Monday, 30 July 2012

Guest post: "Here´s to cultural diplomacy", by Caroline Miller (UK)

Caroline Miller is the dynamic and visionary director of Dance UK. She is one of those people who have the capacity to ‘think big’ and who work hard to make things actually happen, inspiring others to join and work with them. One of Dance UK´s major achievements was the opening, last April, of the first clinic for injured dancers, integrated in the british National Health System. While participating in the Kennedy Center´s Summer International Fellowship this year, Caroline realized she has one more role: that of a cultural diplomat. In this post, she shares her thoughts on the actual role cultural diplomacy can play in fostering mutual understanding. I couldn´t have wished for a more beautiful text to celebrate the completion of our second year at the Kennedy Center. mv

DESH, by Akram Khan Company. Choreographer/Performer: Akram Khan.  (Photo: © Richard Haughton)

I’ve been thinking a lot about cultural diplomacy in the last week. As the Director of Dance UK, the main advocacy organization supporting the professional dance sector in Britain, I’m concerned about raising the profile of dance in society whilst arguing for its value. I spend much less time thinking about the role dance has in promoting and showcasing British culture and society.

This changed when I met a group of cultural attaches last week as part of the Summer International Arts Management Fellowship at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. All experienced American civil servants, the group was about to leave for new postings around the world and they were keen to meet the international arts managers. Though I’d worked with various cultural attaches in London and benefitted from their support for specific arts projects, this was the first time I’d really stopped to think about the strategic purpose of these government positions and what they were trying to achieve in the big picture.

According to the Institute of Cultural Diplomacy, the American political scientist and author Dr. Milton C. Cummings defines cultural diplomacy as “the exchange of ideas, information, values, systems, traditions, beliefs, and other aspects of culture, with the intention of fostering mutual understanding”. This definition could have been used to describe my experience as a Summer International Fellow at the DeVos Institute of Arts Management. Does that mean I am a cultural diplomat?

What I’d thought was a great personal opportunity for my professional development and to take back skills and management ideas to my organisation, was actually just as much about me becoming an ambassador promoting the ideas, values and culture of Britain.

Reflecting on completing my first year as a Summer International Fellow in 2011, I had talked to my friends about my surprise that globalization and homogenization of culture wasn’t as common as I’d accepted. I’d spent an intense month living and working with arts managers from 28 countries and they had talked about their dramatically different working worlds in countries such as Zimbabwe, Egypt, Pakistan, Moldova and Cambodia, amongst others. Day to day we exchanged ideas, traditions and value systems from our countries. “In my country” became our collective catch-phrase.

Our experiences were wildly different. From the regions which didn’t have a culture of buying tickets for arts events to countries where political corruption and revolutions were the back-drop and influencer of arts production.

Working alongside arts managers from five continents, I’d been elevated from being the manager of a dance organization to “the Brit”, to the representative of an entire colonial history! Though it was said in jest, the stereotype of colonial British Empire was real and still current.

What, however, wasn’t stereotyped was the interest and excitement around British arts, whether it was theatre, musicals, visual arts, museums, music or dance.  This was the area of British-ness that caught international colleagues’ interest and imaginations. It was through the arts that people had gained a more sophisticated understanding of British society, values and beliefs. This for me was enough to prove the value of cultural diplomacy and the role of the arts as an effective communicator for the best attributes of individual nations.

Entity, by Wayne McGregor/Random Dance, 2008. (Photo © Ravi Deepres)
I’ve had to think again about how I talk about the value of dance in the UK, whether it is the British Bangladeshi Akram Khan whose show Desh explores a fictionalized relationship with his father (watch here); Wayne McGregor/Random Dance’s abstract contemporary dance mixed with new technologies (watch here); Rosie Kay’s dance performance Five Soldiers, which she researched by training with the army and spending time at the Birmingham hospital which cares for injured soldiers returning from Afghanistan (watch here); or DV8’s Can We Talk About This which explored freedom of speech, censorship and offence in British Society (watch here). Together, they say more about the real Britain of today, rich with tensions between tradition and modernity, religion and spirituality than any essay could capture.

By the time you read this post, the London Olympics will have opened and over one billion people worldwide will have watched the spectacular opening ceremony. As I write, I have only the smallest clues as to what the event will hold as details. We know that it will include many of Britain’s greatest artists and talents and its theme is “the Isles of Wonder”. The creative team, including Danny Boyle (known worldwide as the Director of the film Slumdog Millionaire), has promised a singularly British show. The Daily Telegraph reports that the show starts in a “green and pleasant land”, passes through the industrial revolution and a celebration of the right to protest, and the public service of British National Health Service nurses and maybe another key element of British life… the big Saturday night out. It also promises to be that rare thing in an opening ceremony – funny! Following the dress rehearsal, one participant tweeted that the ceremony is “Splendidly British and magnificently bonkers”!

