Friday, 30 October 2009

Is thinking becoming more popular?

I spent last weekend mainly at The Sage Gateshead at Radio 3’s ‘festival of ideas’, Free Thinking. I threw a couple of 3 minute theories out, in the Theory Slam -‘Sustainability is a convenient but dangerous word and we should talk more about resilience’ - and the Speed Dating with a Thinker event -‘We need a nationwide programme of strangeness to build our sense-making skills and teach us we don’t really understand the world.’ Think-dating was fun, but as I said to a couple of people, saying the same thing 11 times to a mix of keenness, scepticism and intelligent questioning was a little too much like being at work for comfort on a weekend. (No, I didn't win. And yes, dear team, I'm only kidding. No, really.)

I also attended lots of talks being speakers from William Orbit to Tanya Byron. A debate on which was most valuable to humanity, sport or the arts, made me suspect I was the only person in the room who did/enjoyed both, and I fiercely wanted to send the ‘arts people’ on a cross-country run or get them on a squash court.

What struck me most was the size of the audiences though – packed halls, often simultaneously and lots of debate in the concourse – a real appetite for intelligent debate and learning, from people of all ages and accents. It rather encouraged me about public discourse, which I can sometimes think is a thing of the past. Noticeably the politician speakers, David Miliband and Ken Livingstone both had capacity audiences. Maybe the next election will see a revival of big public political meetings?

In fact the ‘thinking’ obviously spread into the concerts also going on at The Sage Gateshead that weekend. I bumped into an old friend who was halfway through a piano recital by Freddy Kempf, and asked him whether he was enjoying it. (I’m a deep thinker, me.) He immediately wondered why he’d ever been a Marxist and launched into a critique of Beethoven’s weak class analysis and his romantic transcendentalism. Perhaps thinking is contagious? If so, spread the virus!

(Visit the Radio 3 Free Thinking microsite and you can ‘listen again’ and find links to lots of short videos too.)

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Last words on the IFACCA World Summit, for now

I’ve had a very hectic time of it for the last fortnight, which is why it’s been quite on here. I had one or two more things I wanted to say about the IFACCA World Summit, but have decided it’s best to do them as a kind of montage of the last day or so, before they go completely cold in my notebook. I will return at another time to the themes of translation as a kind of dialogue relating to diversity, and to the interface between tradition and innovation, I hope you'll find here.

So, imagine some atmospheric background music, and plunge in to the following paragraph. (I did try and render it in SA colours but it lost some legibility.) Then work out what the applications might be for you. (Speakers listed at the bottom, not exact quotes – all clumsiness mine.)

The crossroads of identity I don’t want to be part of any club that will have me as a member Watching speakers rush through too many slides makes me feel so tense, especially white text on a white background An open political space is a pre-requisite for proper creativity Intercultural dialogue is not about the connection of two fixed points Does intercultural dialogue actually lead to the erosion of identity? Eric Clapton’s guitar style as an example of hybridity I am interested in shattering morals We were connected to our mother cultures but felt like orphans Give up on authenticity…culture is a necessary fiction Use the moment of perfection in a traditional form to inform contemporary forms of art The intercultural moment is also in time/history: between old and new, now and past There is no interculturality without translation, even within a single language A photograph of BALTIC in a presentation on microfinance?! Should we have a World Art Day? We had been good at doing the impossible but not so good at the ordinary

You can now see and read more of the presentations on the Summit site. Many thanks to Sarah Gardner and her team at IFACCA, to Annabell Lebethe and her team at the National Arts Council of South Africa and to programme director Mike van Graan for a great time in Jo'burg.

Quotes from (in order) Frank Panucci, Groucho Marx quoted by Frank Panucci, me, Joy Mboya x4 , T Sasitharan x6, Arturo Navaro with my exclamation and questions marks, Sanjoy Roy, Albie Sachs

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Does democracy have customers?

I wrote about cuts and choices recently , suggesting the debate needed to be about what we are prepared to do without. Matthew Taylor, on his RSA blog, puts his finger on the underlying problem: which is, as it so often is, an inappropriate metaphor:

'Modern representative democracy, as it is practised in England, is based on a false metaphor – that of consumerism. We think the task of democracy is to give us what we want, the customer is always right. In contrast, I want to argue that representative democracy is actually much more about trying to agree what we can’t have and coming to accept the reasons why. This, after all, is the question posed by the public spending deficit and by the even bigger challenge of reducing our national carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. But deciding how to make sacrifices is much harder than promising everyone goodies. The way we think about and undertake representative democracy is incapable of supporting this kind of discussion.'

