Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Practicing, non-catholic

Photo taken from the website of the newspaper Expresso.

A cultured person for me is not someone with a deep knowledge on a number of subjects, someone who reads books, who goes to museums and to the theatre, who travels and knows the world. A cultured person for me is someone who does all this and more and tries to put his knowledge and experience into practice in order to help reconstruct the world, a better world. Being a cultured person is not something that comes naturally to us humans. It is a daily mental and practical exercise against our inner barbarity, against our ignorance.

On the night of  the 15th of July, the Greek Parliament voted on a new bailout reforms package proposed / imposed by the European Union. Just 10 days after the historic (and, for me, surprisingly strong) ‘No’ in the Greek referendum, things took a different turn and the proud and desperate resistance of the people gave way to a coup d’ état.

After a disappointing discussion, when the voting started and the names of the MPs were being called, I couln’t stop my tears from falling. After each name, after each ‘Yes’ and each ‘No’, it seemed that the black hole was getting bigger. The hole to bury a people’s pride, many people’s hopes, our tormented democracy, our idea of a “union” - a European Union.

I spent hours and hours reading intensely in the last months – European, American, African and Middle Eastern press; blogs; tweets; Facebook posts. It was enlightening and confusing at the same time. One could come across very logical and well constructed arguments defending totally contradictory views. There were times when the search for the ‘truth’ would get desperate, but all one could get was views and all one could do was try to reach some kind of believable conclusion.

It was among those views that I identified what was for me one of the most worrying and saddening parts of this whole discussion. I was taken aback by how easily and untryingly citizens of all ages from different “European Union” countries would adopt and perpetuate stereotypical views on people from another “union” country, generalizing them and turning them into absolute truths regarding individuals they might have never come accross in their whole lives. Views based on headlines, on small talk, assumed without any further questioning. Good enough truths.

From one moment to the other we turned cultureless. Europeans in name, but that was all. Were did our Union and everything it represents go? Our common values? The lessons we learnt in the past? The wish to build something better together? What happened to our critical thinking and our ability to search for more, to look for answers beyond what showed in the surface? How hard the practice of our culture can be...


Pope Francis’ reaction to the latest chapter of the Greek crisis took me by surprise. He encouraged the faithful to pray for Greece before the referendum and said that “The dignity of the human person must remain at the centre of any political and technical debate, as well as in the taking of responsible decisions.”

A few months before, at the conference The Role of Culture, Álvaro Laborinho Lúcio, in his brilliant comment of the session “Culture, beyond religion”, wondered if “(...) this dimension of Pope Francis comes from his theological comprehension of the world and of life or rather from his origin, from Latin America”. Laborinho Lucio went on and questioned: “Aren’t we creating a new figure to be placed next to the old and desconceptualized figure of the ‘catholic, non-practicing’? Aren’t we being confronted with the figure of the ‘practicing, non-catholic’?”

Are we? What a wonderful world this would be...

With thanks to Mike Santos.
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The new year

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Who are you?

I hold strong impressions from the walls of the underground in London (and other cities), a fundamental platform for one to keep up-to-date with the city’s cultural offer. Now, imagine what would happen if all those cultural organizations, competing among themselves and with other entities for people’s attention, did not consider carefully their visual identity so that they would stand out immediately and make a connection both with interested and especially distracted individuals.

We tend to associate the word ‘brand’ to a logo, but it’s much more than that. A brand is who a cultural institution is. Or rather, a set of impressions in people’s heads as to who that institution is: its contents, vision, aspirations, principles, ideals and the causes it defends. A good brand knows the importance of managing those impressions, works on that on a permanent basis and leaves nothing to chance. It also understands the importance of asserting and reinforcing those impressions at every point of contact with the people.

The logo is the visual representation of the brand, its face. When well managed, it immediately identifies the institution, it transmits and reinforces the characteristics of its personality. This is why it is an important element in making a brand stronger and this is also why its application should not be neglected or considered secondary or even optional. Can you imagine a person without a face? How would one relate to that person?

