Can you comment on the concept of “cultural fluency” as it relates to a nomadic life and how it’s shaped your diverse experiences as a culture worker?
To me, cultural fluency is not about consistency or expertise in any given locale or field such as art or literature, but more a reference to fluid continuity and interconnection among sites and disciplines. In my case, it meant audaciously shifting from one community, knowledge system, and ecosystem to another and then, at times, back again.
Perhaps I can begin with Brooklyn. I was fresh out of college in the cornfields of the Midwest, had a taste of studying abroad in London, and was seeking a more cosmopolitan place to start my career. I got the internship at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and that sealed the deal to move East. Cheap rent in those days meant moving to a railroad apartment in Williamsburg and slumming it with other creative transplants and early gentrifiers – for better or worse! My wide-eyed self held ambitions as an administrator and curator in the New York contemporary art world and, sure enough, I was exposed early on to some of the most prominent artists and professionals working in the field such as Jeanne-Claude and Christo, Nam June Paik, and Matthew Barney.
But this linear ambition was somehow derailed by a moment of travel in Asia and 9/11. Late in 2001, an undeniable feeling arose that I wanted to do more for the world and that meant leaving Brooklyn for a while. So I went abroad to engage with themes of social change, community-building, and sustainability through cultural projects and experiences. The initial idea was to break out of gallery walls, then geographic boundaries, then rigid definitions about what it meant to be a culture worker in any given field. My interventions started in the abstract realm of art – in symbolic, poetic, and aesthetic forms and actions. Then they merged into more concrete forms of development work at the international, regional and local community levels. But I would always meander back to forms of creativity for inspiration and insight on where my vision would take me next.
So I would get off the beaten track but somehow always found myself back in Brooklyn. It went something like this: Chiang Mai, then Paris, then Afghanistan, then Morocco, then Mongolia, then Chiang Mai again, then Brooklyn, then a global bubble called UN Headquarters, then South Africa, then Brooklyn again (plus the rest of the 4 boroughs in my role at NYFA), then São Paulo, and now – deep ocean breath – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. But not to worry, the exciting momentum of the World Cup and Olympics in Rio will not stop me from returning for a dose of home in the near future.
Each time I would come back to regroup and reposition myself and it would be a different relationship to the surrounding context and communities in Brooklyn. Yet I was grounded in a broader perspective of what it meant to be back in the comfort of home as part of a global community. I had cast a wider net while fishing: grass-roots activists on the Thai-Burma border, conservation experts in Paris, international development advisors and diplomats at the UN, and hands-on culture workers and organizations collaborating with communities of color and immigrants in New York.
I would also stumble upon unexpected moments of continuity in experience among friends in Brooklyn. One of the artists in this show Hiroki Kobayashi and I had both spent time in northern Thailand and our first conversation at FiveMyles Gallery meditated on the different rhythm of life there. There was a prolonged pause as we just sat there in the moment of us knowing and feeling exactly what that meant in that specific time and place for us. Another friend in the show David Court and I had a cerebral discussion about how the concept of “relational aesthetics” penned by French curator Nicolas Bourriaud related to his work on spatial experiences and textual descriptions in a park in Canada. It just so happened that I had met with Bourriaud himself years before at the historic Café de Flore on Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris to discuss how this same concept framed the site-specific art project I was researching in the rice fields outside of Chiang Mai.
While grappling with this research on Southeast Asia, I was already working in a different field at UNESCO Headquarters focused on Central Asia. It was a role grounded in another area of my research on how nomadic tents during the era of Genghis Khan’s campaigns informed sedentary architecture in what is now Afghanistan. In both regions, I also had a driving interest in how the politics of cultural heritage related to community development: in Thailand with ethnic communities from the Northern region and Burma; and in Afghanistan with the ethnic Hazaras (of Mongolian descent) who were historically repressed by the dominant Pashtun tribes in the region. Yes, I know, it’s a head spin for me, too.
These dynamic moments of exchange inform a fluid cycle: as I move forward and engage with new faces and experiences, the more and more I am reminded of people, sites, and contexts from my past.
What would be another name besides “culture worker” for your role in the field?
“Accidental ethnographer” comes to mind: a way of informally entering and exiting communities and places without ever fully saying goodbye. It is “accidental” in that I was never formally trained as an expert in these observations and engagements with culture and community. Rather, my “field work” developed organically, grounded in the reality of the day-to-day, chance (or fate), the recognition of windows of opportunity and reciprocity, and acting upon them. I would fluidly and respectfully learn, adapt, and contribute to specific relationships, projects and places. Then I would slip away without much ceremony, but still maintain a kind of continuity, an opening to return…
I once lived for a time with a herder community in the steppes of Mongolia. I would help set up the ger (a permeable felt-covered trellis tent), ride horses, herd the sheep and goats on the hillside, milk cows, and welcome visitors. They would often come unannounced. We would serve them buttermilk tea with milk straight from the cow that morning, some dried mutton from animals slaughtered in winter, and steamed dumplings. There would be some talk of horse thieves, the changing weather, the state of grazing, the health of the herds – and perhaps some throat songs. Then the visitors would get up and head for the tent opening without so much as an adieu. They would simply mount their horses and ride off without a glance – until next time – to venture out into the wide, open space of the sublime.
Karen Demavivas is an internationalist, culture worker, and change-maker who resides in Brooklyn when she is not living abroad. She served as Program Officer of the Immigrant Artist Project at the New York Foundation for the Arts. Prior to that, Karen was a two-time Fulbright Fellow, which led to specialist roles in culture and development at UNESCO and the UN Population Fund, NY. Her art and culture writing has been featured in the Brooklyn Rail, the Bangkok Post, and Art4D Magazine, among others. She is currently based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.