Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Performance and Politics on the New Silk Roads

The Summer School of the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of Warwick

Performance and Politics on the New Silk Roads

Venice June 27 – July 1 2022

Launched in 2013, and hailed as the largest geo-economics initiative in history, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has largely been discussed as a consciously designed geo-political and economic project. However, it is also an initiative, a statement of intention, a performance of China on the global stage, and a kind of ‘development theater.’ In this one week summer school for postgraduate students we ask: what does it mean to ‘revive’ and perform Silk Roads for the twenty-first century, and how is this geopolitical chronotype productive for politics and theatre and performance studies? We shall examine the performances of state actors who, typically co-produce the ways in which China is now projecting itself as a benevolent new development actor. But we shall also consider the counter performances that the BRI sparks: performances of acquiescence (from business elites and supportive local groups) as well as performances of resistance (from labor organizers, environmentalists, and anti-corruption campaigners). We shall discuss Belt and Road as a site of cultural production and cultural politics and the ways theatre and performance artists, visual artists, musicians, and filmmakers from the countries along the New Silk Road routes and corridors (Western Europe, the Balkans, Central and South-East Asia, Middle East, Africa, etc.) engage, critique and represent the underbelly of the contemporary silk roads – contemporary linkages between the circulations of peoples and desires, the global spread of the capitalist market and economic globalization, and the human and environmental catastrophes they unleash. Focusing on selected cities along the New Silk Roads (Venice, Trieste, Belgrade, Athens . . .) we shall also examine the contested nature of BRI-driven, infrastructural, material restructuring of urban space and its effects on the contours of lives, places, and socio-natures. Through talks, workshops, and demonstrations the participants will be exposed to a variety of disciplinary approaches and ways in which they could be combined to build a new critical framework to understand the New Silk Roads performatively as a relational and intersectional critical concept and practice. The summer school will also explore historical and art historical dimensions of the silk roads and the Venetian links to them through site visits within the lagoon city.


Venue: The Centro Culturale Don Orione Artigianelli, Zattere, Dorsoduro, 909/A. The venue is in the centre of Venice near the Academia Bridge. See:




*** All lectures and seminars will take place in Sala San Marco, in Don Orione.

Monday, June 27


New and Old Silk Road Imaginaries and Realities

Room: Sala San Marco, Don Orione


Welcome and presentation of summer school: MILIJA GLUHOVIC (online)

Keynote 1 (Chair, SILVIJA JESTROVIC)

JULIA C. STRAUSS, Belt and Road: New and Old Imaginaries of Connections

21:00 Reception: canapes and drinks at the Crociferi.

Location: the Hostel Combo, Ex Convento dei Crociferi, Campo dei Gesuiti

Cannaregio, 4878 30121 – Venezia, Italy. Please see:



Tuesday, June 28

Theatre, Performance and Politics along New Silk Roads



Seminar (Chair, OLIVERA JOKIC)

MARCUS TAN, Asian Interculturalism, Chinese Internationalism and Southeast Asia’s Politicisms

11.00-11.30 Coffee break

11.30-13.00 Seminar with participants I (Chair, MARK FLEISHMAN)


13.15- 14.30 Lunch

14.30- 16.00


JULIA C. STRAUSS, Belt and Road Initiative and Environmental Issues


Wednesday, June 29

Cultural Politics and Diplomacy along New Silk Roads

9.30 -11.00

Keynote 2 (Chair, OLIVERA JOKIC)

TIM WINTER, The Silk Road: Connecting Histories and Futures

11.00 -11.30 Coffee break

11.30 - 13.00 Seminar with participants II (Chair, MARCUS TAN)


13.15-15.00 Lunch



Venice and New Silk Roads – Performative investigation through Venice


**We’ll start the workshop in Sala San Marco, then do an exercise in the city of Venice before coming back to share findings and insights.