Thus, either one is in the tube or in a bus, a poster promoting an exhibition or performance at, let’s say the Victoria and Albert Museum or the Natural History Museum or the Southbank Centre, is instantly recognized. It’s through the logo and the graphic design in general that cultural institutions mark their presence and mark their territory in the streets, a highly competitive platform, since the attention span is truly limited and quite often the distance from where publicity is viewed really long. This same logo and graphic design is then applied on all promotional material (leaflets, postcards, exterior banners, invitations, tickets, stationary) and platforms (website, social media). It’s by paying attention at all the details on every touch point that good cultural brands build relationships and optimize their communication with people.

From London to Penafiel, in northern Portugal, the town’s Municipal Museum has been doing a very good job in the field of communications and marketing. Having seriously invested in the creation of a distinctive brand and respective visual identity from the outset, the Museu Municipal de Penafiel has certainly defined its personality and territory. From the museum facade to all promotional materials, the ticket and even the email signature, one cannot miss who the invitation is from... And although the municipality, in an effort to cut costs, decided to put an end to the collaboration with the graphic designer, the museum realized how important it is to continue defending and promoting its brand, so they are doing their best to be faithful to the initial spirit and idea.

Another interesting example in Portugal is that of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. A huge institution, and a huge brand, composed by a number of different sub-brands (its museums, its music programme and various other programmes and initiatives). The Foundation recently changed its logo. I truly liked the new one from the first moment. Liking it came easy... It somehow kept a visual connection to the 50-year-old (?) previous logo, but it has got a fresh and contemporary flair. I also considered very brave the option to drop “Calouste” or even “Fundação” from the name, as one has to admit that everyone just says “Gulbenkian” (alhough the option is not applied to every version of the logo and programme, and it’s not clear what the criteria is...).

What I find rather problematic about the new logo is its application and the way I believe it makes the Foundation’s communication with the outside world less efficient. I understand that the idea is that the logo should somehow “float” when applied in promotional materials. So it doesn’t appear on the top or at the bottom, but somewhere in the middle. When one sees posters in the street, ir rarely stands out, it's little expressive, one has to look for it to understand who the invitation is from. Depending on the background (some Gulbenkian initiatives usually use photos, others illustration), the logo might be more or less discreet, when it actually doesn’t disappear all  together (the National Opera of Greece has taken a similar option regarding the position of its logo, but its format is different, so its application becomes more efficient – see the last slide in the presentation above). There were times I wondered whether the background was chosen so that the logo might look better. An additional problem, I find, is that it also obliges to repeat  in writing, on the same material, “Calouste Gulbenkian Foundatio”, while the name also and inevitably appears when the website is mentioned as well. The name Gulbenkian may, thus, appear three times on the same poster (when, usually, the logo and website URL are enough).

What prompted this whole essay on logos and visual identity, though, was this ticket. Those more informed will know that this is a temporary exhibition at a major portuguese national museum. Which is nowhere to be found....

This is a permanent issue in the general communication of the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, particularly in what involves partnerships in the presentation of temporary exhinitions, but also due to the subordination of all national museums to their tutelage, which imposes (I still can’t figure out why...) that their logo must appear small, in the footer, where one usually expects and finds the logos of supporting institutions. Thus, considering this latest exhibition - the ticket being an extreme example of complete elimination of the museum’s identity -, one sees posters in the street or picks up the leaflet and hardly identifies the promoter and host. When at the museum, one can pick up some more leaflets, of a different design, and has to make a real effort to understand that they are presenting smaller temporary exhibitions at the museum (one of them actually makes us think that the exhibition is in Madrid...). If people have to look so hard, they won’t look at all, the message doesn’t pass. And if the museum doesn’t affirm its position as promoter, organizer, host, it will be considered by many as simply a venue for exhibitions.

It’s enough for each one of us to consider his relationship to his favourite brands – commercial, cultural, etc. – to realise that what has been discussed here is no detail. Clear and efficient communication is fundamental for cultural organizations in cretaing and asserting their personality and in building a lasting relationship with people. Plus, the fact that people have got a lot where to choose from makes it even more urgent to consider these issues as professionally and thoroughly as possible.

