Monday, 22 September 2014

Gay, black, disabled... can we stop talking about it?

Gay Jazz Festival, Philadelphia (Photo: Bruno Bollaert, taken from The Examiner)

Last May, Philly magazine announced that history was about to be made with the organization of the first Gay Jazz Festival in the US. The announcement intrigued me. It rather seemed to me like history was going backwards. I visited the website of the William Way LGBT (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender) Community Center that would host the  - I quote: “groundbreaking” - event looking for more. One read: “Philadelphia has enjoyed a legacy of being a great music city. We’re also a city that affirms the lives of LGBT people. Hosting the first LGBT jazz festival in North America provides an opportunity to showcase the rich and vibrant culture of our city. (...) The festival will serve as the finale for the William Way LGBT Community Center’s annual music series and highlight the intersection between sexual orientation and gender identity within the jazz community.”

I believe that an important principle when dealing with other people, other cultures, is to first listen to the people themselves, to try and get to know and understand them better; their thoughts, their life experiences, their sensibilities, their needs and convictions. Thus, I am sure the Centre must have had a clear view on the necessity of a gay jazz festival, but still, even after consulting its website, it was not clear for why this initiative might be considered “visionary”. Why would gay jazz musicians need a gay jazz festival to present their work? Would this help raise awareness regarding gay people´s rights? Could it be because they don´t usually have a place in the jazz festivals being organized in the US and abroad? Why should a music festival aim to highlight “the intersection between sexual orientation and gender identity within the jazz community” (and how would it do it?) and not simply the artists and their music?

I am frequently asking myself more or less the same questions when it comes to disabled artists. People working with them and the associations representing them claim that they don't usually get to see their work presented in the usual festivals and the programming of cultural venues in general. It is considered of lesser quality and many times, once a venue programmes a show or an exhibition, they feel that they have filfilled their obligations towards disabled artists and no more is needed in a season. This is a reality indeed. Are we moving forward, though, and are we somehow solving the problem by organizing “special” disabled artists festivals, exhibitions, etc.?

Michelle Ryan, "Intimacy", Unlimited 2014 (photo taken from the Unlimited website)

Between 2 and 7 September another edition of the festival Unlimited took place in London, a big event, with works especially commissioned for it, which “celebrates the artistic vision and originality of disabled artists”. In a country like the UK, which, compared to others, has already taken a number of necessary steps towards respecting disabled people´s rights, what is the role of a festival like Unlimited today?

Between 13 September and 15 October the Musée de Grenoble is organizing Le Mois de l´Accessibilité. One reads on the website that the museum invites people with disabilities to discover their exhibitions and activities during the whole year, giving all necessary assistance. So, what is the purpose of this “special” month?

Considering these and other initiatives, I keep questioning myself who attends these festivals, exhibitions, activities and what happens after? Do they attract the already “converted” or they appeal to a wider audience? Do gay or disabled or black artists become more acknowledged by the sector and the public? Are they seen as the professionals they are? Are we moving towards an inclusive representation, where they are seen first and above all as artists, or rather curators and audiences still go to see something “special”, confined in a specific space and time, its “own” space and time? Do these festivals help us move towards caring more and more about the art and less and less about “the rest”?

I´ve written in the past about promoting shows which involved disabled people without giving a “warning” to the public that this would be the case. People bought their tickets, watched the show, they might or not have felt a certain discomfort and some left very pleasantly surprised with the quality of what they had seen. Wasn´t this a step towards learning that the “rest” didn´t actually make a difference? Shouldn´t our goal – the artists´, the curators´, the education and communications professionals´, the disabled people´s associations´ - be to work towards turning the difference mainstream?

When reading “Museums and Migration” (ed. Laurence Gouriévidis) this summer, I was pleased to see that this was the principle followed in some museum exhibitions in countries like Canada, Australia or the UK, countries with high levels of immigation that have seen at certain times government strategies that aimed to deal with “the tension between the recognition of a culturally diverse society and the need to articulate a national identity that projects a culturally cohesive nation” (Mary Hutchison and Andrea Witcomb, p.228). These museums moved beyond the ethnic festival, the Week of China – India – Pakistan – Nigeria – Bolivia, etc. (usually concentrating on music and food), and looked for ways to turn the migrant communities´ stories part of the main national story and to “promote positive feelings about people feeling at home across cultures and the idea that people in many parts of the world live within cultures that are already transnational, cosmopolitan and characterized by cultural hybridity” (Kylie Message, p. 60).

I believe that this is the way forward; it´s to stop drawing attention to the difference and making it part of the story. I quoted once before Morgan Freeman who considered Black History Month to be ridiculous, refusing to see his history resumed in a month, and, when asked “So, how are we gonna get rid of racism?”, he simply answered: “Stop talking about it!”. Do we still need gay, black, disabled, ethnic months-festivals-fairs-shows? Maybe we still do, I don´t deny it. But do we also have a plan for moving things forward?

More on this blog

The beginning and the ending of a b&w week in Vienna

Other texts

Monday, 8 September 2014

What lies beyond?

Freeman Tilden
When reading Elaine Heumann Gurian´s “Civilizing the Museum”, a bit more than a year ago, I remember having one thought and two feelings. I thought how it was possible to have come for the first time across her writings and visionary thinking about museums so late, after studying and working in the field for almost 20 years. I had a warm feeling of comfort, realizing that ideas and concerns constantly on my mind were not exactly new and that someone like Elaine had expressed them so beautifully and thoroughly before, influencing a number of people and institutions she worked for. But I also had a bitter feeling of frustration, realizing how slow really change is, since things Elaine has pointed out some time ago and worked for are still an issue today.

When I finished Freeman Tilden´s “Interpreting Our Heritage” last month, I smiled. I had the same one thought and two feelings. How is it possible to only read Tilden now?! How inspiring his writing, how clear everything becomes when one goes through his six principles of interpretation and numerous examples. And how disappointing to see that, more than half a century later, we´ve learnt little and practiced even less.

Tilden wrote the book in 1957, when he was 74 years old and after a long career as journalist, novelist and playwright. As Russell E. Dickenson points out in the forward of the fourth edition, “In his association with parks, Tilden developed an interest in how the national parks shaped American identity as well as individual identity, urging citizens to derive meaning and inspiration for and from precious natural and historical resources.”

This is what Tilden wished for citizens and this is where his expectations of interpretation and interpreters lied. “Interpreters decide what stories to tell, how to tell them and who to tell them to, a serious responsibility [p.2]; (...) The visitor´s chief interest is in whatever touches his personality, his experiences and his ideals [p.36]; (...) But the purpose of interpretation is to stimulate the reader or hearer toward a desire to widen his horizons of interest and knowledge and to gain an understanding of the greater truths that lie behind any statement of fact [p. 59]; (...) Not with the names of things, but by exposing the soul of things -  those truths that lie behind what you are showing your visitor. Not yet by sermonizing; nor yet by lecturing; not by instruction but by provocation [p. 67]; (...) to put your visitor in possession of at least one disturbing idea that may grow into a fruitful interest [p. 128]”.

His vision thus summarised, here are Tilden´s six principles of interpretation:

1. Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.

2. Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information. But they are entirely different things. However all interpretation includes information.

3. Interpretation is an art, which combines many arts, whether the materials presented are scientific, historical or architectural. Any art is in some degree teachable.

4. The chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.

5. Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, and must address itself to the whole man rather than any phase.

6. Interpretation addressed to children (say up to the age of twelve) should not be a dilution of the presentation to adults, but should follow a fundamentally different approach. To be at its best it will require a separate program.

When reading this, I did, of course, think of museums; of the richness that lies within them which is inaccessible to so many. In many cases, by choice: the choice of those who have the great responsibility of interpreting, of revealing, of provoking, of touching most peoples souls and not just the brains of a few, but, although having the power to decide, their main concern is to communicate with and be acknoweldged by their peers. This is one reason, in my opinion, the most important, the most determinant. Another reason is that, in this context, professionals who have technical preparation in this field struggle to be heard and, all too often, lose the battle. Another reason still is that many other people working in this field haven´t got technical preparation for what they are asked to do, and they are not given any either. I remember once at a training course, during a heated discussion regarding the resonsibilities of museum people working for themselves and their peers, one lady raised her hand and said: “Please, don´t say that we are only worried about ourselves and our peers. I just don´t know how to do things differently, and this is why I am here”....

It is the combination of these factors that makes Heumann Gurian, Tilden, Cotton Dana (to mention another favourite of mine) sound bitterly relevant and contemporary, more than 20 or 50 or 100 years later.

It happens that I finished Tilden´s book and started writing these lines in the middle of a national park, that of Tzoumerka in Greece. The beauty of the scenery was breathtaking. I kept thinking of his words: “Interpretation takes the visitor beyond the point of his aesthetic joy, toward a realization of the material forces that have joined to produce the beauty around him.” And this is what the people I met did for me. They took me - with simplicity, enthusiasm, and a profound knowledge of things - beyond, much beyond what was visible to me. They were not all professionals, but they were people with a love for that place, wishing to share it. And they made my whole experience even greater.

Still on this blog

Curiosity killed the visitor

Plaka Bridge, National Park of Tzoumerka, Greece