Monday, 14 April 2014

The Attack



I read Yasmina Khandra´s The Attack a few year ago. It´s the story of an Arab doctor, Amin Jaafari, living and working in Tel Aviv. After a suicide attack rocks the city, Jaafari is called to identify his wife Sihem’s body, one of the victims of the attack. Little later, he’s confronted with the information that Sihem herself was the suicide bomber.

Khandra takes us with his beautiful, sensitive, incisive writing through the different stages in Jaafari’s emotional state and to his journey in search of answers: from the pain of losing his wife, to the incredulity when faced with the information that the woman he loved had committed such a crime, to the confusion and anger when realizing, little by little, that he was unaware of a number of his wife’s actions, thoughts and feelings, to the determination to find an explanation that could help him make sense and the return to a reality he had long left behind.

I loved Yasmina Khandra´s book because it shows that friendship, tolerance, understanding and coexistance are possible, they are one reality. And with this reality as a starting point, he slowly  takes us, following Jaafari’s quest, into that other reality, which exists right next to the first one, compromising it, questioning it, every single day: that of millions of Palestinians in the occupied territories or in exile; that of daily humiliation, dispair, hopelessness, pain, abuse, death, revolt; that of an arbitrary rule that bears terrorist suicide bombers, who are venerated as heroes and martyrs.

Khandra makes us question the first reality. Is it the product of convenient silences; of ignorance? Is it fake; fragile; unable to survive if the silence is broken? Or rather tha result of strength and determination, of the informed and thus conscious wish for peace?

The director of The Attack, Ziad Doueri.
The film The Attack, by Ziad Doueri, opened this year´s Judaica – Festival of Cinema and Culture in Lisbon. I went to see it knowing that rarely or never are films as good as the books. The rule was more than confirmed.

What stroke me the most was how superficially Doueri dealt with the story. He was not able to give any depth to the characters, their feelings and views, and more than once I was left thinking that I was watching a soap opera. Furthermore, he decided to ignore Yasmina Khandra´s narrative when describing Jaafari’s quest into the territories and basically presented the Palestinian´s as nothing more than a big mafia. I got up as soon as the film ended, also puzzled about the ending that was totally different from that of the book. Just before I left the room, I was able to hear the film director explaining to the audience that the ending of the book was not convenient to him, so he chose a different one. Why didn´t he write the story he wanted instead of ruining Khandra’s?

A scene from the film The Attack.
Some days later I watched an interview with Doueri and I realized that there is probably more to it. Talking about his growing up in Beirut, about his liberal parents, about the Arabs’ taboos with regards to Israel, about how stupid ramadan is, I realized that Doueri, wishing to be progressive and open-minded and liberal, built his own version of The Attack with the intention to challenge the Arab point of view. To challeng by ignoring it, turning it into a caricature. Once again, why didn´t he write his own story instead of taking advantage of Khandra´s best-seller?

Coexistance, reconcilliation, the building of a common future is no easy thing. This is what Khandra tells us. This is what I feel when I have to talk to my son about the Greek-Turkish past and present. This was what tortured my mind when reading Jean Hatzfeld’s The Antelope's Strategy, Living in Rwanda after the Genocide. It might require some silences, but as a result of knowledge and understanding and not of ignorance. It requires strength, the ability to forgive without forgetting. It requires open-mindedness, the capacity to listen and weigh the arguments of the other side. It’s not easy; it’s very difficult and it’s complex. One needs to start by recognizing precisely that; and respecting it.

Monday, 31 March 2014

What's in a word?

Folheto do World of Discoveries
How many times have you visited a museum that was not a museum at all? And just how upset does this make you feel?

After years and years of visiting museums, I am able now to identify some “signs” and avoid being tricked, but still, not always. And I am also thinking, of course, about all other visitors, non-professionals, who might not be able to “see the signs” and for whom the word ‘museum’ might be carrying a specific ‘promise’.

