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.


Anne L'Ecuyer said...

The idea of confronting the strange is one of the major ideas I came away with too. Great to meet you and looking forward to continuing the conversation!

The Gingerbread Girl said...

Hi there I did not officially debate your post (too tired) but I did love it and wrote a quick comment (affirmation) on my own. If you are interested, here it is: