The Arts, Participation, and Global Interests

J.P. Singh
University of Edinburgh

Guy Gotto
Documentarian

Zach Marschall
George Mason University

IICR Global Cultural Fellows
doi: 10.18278/aia.3.1.4


Can participatory deliberations motivated by the arts help us understand ourselves?

Thirty-three Global Cultural Fellows appointed through the Institute for International Cultural Relations (IICR) during 2017–18 explored “cultural interests and values.” Their deliberations, reported below, included a week of intensive activities during the world-famous Edinburgh festivals in August 2017. The Fellows attended pre-selected events at the festivals, as well as structured deliberations at the University of Edinburgh. Cultural conversations, rooted in participatory research techniques, used to explore the creation, contestation and choices around our cultural interests and values.

The 70th anniversary of the birth of the festival city of Edinburgh in 1947 offered an important opportunity to explore the cultural values that created one of the largest annual cultural interactions in human history. The global values that informed the creation of the festival resulted from the vision of a few individuals and were fostered through a network of global and national institutions. Broadly, they reflected the Enlightenment Project with an optimistic view of learning from human interactions. Seventy years after the launch of the festivals, we ask ourselves how far we have come in terms of tolerance, understanding, and respect, as well as in the spirit of universalism.

This essay republishes the blog entries on the IICR website accompanying each day’s deliberation in August 2017. The Fellows’ deliberations were sub-divided into seven key themes relating to Cultural Interests and Values. Preliminary reflections from each fellow and faculty coordinators around these themes were published in Arts and International Affairs, Volume 2 Issue 2.

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Global Cultural Fellows Porgramme by Guy Gotto

In addition, documentarian Guy Gotto has prepared a short film to accompany each day’s discussions among the Fellows. These films are also published below for pedagogic purposes. The following multimodal entries for each day reproduce three things: (1) theme descriptions in italics; (2) IICR blog entries for each day, and (3) documentary films from each day. The entries are preceded by a short reflection from Guy Gotto on the ethnography of capturing participatory deliberations through visual media.

Reflections from a Documentarian on Creative Social Engagement

By Guy Gotto

As a practicing filmmaker, and particularly in my experience with documentary, I have learnt the importance of being engaged and present, even when the camera is not rolling. This enables additional information to be gleaned about the subjects (which I am able to incorporate into my work) and also helps to blur the line between what is and is not being documented. As such, subjects feel less self-conscious (or performative) when the camera is recording, leading to a more naturalistic style of filmmaking. These experiences have changed my own behaviour, and this has been crucial for how I documented the IICR Global Cultural Fellows programme.

Preparation for a large project with uncertain results means taking the time to research an organisation and understand its overall aims and objectives, along with the individuals involved. I endeavour to obtain a clear view of the organisation that I am working with in order to gain an understanding of its public-facing identity. From this, I am able to garner two key pieces of information: how the organisation wants to be perceived; and how I, as an autonomous observer, perceive the organisation. These jumping off points will eventually lead the narrative I construct.

A lens is trained on you; you pose for the picture. You change how you physically present yourself for others to see. With cameras being such an intrinsic part of contemporary society, it has become a motor reflex to be aware of a camera in the room, extending the cognitive function of gaze detection. The observer effect in physics, a theory that postulates that the simple observation of a phenomenon necessarily changes that phenomenon, is also apparent in visual documentation: the presence of the device (the camera) will alter the outcome. To mitigate this problem, the filmmaker should try to avoid inhibiting any social interaction.

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Overview film on the Global Cultural Fellows Programme

For the IICR Global Cultural Fellows programme, I was faced with the challenge of both being invisible and present to thirty-three individuals from around the world. I therefore had to make a number of important choices about how I approached the discussions, group deliberation and individual interviews to gather footage for the documentary. In scenarios such as these, documentary filmmaking necessitates a compromise between obtaining the best output technically and the best output socially.

With this project I found being a silent observer particularly challenging, especially in the sub-group deliberations (prior to the group discussions). These conversations were so electric and relatable to my experiences that I found it extremely difficult not to contribute. Coming from a largely non-academic background, I found the discussions were fantastic triggers not just for further thinking, but for further research. With both broad and delicate subjects being discussed, knowing when to put down the camera is almost as important as knowing when to keep rolling. However, with the spontaneity and unpredictable flow of conversation, especially during the group deliberations, recording as much as possible proved to be extremely valuable.

The individual interviews were the glue that held this project together. Jumping between a collective discussion and an individual’s personal thoughts is always crucial in constructing a narrative, especially in this kind of scenario. With so many films to be released, it was a case of concentrating throughout the shoot to ensure that each day’s subject was covered correctly, while simultaneously building towards a larger documentary encompassing the entire event. This was incredibly challenging, especially with the short amount of prep time I had for the project.

In the end, the shoot itself is just the tip of the iceberg. Reviewing, selecting and assembling a narrative is where the time of production is truly spent. In this scenario, editing a discussion into its most salient points while balancing the overall content and the individual voice has been a complex task.

If I were to advise other filmmakers regarding similar circumstances, counterintuitively the best way to inform a plan for a shoot like this is to begin at the end. When you have experience constructing event-led narratives at the editing stage, you develop a better understanding of the footage that is needed on location. One way to look at it is as a painter would his palette: a clear vision of the piece will illuminate how you reach that end result. The key word in any filmmaking practice is sequence. This means a beginning, a middle and an end—or context, content and conclusion. This should be at the forefront of one’s mind in deciding what to shoot and when.

The project was most interesting from an anthropological perspective. As the week progressed, I observed how the social experiment evolved in this communally inhabited space. I wondered what aims and objectives this makeshift community would conjure up in such a short space of time. In my mind, the answers eventually became the questions that the group posed to themselves.

In conclusion to this particular project, I would cite Paolo Freire’s method of pedagogy, in which the components of an event become reciprocal in the sharing of knowledge both collectively and individually. The participants attending the programme contributed to a discussion, while I took part in observing and affecting the outcome that has now been edited and transformed into shared knowledge in the form of films, which can perpetuate the experience to others.

Day 1: Highs and Lows

Terms such as highbrow and lowbrow culture are used to distinguish taste in art and participation in such activities. It is important to recognise how various art forms fit into each category, but also how they interact or are excluded from one another in cultural programming and writing. Highs and lows can equally stand for exclusion and inclusion of any sort—for example, social, political, sexual—in and through art. In other words, what sorts or arts and cultural artefacts obtain high versus low standing, and what are the connections between these highs and lows and society?

Zach Marschall summarises the first day of in-person deliberations in Edinburgh on the theme “Highs and Lows,” reflecting on participants’ experiences and their attendance at the opera “Don Giovanni” the night before.

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Highs and Lows Film by Guy Gotto

The Global Cultural Fellows held their first meeting this morning in Edinburgh. On the heels of seeing Don Giovanni the night before, five fellows commenced group-wide discussions on the cultural terms “highs” and “lows.”

Ellen Heyward, Lolisanam Ulugova, and Velani Dibba used their presentation times to examine the connections between highs and lows and social class. Ellen and Velani both acknowledged how high culture is associated with socio-economic privilege, but advocated against understanding high and low as a competition between groups. Velani equated participation in the arts with omnivore consumption, referencing that many people listen to both opera and pop music with equal pleasure. Citing examples of digital technologies to advance literacy, Ellen argued that highs and lows—even with their associations to social class—can be inverted in cultural practices and spaces.

Luis Felipe Ferra complemented Ellen’s argument on inversion in his talk on the history of jazz music in North America. Luis argued that jazz has occupied both cultural highs and lows, often simultaneously, since its start as a musical form in African American culture in the United States over 100 years ago.

Chankethya “Kethya” Chey, a dancer, used the body as an allegory to reject the validity of high and low as cultural terms. She observed that that the body had no such divisions and that each limb was a part of the whole.

Small-group breakout sessions among all fellows expanded on the themes introduced by the first five presenters. One group discussed the racial demographic of music performers, which is an issue particularly relevant to the classical and jazz genres. Collectively, the Global Cultural Fellows interrogated the extent to which the high and low divide is only applicable in Western culture; some participants raised questions over how authority operates in the arts and culture.

Doubting whether high and low can be used as universal terms provoked, multiple groups emphasised context as a method to understand art forms’ classifications.

Context reigned supreme in the discussions and disagreements between the Fellows. Luis kicked off the day’s final session by interrogating the divide Western and non-Western cultures. High art is a product of achievement in Western culture, but also highly tied to the colonial experience for many of the fellows from non-Western cultures and a form of power.

The Fellows devoted considerable time to assessing whether the terms were relevant anymore and if a new vocabulary was needed to describe art forms without the vertical hierarchy that highs and lows connote. Generally agreeing that vertical hierarchies are sets of barriers, the Fellows interrogated the gaps between art forms and participants as bridges and connections for all arts.

The fellows found access and opportunity as important as context for understanding and appreciating the arts.

 

Day 2: Voice & Silence

This theme explores how individuals and social groups can assert voice through artistic creations or in society. What does it mean to have a voice? How do we come to characterise the voice of a group or community? The individual’s and group’s agency, or the capacity to act despite obstacles, may be a key consideration for how creative artistic expressions may be created. Does the same hold for voice for social and political movements? Under what conditions do individuals remain silent or are silenced? What does silence mean in art?  

Zach Marschall summarises the second day of in-person deliberations in Edinburgh on the theme “Voice and Silence,” reflecting on participants’ experiences and their attendance at the performances of Pike Street and Lal Batti Express the day before.

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Voice and Silence Film by Guy Gotto

Voice and silence help make up an actor’s theatrical performance. Enunciation, intonations and inflections enrich characters for audiences. But today, the Global Cultural Fellows explored how voice and silence not only appear and disappear in performances, but also in our everyday lives.

Using last night’s performances of Pike Street and Lal Batti Express as references for today’s discussions, the five fellows comprising the Voice/Silence group facilitated open, small-group discussions on a variety of aspects of the topic. Asif Majid led a talk on power and rawness; Xenia Hanusiak explored the ‘echo chamber’ and the voice of theatre in the outside world; Jane Saren provoked questions about the art of persuasion; Jenna Ashton asked her group to analyse ways gender is performed; and Eona Craig helped her fellow participants think about authenticity and advocacy.  

It became clear as the Fellows re-grouped in large circle—synthesising the small-group discussions—that tensions transcend the multiple ways voice and silence are used and given for theatrical effect and political movements. Jenna initiated an exchange on the question of who has the right to communicate stories to audiences. This provocation facilitated discussion between multiple fellows on their discomfort over the context of Lal Batti Express, a performance staged by teenage girls from India relaying their own experiences with sexual abuse and exposure to prostitution. A contingent of Fellows worried that the NGO that sponsored the girls’ performances were exploiting their stories for their own purposes, potentially undermining the performers’ agency and ownership of their own experiences. Abdulkarim Ekzayez, a medical doctor, referenced his profession’s ethics guidelines to propose the need for a similar set of rules in the art community to protect performers from being used for the power of their message.

In these conversations, the Fellows also made sure to clarify that silence is not an empty process. Luis Felipe Ferra equated silence to “hearing from yourself,” noting that a person does not clap aloud for finishing a book. He described silence as a key for depth of thought, which is crucial to the processes of listening and contemplation.

The power of silence was further elaborated on by Michael Anyanwu, who deconstructed the opening scene of Pike Street, a one-woman play about a family on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which depicts a mute adolescent girl on dialysis.