Whatever the London 2012 opening ceremony includes, I am sure it will effectively communicate to a mass audience more about modern Britain in just one show than politicians have achieved in decades. And my parting thought: we must remember that no matter what our countries financial difficulties (or not), the arts have a role to play challenging the idea of what a country is and stands for… So here’s to cultural diplomacy.

Caroline Miller is Director of Dance UK, the national voice for the professional dance sector in the United Kingdom. She started her career as a box office assistant, before working as a theatre marketing manager and a publicist for major London arts venues including the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the Southbank Centre and Sadler’s Wells Theatre. She was Head of Publicity for the international art book publishers Phaidon Press. Caroline won a fellowship from the European Union identifying outstanding female emerging cultural leaders which enabled her to undertake the first MA in Cultural Leadership at City University, London in 2007. At Dance UK she created the Dance Manifesto which was presented to the British government and inspired similar documents around the world and she established and runs the All Party Parliamentary Dance Group which is a group of politicians who champion dance in government.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Comfort and disturbance - Part II

I was curious to find out where the quote from my last post came from: “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”. I did a search on Google and the name that came up with most frequency (although there seem to be at least two more contestants) is Cesar A. Cruz, Mexican poet, educator and human rights activist. I suppose that every sector - be it the social, the educational, the political, the media, the artistic/cultural sector - honestly wishing to have an impact on people´s lives aims at the same thing: to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable.

This is exactly what Washington has been for me these last weeks. I am always somewhere between the two, sometimes leaning on the comfort side, others on the disturbance. For all good reasons, I suppose.

I could talk about a lot of things, but I´ll only talk about two: two people, whom we had the privilege to meet. These are their stories:

Yvette Campbell
, an ex-Alvin Ailey dancer, is the President and CEO of Harlem School of the Arts (HSA). In January 2011, she accepted the invitation to head the HSA at a time when it was carrying a significant debt and was facing closure. Apart from the existence of the debt, she diagnosed the following issues: the school was mainly known to older people who had some memories of it from the 60s; the building was quite prohibiting, visually inaccessible, hiding the ‘treasures’ it kept inside (Yvette, herself being a dancer, had never walked into it); there was a need to re-tell the story, to the immediate but also to the larger community, and to build a ‘family’ that could contribute (also and especially financially) towards the school’s sustainability. It was around these problems and needs that Yvette Campbell built her strategy, focusing heavily on good institutional marketing and being open to every opportunity that would help the school be 'the talk of the town', placing it into people´s minds and hearts.

In the months that followed Yvette Campbell´s arrival, Harlem School of the Arts  made sure they kept the media regularly informed on their activities and the determination to keep the school open. In April 2011, just three months after Yvette took up her position, there was an opportunity for a feature article on the new Director in Essence, which helped to significantly boost the school´s visibility. (Photo: Kwaku Alston)
Among the many things Yvette shared with us, I would like to highlight two. First, her relationship with the HSA team. Yvette did not bring in with her a ‘dream team’ to make a ‘miracle’ happen. When taking up her position, she started by finding out what each member of the team was doing. She then shared her vision and objectives with them, she explained what the goal was and told them what she expected from each one. Those who didn´t live up to the expectations were invited to leave, just like Yvette thinks that she should be asked to leave if she didn´t do her job. She aims to have a focused, motivated and dedicated team and she wants to be surrounded by people who are smarter than her in their own fields. The second point I would like to highlight is her relationship with the ‘family’. Yvette made herself accountable from day 1 to the school´s stakeholders and to those who might be able and interested in helping fulfil its mission (especially financially). She realized she had to share the story, so she´s been sharing information on the evolution of the project by personally sending detailed reports to a few dozen people (initially on a daily basis, then weekly and then monthly). She calls these “the CEO reports”. This is her way of keeping them all informed on the progress the school (and herself as CEO) is making in achieving the established goals and also of keeping them all involved in this collective effort, reminding them of the need for their support. Listening and watching Yvette Campbell, we have that very distinct feeling that we have in front of us a natural-born leader. Her energy, enthusiasm, determination, her structured thinking make us feel that she’s the right person at the right place. Thanks to her and the rest of the HSA team, a year and a half later the school is back on track and towards paying off its debt, becoming a financially heathy arts institution.