The abuse of the term is something we encounter in many countries; probably in all countries. A small collection of anything put on display and there you go, we have a museum and, quite to often, we charge for it... Can anybody open an establishment of some sort and call it a “pharmacy” just like that? And do people indstinctively call a restaurant “café” and vice versa (while there also exists, at least in Portugal, the hybrid definition “café-restaurant”), even if both establishments offer services withing the area of catering? Doesn´t each one have specific characteristics transmitted (‘promised’) to customers through the name they are called by?

My concerns about the use of the word ‘museum’ came back while listening to the presentation of a new project, World of Discoveries – Interactive Museum and Thematic Park, soon to open in the city of Porto (Portugal). The presentation was included in the seminar “Tourism and Cultural Heritage – Opportunities and Challenges” organized in Lisbon by Pporto dos Museus.

World of Discoveries is a private project that will aim to tell the story of the Portuguese discoveries, a chapter in the country’s history that attracts many people, both national and foreign. If I remember correctly, it involves at this moment 35 members of staff, including people with a background in museology. Presenting the project, Helena Pereira highlighted the team´s concern to offer a both enjoyable and educational experience, a rigorous presentation of the historical facts, a product of quality. The story is going to be told through multimedia devices, as well as through a journey in time that will take visitors through a number of especially created historical settings. The potential is enormous, of course, and the project is being developed in order to be able to guarantee its financial sustainability. Prices will be €8 (children from 4 to 12), €14 (adults from 13 to 64 years old – I always find it curious when certain venues define adulthood from the age of 13) and €11 (seniors).

Mapa no folheto do World of Discoveries
World of Discoveries has chosen to explain the nature of its offer as “Interactive Museum and Thematic Park”. It was actually presented as a new model of museum, that of the 21st century, given the means which will be used in order to tell the story and which go beyond the display of objects. I don´t actually agree that this is a new model, as science centres have been using similar means for a long time now, that is exhibits specifically created to tell a story and not historical objects, which we find in science museums. And this is the point I would like to make: I haven´t seen so far a science centre calling itself a “science museum”. Why would an interactive interpretation centre be called an “interactive museum”?

According to the ICOM definition, “A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment”. The ICOM definition embraces a number of institutions which are not museums, but are considered as such, given that they assume a number of common functions and share concerns and objectives. Those institutions are science centres, planetariums, interpretation centres, zoos, aquariums, exhibition galleries maintained by libraries and archives, to name a few. Now, most of these institutions don´t change the way they are defined: a zoo is still a zoo, an archive is still an archive and an interrpeatation centre is... precisely that.

World of Discoveries is not the first case in Portugal to raise my concerns as to what is exactly being ‘promised’ to people, potential visitors, and if the use of the term ‘museum’ might be imprecise and potentially also misleading. A few years ago, I had questioned in an ICOM meeting the option of calling the Côa Museum, which was not open yet at the time, a “museum” and not an “interpretation centre”. There is a centre in Aljubarrota that bears many similarities, in terms of product/offer, but it is actually called Interpretation Centre of the Battle of Aljubarrota.


“What’s in a word?”, you might ask. Everything, I say. There is absolutely no intention on my part in raising issues of “quality” or “validity” here.  I have visited a number of very interesting interpretation centres, in Portugal and abroad, and although I am not a big fan of thematic parks, I do believe they can provide enjoyable, interesting and valid educational experiences to many people. But it’s in the name that lies the meaning, the promise, the creation of an expectation, the kind of experience one might have, the decision to have it or not, to pay for it or not. This is why I believe that things should be called by their name.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Broken clay pots

"Some use for your broken clay pots", by Christoph Meierhans, at Maria Matos Theatre (Photo: Jan Lietaert)

Last week, I saw at Maria Matos Theatre “Some use for your broken clay pots” with Christoph Meierhans. Inspired by the ancient Athenian system of ostracism, where a political leader who became too powerful could be sent to exile, Meierhans wishes to propose a new democratic system, a new constitution which, he believes, will also produce a new type of citizen.

I followed his theory with interest and he left me thinking: do we, as citizens, actually need a different system in order to ‘ostracise’ or disqualify bad or incompetent politicians? Can’t we simply, within the rights that are given to us from the current system, not vote for them? But we do vote for them, again and again and again. Why? Some of us are not interested enough, some feel powerless, some believe it’s beyond our control, some think they might benefit if they get attached to the powerful. I particularly thought of this last point when listening to one of the spectators passionately referring to the struggle between classes. Is this a question of classes, really? How can we explain then that people from a certain class vote for politicians representing another? Isn´t it because they are hoping to benefit, themselves and their loved ones?

What does it take to produce the active, informed, demanding citizens needed in Meierhans’ system? I believe this to be the weak point in his theory, the one concerning the citizens themselves. I think he ignored or undervalued the all too powerful human factor, the one that is not moulded by systems, the one that manages to subvert even the best of systems. Even in the ancient city of Athens, where ostracism seemed to be such a good system, the human factor ended up working against it or rather using it for personal benefits and ostracism was eventually used to get rid of political opponents. Was there a problem with the system?

We could be a different kind of citizen in the actual system, if we wished to, if we were not afraid, if we were prepared to act as a collective. Individual conscience and sense of responsibility is maybe important for each one of us to sleep better at night, but it doesn´t bring about any revolution, any real change. Power, for better or for worse, lies in the collective. Many times I thought of how proud and touched I felt when seeing the Portuguese taking the streets on September 15, 2012. It was a first for me, who had been living in the country for 17 years. But, as much as I cherished the moment, I had no illusions either. The big majority of those people went back to their usual lives on Monday morning, accepting, conniving, remaining silent in front of the things, those usual things, that had pushed them to take to the street a couple of days before. But again, when something like this happens, things can never be the same again. It might not be that visible, but something does change and the next step will be taken from there onwards. That is progress.

In the last three years we’ve witnessed moments of great social unrest in different parts of the world. And we also witnessed the emergence of a new type of citizen. Two museums, two art museums, decided to focus on the protests. “140 Characters” and “Desobedient Objects” are the titles of two exhibitions. The former closed its doors yesterday at the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art and the latter will be opening next summer at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Exhibition "140 characters" at São Paulo Museum of Modern Art (Photo: Karina Bacci)
“140 characters” brought together 140 works from the museum collection with the aim to produce an exhibition that would allow people to think about the latest social unrest in Brazil and the political mobilization through the social media (140 being the maximum number of characters that may be used for a single tweet on Twitter). I see this as the result of the wish to be relevant, a wish that resulted in a new and imaginative look through the museum’s permanent collection, allowing for a new ‘reading’ of the objects themselves in a specific, current, context.

Giant inflatable cobblestone made to be thrown at police, which will be part of the exhibition "Disobedient Objects" at the V&A (Photo taken from De Zeen magazine)
“Disobedient Objects” will be opening at the V&A Museum on 26 July. One of the exhibition’s co-curators, Gavin Grindon, explained that “Social movement cultures aren't normally collected by museums, with the exception of prints and posters. We wanted to raise the question of this absence of other kinds of disobedient objects in the museum."  The exhibition will bring together examples of art and design which were developed by countercultures to communicate political messages or to facilitate protests. The approach here is different from the one taken from the São Paulo museum. In this case, a gap is identified  in the collection and the aim is to fill this gap, not only because it might makes sense in terms of collection policy, but also because it is the nature of this collection policy that makes the museum relevant - or not - in today’s society. Shouldn’t this be the aim of every museum?

“140 characters” and “Disobedient Objects” are more than two titles contradicting the tendency of boring, descriptive, little imaginative exhibition titles. They are two exhibitions asserting what museums are really about.  They are the people behind them, artists and curators, who, together with others – writers, musicians, performers, essayists, philosophers – challenge us, intrigue us, confront us and comfort us, make us think about the type of citizens we wish to be, the type of citizens we can still be, especially when the walls seem too high and the battle totally hopeless.


