Monday, 31 January 2011

Of all and for all?

In our sector, quiet a few people believe that working in Communications is a matter of ‘inclination’. Communications is mainly understood as Public Relations, the main requirements being a polite attitude and a nice smile.

In what concerns the production of promotional materials – another task considered by some people to be the ‘essence’ of Communications -, the main criterion is that of aesthetics, so almost everybody feels they have the right to give an opinion, leaving behind issues such as those of functionality and efficiency. Quiet often, aesthetics win the battle.

We may also consider here partnerships and supports, the way they are sought and negotiated. Cultural institutions usually assume the role of the poor relative, apparently unaware of the value of their ‘product’ and offering anything (and usually the same) in exchange for a necessary or unnecessary, small or big support.

There are people with and without professional training working in Communications in the cultural sector: in museums, galleries, cultural centres, foundations, theatres, orchestras; but also in publishing houses, music publishers, production companies and artistic agencies, the radio and the television. As a consequence, in many cases we are speaking different languages. We are spending too much time in discussing practices that should be common, understood by everyone. Worse, important issues are considered ‘details’, and those who defend them weird, unwilling to collaborate, stubborn. Up to now I haven´t been able to come up with a sufficiently convincing answer when confronted with the statement “Why should we do it like this, when everybody else does the opposite?” (although I´ve learned to doubt the statement “everybody else”).

Communications is an area of work that requires technical knowledge, just like every other. There is a need for adequately trained professionals in order to develop a plan that may assist a cultural institution in reaching its objectives in what concerns acknowledgment and notoriety, audience development, access to its offer in general – access that should be cognitive, physical and financial. These objectives are reached through branding, marketing, public relations.

In a context of crisis, in an environment that has always been highly competitive, cultural institutions should not continue being less demanding in what concerns Communications. We should not ignore the need and importance of the creation and management of a brand. We cannot simply produce and expect the audience to show up. We cannot expect people to come back shouldn´t we create and maintain quality services. It´s not enough to put letters on a photo in order to have a poster. It´s not enough to send a press release in order to foster a relationship with the media. It´s not enough to have a polite attitude, a nice smile and good taste in order for Communications to happen (although they contribute considerably to the final result).

All tasks mentioned above as examples, as well as many others, need to be planned and carried out by people with specific technical knowledge. But I would say more. Although a team that aims to function like one shares, analyses and discusses its activity, there are decisions that cannot and should not be taken by majority vote. There are decisions that must be trusted to those who have the necessary knowledge in order to be able to take them.

What´s Communication, after all? It´s the way we relate internally and with the outside world, it´s a dialogue that is being established, it´s a way of being and projecting one´s self. Communications aim to give a voice and an image to our institution´s mission and vision. Artistic creation and cultural production are not hobbies. Why should communications be?

Monday, 24 January 2011

We, cultural hybrids

When last November I decided to attend the conference “Migrations, minorities and cultural diversity”, organized by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, it was because I was very interested to hear about the ‘others’. I had never thought of myself as ‘migrant’ or ‘minority’, not while I lived in England nor here in Portugal. Perhaps because of the reasons that took me to these countries and because, although in different ways, I quickly felt as ‘being part’ of them. Listening at the conference to the testimonies of Portuguese who decided to live and work abroad, or to those who chose to come back after living abroad for many years, I realized that my position was different from the one I had intended it to be. The conference was about me too.

Today we live in a period of intense cultural interaction. We are born in a country, travel to others, sometimes we stay, we go back, we leave again. We meet and mix with people from all over the world. We give and take. Some long for these encounters, they are looking for them. Others are afraid of them and feel the need to defend at any cost something they wish to preserve. Nevertheless, one way or another, we are all ‘touched’. How to we define ourselves, then, in the middle of all this? Who are we? What will happen to our cultures in a globalized world? Are we all going to embrace a global culture or we will manage to preserve our local culture? Or we will rather learn to be ‘bilingual’? The book Cultural Hybridity, by Cultural History and Theory professor Peter Burke, aims to answer these questions through the analysis of the processes of cultural encounter, interaction, exchange and hybridization over the centuries. It aims to place the debate on the globalization of culture in a historical perspective. Contrary to what one might think, this is not the first time certain things are happening.

The book is divided in five chapters. In the first chapter, Varieties of objects, Burke presents the variety of objects that are hybridized. We find examples of cultural hybridism in most domains of culture. There are hybrid objects (architecture, fine arts, literary genres, translations), hybrid practices (religion, music, language, sports, festivals, cuisine, types of governance) and, finally, hybrid individuals and groups (children of parents from different cultures, people who converted – voluntarily or unvoluntarily -, groups who, for religious, political or economic reasons, have moved from one culture to another).

The second chapter, Varieties of terminology, was the most interesting. The author analyzes the big variety of terms and theories used to talk about cultural interaction, that is about processes which are very diverse in their specificities, determined to a bigger or lesser degree by the human agent. The main terms used are metaphors drawn from economics, zoology, metallurgy, food and linguistics. Respectively: borrowing, hybridity, melting pot, stew and, finally, translation and ‘creolization’. Burke finds weaknesses in all of them, but prefers the linguistic term, considering it the most helpful and the least misleading when talking about the emergence of new cultural forms out of the mixture of old ones.

These cultural encounters take place in different situations, contexts and locales, analyzed in the third chapter, Varieties of situation. Besides a geography and a chronology of hybridization, there is also a sociology. When an encounter of cultures takes place, some individuals or groups participate more than others. Burke makes a distinction between encounters of equals and unequals (for example, the encounters of catholic missionaries with the population in China or in Latin America took place under quiet different circumstances); between traditions of appropriation (Japan, Brazil) and resistance (Islam); and between locales of encounter (the metropolis and the frontier are particularly favourable to cultural exchanges).

There are various ways of reacting to the encounter with the unfamiliar, as we can see in chapter four, Varieties of responses. From acceptance, which the author calls “the fashion for the foreign” (italophilia in the Renaissance; francophilia in the 17th century; anglomania in the 18th and 19th centuries), to resistance, that aims to defend a culture by closing it, isolating it (Spain in the 16th century or Japan in the 17th); from cultural segregation, that aims to maintain part of a culture free from foreign contamination, leading people to a kind of double life, to adaptation, a double movement of de-contextualization and re-contextualization that lifts an item from its original setting and modifies it, in order to fit its new environment.

In the last chapter, Varieties of outcomes, Burke considers the consequences of hybridization over the long term and presents four possible scenarios in relation to what might become of world cultures in our age of globalization. There is the scenario of cultural homogenization. The author believes, though, that despite the signs of an increasingly global culture, one should not underestimate the creativity of reception and the renegotiation of meanings. Historians today are less and less convinced that similar movements in the past, like hellenization or romanization, were actually successful. Another scenario is that of counter-globalization, the revolt of the regions. The resisters may not halt the course of history, but Burke believes that they will affect the cultures of the future. Another possibility is that of ‘cultural diglossia’, the possibility of all of us becoming bicultural, leading a double life. The frontier is now everywhere, said the anthropologist Néstor García Canclini, we will all become immigrants. Finally, there is the creolization scenario, the birth of a new order, the formation of new oicotypes, the crystallization of new forms, the reconfiguration of cultures. For Burke, this is the most convincing one.

And where does all this leave me? I left Greece when I was 23 and went to London, where the world opened up to me. I lived the euphoria of encountering people from all over the world, of discovering other ways of being and expressing one´s self, and I relive it every time I go back. I came to Portugal, I adopted a second country and I was adopted by it. I´ve lived almost as many years abroad as I lived in my own country. I am Greek, although I´ve always been a rather ‘atypical’ one, especially after living abroad, which has allowed me to look at my culture not only with pride, but also with a more critical spirit. A ‘creole’ Greek? Perhaps. I know that today I am considered as ‘foreigner’ there as I am here. I don´t mind anymore. I believe I am lucky and I feel richer, for being able to live together with many different ‘languages’ and know how to appreciate them, giving and taking. But I am Greek, in a way that can only be felt and not explained. And I am curious to see what my son will be; who, when I told him we were going to Oporto, asked me: “What language are we going to speak there?”.