Our second remarkable encounter was with Taro Alexander
. Taro, an actor and teacher, stutters since the age of three. He spent years and years trying to be just another cool boy and not to be seen as a freak; trying to hide, with a number of tricks, the fact that he stuttered (but not when on stage). He personally knows what a struggle this is for a lot of children and young people, who form part of a community of 60 million people around the world. So, in 2001 he founded Our Time, an organization that helps children who stutter to improve their confidence and communication skills through theatre. At the same time, it assists parents and teachers, including speech therapy teachers at schools, the majority of whom are very little prepared to deal with stuttering. This is a small organization of 5, working at the moment with approximately 150 children, hardly what could be of interest to potential sponsors and donors, looking for large projects that can offer the desired visibility and recognition. Thus funding has always been an issue and one of the ways of tackling it was the organization of an annual event, a gala, in order to raise funds. Things were quite difficult in the beginning, where the organization ended up actually losing money. But Taro Alexander and his team kept focused, continued with their work, continued organizing a good quality and exciting event, and managed to have better and better, albeit modest, fundraising results. Their best year ever was 2010, when Carly Simon, a famous singer - who also stutters -, accepted the invitation to be that year’s honoree, attracting a lot of people to the event and helping to raise more money.

The year of 2010 was the turning point for another reason. Taro Alexander was asked to give his opinion on the script for a new Broadway play on King George, the king who stuttered. Later on, it turned out that the script actually became a Hollywood film, starring Colin Firth,
Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey Rush. Taro was invited to the premiere. He was overwhelmed by the film and by Colin Firth´s performance. As soon as it finished, and overcoming his shyness, Taro went to congratulate the screenwriter, David Seidler (a stutterer himself), and asked him if he would accept to be the 2011 honoree in the annual Our Time fundraising gala. He accepted, but the fact that he was not a very known person was a reason of concern for some people involved in the organization of the gala regarding the impact his name would have on the fundraising effort. But just look at what happened in the months that followed: people talked more and more about the film; The King´s Speech was awarded every possible prize, including the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for David Seidler; Colin Firth would not be able to attend the Our Time gala, but agreed to be Honorary Chair; the singer Carly Simon accepted the invitation to perform. 

The fundraising gala was a huge success and also the award for a decade of consistent and dedicated work. Taro Alexandre and his small team are now trying to carefully build on this success, considering the organization´s concrete mission and its resources. One thing they are certainly doing better and better is registering and sharing their impact, a primary way of communicating with their ‘family’, with existing and potential new members and donors.

Why were these two encounters particularly important? What did we take away?  We took away the comfort: about the things that can and are being done. We took away the disturbance: about the things that can, and should, but are not happening. And we were also reminded that it takes courage, persistence and determination: from overcoming one’s shyness, to dealing with teams, to bringing about significant change. Because going against the wall is part of the process.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Guest post: "Bayimba: a catalyst in a heavily challenged arts sector", by Faisal Kiwewa (Uganda)

Faisal Kiwewa is a quiet man full of energy and determination. He has been working arduously to put the arts and culture on the map of his home country, Uganda, but has expanded his contribution and impact on the whole of East Africa and the rest of the african continent. His mind is constantly working, planning the next step to take the cause further and further. In this post he tells us the story, in the form of a fairy tale, of his Bayimba Cultural Foundation. But the Bayimba team is working to make the fairy tale become and remain true. mv

Bayimba International Festival of the Arts (Photo: Bayimba Cultural Foundation)

Once upon a time …

… I picked on the interest to study and observe the state of arts and culture in my country Uganda. It was not difficult to note that there was a lack of relevant and good (informal) training opportunities and institutions, a lack of creativity and essential artistic and professional skills amongst artists, arts organizations and other stakeholders, a lack of adequate production and performance facilities and a lack of platforms for exposure and interaction. When digging deeper I came to realize that this was caused by three main root causes: first, a lack of awareness and appreciation for the role of arts and culture in shaping society; second, a lack of investment in arts and culture, and third, a lack of interaction and collaboration between stakeholders that make up the arts and culture sector.

As is the case in many developing countries, culture is not a priority for the government. It is seen as a subsidiary issue in tackling poverty. Financial support to the sector is therefore minimal, and cultural policies and strategies take a rather static approach to culture instead of looking at it as a dynamic, innovative and creative force in shaping society. Support from the private sector has also been limited and necessarily selective. Private investors have focused on subsectors where market risk is manageable and profits can be maximized. At the same time stakeholders in the sector have not properly organized themselves to bring about change in this status quo while most projects and activities are often implemented in isolation and without a long-term vision, leave alone a vision for the arts and culture sector as a whole. 

I came to the conclusion that the potential of arts and culture as powerful contributors to social and economic development was highly neglected and under-utilized. It was time to cause some change! Bayimba Cultural Foundation was thereupon founded with the aim of becoming the catalyst for that change!

… Bayimba started its journey …

Being faced with these multiple challenges and the enormous tabula rasa – at all levels all actions basically still had to be undertaken – Bayimba, as inexperienced as it was, started developing its first programme. Despite many hiccups, the first Bayimba International Festival of the Arts was organized in combination with three training workshops for artists to enhance skills and stimulate artistic collaborations. This was back in 2008 and we sew the first seeds. The following years, Bayimba grew and managed to develop a comprehensive and ambitious programme aimed at addressing many of the identified challenges. 