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Friday, 26 June 2015

The message, the language, the options

Paula Sá Nogueira on the TV programme "Inferno".
The discussion that was generated after the announcement of the allocation of subsidies from the Directorate General for the Arts (DgArtes) made me think once again about the way this sector communicates with the public, citizens and taxpayers. There is a larger issue, of course, that of the subsidy itself: the system of application, the evaluation of the proposals, the monitoring of the entities, the purpose and duration of the subsidy. But today, here, my reflection focuses on communication.

Paula Sá Nogueira (PSN), from the Company Cão Solteiro (which, for the first time in 20 years, did not get a subsidy from DgArtes) was interviewed earlier this month by the TV programme "Inferno". When the presenter asked het to try to explain to "the majority" her claim that the State has an obligation to fund the arts, PSN explained:

"The arts promote thinking; thinking promotes the evolution of man; so there must be investment in thinking and the arts. (...) Maybe the arts are what prevents us from giving a shot in the head in the morning. So either you invest in the arts or in cemeteries." (video)

PSN’s interview was shared and commented by people in the field, especially by other artists. The general opinion is that she spoke very well. However, for me, the issue was the message, the language and their suitability for the medium (in this case, the television). I also thought about the choice of the person who should speak to the public, to “the majority", at a moment like this. How did the ordinary citizen, the taxpayer who supports the work of Cão Solteiro and others, receive PSN’s statements? Was he clarified? Angry because Cão Solteiro did not receive the subsidy, even if he had never heard of this company before? Did he consider giving a shot in the head?

I do not mean to be ironic. I also liked PSN’s interview. But I work in this field, I understand what PSN means to say, I know the context, I know the specificities of operating in this sector. And in that capacity, I would say that the message does not come across and that we should show a greater concern when addressing the "majority". Our arguments, when it comes to mass media, can not be those used for internal consumption, appreciated and understood by our peers, but ineffective with many other people, who are also stakeholders. And maybe it should not be the artist himself speaking; at least, not always.

In 2012 I had written about another interview, conducted shortly after the announcement of a 100% cut in annual and occasional subsidies (Ministry of Culture: Which culture? Whose Culture). At that time, the interviewee was Jorge Silva Melo (JSM) in one of the morning TV news programmes. He said: "I, as a spectator, will not be able anymore to discover young talents. (...) The subsidies do not support the artists, they support the spectators. Because if I want to see a play by theatre company Truta, and if they don´t get a subsidy, I´ll have to pay approximately 100 Euro per ticket and I haven´t got that money. But I have the right to see what young creators are doing, what´s preoccupying them, what they are thinking about. It is this kind of support that has been taken from me, as a spectator. (…)”..

I considered, and still consider, JSM’s response to be very intelligent and, more than that, appropriate to the context in which it the interview took place. He put himself in the shoes of the spectator, he tried to explain how the cuts affected him, as a citizen, and others. He set aside the usual, somehow egocentric, argument of the artist, whom many people see or hear once in their lifetime, when he loses the support of DGArtes, an intervention that might only serve to reinforce the idea of ​​subsidy-dependence.

It is urgent to think the way we communicate with the outside world more strategically, choosing the most suitable speaker, message and language for each context. The British campaign "I Love Museums" shows a possible way: it allows for the voice of ordinary people to be heard, those who will be affected by the cuts (read the testimonials). I think that makes sense, considering that the message is supposed to reach the government and the political parties and that politicians evaluate everything based on the votes they can lose or gain. The campaign also encourages people to write directly to the MP of their constituency and graphic materials are made available online in various formats to facilitate spreading the message on social media and other platforms. I must also say that the fact that it is organized by the National Museum Directors' Council was a pleasant surprise for someone who lives in a country where the voice of national museum directors is not heard publicly, regarding the impact of the cuts on the functioning of the entities for which they are responsible.