Thursday, June 30

Venice and East-West Encounters from the Renaissance to the present



9.30-10:30 LUCA MOLA, Italian Merchants on the Silk Roads, XIIIth-XIVth centuries


9:30 - Lecture on merchants and Silk Roads at the don Orione


11:00-12:00 Visit of the Rubelli Collection (the Palace is close to S. Stefano, a few minutes from the Don Orione) with Luca Mola and Louise Bourdua


12:00-13:00 Tour of the ancient silk areas (S. Giovanni Grisostomo/Fondaco dei Tedeschi) and Rialto (with Luca Mola and Louise Bourdua)


13.15pm -14.30 Lunch



Venice and New Silk Roads – Performative investigation through Venice

convened by MARK FLEISHMAN 

15.30-15.45 Coffee break


Keynote 3 (Chair, LOUISE BOURDUA)

ANNE DUNLOP, Mongol Eurasia in Fourteenth-Century Veneto


Friday, July 1

New Silk Roads and Interdisciplinary Methodologies


Seminar (Chair, MILIJA GLUHOVIC)

BHAVNA DAVE, BRI in Central Asia: Performance, Protests, Spectacles, Effects

10.30-10.45 Coffee break


Seminar (Chair, MILIJA GLUHOVIC )

Performance and Politics along New Silk Roads: Interdisciplinary Methodologies and Interventions (all participants)



Closing Remarks




Professor Louise Bourdua, History of Art, University of Warwick

Dr Bhavna Dave, SOAS, University of London

Professor Anne Dunlop, Herald Chair of Fine Arts at the University of Melbourne

Professor Mark Fleishman, CTDPS, University of Cape Town

Dr Milija Gluhovic, Theatre Studies, University of Warwick,

Professor Silvija Jestrovic, Theatre and Performance Studies, University of Warwick,

Dr Olivera Jokic, CUNY

Dr Luca Mola, Department of History, University of Warwick,

Professor Julia C Strauss, SOAS, University of London,

Dr Marcus Cheng Chye Tan, Visual and Performing Arts, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore,

Professor Tim Winter, School of Social Sciences, University of Western Australia


Summer school participants:

Aytan Aliyeva, PhD Student, Department of Political Science, University of Vienna, Austria

Art Babayants, Instructor, LTA. Departments of Theatre and Music, Bishop’s University, Canada

Purav Goswami, PhD student, Theatre and Performance studies, University of Cape Town, SA

Sean Metzger, Professor, UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television, USA

Mariana Miletic, MA student, Translation studies/Chinese language, Belgrade University, Serbia

Varvara Sklez, PhD student, Theatre and Performance Studies, University of Warwick, UK

Yingjun Wei, PhD student, Theatre and Performance studies, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland




Keynote 1

 Belt and Road: New and Old Imaginaries of Connections

Julia C Strauss, SOAS

This first session will revolve around a general lecture that lay out the Chinese “official” rhetoric and imaginary of its BRI (Belt-and-Road Initiative). Focusing on China’s claims to be a benevolent actor that establishes connection and uses its surplus to aid its neighbors near and far, it sketches the ways in which “connectivity” is performed, and then the ways in which the actors it wishes to draw in to its claims engage in performances of acquiescence through mirroring and repetition of key phrases, or (more rarely) performances of resistance.


Keynote 2

The Silk Road: connecting histories and futures

Tim Winter

Today the Silk Road is rapidly becoming one of the key geocultural and geostrategic concepts of the twenty-first century. A narrative of connected histories, it now operates as a platform for international trade, diplomacy, infrastructure development and digital connectivity. Identified by two principal routes - maritime and overland, the Silk Road stretches across the Indian Ocean and Eurasian landmass; regions that will be of paramount importance in an increasingly multi-polar world.

In the Silk Road-Belt and Road nexus an architecture of cooperation has emerged that utilises discourses of civilisational dialogue, shared heritage, and a language of South South cooperation built around solidarity and mutual-understanding.

This presentation asks how we should make sense of such developments and modes of connectivity. Moving beyond increasingly tired accounts of soft power, the talk argues China’s Silk Road internationalism carries world ordering implications.