To raise the profile and the position of the arts and the cultural sector as a whole, Bayimba decided to engage in advocacy and lobby activities alongside training activities and a platform to expose artistic talents. Back in 2009, Bayimba initiated the first debates on the role of arts and culture in society and woke up the sector. A year later, the first Uganda Conference on Arts and Culture was held as a platform for joint discussion and action. Up till today, Bayimba is instrumental in bringing stakeholders together and organizing the arts and culture sector, all with a view to join hands to bring about change.

To provide further platforms for exposure of artistic talents, to ensure that a wider audience can enjoy a variety of cultural expressions, and to enable a country-wide development of the arts and culture sector, one-day festivals were added to the programme in 2010, together with a range of training activities to develop local talent and an artist exchange programme between these regions. As of yet, Bayimba’s festivals are held in five regions, providing a platform for local artists and touring opportunities for already established artists, that culminate in the Bayimba International Festival of the Arts that is set to celebrate is 5th edition this September.

All along, Bayimba also continued to invest in developing artistic talent. Training workshops were held to introduce new art disciplines to Uganda, such as photography, street theatre, installation art, or poetry performances. Some of its programmes, such as music training, are gradually developing into a more structured training programme and are designed to last. At the same time, Bayimba realised there is also a need to train other sector stakeholders than artists and started offering training to arts managers and arts journalists in 2011, as they are equally important actors for the sector to grow and flourish.

Due to its growing relevance and reputation in Uganda, Bayimba also became an important catalyst in the East African region and on the African continent. It has become a well-respected member of a number of regional and continental networks. Most recently, in May 2011, Bayimba also took the lead to launch DOADOA as an initiative that provides a platform for professional networking and joint learning, brings together stakeholders and links people, organizations, businesses, knowledge and technology with a view to create demand and develop a market for the performing arts and unlock the potential of the East African creative industry.

Arts Management Training Programme for arts managers from all over Africa (Photo: Bayimba Cultural Foundation)

To have a lasting impact on the sector, Bayimba has also sought to develop and establish lasting systems and structures. The institutionalisation of the music training programme, as mentioned, is just one example. To increase access to finance for artists and increase investment in the sector, Bayimba is also setting up a tailor-made and innovative crowdfunding platform for artistic projects in East Africa and a small loan scheme for artists in Uganda. All along, Bayimba has also been planning for the establishment of a multi-functional arts infrastructure in Uganda that would be a significant hub for the arts in Uganda, East Africa and on the continent. This would be the crowning of all what has been achieved so far.

… and gradually changed the landscape …

I dare to say that Bayimba’s interventions during the past 5 years have resulted in a gradual development of the sector. Through its exceptional combination of programmes and activities, Bayimba has managed to address various challenges and encouraged other to do the same. It has done so by leading by example, with a young, energetic and ambitious team that has not avoided taking risks to initiate equally ambitious projects and programmes; by working through partnerships and developing an extensive network of partners; by ensuring grass-root involvement; and by developing Bayimba into a locally owned brand. An interesting workforce of creative entrepreneurs in the arts, more especially in music, dance, film and theatre, has emerged ever since, putting great effort into developing and promoting the arts. And Bayimba is proud that it has contributed to this new era of creative entrepreneurship in Uganda. We will continue to do serve our artists, the arts and our audiences, each in their own right, to ensure creativity at the edge. As such, we will not only serve the arts and culture sector, but the community, society and the world at large ...

… for the arts and culture in Uganda to happily live ever after.

Faisal Kiwewa
is the Founding Director of Bayimba Cultural Foundation and is currently chairing the organizing committee of the Uganda Annual Conference on Arts and Culture (UACAC).

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Special post: André e. Teodósio on The United States of European Culture

On June 3, André e. Teodósio was invited to address the European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism, Sport, Media and Youth in a conference entitled Current Challenges and Opportunities in the Funding of Arts and Culture, organized by Guimaraes 2012 - European City of Culture. It is a honour and a great pleasure to publish here his thought-provoking and deeply inspiring speech.

First of all, I would like to thank Dr. Rui Catarino for having invited and given me the opportunity to share some words in the presence of the European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism, Sport, Media and Youth, Dr. Androulla Vassiliou and her delegation here present in one of the Capitals of Culture of 2012, event where in the long run I will present two performances. 

As an artistic creator I’m very positive towards cultural issues as they are today. I’m reasonably free (unlike many non-Europeans artists, I can say the most obnoxious things and get away with it, even with laughs) and there are loads of European artistic circuits, festivals, subventions and so on for any kind of artist, being them European or not, which offer everyday unimaginable opportunities. But more than the choices, we have to understand the offer.