This type of feedback, a qualitative indicator of our impact on society and on people's lives, is not unknown to us. But I think that we don’t actively seek it, we don’t register it and we don’t know how and when to use it. I Love Museums reminded me of the case of Casa Conveniente, which in 2011 was the first Portuguese theater company, if I remember correctly, to resort to crowdfunding, with the campaign "Be a patron of Casa Conveniente for €12". When in November 2011 Mónica Calle and Alexandra Gaspar participated in a conference on financial sustainability, organized by ICOM Portugal, they shared with the participants wonderful and powerful testimonies that people who wished to support (many with more than €12) sent by email, along with their donation. Several times after that I wondered if those testimonies were later used in some way. I didn’t see them when the company renewed its request or in promotional materials or on Facebook.

However, these are examples involving people who, a priori, like a certain cultural or artistic project, who are already related to it. I return to my initial concern, that of "the majority", as the host of "Inferno" put it, which also includes those who don’t know or don’t relate. How to talk to ordinary people about the need to support with public money work that they might not enjoy or understand or even know about? How to make "the majority" consider that this support goes to a common cause, an indispensable cause, one that brings benefits to those who enjoy and those who don’t directly enjoy it? It would be easier, perhaps, if we were talking about a school or a hospital, but we are talking about the arts. Our task is quite complex, we know it. What are we going to do about it?

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Thursday, 4 June 2015

Something is happening in Evora

The banner hanging on the façade of the Forum Eugénia de Almeida Foundation (FEA) in Évora made me smile ... "What museum do you dream of?" is a kind of promise or invitation to reflect and to dialogue.

It looks like that's just what the FEA and curator Filipa Oliveira seek: "(...) the beginning of a new path and the first moment of a new relationship between the FEA, the city of Évora and Portugal; (...) a programmatic reflection around the dilemma of how to articulate the singularity and specificity of its local context with the challenges posed by international contemporary artistic creation and the currents of thought associated to it."

The exhibition I will visit is called "The Coming Museum". Quoting once again the curator: "An exhibition-manifesto. ‘The Coming Museum' is exactly that: a mission statement. The show asserts these principles not by listing them, but by presenting a number of questions that may help us reflect on the role and importance that spaces like FEA have today. 'What is the purpose of art and art exhibitions? What is the purpose of curators? What is the purpose of museums? How do we, the public, relate to this entity? Do we desire it? Do we need it? Do we want the museum we have the right to or the one that is given to us? And what do we want this museum for? What role do we want this museum that we dream of to have in our community?’ (...) "

I loved it! I loved the positioning, I loved the questions, I loved - yes, yes, yes! – the simple, accessible way - but no less intelligent or knowledgeable, for that matter – in which Filipa Oliveira seeks to communicate with visitors. This is not the time for her to show off, trying to impress us (or turn us away...) with long and complex sentences, with flowery words which, when together in a sentence, convey no meaning and with references to names that few among the visitors would know. The curator does not seek to put the common visitors (the non-specialist visitors) 'in their place”, to ignore them because they’re ‘ignorants’. She is trying to involve them, to share her thoughts and to communicate with them.

Having said all that, I think, however, that this attempt for a new positioning, engagement and the promotion of a joint reflection and dialogue still needs to better consider a number of details, in order to meet the expectations of the FEA, the curator and also the visitors.

Let's see how my visit took place:

Yona Friedman, Street Museum (2008-2015)

After the initial smile caused by the banner, I approach the building. Still in the exterior, there is an installation entitled "Street Museum" by Yona Friedman ("acrylic boxes, community objects", one reads on the label). On one of the cases, people wrote "Our museum" and "The best museum in Évora." There are objects (those called “community objects”?), such as empty wine bottles of the Eugénio de Almeida Foundation arranged in a box. There is also a lot of garbage. Is there some meaning here or was there no cleaning service? I'm puzzled...

I enter the building and at the reception I am given a multi-page brochure on the exhibition "The Coming Museum", which I put in my purse to have a look later. For now, I want to visit the exhibition. I look around and I don’t know which way to go, there’s no signage. I walk into a room that is not the exhibition I am looking for. I come out and I start going up the stairs. On the wall, a statement: "The museum is a school. The artist learns to communicate. The public learns to make connections". I don’t like it, don’t agree. After they have asked us what museum we dream of, why are they making such a statement...?