Note on January 31
Black? White? Asian? More young Americans choose all of the above, an artice in The New York Times.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Judging by the cover

One of the greatest pleasures in life is to be in a bookshop for no special reason, that is, not with the intention to buy a specific book, but with the desire to look at titles, names and covers, read summaries, discover, be tempted, not resist, buy, leave with a number of them anxious to start.

Last May I had read an article in the Guardian about the different covers the same book might have in different countries (read the article here and see images of covers here). “Why don´t publishers replicate covers that have been a success abroad”, asked the author of the article. There are designers and publishers who think that readers in different countries do not need different covers. Other professionals in these fields believe that one should start from zero and, when working on the cover of a book that has already been published, they even avoid looking at the existing covers. The reasons invoked in the article for creating distinct covers are cultural (“It´s a cultural thing, as taste-driven as different countries eating different things for breakfast”) or relate to marketing (“…literary fiction is an easier sell in mainland Europe than in the UK or the US, so publishers there can be less overt in their attempts to grab the attention of customers” or “The UK book market is more competitive, all the covers is shops shouting ‘Buy me!’”) or might even be α question of pride.

Photo: Observer
I thought about the factors that determine my choices when I am off to ‘an expedition to the unknown’. I won´t deny that it´s the combination of title and cover that makes me pick up the book of an author I don´t know. It´s important that the cover is elegant and attractive, for my taste (many times these covers have no image, just letters and excellent design). Then I read the summary. And then the decision is made.

I don´t think I have ever questioned whether the cover and the summary transmit the same ‘essence’. Actually, I think I never expected a cover to be a sort of summary of what I would discover inside, unlike the summary itself, which is supposed to provoke my curiosity. At the same time, I don´t remember ever having felt cheated for having loathed a book the cover of which had instantly attracted me. But I do remember the opposite: how uncomfortable I felt on two occasions when reading very good books that, in my opinion, had cheesy covers. The first had been recommended to me; and I had read about the other one in the newspaper. Otherwise I am sure I would have never picked them up if I had simply seen them on a stand together with others. It´s a question of aesthetics, of taste. But also of branding. Because in many cases the cover design identifies a publishing house, which, when considered of quality and allows for an instant visual identification, may win the battle in the middle of intense competition.

One of the most discussed issues in our professional field is that of a show´s poster. What it is and what it is not. What it is for and what it shouldn´t be for. I rememeber that at the time I read the article in the Guardian I had forwarded it to a number of colleagues because I could see quiet a few analogies between book covers and show posters.

What´s a poster? It´s a promotional tool. It has got a functional character. It serves to inform (what, when, where); it serves to stengthen the image and identity of the proposing institution; it serves to attract the audience. Unlike what happens in other countries, the cultural supplements of certain portuguese newspapers are full of advertisments of shows. Some times we have four ads sharing the same page. Just like in the streets we find a series of posters of different shows ones next to the others. Competition is fierce. Who will manage to overtop and attract the public´s attention in order to gain customers? The one that has a good design, that is, the one that will allow to rapidly identify who proposes, what and where.

What a poster is not? It´s not an extension of the show. It shouldn´t aim to transmit its essence over other functions, that should be a priority, such as to inform (actually I think that only those directly involved in the creation of the show are able to identify or feel its essence in a poster). It shouldn´t serve to present the names of all those involved, filling the image with letters, helping to bury the information that is essential for the show´s promotion; in fact, a poster is not produced in order to serve as a register. It shouldn´t either serve to include the logos of all those supporting the show. When these issues prevail, quite often the result is a bad poster, a poster that is not functional.