Keynote 3

Mongol Eurasia in Fourteenth-Century Veneto

 Professor Anne Dunlop, Herald Chair of Fine Arts at the University of Melbourne


When the tomb of Cangrande della Scala (d. 1329), ruler of Verona, was opened in 1921, it was found to contain an array of silks from Central Asia. These textiles are a reminder of the important links between the Veneto and Eurasian trade around 1300 – l’età di Marco Polo. With the rise of the interconnected Mongol states from the mid-thirteenth century, Venice became a gateway between Europe and the Asian world: people and ideas, as well as materials and objects of value, moved as both commodities and gifts. This essay explores some of the ways that Mongol Eurasia penetrated the collective imagination and material culture of the fourteenth-century Veneto. The goal is to think about the larger context and implications of these links, and Venice’s function within them. What emerges is less a fascination with the exotic than an inclination to absorb new images, stories, materials, and objects into the native cultural models.



Belt and Road Initiative and Environmental Issues

Julia C. Strauss, SOAS, University of London

This session will be geared to a more specific topic within BRI: Chinese claims to be promoting a modern, environmentally conscious, “green BRI” that is part of its wider commitment to “Ecological Civilization”. This session will trace the ways in which Ecological Civilization frame claims within BRI to its “greenness”, and the ways in which these claims run up against commercial and structural realities (as well as the claims of local environmental groups).


Asian Interculturalism, Chinese Internationalism and Southeast Asia’s Politicisms

Marcus Tan, Nanyang Technological University Singapore

In 1997, Ong Keng Sen’s Lear premiered in Tokyo to critical acclaim. A groundbreaking intercultural production that saw the interplay and juxtaposition of heterogenous Asian performance traditions, Lear marked a turn towards an ‘Asian Interculturalism’ and heralded increasing attention to how Asia performed inter-culture (and Shakespeare). Prescience or serendipity, Lear was also a political performative of China’s ascendancy and the state of regional politics in Southeast Asia today vis-à-vis the former’s economic influence. This radical re-visioning of Shakespeare’s King Lear becomes a tale of patricide where the Older Daughter (a composite of Goneril and Regan), performed in the style of jingju, murders the Old Man (Lear) who is performed in Noh; Cordelia (the Younger Daughter) is presented as an androgynous Lakon Fai Nai dancer and the Retainer practices Pancak Silat.

The political-economic ties Southeast Asian countries have with China today are metaphorically captured in the relationship between the Older Daughter and the Younger Daughter, and the former’s Retainer. While not intended to be a performance analysis of Lear or a deep political examination of China’s presence in Southeast Asia, I will draw parallels between Ong’s Lear and contemporary history to expand considerations of China’s regional influence in light of the Belt-and-Road initiative. The lecture will further evidence China’s geocultural power (Winter 2018) as seen in the establishment of China Cultural Centers in Laos, angon, Phnom Penh, Hanoi and Singapore, and the appropriation and sanctioning of performance forms and their programmatic dissemination in the region. This will then be followed by a survey of the precarious political positions and perceptions of various Southeast Asian countries with the ongoing developments of the BRI and accompanying tensions in the South China Sea.


BRI in Central Asia: Performance, Protests, Spectacles, Effects

Dr Bhavna Dave, SOAS, University of London


BRI tends to be viewed by the governments and populations in Central Asian states in terms of infrastructural connectivity projects initiated by China. These in turn continue to produce debates and contestations over the tangible benefits as well as harms that China-led projects and investments bring to them. Such cost-benefit centred approaches fail to take note of the performative aspects of BRI, particularly how the elites and populations of the Central Asian states deploy the discourse and rhetoric of the various actors that represent China, and how these acts and enactments shape the materialization of these projects.

The lecture will centre on the performances of acquiescence and resistance at the level of the elites and the populations. I will first look at the performance of acquiescence on the part of the elite level - the signaling of deference, friendship and cooperation with China and then the performances of resistance by some key societal actors through focus on a particular site or sector in Kazakhstan and another in Kyrgyzstan. I could look into projects/activism linked to ‘green energy’ and ‘environmental protection’ in both states. These can then tie in with how a popular discourse is emerging around the issues of sovereignty – control of resources, care for environment and local communities – and how (if…) this is challenging the official discourse on sovereignty and development. And finally, also point to how this popular discourse is seeking to put pressures on their ruling elites to juggle the various performances – display solidarity with their own populations and also display deference and partnership with China.