Luis Camnitzer, The Museus is a school (2009-2015)

I reach the first floor. Here's an exhibition, yes, but I don’t know if it's the one I am looking for, it is not identified. A nice gentleman, properly identified, introduces himself as a volunteer and says he’s at our disposal, should we need something. He confirms that this is the exhibition "The Coming Museum ". From there, and for much of the exhibition, he’s always following us, giving explanations, anticipating moments. We didn't ask for this...

In the rooms and in relation to the works exhibited, the approach is the usual: labels with the artist's name, the title of the piece, the materials it is made of. In most cases, it all remains meaningless for me. I never dream of a museum like this, but it is the museum I normally get...

Carlos Garaicoa, Draft City (2011). Wood, watercolour pencils, plexiglass, metal.
I'm sitting in a dark room where the film of a performance is exhibited. At one point, and because I'm sitting, I remember the brochure in my purse. I look for it, I open it and .... revelation! Texts, contexts, everything I felt I needed and I would have expected to find on the exhibition walls, is here, in my hand! Things start to gain meaning, including the installation outside the museum or the statement that bothered me when coming up the stairs. I feel more orientated, more prepared to reflect on what is exhibited. As in the museum of my dreams...

They didn’t tell me at the reception what the purpose of the brochure is, it’s a pity. And if the purpose is indeed to provide the necessary information throughout the visit, considering the length of the texts (moreover, without a distinction between Portuguese and English, which makes us think that we have to read the double), it would be necessary to have more seats in the rooms and in places where visitors could read and see the works at the same time. Ideally, these texts (well written and, in general, accessible in terms of comprehension) should have been a bit shorter so that they could have been placed on the wall, next to the works.

Click on the image to enlarge.
It is in this brochure that we also find the introductory text by Filipa Oliveira, the one I cited earlier. We feel surprised at the fact that the curator addresses the visitor in a informal way. It is unusual in Portugal and it is not consistent with the way the question on the banner (and on the back cover of this same brochure) has been formulated, in the usual formal way. We are also left thinking that the question, the one that sparked a smile and seemed to be inviting us for a dialogue and joint reflection, is probably a rhetorical question. The curator herself tells us in this text what museum we should dream of: "[a museum that deals] with many of the issues we think as essential to this debate: participation, sharing, diversity, exploration, community and the creation of new narratives and new pespectives". I don’t disagree, on the contrary. But if the question on the banner was sincere, this would be the moment for the curator to admit, rather than making a statement, that this is the museum she dreams of and that his dream may or may not be shared by visitors, that she is willing to discuss it.

The details I have set out here resulted in the experience in the exhibition "The Coming Museum” not fully corresponding to my expectations. But something is certainly happening in Évora. The reflection that Filipa Oliveira shares with us, the way she communicates it, the exhibition and parallel programming which are not limited to the FEA, but expand elsewhere in the city of Évora, are, I believe, the right ingredients to achieve the positioning that was initially announced. I will try to keep in touch. It will be with great pleasure, curiosity and expectation that I will follow FEA’s work, which might just become the museum I dream of.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Post scriptum

In the week of 11 May, my inbox was full of invitations for the celebration of the European Museum Night and International Day of Museums. On Facebook, the intensity was not lesser, with museums and their tutelages reminding us that all roads would lead to a museum. A great party atmosphere, an enormous offer all over the country, which was also translated into numbers: according to the media, there were 140 activities on the occasion of the European Museum Night (16 May) and 430 activities on International Museum Day (18 May) in 70 different Portuguese museums. The truth is that few of the activities proposed responded to ICOM’s challenge to reflect on “Museums for a sustainable society” (which left me thinking how museums actually perceive this yearly challenge and if it has any impact whatsoever on their practices – on Museum Day and in the rest of the year). Having said this, the richness and intensity of the programme, as well as the celebratory mood, could make one believe that the museum sector in Portugal shows clear signs of prosperity. Thus, news on 18 May of some museum staff going on strike, contesting the reduction in the payment of overtime, as well as the fact that they were obliged to work on a Monday (the day intended for weekly rest), were something of a marginal note  (watch the TV report)

Post scriptum

In the beginning of 2015, one of David Fleming’s first tweets was: “Hope museums find their voice in 2015 in alerting the public to the impacts of austerity on what we are able to do compared with before.” It was an alert that stayed with me, even more so, because David is the Director of National Museums Liverpool and one must admit that we are not very used to national museum directors, in this and other countries, being so outspoken publicly and clearly showing that his loyalty lies first of all with his museum and the responsibilities it has with the citizens and not with the governement of any given time.