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Monday, 3 March 2014

Being "just"


It´s curious that the first thing I read about the protests in Venezuela was not a piece of news in some newspaper, but pianist Gabriela Montero’s open letter to Gustavo Dudamel. In this letter she was saying:

“But I cannot remain silent any longer. Yesterday, while tens of thousands of peaceful protesters marched all over Venezuela to express their frustration, pain and desperation at the total civic,moral, physical, economic and human break down of Venezuela, and while the government armed militias, National Guard AND police attacked, killed, injured, imprisoned and disappeared many innocent victims, Gustavo and Christian Vazquez led the orchestra in a concert celebrating Youth Day and the 39 years of the birth of EL Sistema. They played a CONCERT while their people were being massacred.”

This is what made me look for news to see what was happening in that country. A few days later, another Venezuelan musician, Carlos Izcaray, en ex- El Sistema student, was making an online appeal:

“Through this medium I’d like to call on all of you to unite, with instruments in hand, to repudiate and strongly manifest against the rampant violence and human rights violations that are currently being perpetrated by the Venezuelan government on its own citizenry. Lets render our tribute of support to those who have exposed and given their lives whilst defending our Liberty. This basic right of all free people has now been unequivocally sequestered by a despotic and tyrannical Government, one that wishes to lead through fear, intimidation, and violence.”

These two musicians have chosen to live outside Venezuela, probably both for professional and political reasons. Gustavo Dudamel also lives and works abroad, but he maintains his ties with El Sistema and through it – or because of it – with his country’s government. So I read Mantero´s and Izcaray’s passionate declarations considering that the position from which they expressed their views need not be as diplomatic as Dudamel’s, who has to consider, apart from his own views, the context in which El Sistema is operating and its dependance on the Venezuelan government. I must confess, though, that I was not prepared for his disappointingly “diplomatic” statement to the LA Times:

“I'm a musician. If I were a politician, I would act as a politician for my own interest. But I'm an artist, and an artist should act for everybody.

Dudamel expects (and accepts) politicians to act for their own interest? And artists for ‘everybody’? How are they acting for everybody? Who’s everybody? Are politicians who act for themeselves included?

A few days later, another controversy erupted, this time in New York, when artists, activists, professors and students associated to Occupy Museums, GULF Labor and other groups staged a protest at the Guggenheim Museum about labour conditions on Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates, where Guggenheim is building its franchise. Two things stood out for me while I was following the development of this story. First of all, the fact that the Guggenheim did not bury its head in the sand, remaining silent and hoping for all this to go away. Unlike what is common practice here among politicians and cultural institutions alike, who behave as if they were  untouchable and immune to citizens’ criticism, Guggenheim director, Richard Armstrong, issued his own statements, made the institution’s position clear, did not shy away from any question (more readings at the end of this post). Cultural institutions do not (shoud not) stand somewhere above all common citizens, pretending to operate in a comfortable and protective vacuum, free of social responsibilities.

The other thing that stood out for me in this controversy was to find out that architect Zaha Hadid – who designed one of the stadiums in Qatar – feels that  “it’s not my duty as an architect to look at it [“it” being the deaths of hundreds of immigrant workers at the construction site]... I cannot do anything about it because I have no power to do anything about it.” (read here)

My mind flew to Ukraine. My friend and colleague Ihor Poshyvailo was writing on this blog last December: “ (...) ICOM Ukraine and a number of Ukrainian museums were issuing public statements condemning unexpected crackdown on peaceful protesters and the pulling out of an association pact with the EU. The Directors Council of Lviv Museums coordinated protest statements of a number of Lviv museums. One of the oldest ethnographic museums in East-Central Europe – the Museum of Ethnography and Crafts in Lviv – displayed a banner on its balcony saying "We support the demands of Euromaidan". In Kyiv a dozen museums made their public statements, including the Museum of Kyiv History which is run by the City Hall and depends upon the Mayor of Kyiv, whose headquarters were taken by the protesters. Pavlo Tychyna Memorial Museum (located closely to Maidan) opened its doors to protesters and proposed them tea, rest and cultural programs. (...)”.