Among the characters in Pike Street was a celebrated Navy Seal veteran coping with PTSD. Mahtab Farid used the female actor’s portrayal of this character to examine the balance between stereotypes and giving voice to marginalised groups. She stated that in this case, the actor needed to take on this group’s voice in order to give them ability to be seen by publics. Her comments demonstrated that the matters of power, agency and visibility are not black and white issues.

Faisal Abu Alhayjaa reiterated this nuance to voice. Speaking on the Fellows’ reservations over Lal Batti Express, Faisal stated that audiences need to ask what kind voice is being heard. Relating his own experience and motivations as a performer, Faisal argued that the presence of noise is not necessarily a good thing in every theatrical context. Likewise, Puneeta Roy reminded the group that the play was conceived as a “street play” for younger Indian audiences; she voiced disagreement over the other Fellows’ assessment of the production as a “stage play” that used the voice of underprivileged minors.

The realities of Lal Batti Express performers inspired the Fellows to pivot to the conditions of their work as artists and arts practitioners. Invoking Abdulkarim’s call for standardisation of practices in the arts, Caitlin Nasema Cassidy argued for coordinated advocacy in the arts and cultural sectors. Her comments provoked a thoughtful discussion between several fellows on how artists use their voice to affect social change.

Happening at the close of today’s session, this dialogue successfully bookended the Voice/Silence’s group stated goal to analyse how voice and silence are used in theatre and the outside world.

Jane Saren’s reflections

Recognising that we live at a time of political polarisation and adversial political debate and policy discussion, can art help us create open conversations and better connecting of people holding different perspectives and convictions? We reflected that there are crucial differences between art and political messaging e.g. the pressure to create a cohesive message is political; whilst in art there is no expectation of immediate results and rather a recognition that it is over time that the stories are made. Art can create the space in which transformational change can begin. It is more powerful when subtle, ambiguous, learning space for the individual audience member to create their own meaning. We need to let art have the complexity that makes it art.

Xenia Hanusiak’s reflections

The topic raises aesthetic, political and sociological questions, bringing awareness to the concepts of silence as equally powerful, and equally detonating values in action. From an aesthetic point of view every creative act is governed by the choices of how silence and voice are enacted in acts of theatre, music, dance and visual arts—in terms of sociological and political questions the topic offers the opportunity to examine whose voices are being heard and represented in society and whose are being silenced. This question then leads us to consider who is delivering the message, is the message delivered on behalf of a silenced voice and if so is the distilled voice an authentic representation of the voice“other” leading us to consider questions of censorship, media control and erasure.

Eona Craig’s reflections

Our group took part in a knowledgeable and passionate discourse about giving, taking, hearing, using, losing, empowering and manipulating voice.

We discussed how authenticity must come from a position of truthfulness, honesty and integrity to have a legitimate place in our cultural practice. We recognised the dilemmas and tensions around the motivations and context affecting the authentic voice as a tool for advocacy and positive change. We considered the parallels with medical malpractice after the Second World War and wondered about the potential for a set of ethics, values and principles to support the conditions within which the authentic voice in participatory and socially engaged practice might survive and thrive globally.

We explored the boundaries and intersections between art for art sake, art as an instrument for cultural activism and the ramifications for “artivism,” while also considering systems and theories of change that highlight and prioritise agency and the amplification of voice at their centre.

The group was thoughtful and generous with their deliberations and the conversation, though exploratory, resulted in two key themes for further consideration by the larger group.

Day 3: Witness

This theme explores the artists or individuals as witnesses. What does it mean to be a witness to and how is that different from being an observer? Additional questions include what the artist’s or individual’s ethical responsibility is in situations of oppression, cruelty and hypocrisy? Must an individual or an artist even have one?

Global Cultural Fellows reflected on “Mies Julie” and “Ramy: In the frontline” in today’s session on Witness.

By Zach Marschall

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Witness Film by Guy Gotto

Do artists have a predisposition to bear witness? Why and How?