So the thing that came immediately to my mind as I was writing this text was to state first and foremost that: Europe’s new enemy, probably unlike what everybody here expects, is the United States of European Culture (U.S.E.C.).

Having said that, I understand that you might feel like eye-rolling for I did it myself when I wrote the sentence. I asked: Why another enemy? To what are you opposing to? But then I thought it over, calmed down and actually found some reason in it. What started out as anger soon revealed itself as being anguish, for I was criticizing myself.  I’ll try to explain the previous statement, hopefully not in a boring way; just the point of view of an artist who, of course, will always be seen as ‘too Utopian’. But we’ll get to that!

If we’re to accept the hypothetical fact that Europe is at this moment facing simultaneous problems, we can assert that they can only be coming from within. We cannot accuse anyone, for we cannot forget that the other is always innocent until the opposite is proven. So, embracing ourselves with a problem we need to deal with, we should try to analyze its origin: is it because we were trying to have something our own way? Or were we expecting something when one should embrace everything without prejudice?

To exist a fault, it’s not that of the New Economies versus the Old Economies (there is no such thing as ‘Old Economies’). It’s neither the Emancipation or Rise of New Forms of Democracies or the Spread of Equality against an Established Tradition, in this case being ours (there is no such thing as ‘tradition’ or rather let’s go the other way around, so that people don’t get already mad with me: since there are many traditions and many of them have changed  through time, it would be a contradiction to defend a concept such as ‘tradition’).

Having put aside Tradition and the Emergence of Unexpected ‘New Things’, to exist a problem in Europe it is rooted in itself (and there is no guilt involved in what I am stating or other psychoanalytical passwords). And which problem is that which is rooted in ourselves?
We don’t know. Wow.
We have simply forgotten. We forgot... Us.
But unlike the Belgium detectives, such as Poirot, we don’t have any clues about the crime.
We don’t have an idea.
We don’t have Art anymore.
And if we don’t want to perpetuate this problem infinitely  (the self-eating 8 which is the mathematical symbol of the infinite), then we have to separate the tail from the mouth.

What does this mean in practical terms?

It means that when we read the topic of this conference - “The current challenges and opportunities in the funding of Arts and Culture -, this theme is usually, in the eyes of the public, intertwined with economic, political or social issues. And there are different reasons for this. Being it sometimes a result, a strategy or an issue:

a) the RESULT of Populist Economic Reasoning (either because, as in the left-wing point of view, culture brings economic development or because, as in the right-wing point of view, money which buys food should not be spent in invisible things such as art);

b) a STRATEGY of Cynical Political Democracy (either because, as in the left-wing point of view, culture is a means to give people what they supposedly expect or because, as in the right-wing point of view, governments are viewed not to be engaging themselves in directing public taste);

c) and finally because it is a kernel ISSUE when Defending Humanist Social points of view (in both the right and left-wing points of view, either because culture is seen as a hedonist builder of the community-to-be or because it perpetuates a colonized way of seeing the others).

This is what is currently going on. Every discourse defending culture always embodies one of those pre-given subjects I mentioned before (economic, social and political). But by no means should we fall in this discursive trap, with which the so-called social sciences have seized for about a century what has been one of Europe’s landmarks since its beginnings: being Critical.  And don’t get me wrong: being critical in relation to others but, above all, in relation to oneself.

Choosing among pre-existing options is a survival kit dilemma, not a choice. It’s a forced choice implying that you should forget yourself and stop criticizing. If we dive in a heideggerian way into the word ‘Critical’, we will find ‘Crisis’ as the etymologic root of that word, ‘krisis’  meaning ‘the turning point’.

So where do we stand if we always have to choose and ground our opinions among those pre-given concepts I mentioned before? Then there is no krisis, in the sense that there is no REAL turning point (it’s not enough to change our position on the sofa). And if there’s no turning point, then we are not being critical.

And I bet you already know what I’m aiming at. When we aren’t Critical, we don’t have an  Idea. Only pre-given concepts. And when we don’t have an Idea, we forget Us. And when we forget ourselves.... well, I think I don’t have to go on, you’ve understood me already.

When we aren’t critical for some time, that can be seen as a phase. But when we aren’t being critical for a long period of time, then it’s not a phase anymore. We are doing it. We are forgetting. We have stopped being critical.  We have stopped being Europeans. We are something else. We render and accommodate ourselves to our survival in a community,  the world we are living with its pre-given concepts, and we stop building the world we want to live in. I know it sounds as a cliché. But I have always defended that it is better to start off from a cliché than to end in one.

So let’s start again with a cliché: Building the world we want to live in, that’s called ‘Democracy’, right? The same Democracy that emerged against all kinds of one-hit wonders, right? That was able to write Gnothi Seauton, right? So what happens when we forget Us? When there is no Gnothi Seauton anymore?