I also relate this false metaphor to my unease when people - especially in the media - say certain things are 'owned' by the tax payer, or that 'the tax payer now pays some bankers' wages' because the government invest in them. It feels inaccurate. And maybe that's because it's based on the metaphor of consumerist shareholding for profit/goods rather than (jargon alert!) community stakeholding.

Matthew also says 'every policy option has a downside and involves a real political choice' which is something I feel is often overlooked by the sector in responding to arts policy. (And sometimes by policy makers themselves!)

This could be explored further, but no time for that now unfortunately - but felt it was a useful insight.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Pata pata time

The posts this week have been a bit serious. No apologies for that, but here's something for a different kind of mood to wind down your week/up your weekend!

I wanted to include the video of Miriam Makeba doing La luta continua, a song which was played by the dj at the IFACCA Summit Dinner, but it can't be embedded. You can see it here.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Why it needs to be 'for everyone'?

Just because I like it and want to share it, here’s another quote from Gilles Deleuze’s essay ‘Desert Islands’. I suppose you might say art where he says literature.

‘The essence of the deserted island is imaginary and not actual, mythological and not geographical. At the same time, its destiny is subject to those human conditions that make mythology possible. Mythology is not simply willed into existence, and the peoples of the earth quickly ensured they would no longer understand their own myths. It is at this very moment literature begins. Literature is the attempt to interpret, in an ingenious way, the myths we no longer understand, at the moment we no longer understand them, since we no longer know how to dream them or reproduce them.’

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Are there really no innocent songs?

One of the speakers who caused the most breaktime-buzz at the IFACCA World Summit was Stojan Pelko, the State Secretary in the Slovenian Ministry of Culture. After a tour-de-force of Minister-as-tourism-advocate from the Jamaican Minister of Culture, this was a totally different kettle of fish. There may be other State Secretaries who end by exploring a metaphor from Gilles Deleuze, but I’ve missed them so far.

His topic was whether cultural diversity was the source of world peace or the root of all conflict. Coming from a part of the former Yugoslavia, as he put it, once you have known poets shooting from the hills it is hard to see culture as therapy or something than can overrule ‘real power’. Using a devasting clip from Goran Markovic’s The Tour, he suggested that in global capitalism ‘there are no innocent songs’, and that the discontinuities of history - where old certainties break down - are where the universalities emerge. (Certainly at that point, this seemed a world away from the ‘dodgy advocacy’ I mentioned yesterday, and suggests a positive outcome to recession.)

Where the arts could be ‘real arms’, Pelko argued, was in creating what he called ‘subterranean solidarities’ – by encouraging a sense of non-identity with the collective where people became ‘raw, free and vulnerable’. (As opposed, I take it, to the security of common identity and values that can, in extremis, lead to intolerance.)

He then concluded by exploring the central images of a short text by Gilles Deleuze, ‘Desert Islands’. (You can find this on Scribd here. It’s a very short essay and well worth reading - and not as difficult as much of his later work.) At the time this simply resonated as a metaphor, and I’ve yet to have chance to read the full text of Pelko’s talk, so I may have misinterpreted things. Deleuze sets out how islands are of two sorts, which I think now may be both two kinds of cultures, but also apply to different strands of artistic practice. There are he says, continental islands, ‘accidental, derived islands… separated from a continent, born of disarticulation, erosion, fracture; they survive the absorption of what once contained them’ and oceanic islands that ‘are originary, essential islands…display a genuine organism.’ (There’s no suggestion one is better than another.)

Deleuze says ‘Continental islands serve as a reminder that the sea is on top of the earth, taking advantage of the slightest sagging in the highest structures; oceanic islands, that the earth is still there, under the sea, gathering its strength to punch through the surface.’ That speaks to me of tradition and innovation, of growth and decay, of the power relations within culture over time. This is where Pelko seemed to take his talk, suggesting a need to ‘become the stranger’ on the desert island, before moving from solitary to solidarity, in the knowledge that songs will not save alone but must be seen in relation to real power. As he said, quoting Delueze in French, ‘il faut l’imagination collectif…’

Metaphors defy the need for practical conclusions, so I’m going to refrain from drawing any right now. I’ll end with an amusing and provoking quote from Deleuze’s essay Stojan Pelko didn’t refer to, but I’ve written down for future use as the epigram to a poem:

‘That England is populated will always come as a surprise; humans can live on an island only by forgetting what an island represents’.