That was a primary concern for the Global Cultural Fellows after seeing Yaël Farber’s Mies Julie and Ramy Essam’s Ramy: In the frontline. Their discussions acknowledged many challenges including moral and ethical responsibility of artists, being a witness through direct contact versus secondary representations, and witnessing via digital and multimedia platforms.

To bear witness requires the individual to engage with the outside world—both inside and outside performance spaces. The five Fellows in the Witness group acknowledged this dynamic as they opened deliberations for Day 4. They used their individual presentations to provide snapshots of how they encounter acts of witnessing in each of their artistic practices.

Chris Creegan exposed the role of place in witnessing by reading aloud Tony Walsh’s poem “This Is the Place,” a meditation on Manchester’s history and legacy the artist orated in public in the wake of the May 2017 terrorist attacks. Acknowledging his ties to his native Manchester, Chris stated to the group that they may not appreciate the dialect or regional references as he does because “they’re not of your place; they’re of mine.”

For Jumana Al-Yasiri, place was not local, or even regional, but a transnational connection to the Arab Spring for those like her, born in Damascus, Syria, who have been affected by the violence. Jumana spoke about her reaction to last night’s performance of Ramy: In the frontline, Essam’s multimedia retelling of his personal experience as symbol of Egyptian resistance during the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. She stated that while she is not Egyptian, the tribulations Ramy: In the frontline bears witness to something that “happened to all of us.”

With the Witness theme occurring near the midpoint of the week-long Global Cultural Fellows programme, the speakers were able draw on previous discussions to make connections between themes. Devika Ranjan related her interpretation of Lal Batti Express. She found significance in how the performers used their bodies to express their testimony of prostitution in India. Devika facilitated partner-based movement exercises between the Fellows in order for them to understand first-hand how movement and stillness can communicate acts of bearing witness.

Following yesterday’s small-group discussions, the Fellows proceeded to break out into their “World Café,” which emulates the free movement between conversations in coffee shops and salons. Devika’s group focused on the ethics of witnessing; Marika Constantino initiated a dialogue on creating platforms for witnessing; Caitlin Nasema Cassidy asked her group to articulate the responsibilities of bearing witness; Jumana led a discussion on the artist and witness; Chris used “World Café” to elaborate on place as a central factor to bearing witness.

The “World Café” and the subsequent large-group dialogue highlighted how bearing witness intervenes in political and social tensions, but also demonstrated that bearing witness is a deliberate action. Reem Alsayyah explained her decision to perform in The Queens of Syria, based on hers and peers’ experiences with the violence in Syria. She said, “I felt it was my responsibility to be a witness and not a victim.”

Reem’s decision to use theatre as medium for expression certainly suggests that artists are predisposed to bear witness. Xenia Hanusiak contended that witnessing is point of activation for the actor, which she applied to Mikael Löfgren’s comparison between the male lead’s revolutionary politics in August Strindberg’s Miss Julie and Farber’s adaptation set in post-apartheid South Africa. Löfgren also challenged everyone to think of the difference between first hand or “real” and fictional witnessing.

The collaboration needed to stage The Queens of Syria, but also Mies Julie and Ramy: In the frontline, resonated with Marika’s small-group discussion on platforms. Group-member Eona Craig advocated for connectivity and greater awareness for the “here and now,” which Ellen Heyward described as necessary building-blocks for “making people protagonists in the narratives in their own story.” In the context of today’s theme, Ellen’s comments were certainly applicable to artists and non-artists.

Debating the role of the artist enhanced the conversation, but also compelled the Fellows to reel in the discussion and focus on defining the act of witnessing. An exchange between Reem and Jumana expanded on Asif Majid’s provocation on the difference between being a witness and being an observer. For the Fellows, the premise that witnessing is a productive action led them to describe observing as passive. Jumana articulated this difference by stating that the news exists to learn what happened, but theatre takes reality and draws out the underlying truth from those events and conflicts.