The process of creating and approving a poster may become quite tense, mainly when the proposing institution is not a ‘space on loan’, but an institution with a strong identity (and a strong visual identity). The challenge for the designer is to create a proposal that fits in the institution´s general line of communication, but which at the same time is distinctive of each project. For communication professionals the challenge is to defend the institution as well as the project, to create the conditions for the process to be as fluid as possible, defining from the beginning, in articulation with those involved in the show, the objectives to be reached through the poster. The evaluation of the quality and efficiency of a poster cannot and should not be reduced to aesthetic criteria (it´s nice, it´s not nice) or to be made with the aim to be ‘fair’ (either all names or none). The true issue here is: Does it fulfill its purpose? Does it inform? Does it identiify? Does it attract? The rest should be a discovery. And, regardless of what one might discover, I doubt the public might ever blame the poster for not telling the whole story…

Reading suggestion
Navigating the design minefield

Note on January 20:
Regarding book covers, another article in today´s Guardian, Can you judge a book by its cover?  Once again very relevant in what concerns the issue of show posters.

Monday, 10 January 2011

The private initiative in times of crisis

The book Cities in Civilization by Sir Peter Hall deals with the following issues: How do golden ages come about in certain cities? Why should the creative flame burn so especially, so uniquely, in cities and not in the countryside? What makes a particular city, at a particular time, suddenly become immensely creative, exceptionally innovative? Why should this spirit flower for a few years, generally a decade or two at most, and then disappear as suddenly as it came?

In the first part of his book, The city as a cultural crucible, Hall analyzes the golden ages of Athens, Floerence, London, Vienna, Paris and Berlin. The whole book is about 1000 pages long. It will take me some time to finish it, but I´ve already read the chapter on Athens. It´s Athens I want to write about.

Photo: GNTO

Athens, says the author, was the first. The first in so many things that have mattered, ever since, to western civilization: democracy, philosophy, the systematic writing of history, scientific knowledge, lyric poetry, tragedy, comedy, naturalistic art, architecture. But why there? And why at that time? There could be factors such as geography, climate, economic growth, affluence, democracy, free thinking, the fact that it was probably the first global city. Nevertheless, none of these factors is a satisfactory explanation for Peter Hall, mainly because all of them had existed, one way or the other, also in other cities, other territories, that had the ingredients but these didn´t come together in the right order, the right way.

In order to understand the miracle that was Athens, says the author, it is necessary to be more historically particular. Athens was uniquely located as a centre of trade. It was the trade that brought exposure to higher cultures of the Orient, as well as people with energy and talent from all over the greek world and the eastern Mediterranean, creating a unique ethnic and cultural crucible. After that, it was the northern invasions, that brought new influences and cut off the contact with the east, forcing the city to live on its own resources. After that, it was the development of a great trading empire that brought all the goods of the civilized world to the markets of Athens, as well as tribute money and slaves, creating the basis of a unique kind of aristocratic democracy. Athenian culture and society were based on exploitation: first, they existed thanks to tribute money that flowed from the empire; second, Athens maintained critical aspects of an aristocratic society; thirdly, it significantly depended on the work of foreign residents who kept the economy going and were responsible for many of the advances achieved. Hall concludes that the conflict between the old order and the proselytizers of the new resulted in unique creativity: a society emerged that combined the fine discrimination and critical standards of the older society with the scepticism and inventiveness of the new.

While I was reading Peter Hall´s analysis of the miracle of Athens, I was (inevitably?) trying to identify ‘what is left’. Nevertheless, I could mainly find similarities with the factors that drove the ancient city to crisis: the economic collapse mainly due to the war with Sparta, individualism (greatly encouraged by the Sophists), the desertion of the assembly, the search for personal wealth, the loss of faith in and preoccupation about the ‘polis’.

In the last months there were some initiatives in the greek capital that indicate that Athenians (but also the Greeks in general and people from all over the world) are looking for answers in the ancient greek legacy that could guide them in the future and help them redefine values and priorities. In the end of October the new Acropolis Museum organized a cultural marathon on the relation of modern Greece and the world in general with the ancient world. An event that brought together specialists, intellectuals and artists from all over the world, that lasted 12 hours. Weeks later, the new Cultural Centre of the Onassis Foundation opened its doors with “The Athens Dialogues”, a collaboration with eight international academic institutions that placed ancient greek civilization in the centre of a debate on its role to modern society. There were organized six panels on “Identity and otherness”, “History and histories”, “Reason and art”, “Democracy and state”, “Science and ethics”, “Quality of life”.