We can recall certain dictators saying about illiteracy: “Now we don’t have to be ashamed of not knowing how to read.” Well, I’m ashamed of not knowing what was happening before I was born, but I didn’t choose my time and place of birth. But as demos from democracy, I will take the tools that were given to me and use them in order not to be ashamed of what the world is going to be tomorrow.

Yes, I will say at the borders of other countries: I am European. But what they should hear is: I am Europe. And no, it’s not because of my accent!

You might ask me now: but are those people who built the pre-given concepts, the ones that rule you, the ones that create and moderate invisible dictatorships that lead to forgetfulness, not European?

In the sense of democracy, of the demos, the ones with no part: No.
If they are not in the common, if they are building groups, then: No.
If they keep on forgetting someone: No.

They are not European. I can try not to be so harsh and say that they aren’t totally, but again, that means that they aren’t. They live in a Principality like Monaco, that’s why their point of view is ‘principal’ on all matters; but, unlike the Moneguasques, they are transversely invisible.

They function like Bildeberg Club, the difference being that in the process of its emergence they auto-proclaimed themselves officially as a working group composed by both socially privileged people and also a lot of poor left-wingers.

So no, they are not European. They left Europe a long time ago. They live in a new particularity characterized by true European forgetfulness. And the remainders or the leftovers of their old life are merely accomplishments turned into decoration, atmosphere: Aesthetics. Therefore, the name I proposed for this effect: The United States of European Culture - A federation with a fat duration.

I will explain my insistence, which you must have already noticed, on the idea of Europe and the duality between Art and Culture.

For the first time in history, societies have created something which cannot stand against any other country for the simple fact that it is not one. Europe is supposed to be a Utopia composed of different parts guaranteeing that conquered Universal Rights remain so.

That’s about it. And there is no reason for having inside Europe other different Europes, such as the one I mentioned before (but the list goes on: United States of Economic Europe, United States of Political Europe, etc.), because countries have already their own agendas. So enough of Europe. As it is not a country that fights other countries, so it shouldn’t be a singular Culture fighting other cultures. Europe is about distributing the ‘being equally different’ status to everybody.

In relation to Art and Culture: we’re composed of both, and so they should co-exist in order to fulfill our subjectivity process. But that’s not what’s happening. For one of them has erased the other by colonizing its field of action. Mostly through immobilization: appearing so much that the other one slowly disappears. You know, like those persons that talk so much that they don’t give you time to say that they have spinach on their teeth, and then they kiss you... a mess that spoils the image of love so much that, even if you marry that person later, you can never forget that day. And the other knowing it is condemned to the “Forget-me, forget-me-not” syndrome.

If we accept what Emilie Henriot has greatly said - “Culture is what lives on in man when he has forgotten everything” -, then, in the other way around, we are able to say that: “Art is what lives on in man when he has remembered everything.” There is a huge difference between them, as you can see: Art remembers, Culture forgets... (forgets Art and many more things, by the way).

So whenever you hear the words taste, feelings, aesthetics, anything that deals with pre-given concepts, rules, or remainders of Art: THIS IS CULTURE.  But when you decide - as Goddard very well puts in Je Vous Salue Sarajevo -, to move a bit away from the rule and create an exception, turning your ideal real, building a way of being, then you are in the domain of Ethics: THAT IS ART. They are supposed to be a Yin and Yan.

Having reached page 4 of my text, it should be clear by now that in the U.S. E. C., Culture behaved as the doppelganger of the twins. Culture has risen to a state where it has inside itself Culture and nothing more. And like a girl that in a shipwreck wants to get hold of her teddy bear, so Culture won’t even bother with its own contradictions (artists driving Porsches, festivals in the middle of corn-fields, oversized theaters proud to be empty). The girl doesn’t love the teddy bear, she knows very well it is a toy. She just wants it to confirm that she’s not alone, that it’s faithful to her schemes and mechanisms. Like Culture, she will simply not allow herself to be ashamed of loosing her position as the Master of herself when facing the real.

But let’s face it:

Just like the 'concrete' politics of the 80s in Portugal, with their famous highways, in Culture we have only seen bulldozers destroying gate-kept environments to impose Highways that connect Structures which organize hypothetical Intersections between Players that communicate in the language of the U.S.E.C. In Culture today, as when building highways, someone has to sell their land for someone to speculate over it. In Culture, as in highways, to get in, to that space that years before was your garden, you have to start playing by the rules: pay to get in; be fined and punished if you don’t follow the law; meanwhile, accidents will be fatal; you don’t have to have contact with reality if you are privileged to have one of those voices giving you directions; and you will get anywhere before the others if you have a better vehicle.