We’ll probably never know the names of the people who took these decisions and acted in those moments. People who are not “just a musician” or “just an architect”, people who are not “just public servants”, but who first and above all are citizens. They were citizens of an authoritarian state, risking their jobs, their personal safety, maybe their lives, maybe public funding if things went the other way - but probably not Hadid’s fees. They were “anonymous” citizens who felt they had the power and the responsibility to do something. And they did it. They did what they could.

Dudamel somehow seemed to be contradicting himself when he stated to the LA Times "(...) we are creating in Sistema not only musicians but better citizens”. If that’s what El Sistema does, then those young citizens should probably be shown by their elders that, when the moment comes, they should not hide behind “I am just a musician” statements.


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Sistema in the crossfire, by Jonathan Andrew Govias





Monday, 17 February 2014

On 'multi' mode before the debate


Thought #1: On May 5, 2013 the Arab American National Museum was the first among various American museums to wish its orthodox friends Happy Easter Sunday on Facebook. I remember smiling and thinking that I’ve been living in Portugal for 18 years, but no museum ever acknowldged my being in this country also as an orthodox, celebrating special days together with dozens of other Greeks and probably thousands of Russians, Ukrainians, Romanians or Serbs; permanent residents in Portugal whose visit the museums would be very happy to receive, I am sure, but whose culture is not reflected in the museums’ collecting, programming or communicating policies. What kind of a relationship could/should be developed between the parts?

Thought #2: In Canada, immigrants acquiring Canadian citizenship give their oath as “new Canadian citizens” in a ceremony taking place in museums: the Canadian Museum of Immigration in Halifax, for instance, or the Canadian Museum of History (formerly known as Canadian Museum of Civilization - more readings at the end of this post) in Quebec. I have no idea what the content of the oath is, but when I first heard about this, I was touched by the symbolic choice of place, museums being (ideally) places that may be representative of our identity (or rather, our multiple identities) and those of others, allowing us to learn about each other, be with each other. I imagined these people’s stories, the stories of the new Canadian citizens, becoming part of the history of Canada. Could this be one way of forging a relationship?

Image taken from the website of the Canadian Museum of Immigration.
Thought #3: A couple of years ago, in a conference entitled “Programming for Diversity” which took place in Portugal, I was convening a panel that included an Iranian refugee. I remember him saying how much he felt at home when visiting the Gulbenkian Museum, where he could see objects coming from his country. I liked that idea of feeling at home, but I was left thinking if this is the only way of getting people interested and involved, by showing them what’s known to them. Can there be a relationship when one only looks for what is familiar to them? Is it a lack of curiosity regarding one’s “new home”? Or maybe the fact that the new home doesn’t feel like “home”? And why doesn´t it?

These loose thoughts and many more questions are coming up as I am preparing to moderate a debate this week regarding the relationship of Portuguese cultural institutions with the communities of immigrants and those of refugees now living in the country. Living in a society that is becoming increasingly diverse, I am often asking myself if there is actually a relationship, if there is an interest, to start with, on either side to come together, to be part of each other´s lives and if yes, what´s the best way of developing and maintaining this relationship. I am saying this because it seems to me that most iniatiatives (at least among the ones I am aware of) are one-off projects, assigned to a specific period of time that eventually comes to an end. The “festival-kind” of project, where ones come to perform and the others to watch the exotic and never meet again until... next time; if there is a next time. Is this worthwhile? Does it have any kind of impact? Should we aim for something else, something that might last more? Why? Who’s interested? And whose initiative should this be?