Photo: Onassis Cultural Centre

It was in the opening of the new cultural centre of the Onassis Foundation that I discovered something that links the modern to the ancient city: the free and voluntary offering of part of one´s personal wealth to the city (in ancient Greece, taxation was considered unworthy of a free citizen, but this voluntary offering was expected and honorific). It was called leitourgia (service) and it funded public buildings, sports events, banquets, etc. Nevertheless, the most important leitourgia was the khoregia (a word that may be translated as ‘sponsorship’), that served to pay the members of the chorus of tragedies and comedies.

The Onassis Foundation has embraced this spirit, just like many other private foundations, and the opening of the cultural centre bears evidence to that. In the words of its president, Antonis Papadimitriou: “The global loss of faith of the people needs answers of support. More than ever, theatre, dance or the visual arts may provide this space necessary for thinking. The Onassis Cultural Centre, choosing to support contemporary creation in a country mainly turned towards its heritage, has a decisive role to play in giving a sense to today´s debates” (Le Monde, 23.12.2010).

The modern Greek State, created in 1830, benefited in the first decades of its existence from the financial support of wealthy Greeks of the diaspora. Today, the country still counts on private initiative in various areas of public life, including culture. In that same avenue where the Onassis Cultural Centre has now opened, the Niarchos Foundation (who had been Onassis´s big rival) is constructing a new building for the National Library and the National Opera.

In times of crisis, economic and mainly social, culture is one´s ‘shelter’. Private initiative takes on responsibility, contributes, gives back to society. An offer that is voluntary and honorific, and doesn´t materialize trying to make business with the state. After all, there is something left.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Reading suggestion: There are no crises, only tough decisions

In relations to some of the issues raised in my post A blue (or any other colour) hug to the crisis, I suggest the reading of a post in The Artful Manager, entitled The fine art of self destruction, about the keynote speech of Russell Willis Taylor at the League of American Orchestras´s conference last summer. At the end of the post you may find the video of the speech.

Monday, 3 January 2011

"No logo": the new big political movement?

Naomi Klein´s book No logo was published in 2000. I came across a number of references while preparing the posts Let´s get rid of the logo dictatorship and Logos size XXL. I read it now for the first time, in an edition that celebrates the 10th anniversary of the first publication. Naomi Klein´s four-year research gives another, larger, meaning to the expression “logo dictatorship”.

In the introduction, the author explains the objective of her research: “(…) a book that attempts to analyze and document the forces opposing corporate rule and to lay out the particular set of cultural and economic conditions that made the emergence of that opposition inevitable.” Klein believes that, as more people discover the secrets behind the brand hegemony in our society and our globalized world, their outrage will fuel the next big political movement. The analysis is made in the first three parts of the book (No space; No choice; No jobs), followed by the fourth (No logo), where the author presents evidence (smaller and bigger) that substantiates her theory on the creation of a big anticorporate movement.

The first part, No space, examines the surrender of culture and education to marketing. Marketeers gave total priority to branding, convinced that consumers don´t really believe there are differences between products; and that what they buy is the brand – and with it the promise of an idea, of an experience, of a lifestyle. In the 90s the brand became the star, it doesn´t sponsor culture, it is culture. Cities, neighborhoods, TV programmes, concerts, magazines, sports events become extensions of the brands that sponsor them. The same occurs in schools and universities (more specifically in the USA and Canada), where, in exchange for funding necessary for equipment and research, the brands become themselves producers of educational contents and they control the results of scientific investigation, preventing them from being published should they be unfavourable to them. In the meantime, under pressure to optimize their financial resources in order to sell in a globalized world, the brands promote and sell the idea of diversity. Thus, creating a unique campaign for the whole world, they force consumers to speak one language and absorb one culture (that of the brand). This, claims Naomi Klein, is not “monoculture”, it´s “mono-multiculturalism”.