Monday, 5 October 2009

The heritage of expectancy

The first roundtable I attended at the IFACCA World Summit on Arts & Culture focused on the likely effects of recession on intercultural dialogue. Shelagh Wright drew on ‘After the Crunch’ for her introduction, with some especially telling comments about the ‘phony hierarchy and dodgy advocacy’ that limits much British debate. Even more challenging was the contribution from Farai Mpfunya of the Culture Fund of Zimbabwe Trust. He drew on 8 years of official recession in Zimbabwe to suggest a more fundamental questioning of our ways of life was necessary. He used a phrase I found really resonant in describing what he hoped to pass on to his family, ‘the heritage of expectancy’.

This led to a discussion about who was actually wealthier (and/or perhaps healthier) – people/countries with huge amount of credit/debt leading to spending power, or those with no access to credit, but therefore correspondingly little debt? Farai's phrase also echoed many conversations I've had in the North East about the so-called lack of aspiration in the region's young people, and whether actually what is missing is not so much aspiration as expectation - the lack of which will eventually quash many people's hopes.

In the context of recession, however, the phrase is more debatable. It struck me there was in the cultural sector's thinking, as in the general population's, a continuum, only part of which was actually healthy. This continuum might go something like this:

Despondency - Aspiration - Expectation - Optimism -Entitlement -Dependency

Discussing the different ways of investing in culture, notions of trust and social capital became central to emerging out of the recession in a healthy manner. There being no genuine dialogue without trust, for instance, and the connections which make up social capital building trust, potentially forming a virtuous circle. But holding the centre of that continuum above is perhaps also dependent on the health of our social capital. (I'm picturing trying to keep a seesaw balanced on your own - you need to avoid both ends.)

What might this mean practically in the cultural sector? Well, perhaps things like:
  • leading organisations playing prominent roles in creating apprenticeship and other development opportunities
  • funders not colluding with dependency
  • an increased focus on sharing of stories to create a heritage of healthy expectancy
  • (even) more collaborative working and social networking
  • avoiding business as usual.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Should Arts Council England have a Director of Strangeness?

As mentioned, I spent last week at the IFACCA’s 4th World Summit on Arts & Culture in Johannesburg. (And a few days prior to that meeting South African participants in the amazing Swallows Partnership in the Eastern Cape. You can read accounts by some of the English Swallows on Northern Stage’s website here.)

It was a really stimulating few days, in all sorts of senses. Firstly I saw some challenging and exciting art, including Brett Bailey's Three Colours. Secondly I heard some challenging speakers who did their level best to shake up my sense of how the world of cultural policy looks and feels. And thirdly I met loads of really great people from all over the world. And as a bonus, I wasn’t ultimately responsible for organisation, as I was at the previous Summit in NewcastleGateshead in 2006.

But it’s hard to summarise the discussions around the theme of ‘intercultural-dialogue’. So I’m going to spread a few thoughts out over the next few posts, covering the key ideas I took from the Summit. The first is this idea of ‘strangeness’.

Keynote speaker Professor Njabula Ndebele set out a challenge to the notion of diversity and difference as automatically ‘a good thing’, arguing – as did a number of people – that it could promote separation as much as appreciation. (A diverse community, he remarked, being more often evoked than experienced.) He then went on to suggest that the notion of intercultural dialogue is intrinsically linked to both integration and loss, that what we often label as ‘diverse’ is more simply ‘unfamiliar’ to the dominant culture, and the reactions to it will inevitably include both resistance and accommodation in different measures, leading to either integration of the unfamiliar or loss of previous assumptions or beliefs, or, often, both. It may then be more helpful to think of cultural ‘strangeness’ than ‘difference’ or ‘diversity’.

This seems a fruitful avenue to play with – partly as it feels like a paradigm common to innovation in both making and experiencing the arts.

I could, for example, describe ‘getting into jazz’ following that pattern:
1. initial incomprehension – ‘what a racket!’
2. rejection due to then current norms and beliefs – ‘solos are self-indulgent’
3. a gradual making sense of attraction or potential uses – ‘actually this has a kind of freedom and emotion I don’t get elsewhere’
4. integration into my new set of ways of understanding and being in the world - another section of record shops to browse, new gigs to go to, a more varied musical diet.

But it also shifts the power dynamics often at play in discussions of ‘diversity’ – who brings diversity, where, when, who decides etc. Whilst the dialogue between the strange and the familiar - central to much art – reframes cultural diversity as a process, not a state reached by simply putting people from different backgrounds together. It is through the connection with the 'strangeness' of our diversity that we create something new, which then helps us understand difference more deeply, and from where we can renew a rich cycle.