Museu d' Història de Catalunya, Barcelona. Catalonia in the 21st century, part of the permanent exhibition. (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
Looking abroad, we see big institutions operating within large multicultural societies (the Victoria and Albert Museum in London or the Kennedy Center in Washington, to name just two) dedicating big exhibitions and special programmes to specific communities and their cultures. The aim is to present a people’s culture and arts to anyone who might be interested, to promote learning and hopefully also some understanding about them. The aim is also to make that specific community feel included, and the truth is that this kind of exhibitions and festivals do attract large numbers of representatives of the celebrated culture. The question that remains is: then what? What happens to those people who came to learn and enjoy? What stays with them? Are there any changes in the way they perceive the culture they just learned about? And do people from the communities involved come back for something else? I gave the example of big institutions abroad, but the same could apply to smaller institutions within our borders. Are we developing projects and policies that might answer the question “Then what”?

Are immigrants and refugees a special group, different from others? Maybe not. They might be interested in what cultural institutions have to offer or not; they might have a habit of visiting / attending or not; they might feel represented or not; they might feel that this is for them or not; they might feel welcome or not; they might come or not; they might have the money or not. Just like anybody else. Unlike certain other groups of (underepresented) people, though, some cultural institutions – or projects - feel the need, from time to time, to ‘deal’ with immigrants or refugees. Maybe out of genuine interest, maybe because it is politically correct. My concern is that, most times, it seems to be a one-off thing, a “special event” or a “special project”, something that eventually makes the people involved also stand out as a “special group”, instead of promoting their being acknowledged as an integral part of our society, with whom the relationship should be of a more permanent nature. What once was “special” might not be anymore, things change. Are we following the change?

Ideally for me, cultural institutions are the place where a newcomer (like I was 18 years ago) can get to know what existed before his/her arrival, what is being produced at the moment and how he/she can leave his/her mark as well. They are places of constant negotiation and update. In order for this not to be something “special”, the work must be continuous so that the inclusion may come naturally.

Can it be? Is it possible? Is it happening? What does it take? These are questions for which I hope to be able to get some clues in Thursday’s debate.



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Monday, 3 February 2014

The rules of love

Kent Nagano, Music Director of MOntreal Symphony Orchestra (Photo: Körber Foundation)
When the Vice Chairman of the Körber Foundation, Klaus Wehmeier, opened the 4th Symposium on the Art of Music Education last week in Hamburg, he quoted someone from a previous edition of this symposium who had said “I want to share what I love”. I thought that this is precisely what brings most people, professionals, of different cultural/artistic fields to this kind of meetings: their love for something and the wish to share it.

I was still thinking about this love sharing when Kent Nagano, music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, took the stand. He told us about the state of the orchestra when he took up his position: a 12-million-dollar debt; an audience with an average age of  65+; an occupancy rate of 35%. Nagano told us that he promised the city to present exceptional works at the highest possible quality the musicians could achieve. “So”, he said, “we have now sold out performances, the average age of the audience is 35 and the concert hall looks like the streets of Montreal.”

The maestro didn’t convince me; in the sense that I saw much more in his word than what he was prepared to acknowledge. I don´t believe that the Montreal Symphony Orchestra enjoys sold out performances because of its exceptional repertoire and high quality – or, at least, mainly because of that. These are the characteristics of a number of other orchestras that are struggling to survive. I believe that the Montreal audience might have heard the ‘promise’ of an orchestra leader prepared to commit, to engage with them; a theory also supported by the fact that Kent Nagano was pleased to see the concert halls looking like the city streets, revealing a somehow larger vision and that he was really serious about his commitment. This fact may have played such an important role in the orchestra´s turnaround as the exceptional repertoire and the quality of the interpretation. Nagano wished to share his love with the city and has worked in doing just that. 

