Trending Countries

(c) Annabella Schwagten

In the previous issue of /re/framing the international we published figures on the export of Belgian performing arts and music to foreign countries. But how do you map the import? How ‘international’ are the arts on offer in Flanders and Brussels? Looking for answers, Flanders Arts Institute turned to linguistics for help.

We counted 5,989 concerts, 4,397 shows and 784 exhibitions with at least one mention of a foreign country. Most mentions of foreign countries relate to concerts (16,014), followed by theatre and dance shows (10,030) and exhibitions (2,365). Proportionately speaking, most international references relate to exhibitions (2,365/784).

Whoever is looking for a calendar of cultural events in Flanders or Brussels will soon come across Publiq’s UiTdatabank. This online database lists thousands of concerts, shows, exhibitions and other events, organised by professionals or amateurs. As such it is a suitable source to explore the local cultural programme. Although no specific information is given about the nationality of the people and organisations behind the event, many events come with a description. And these descriptions often include an international reference, and not only when it concerns the origin of the artists, bands or companies in question. It can also concern an international career; artistic and commercial successes abroad; international themes that make up the subject of an exhibition, show or concert; repertoires or artistic traditions from other countries that are being presented; or foreign languages in which people are singing, speaking or writing.

So the descriptions of the events in Publiq’s UiTdatabank offer a view of the ‘international dimension’ of these events in all its facets. If a country, a city or a language features in a description, it means that someone (maker, organiser, performance venue or exhibition space) found it interesting enough to mention it. If we add up these international mentions in the descriptions, we obtain an indication of the international nature of the arts on offer in Flanders and Brussels. A reference list with specific terms (for instance, ‘Italy’, ‘Italian’, ‘Italians’ and ‘Rome’) was established and an automated search was carried out for these terms in the descriptions of, in this case, thousands of concerts, theatre and dance shows, and visual-art exhibitions in 2014. This corresponds to what in linguistics is called a ‘corpus analysis’.

The results of the corpus analysis of Publiq’s UiTdatabank can be consulted in the report Trending Countries: Onderzoek naar vermeldingen van het buitenland in het kunstenaanbod in Vlaanderen en Brussel in 2014. We counted 5,989 concerts, 4,397 shows and 784 exhibitions with at least one mention of a foreign country. Most mentions of foreign countries relate to concerts (16,014), followed by theatre and dance shows (10,030) and exhibitions (2,365). Proportionately speaking, most international references relate to exhibitions (2,365/784). A lot of countries are also referenced: 153 different countries are mentioned in relation to the concerts, 124 in relation to the exhibitions and 109 in relation to the theatre and dance shows. It is striking that, for each of the three sorts of events, the same five countries receive the most mentions, namely France, the UK, the Netherlands, the US and Germany.

Besides drawing up this ‘popularity poll’ of countries, we also looked at the context in which these mentions are made. The five most frequently mentioned countries are mentioned in various contexts: the origin of the artists or performers (‘a Dutch theatre group’, ‘a British-Nigerian band’), the origin of the repertoire performed or the artistic influences on the artist (‘the orchestra performs the French baroque repertoire’, ‘influenced by German expressionism’), a training in a foreign country (‘the artist lived and studied in New York and Paris’), international success (‘a long tour in the US’, ‘sold-out shows in France’) or other languages (‘English lyrics’). Historical anniversaries play an important role. For instance, the First World War centenary drove up the number of references to the countries involved in this war. A similar phenomenon is observable with the events surrounding the fiftieth anniversary of labour migration from Turkey and Morocco.

The discourse about countries differs: for instance, when Congo-Kinshasa or Morocco is mentioned, this is almost exclusively in relation to the background of the makers and performers or in relation to the theme of the event. We also observe differences depending on disciplines and genres. When, for instance, reference is made to non-Western countries in the descriptions of exhibitions, this generally happens for photography exhibitions. Asia, Latin America and Africa are popular subjects for documentary-photography exhibitions in Flanders and Brussels. In the descriptions of concerts, non-Western countries are proportionately mentioned a lot when they relate to folk or world music. So the discourse about other countries is not free of stereotypes.

We can connect the international references in the descriptions to the places where the events described took place. For instance, are specific countries mentioned more often in relation to concerts, shows or exhibitions in East Flanders than to those in West Flanders? For most mentions of countries, there was little difference depending on the location of the event. But as the infographic here below shows, we noticed, in relation to the mentions of three countries, a striking connection with a location in Flanders or in Brussels.

In 2014, Congo-Kinshasa received the most mentions (117) in relation to concerts, shows and exhibitions in the Brussels-Capital Region. By comparison: in the descriptions of events in the province of Antwerp, Congo-Kinshasa was mentioned 71 times (in the other provinces, this number is smaller). Morocco was mentioned more often in relation to events in the Province of Antwerp (138 times) than to events in Brussels (58 times) or in other Flemish provinces. The sharpest difference lies in the references to Turkey: these occurred most often (211 times) in relation to concerts, shows and exhibitions in East Flanders. In second place we find events in the province of Antwerp (67 mentions).

The discourse here reflects the way in which artists and cultural venues in the mentioned locations in Flanders and Brussels deal with the history that Belgium shares with the Congo (as a former colony), Morocco or Turkey (as sources of migrant labourers) – a history that has also been decisive for the composition of the local population.

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