More recently, Rebecca Atkinson-Lord, a British Theatre Director and Producer, suggested in the Guardian that arts organisations need a code of practice during austerity, must start talking publicly about cuts and let the damage show.

“Almost every organisation is downsizing its activities, streamlining, re-evaluating business models and searching down the back of the sofa for loose change. Right now, even the most robustly funded organisations are propped up by the hours of unpaid work their staff put in to serve and support the art they love. Politicians are fond of calling out employers who exploit unpaid workers, but it’s time for them to realise that the biggest exploitation of our sector’s goodwill is the government itself. The British arts and culture sector, a world leader and significant source of revenue from leisure and tourism spending, is built on an exploitative foundation of unpaid labour – that we all willingly collude in rather than sacrifice the arts ecology we love.” 

This is a powerful statement and one that doesn’t relate solely to the British cultural sector. It brought two things to my mind:

During the conference The Role of Culture, organized last April by the Secretary of State for Culture, more than one colleagues from the performing arts field - a field largely chatacterized by intermittent work - confessed that, given the actual working conditions, they feel utterly exausted and they keep asking themselves if it is worth carrying on or if they should simply give up, stop. How and why should one carry on, when all too often it is suggested to them that they offer their work for free or get paid only from ticket sales revenue; when one, in order to put up a play, must do absolutely everything: production, promotion, stagehand work, cleaning, selling the tickets, as well as rehearsing and interpreting....

No similar stories were shared by those working in the museum sector... And yet, we all know that if most museums are carrying on at this moment, it is because, the more the government cuts, the more museum staff invest: they invest their time, their expertise, they do extra hours for which they are not paid for and they even buy material needed by the museum with their own money or bake cakes and prepare coffee at home when the museum cannot spend money on coffee breaks in the organization of conferences or seminars.

So one wonders: what does it take for one to say “Enough!”? What does it take to acknowledge and let society know that this sector is sustained (barely sustained) thanks to the sacrifice, personal investment and exploitation of those working in it? Has Portuguese society felt the brutal effects of cuts in the cultural sector? Will the governement (this one or the next) will ever take responsibility in giving this sector the conditions to function adequately, if things are still happening, if everything goes on as if nothing changed?

And one last note: it’s an illusion to think that things do actually go on... No matter how much effort one puts, many of the activities and events proposed end up being a repetition of what has happened a number of times before, lacking originality, excitment or relevance. Planning and tasks that need expert involvement are carried out by people who do a bit of everything and the best they can. Sadly, this is not good enough. It’s not good enough for the professionals in the field and it is not good enough for the society this sector aims to serve. We all deserve better. In order to get what we deserve, though, it is urgent to stop collaborating in our own exploitation and the downgrading of the services offered by this sector to the society. We cannot be co-responsible for the current state of things neither for their perpetuation and worsening.

More readings:

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Saturday, 16 May 2015

"Ganesh versus the Third Reich" and the question that was left for next time

Photo: Jeff Busby
It’s rare these days a play that stays with us. A play that occupies our thoughts for hours and days after leaving the theatre. A play we wish to discuss with others. A play we wish to see again, looking for more, looking for everything we know we missed the first time. “Ganesh versus the Third Reich”, by the Australian Back to Back Theatre (presented at Culturgest on 14 and 15 May), is a play that did this for me.

I was very happy to be able to see a performance by Back to Back Theatre in Lisbon, because they’re one of the very few companies that have managed to turn disability into a side-issue, not the main issue, and to place their productions on different stages around the world not as the minor work of intellectually disabled actors, but simply as interesting, challenging and exciting art.