Photo: Körber Foundation
The question of “How do we share our love” was always at the back of my mind in the following two days. When listening, for instance, to the inspiring musician and composer Kathryn Tickell saying that teaching young people to play the northumbrian pipe doesn´t mean that she wants to turn them into virtuosi; she wants to make them aware of their heritage, the music becoming a statement of who they are. Kathryn truly left a mark on the participants. Although dealing with tradition, she was precisely able to show that this is not something frozen in time. “One needs to go deep into it, use the knowledge and then move on fearlessly”, she said. And by moving on she meant to experiment, to reinterpret, to enrich, to get into a dialogue with other art forms, not for the sake of ‘innovation’, but because of one’s need for expression and for... sharing what one loves.


And I kept on thinking about what it is that we love and how we share it when seeing the genuinely puzzled expression of a participant when he heard me saying that there is quality also in other musical genres, not just in classical music; when listening to some people saying that music education is the school´s responsibility and to others stating that musicians should be obliged to get involved in education activities because they can do it best; when some of the participants were trying to remind us that we were moving away from what really matters – the music and our core audience -, while others were advocating for greater access and the willigness to listen to the people and adapt.

Photo: Körber Foundation
Most of these issues were somehow summarised in the last panel discussion, involving Nick Herrmann (senior producer at Touch Press), Martinh Hoffmann (general manager of the Berin Philharmonic) and Karsten Witt (general manager of karsten witt music management). It was beautiful listening to Karsten Witt talk about his love for classical music, about that very special experience of attending a concert, the concentration, the details, the feelings. “Listening to music via media is a separate thing; we should be concerned with the real thing”, he said.

Is it? Should we be concerned only with the real thing? How about when the closest a person can get to the real thing is a CD or a DVD or the You Tube? Shouldn´t we also be concerned in keeping these doors open and use them to make content available? Does everyone have to listen to classical music with the same degree of concentration in order to have a meaningful experience (for himself, not for the others...)?

I remembered an article I had read a few days before in the Guardian regarding digital access to performances. The journalist, Lyn Gardner, remembered the early 20th-century conductor Thomas Beecham who believed that the radio would keep people away from concert halls and “chided the ‘wireless authorities’ for doing ‘devilish work’. In the 50s the ‘devil’ was probably the television; in the 90s the websites; in the early 2000s the You Tube, the apps, the livestreaming of performances.

So, although I share Karsten Witt’s love for the ‘real thing’, I am also concerned with what ‘real’ means for other people, what is meaningful to them, what they can have access to and how, and also what they can afford. Because I know that technology allows for different points of entry, for different ways of participation and enjoyment and that it doesn´t keep people away from the real thing. On the contrary, if they have the chance, they do want to taste the real thing.

But there is one more point to make here: even when people come to enjoy the real thing, it doesn´t mean they´ll enjoy it the way another person wants them to. They´ll enjoy it their own way. Love may have many, different rules, but there is definitely one: it cannot be imposed, can it?


With very special thanks to the Körber Foundation, for their kind invitation and hospitality.


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Monday, 20 January 2014

The ultimate measure

Bill De Blasio's inauguration (photo taken from the portal Hyperallergic)
Bill de Blasio is New York´s 109th Mayor. He’s married to poet and activist Chirlane McCray. His inauguration was on January 1. Two days before that, the New York Times (NYT) published the article A new mayor brings hope for a populist arts revival. I was curious. The newspaper referred that the new mayor has got a populist brand and that, considering his cultural and artistic preferences, one may expect him to get interested in a part of the city´s cultural life that is quite different from the one that attracted his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg. The NYT actually referred that the new mayor was never seen at the Lincoln Center and that his family rarely visits the city’s big art museums. On the contrary, there are usually seen in small neighborhood museums and galleries. Chirlane McCray frequents reading sessions, was member of the jury of a number of poetry competitions and arranged for the poem of a young poet to be read on her husband’s inauguration day. De Blasio’s transition committee (that is, the people who will help him form his team) includes experts from the Public Theater, the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as well as the director of Studio Museum in Harlem.