The intersection structures in the Cultural Highway follow the same lines: they are all about effort and adaptability skills (talk about being different!), interests (give something in return), group support and politically correct behavior, in case you wanna grab something to eat during the trip. When you cannot fulfill any of the criteria mentioned above, you’re advised that there’s always a non-private path alternative somewhere. And don’t be deceived by thinking that all this is made for the benefit of car lovers: in highways there are never car spotters, for highways are very well protected and promise apparent non-exclusion.

But also as in highways, artificial stress caused by the Cultural Supermarket Logistics which regulate cultural consumption of the Infrastructures in the U.S.E.C. has slowed down critical processes, driving little villages into desertification.

When was the last time you have seen a Cypriot performance in Europe? With the foundation of the circulation of products, the circulation itself asserted what where the products to be circulated (info-applications, pop culture, thematic art, etc.). It is time to put an End to the U.S.E.C. for, if we perpetuate it, on the long run we will have consumed ourselves into forgetfulness.

If fear is to exist, it is not that Art will disappear, it will keep on existing as always, with its ups and downs, off the road. What we have to fear is loosing the full potential of the Utopia we inaugurated. A Utopia where Wei Wei used to be free, where products where in constant flow inside a non-protectionist market, where literally everybody, even the smallest village, was contemplated as a whole; not just in the position of observer and consumer of the traffic, but as a global player in a space where there existed the possibility of accidents, for the unpredictable, for the unexpected, for the difference. A Cultural Utopia that Artists helped to build in order to obtain better conditions to access adequate media for their expression, things which they aren’t getting. What can we do, then, in this era where artists are being shut down and forgotten by a cultural federation? We can demand to stop forgetting.

Artists and their own on-going bio-politics are not strong enough to stop the mimetic pressure with which Culture sparks off paralysis by occupying today Art’s old role of being side by side with power making. To exist Real Democratic Power, both of them have to exist. How do we accomplish that?

By slowing down cultural systems and freeing them from the slavery of the new minority, aka Artists - this is not a joke -, to which they are subject when facing themselves everyday with demands to carry the burden of spectacular entertainment with which Culture colonizes language. Avoiding that production means to be 100% controlled by managers (producers, curators, agencies, Artistic alienated Colleges, Festivals, Subventions, etc.) and dividing those means with the artists themselves independently of their artistic activity, country, influences, groups etc., even if it does not fulfill Culture’s personal optically correct representation of what Art is or the Art that it is looking for.

I could recall here Dr. Rui Vieira Nery’s numerous rhizomatic proposals of embracing and protecting the whole of society’s all different sorts of artistic and cultural communities from garage bands to artistic societies. Let them create, curate, teach, and choose the place, the time and the way they want to develop their activity putting an End to the monopolization of the Cultural Processes of the U.S.E. C. How?

By rewarding generosity (the sponsors, societies, art consumers and art producers) and stop the blind attention given to those Cultural Structures which go on babbling about how they don’t have money to print thousands of posters that no one cares anyway. People go to performances either for the sake of ritual rite or to take care of their own mens sana!

By demanding judgment based as much on sameness of opportunities as in differences on the application.

The Cypriot performance issue I raised before wasn’t innocent (although I feel tempted to suggest that you should try to put an end to Belgium-looking performances which are presented everywhere), I thought that talking to you heart would be more efficient. If we aren’t ourselves able to recognize differences in every singular thing, we aren’t able to globalize, which in Europe should mean to include democratically in the whole all different parts.

It’s not enough to be individually an art lover and consumer, like Dr. Durão Barroso. There has to exist a Europe that accepts its federated governments’ demands but imposes agreements on Artistic regulations (if Agriculture does that for cabbages, Economy for debt, so Culture can do the same in relation to itself). For as we stand here, in this precise moment, Art is living a catastrophic moment in Portugal. We are all aware of its situation: Culture obtains 0,1%  from the whole Governmental budget (the art field being a recipient of 100% less than that); artists depend today directly on the Prime-Minister and his Secretary; artistic production has suffered cuts up to 400% (30% there, 50% here); collecting, sponsoring and cultural consumption are paralyzed due to the absence of rewards for these activities (when will a theatre ticket or the purchase of an art work be tax deductible as a prescribed medication for mens sana?); but above all this, in Portugal we have suffered small visibility outside its borders simply because we are unable to play the Highway games of U.S.E.C.

As I said in the beginning, I have been lucky, for I have found a strategy to play the game as many others. But against the lucky few, many other artists, ranging from all sorts of media, don’t fit the common flow chart products. And if they are still producing Art at all costs, sometimes with unimaginable effort, it is so for they decided not to abandon anyone on the long run. Why should they be left behind?  We know from History itself that after being shut down they will be shot down for being intruders in the immunity system. ‘Critical’ is at siege. Let’s be careful for with their death we will die too. Let’s put a stop to this Oblivion Process and ask: Europe, culturally, could you make a difference?