The story in “Ganesh versus the Third Reich” – one of the stories - is that of Indian elephant-headed god Ganesh, travelling through Nazi Germany to reclaim the swastika, an ancient Hindu symbol. The other story is that of the company itself, a kind of autobiography, a place where reality and fiction get mixed and where they share with us their creative process - the result both of internal questioning, as well as of external challenges and criticism. Both are stories of power: the power exercised by a fascist regime over its citizens (and especially, in this case, disabeld citizens) and the power of ‘normal’ people over ‘disabled’ people (in this case, of a non-disabled theatre director over intellectually disabled actors).

Reading the programme before the play started, I realized that the company struggled with the issue of cultural appropriation and, at a first, they had decided that they couldn´t do this show.  Can Australian actors, who are neither Hindu nor Jewish, create and perform a story around a Hindu god and the Holocaust? Do they have the right to? Eventually, one reads in the programme, their way of thinking changed and the attempted self-censorship became the main argument to do the show. Things became even clearer when the company visited a building in Linz, Austria, that used to house a hospice for the intellectually disabled, people who, after the annexation of Austria, were exterminated by the Nazis. “If we couldn’t do this play, then who could?”, director Bruce Gladwin told us in a conversation after the show.

Photo: Candy Welz
At the same time, in the parallel story of the people involved in the construction of the play, many more issues come up. What is intelligence? Who’s considered disabled? Do the actors understand what they are doing? Can they distinguish reality from fiction? Is this something they want to do? Are they really involved? Is this ethical? Issues integrated in the story, but which are also part of the questioning the company promotes and the criticism it faces. This questioning is further intensified by the character of the manipulating director, the only one performed by a non-disabled actor. His role, intentions and ethical standards are openly questioned by one of the members of the cast. It’s obvious that he thinks he’s dealing with ‘lesser’ people. His abusive attitude may be subtle (for instance, when he softly asks one of the actors: “Have you got the mind of a goldfish?”) or open and out of control (when he attacks the actor who doesn’t understand the logic behind what he’s asking him to do or who simply doesn’t want to do what he’s told). The director’s physical appearance does not seem to be irrelevant or a mere chance in this context: aryan-looking, constantly changing clothes on stage and exhibiting his well-trained body, accentuating the contrast with the bodies of the other actors, challenging our perceptions of power, ability, beauty. In the end, it is those actors that unite and become stronger together, able to control and expel the director; we see the beauty in their solidariety towards the fellow actor verbally and physically abused.

Photo taken from the website of Back to Back Theatre
And finally, a challenge directly addressed to the audience: why are we there? What have we come to see? A freak show? Freak porn? It is the director who looks at supposedly empty seats asking these questions (and we are left thinking: “Are we supposed to answer?”). He believes that disability sells, there is a market for it. For him, Mark, the actor with the “mind of a goldfish”, is the most valuable / expensive person on stage: he’s obviously disabled, he’s the big attraction and, at the same time, he’s got the shortest role, the one he can handle.

I was puzzled with the fact that intellectual disabilty and all this questioning regarding the ethics around the work of the company had such a prominent place in the play. I hadn´t expected it, considering the reputation of Back to Back Theatre. After all, isn’t the whole purpose taking people’s mind away from the disabilty and ‘simply’ inviting them to see a play with professional actors? Bruce Gladwin explained, in the conversation that took place after the show, that this is not an issue that comes up in every production, but that it is a relevant issue in this specific story.

Photo: Candy Welz
It is shows of the quality of questioning and production of “Ganesh versus the Third Reich” that can actually have an impact on our mentality and stereotypical thinking regarding disability, either they openly discuss it in the script or not. It takes time and a number of close encounters, like this one, before we all get to feel more comfortable in dealing with disability and embracing it as a different state of normality. When the actors were asked to talk to us about their time in the company, I couldn’t understand what Mark Deans, an actor with Down Syndrom, answered. My natural reaction would have been to ask if his colleagues, who spend time with him and understand him better, could help us also understand what his answer was (it’s funny that this also happens in the play, when the director seeks more than once help to confirm what one or other actor has told him…). I had a quick look around the room and realized that, if I did such a thing, it would have been considered offensive to Mark. Everyone listened to his answer, without understanding, and stayed quiet. Maybe next time....