A few days later, Hyperallergic published an article by Mostafa Heddaya entitled De Blasio and the mythology of a new arts populism. Heddaya comments on the NYT’s considerations, but concludes that the cultural interest of the new mayor and his wife are of little relevance, just like the ones of his predecessor. Heddaya, together with other commentators he quotes in his article, is more concerned about how the new administration will support the arts, in a constructive and fair way, and whether they will manage to attract donors in order to compensate for the support given by Bloomberg to a number of cultural institutions in the city, by investing his own millions.

Problems with funding and permanent problems because of the lack of constructive and fair cultural policies. New York doesn’t seem to be facing a different situation than that of a number of other cities. Nevertheless, and apart from this discussion, I was left thinking about two other things: the fact that the new mayor’s cultural preferences are considered “populist” by the NYT (is there some other meaning to the word that I am not aware of?); but, mostly, the fact that these preferences and habits are an issue, discussed publicly, in newspapers and blogs. I know little or nothing about the cultural habits of the men and women who govern us. Rarely is this an issue among us, before or after elections. And rarely did I see them at the places I used to work or go to, except when their presence was required by protocol. (There are some bright exceptions; few. It´s the case of those politicians who also didn’t ask for an invitation to come and watch a performance; they paid the ticket).

I was once again left with this in mind, I was left thinking if it matters what books our politicians read, which plays they see, what music they listen to, what were their favourite films in 2013. Another event in the US reminded me of this issue.

Photo: Witness Against Torture (taken from Flickr)
On January 11, the day of the 12th anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo, Witness Against Torture activists did a protest at the National Museum of American History in Washington (see here). Using the characteristic orange jumpsuits and black hoods, they assumed detention poses near the museum entrance. Others delivered a speech, asking President Obama to free the remaining 155 prisoners and close the camp. Later, they moved to the exhibition “The price of freedom: Americans at war”, they assumed the same detention poses and exhibited signs saying “Are these the price of freedom?” or “Civil liberty?”.

I saw in the choice of venue a more favourable symbolism for the museum than the one the organizers actually aimed to assign. “We came here today because we want to see Guantanamo relegated to a museum”, they wrote in a press release. But they also said: “(...) we want it to be shuttered and condemned, but also understood as an example of where fear, hatred and violence can take us.”

It was in Tzvetan Todorov’s book “La peur des barbares: Au-delà du choc des civilisations” that I first read about the Torture Memo, a document prepared by the  legal office of the American Ministry of Justice, which was used to present a “new definition” of what constitutes torture and to defend the legitimacy of acts committed by the american government. A language that was very well elaborated by someone who knows how to use (or abuse?) words. A shocking public document which was used to justify inhuman, humiliating and shameful acts (this is why I thought that the choice of National Museum of American History had a more profound meaning than seeing Guantanamo ‘relegated’ to a museum”).

I was once again left thinking: what kind of books do they read, what kind of plays do they see, what kind of music do they listen to, what are the favourite films of those politicians, lawyers, security agents, economists and others who, taking advantage of and nurturing our fears, find justifications for barbarity and wish to turn us into their accomplices. From torturing prisoners who have never been formally accused, to promoting referenda on fundamental rights, cutting already miserable pensions, increasing the number of students by class and reducing the number of teachers and subjects, putting at risk the good functioning of cultural institutions and compromising access to them, human rights are being violated every day, ‘for a good cause’, in our ‘civilized’ countries.

Distribution of food and clothes, Portugal, Christmas 2013 (Photo: Bruno Simões Castanheira for the Projecto Troika)
Martin Luther King said that “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” So maybe it does not really matter what are the cultural habits and preferences of those who govern us and of those who support them. Books, theatre, music do not have super-powers. What matters is that a man has got strength and consciousness, so that he’s able to use what he encounterd in them against his own, always underlying, barbarity.