André e. Teodósio was born in Lisbon, where he lives since 1977, although he lived for some time in the United States of America (during the Clinton era). He’s a member of Teatro Praga (the most megalopsychic ™ theatre company of all times). He studied at Conservatório Nacional de Música, Escola Superior de Música and Escola Superior de Teatro e Cinema, places where he didn't really learn anything, and was a singer at Coro Gulbenkian (where he suffered for many years). He used to collaborate with the theatre company Casa Conveniente, but nowadays he works regularly with the theatre company Cão Solteiro. He has directed individually  performances of plays written by Sylvia Plath, Nikolai Gogol; he co-crearted Super-Gorila and Supernova with José Maria Vieira Mendes and André Godinho, and directed operas by Vaughan Williams, João Madureira, António Pinho Vargas and Puccini. He is the author of Shoot the Freak, Cenofobia and the Top Models cycle: Susana Pomba and Paula Sá Nogueira. Teatro Praga is currently touring worldwide their latest production, A Midsummer Night's Dream (text by Teatro Praga and music by Purcell).

Monday, 9 July 2012

Comfort and disturbance

Photo: Lalla Essaydi

Returning to Washington; meeting again my fellowship colleagues and the Kennedy Center team; the new fellows joining us this year; the first week of seminars, projects and presentations; the first museums and shows; the 4th of July celebration; the talks, the endless talks, about the history that is being written in some of our fellows´ countries... An inundation of thoughts and feelings.

The first seminars reminded us of the clarity of the Kennedy Center mission and of how disciplined this team is. Disciplined in the sense of concentrated, focused, organized, clear about its path and where it aims to get to. And I was unable not to feel once again surprised by the fact that all its members ‘speak the same language’, something I had never seen in practice before coming to the Kennedy Center and haven´t seen again since. There are no ‘deviations’ (which does not mean there may not be disagreements), the mission is concrete and everyone knows what he/she has to do to fulfill it. This is not easy to happen, but it is not impossible either. It takes a strong leader, conscious and clear about his/her vision; it takes good professionals surrounding the leader; it takes perseverance and discipline; it takes work, a lot of work; and it takes talking, a lot of talking, as Michael Kaiser would say.

This year we are joined by fellows from Oman, Singapore, Australia, Zimbabwe, Bosnia, Albania, Ireland, England and Colombia.  Each one represents a particular case within the cultural management field: publicly funded institutions, private ones, personal projects, funding institutions. Each one faces very specific challenges, but there are others, common almost to all: concerns regarding funding and sustainability; lack of cultural policies in the countries of origin; lack of planning; the audineces and their tastes and needs; social and technological challenges. As we are getting to know our new colleagues, it is with great pleasure and satisfaction that we are finding out about the progresses of some of the old ones in the last year; the small or big changes they have managed to bring about in their institutions, a result of our learnings at the Kennedy Center and also through our colleagues in the fellowship, experienced, entrepreneurial, intelligent, informed and concerned cultural managers. Being in their company is a great challenge.

The concerns of our egyptian colleagues regarding their new President (a member of the Muslim Brotherhood) and the stance he´s going to adopt regarding culture and the arts have often been the subject of discussion. I look at those people: courageous, determined, sensitive, full of dreams and willing to create and have an impact in their society (through culture and the arts), people who are fighting for democracy, who value their freedom and who reveal, at the same time, some anxiety and scepticism regarding the possible results of this fight. I think again of Marta Porto´s text The imaginary, a space for thinking about democracy, which was published here last week. I think again of the debate among North Africa Thinkers (in french) which the Programme Next Future organized last month. And I think of all of us, who assume the role, among others, of guardians of the democratic values. And I ask myself: What has happened to our democracy? What has happened to us? How do we use our freedom? What does it mean the fact that we have given up on our right and obligation to get involved in the affairs of the community (the ancient greeks used to call the person who would not get involved in the affairs of the city an “idiot”, which at the time meant “a private person”)? The fact that we are fighting for ideals and convictions, but we observe a strategic silence when these ideals are being violated by people whom we might need in the future? Or the fact that we consider ourselves to be untouchable and unaccountable when we take up management positions (at any level)? Culture nurtures sensitive and critical minds, it cultivates values, but little may happen if there is not a good fertilizer, that is intellectual honesty and awareness of the responsibilty, both personal and collective.

“The arts should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”, quoted a fellow during his presentation. And I had beautiful moments of comfort and disturbance last week. On Sunday, I visited Lalla Essaydi´s exhibition Revisions at the National Museum of African Art. Lalla Essaydi projects on the female body her thoughts on issues of genre, culture and religion. The exhibition includes photos, paintings and installations; beautiful, refreshing, provocative and sensual images. On Thursday, it was the premiere of Giselle at the Kennedy Center, by the Ballet de l´Opéra National de Paris, which is on tour in the US. It´s been many years since I last saw this ballet. The second act was of an indescribable beauty.