Monday 10 December 2012

Magic places

Workshop by Ricardo Lopes (Photo: Vasco Célio / Stills)
Blockbuster exhibitions attract big audiences and a lot of attention. They are perceived as “once in a lifetime” events. In the last twelve months, three of the big highlights were: Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Milan Court at the National Gallery in London; the Damien Hirst retrospective at the Tate Modern (it ran from April to September and by the time it closed it was the most popular solo show in the museum´s history); and there was also The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the parisian Avant-Garde at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (although, in the this case, the big issue was that the fashion exhibition Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations, also at the Metropolitan, had outdrown the art blockbuster in terms of attendance - read here).

On the occasion of the Leonardo exhibition, the Guardian launched the debate “Are blockbuster art shows worth queueing for?” and Observer writer Miranda Sawyer and Royal Academy CEO Charles Saumarez Smith  - defending the ‘no’ and the ‘yes’ respectively – discussed if and how can one appreciate art in crowded exhibition rooms. At the time, James Page added a more interesting aspect to this debate, by reminding in his blog that the discussion was revealing in a number of ways, not just in terms of the views of the two protagonists, but also as a natural tendency within the cultural sector to ask itself how its audiences think, feel or act rather than go direct to the audiences in question”.

Blockbuster exhibitions also raise the issue of scale. And this seems to be a great concern for a lot of people, since both as citizens in general, and as professionals in particular, they tend to feel small - and by ‘small’ they mean powerless, unable to create an impact.

The issue of scale has been in my mind as well. My thoughts recently have mostly concentrated on ideas and actions that are probably of a small or medium scale, but which still have an impact and can still make a difference in other people´s lives - apart from our own, of course. They are the ideas and actions that are within our reach, but which can still contribute towards a bigger whole.

Workshop by Maria Alcobia (Photo: Vasco Célio / Stills)
The project “Magic places” is an initiative of the Regional Cultural Authority of the Algarve. It brings together historic sites and contemporary artistic creation; it becomes the ‘magic place’ of an encounter between artists and young people under the care of social services. In concrete terms, this means that artists Maria Alcobia, Vasco Célio, Ricardo Lopes and Miguel Cheta (from the fields of dance, photography, ceramics and design respectively), coordinated by Tânia Borges Nunes (Atelier Educativo), worked together with young people and, inspired by the local heritage, taught them the technics of their art and produced some beautiful pieces together.

After the first edition, in 2010, there was a publication with texts written by all those involved. The second edition, in 2012, resulted in a one-day meeting last month, which brought together those involved and gave us the opportunity to get to know the project in more detail. Right in the start, a rare accomplishment took place in front of our eyes: representatives of the culture, education, and social fields sat around the same table and praised a project which they believe has accomplished a goal common to them all (isn´t this what it´s all about, how it should always be?). The day then went on and through films, photos and debates, we got to understand the huge vision behind this rather small-scale project.

There is no doubt that this has had a significant impact in the lives of all those involved. Listening to them, one realizes that it has been a process of discovery and inspiration and, in some cases, a mind-changing experience regarding ‘normality’ and ‘inclusion’. In that aspect, it seems that the objectives set by Regional Director Dália Paulo – “to allow for different perspectives, dialogues and experiences among the target audience, in a full exercise of citizenship” and “culture [as] an engine for social change” – have been met. I just felt it was a pity we didn´t get to hear the voice of the young people themselves, we didn´t get to hear the story of their participation and what it meant to them in their own words (an indication that the ‘natural tendency’ of the british cultural sector that James Page was talking about, also affects the portuguese cultural sector). Filomena Rosa, president of one of the social institutions involved, did bring some feedback, quoting in her presentation a few of the young people involved: “Photos in the town! I didn´t use to pay attention before, they were just old stones, but through the photos I learned”; or “I learned that a photo has got a lot to say, like a landscape that says something to us, with feelings”.

Workshop by Vasco Célio (Photo: Vasco Célio / Stills)  
In my final comment that day, I recalled the brazilian choreographer Lia Rodrigues - who didn´t set up her studio at a Rio de Janeiro slum wishing to resolve the problem of poverty or violence - and Daniel Barenboim – who didn´t create the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra hoping to bring peace in the Middle East (more in my post Places of encounter). The contribution of Culture, in the first place, is not related to issues like poverty, violence, crime, mental health, illiteracy, etc. Artists and culture professionals in general do not aim to take the role of social workers, teachers, politicians, policemen, priests or doctors. Culture, in the first place, is about critical thinking, self-expression (verbal and non-verbal), creativity, sensitivity; it´s about getting to know the ‘other’. So in that sense, when everything (culture, education, social action) comes together – in a ‘place of encounter’ or in a ‘magic place’ - I believe we have more chances of building a more democratic, more tolerant, more inclusive society; a society where we don´t live in compartments and we don´t define the ‘other’ based on their differences, but simply see them as human beings (not ´special´ or ‘disabled’ or ‘different’ or even ‘problematic’). “Magic Places” is the kind of project that brings together the necessary ingredients that can make this happen.

One final note: I was twice in Algarve recently in meetings with culture professionals. I felt there is a clear sense of purpose among them, there is a lot of motivation and dedication to the ‘cause’, there is satisfaction for what has been accomplished and a wish for more. And everything and everyone point towards the Regional Director, our colleague Dália Paulo. There is no doubt for me that it´s her vision, her professionalism, her knowledge and capacities that drive and inspire the whole team. Dália Paulo and the rest of the colleagues I met there are doing things at their own scale, making a ‘blockbuster’ difference in the lives of those living in the region. They are Wangari Maathai´s hummingbirds.

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