The second part, No choice, reports on how the promise of a vastly increased array of cultural choice was betrayed. The desire to expand and control the market resulted in mergers, buyouts and synergies between brands, which are thus trying, and managing, to force out smaller and independent businesses. Naomi Klein is equally worried about the actions of corporate censorship, which determine not only what is going to be sold but also what is being produced (from song lyrics to the covers of magazines), while, in many cases, producers, distributors and retailers are owned by the same company (the author highlights the relationship of some of these companies with China). Klein also refers extensively to the trials related to copyright and trademark, an attempt to control artistic and cultural production when re-using and reconfiguring our shared cultural languages and references, mainly with regard to independent artists. Finally, she draws attention to the fact that we are gradually losing the space where non-brand options may exist, where we may cultivate debate and criticism. The public square is replaced by shopping malls, where the only tolerated language is that of marketing.

The third part, No jobs, examines the labour market trends that are creating increasingly tenuous relationships to employment for many workers. Naomi Klein travelled to the Philippines and entered a free-trade zone (established in a number of asian and latin-american countries), where she collected evidence on the exploration of thousands of workers who, hired by third parties and not directly by the brands, fabricate the products bought and sold by them. The author talks also about the exploration of employees in first world countries, where the brands still have to employ people at the selling points. The norm here is the part-time and very low salaries. Or even no salary at all. The brands claim to be employing young people, students, who are just passing through, gaining working experience. The truth is that these are more and more people with high qualifications who stay on for much longer, given the lack of better job opportunities. The result, says Naomi Klein, is resentment and total lack of loyalty towards the employer, especially within a young population, the brands´ main target-audience.


It is the assault on the three social pillars of employment, civic liberties and civic space that, according to Naomi Klein, is giving rise to the anticorporate activism. In the last part of her book, No logo, the author presents various case studies that substantiate her theory of the creation of a political movement. Here she talks about culture jamming, the practice of parodying ads and hijacking billboards in order to alter their messages (she highlights the work of Cuban-american artist Jorge Rodriguez de Gerada, of Canadian performer Jubal Brown, as well as the movement Billboard Liberation Front); she also talks about the movement Reclaim the Streets, that organizes anticorporate events in public spaces; but she mostly talks about “local foreign policy” initiatives – the most effective, in her opinion -, where she presents actions carried out by municipal councils, schools, universities, churches, unions, other non-profit institutions and groups of individuals, aiming to pressure the big brands into taking on a more ethical and socially responsible conduct and proving it.

Along the more than 450 pages we read about the philosophy, activity and tactics of brands that are part of our everyday life and of which we are regular or occasional clients: Nike, Adidas, Reebok, Starbucks, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, McDonald´s, Shell, BP, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Esprit, Levi Strauss, GAP, IBM, Microsoft... We feel revolted and at the same time smashed and powerless. I remember having the same feeling of revolt and powerlessness after watching two films related to this issue presented in Lisbon in 2010: Enjoy Poverty, by Dutch filmmaker Renzo Martens, presented during the
alkantara festival; and Black Gold, by Nick and Marc Francis, presented by the programme Next Future. The rhetoric and images of the first dominated my conscious and subconscious for weeks. After watching the second, I was unable to enter a Starbucks again; and I´ve been trying to avoid Nestlé products (although this seems to be an almost impossible mission). Even though, I keep asking myself what difference can a person make when refusing to consume the products of such and such brand. The feeling of powerlessness stays with us. At the time I saw Black Gold I got an answer when discovering on the internet the initiative Fair Trade Towns. Now I got another in Naomi Klein´s book, in the words of Owens Saro-Wiwa, brother of writer and Nobel Prize candidate Ken Saro-Wiwa (one of the leaders of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People – a people threatened by the activity of Shell in Nigeria – who was executed by the nigerian government). Owens Saro-Wiwa said: “It is important not to make people feel powerless. After all, they need to fill their cars with something. If we tell them all companies are guilty, they will feel they can do nothing. What we are trying to really do, now that we have this evidence against this one company, is to let people have the feeling that they can at least have the moral force make one company change.”