both the voices of a diverse group of international artists and this space, allowing the artists to inform “identity and belonging, feed on history, and constantly evolve.”

What makes Rüstem a pocket is that it is a space that in itself is deeply contextual, steeped in history and rich cultural dynamics. This calls to mind the BF team’s own description of pockets as “enriched spaces of resistance,” as well as “traces and remnants of the past.” Rüstem is colorful and loud, with rooms lined with shelves of books telling hundreds of diverse stories, accompanied by a cafe space that encourages mingling and a mess of shared perspectives. Feghali framed day one as “a story told among stories,” as it was very much about the interaction of the work presented, the audience, and the context of the space. It was a navigation of identity and belonging in a cultural pocket.

The second day of the Festival found us at Nicosia Municipal Arts Center’s Theatro Polis in southern Nicosia, a complete 180 from the contextuality of Rüstem. Rather than busy and colorful, the space is a black box: a dark, quiet, more “traditional” space for performance. The curatorial team, made up of Kat Kats (Cyprus/Australia), Bryce Ives (Australia) and Maria Varnakkidou (Cyprus), invited participants, artists, and audiences alike, to “think inside the [black] box” and challenge the confines of the space. The curators wanted the black box to be seen as a “pocket of possibility,” a space to be or become whatever or whomever you want. The physicality of a black box is much like a spatial representation of a literal pocket: dark, contained, and tucked-in; something that wants to be occupied by whatever can fit, adaptable, changing, a space made to contain. Unlike the day in Rüstem, which embraced and confronted historical and social context, the box emphasized the potential of “stripping away context,” meaning the space itself actually separated the work from any contextual space, allowing it to become whatever the community within the box wanted to make it.

Day three took us to the UN buffer zone, and Home for Cooperation itself, which could be seen as a culmination of everything encapsulated within the previous two spaces. The buffer zone is both entrenched in historical and cultural contexts, like Rüstem, and embodies a no-man’s land in between communities, evocative of the emptiness of the black box. The question of “who owns this space” was predominant; how do you interact with a space where no one lives or is building up their future? In response to this, curator Derya Ulubatli (Cyprus) aimed to turn the space into a pocket, letting it become a “common meeting place,” where various subjects can collaborate, live, and produce together beyond all identities and confront ideas of ‘otherness.’ It became a space for participants to experience intersubjectivity and confront what makes someone ‘other,’ endowing them with an agency often denied in the context of conflict. The BF team also saw pockets as  spaces to confront concepts of inclusion and exclusion, and a method of giving agency to the marginal. This is exactly what Ulubatli aimed to do, by bringing artists and audiences together in collaboration through a series of interactive artworks that depend upon the contribution of an ‘other’ in order to become something.

Not only did the Festival itself initiate change and transcendence on the micro level, but so did the locations in which the Festival was held. Each of the three days, in their own way, created pockets. Artistic interventions in areas like Nicosia are a means to cultivate cultural exchange, empathy, and dialogue as well as build bridges between communities that can lead to a challenging of prejudices. While each curator/curatorial team had a distinct creative and social vision, these dynamic collaborative discussions have shown that there is a common thread running through each of them: the transformative power of the arts.

See all participating artists here.

Watch teasers of POCKETS/HEADS.