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Monday, 11 May 2015

One good idea, two responses and some lessons

It’s 125 years since Vincent Van Gogh’s death. Starting May 3 and for 125 days, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam will be answering 125 questions regarding the painter, his life and his work. The museum invites anyone interested to ask a question to send it through their website and a page especifically created to present the results of this Q&A (watch the promotional video and visit the webpage).

The first 8 questions have been answered and I find myself eagerly waiting to see what comes next. It strickes me how simple the basic idea behind the project is and what a wealth of knowledge it’ll help put together: not only with regards to Vincent Van Gogh, but also, and equally importantly, with regards to the Van Gogh Museum’s visitors (both physical and virtual), their interests, existing knowledge and queries and the museum’s current and future response towards them.

Another thing we must mention here is that this is not an isolated “good idea”. It falls into the museum’s larger policy of establishing a relationship with people of different backgrounds, based on the clear mission of making “the work of Vincent van Gogh and the art of his time accessible for as many people as possible, with the goal to enrich and inspire them”.

This was also the challenge given to webdesigners who worked on the museum’s new website, presented in the end of last year. David van Zeggeren, of Fabrique, wrote in an article published in the Guardian, that they were precisely asked to develop a website that would support the mission of the museum. How did they do it? By creating two distinct areas: Visit the museum and Meet Vincent. “We had to ensure it was easy for visitors to plan their visit, but also tempt them with inspiring stories about the artist. (...) With this “Meet Vincent” concept, the team had to make not only the collection (and thus the museum) accessible, but also the artist. (...) Each story has been specially written and designed for the website and offers new approaches to the work of the artist and his contemporaries.”

Answering people’s particular questions is also the simple basis behind the Brooklyn Museum’s Ask App, which I mentioned in my last post. Driven by its mission, to act as a bridge between the rich artistic heritage of world cultures, as embodied in its collections, and the unique experience of each visitor”, the Brooklyn Museum is looking to change (improve) the visitor experience from entry to exit. The Ask App has involved for more than a year now web, interpretation and curatorial staff and it’ll be launched in June. All parts of the process have been generously shared by members of the team on the museum blog, for anyone interested to learn along them. This is a more sophisticated answer to the need to engage with people in a more personalized and meaningful way. I find it truly amazing, as it also involves Location Aware Technology, which is used to tell the staff answering questions which gallery a visitor is standing in and what works of art are nearby, giving them the opportunity to give a more complete answer and guide the visitor around. Every step of the development of the app is being evaluated and sometimes there are simple and practical consequences, such as rethinking a label, since visitors ask the same question about a specific work of art.

The Brooklyn Museum Ask App dashboard (image taken from the Brooklyn Museum blog)
Despite the level of sophistication of the two projects being quite different, their common basis – answering people’s questions – made me bring them together is this post. I believe there are some clear lessons one can gather from both:

Everything starts with a clear mission: projects are not being developed simply because someone had an idea that seemed good or because a commemoration is coming up, but because they help the museum fulfill its mission. Really, every idea for a project should be tested against the mission. How often do we do this exercise?

The right people must be involved: this probably sounds as a luxury in countries struggling with severe cuts and overworked members of staff doing a bit of everything. But, if we wish to be relevant and part of people’s lives, a time comes when priorities need to be set straight and clearly and the objective must be something more than “OK” iniciatives and “OK” results - even if we insist on presenting them as “extraordinary”. How soon can we start working on this?

Finally, evaluation: a clear mission and clear objectives allow for clear evaluation indicators to be set, so that we are able to monitor if things are developing according to plan and make the necessary changes. Can we honestly say that the number of exhibitions presented, the number of activities proposed and the number of people who attended are good enough indicators when we present our reports at the end of the year? What are they telling us – they, alone - about the quality and impact of our work, in relation to the objectives initially set?

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