The recognition that theatre has the ability to bear witness initiated a subsequent exchange on Essam’s interactive production, which defies the customary rules for traditional theatrical performances. Asif implored the group to examine the effects Essam had on audiences rather than the production’s form; the latter, Asif cautioned, would trap the Fellows in the same high-low dichotomy they resisted on Day 2.

Asif’s comments were met with murmurs of approval, capping off a spirited string of disagreements. The Fellows were visibly moved to have the opportunity to air and listen to numerous competing perspectives on the power of witness.

Day 4: Empathy

Empathy describes the ability to relate to another individual’s point of view and understand his or her emotional response. Artists often express the human condition in terms that the audience will recognise. Empathy allows the artist to execute this task. How do the arts humanise or dehumanise? In general, how do we empathise and represent the individual and human condition?

Zach Marschall and Prof J.P. Singh summarise the discussion on Empathy, reflecting on the show “Flight.”

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Empathy Film by Guy Gotto

“The world still thinks India has a functional democracy. I beg to differ.”

Those were the words of Shubham Roy Choudhury in his presentation on empathy, the theme for today’s discussions. Acknowledging that today marks the 70th anniversary of Indian independence from British rule, Shubham referred to the lack of empathy in the current Indian state toward non-Hindu minorities and the presence of lynch mobs in India to comment on the need to bridge divides.

The political stakes of empathy impelled this group to focus on current political world events to a greater extent than in previous deliberations.

Douglas Lonie argued that arts practitioners need to extend their emotional responses beyond the theatre. Ann Henderson punctuated this plea by reminding the Global Cultural Fellows about the high levels of poverty that exist in Edinburgh, which are easily cloaked by the consumption and excess of the Edinburgh festivals.

“Empathy is the window that opens the emotional process,” said Ariel Stolier. But at what point, other Fellows questioned, is empathy overdone? Would an excess of empathy lead to political impotency in resolving child poverty in Edinburgh? After all, emotional processes are no substitute for material support to the most underprivileged.

Likewise, Caitlin Nasema Cassidy stated the need to determine whether empathy is a needed factor for inspiring hope and realising social action. There appeared to be consensus among the Fellows that the answer is too hard to find definitively, but Devika Ranjan offered empathy as an ideal to strive for, but one that is not necessary attainable, suggesting that empathy can never provide a true vicarious experience.

The discussion leaders used the idea of the Open Table to further an intense 90-minute discussion on empathy in the afternoon. The rectangular table in the middle of the round room where the deliberations have been taking place acted as a space “a dinner conversation” space for about 10 fellows to rotate in and out.

Douglas Lonie introduced the Open Table as a “performance” where “there is an end but no conclusion.”

An intense discussion followed. The Fellows debated the differences between empathy and sympathy, artistic closeness and empathic distance, and whether empathy is a process or an end.

Asif Majid introduced the psychological concept of “interpathy” that combines empathy and sympathy.

“What’s not empathy?,” asked Consuelo Hidalgo. The answers brought in judgment, pathological personality traits, and disengagement.

Empathy may be necessary in the human experience for how we relate to one another, but it appears not sufficient alone for achieving meaningful results in the cultural and political spheres.

 

Day 5: Anger and Anxiety

How do societal anger and anxiety influence cultural activity on local, national and transnational scales? This theme also examines how artists create meaning from anger and anxiety in society at large. 

After seeing “The Divide” at the Edinburgh International Festival, today Fellows reflected on the theme of Anger & Anxiety.

By Zach Marschall

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Anger and Anxiety Film by Guy Gotto

Standing in the middle of a circle formed by the collectively-seated Global Cultural Fellows, Consuelo Hidalgo scanned the list of questions in her notebook, raised her head and ask her colleagues: Do states deserve the leaders they elect? 

Nearly half of the Fellows stood up to signal their agreement, although these statements were qualified by bemusement at the wording. In the proceeding questions, Consuelo asked the Fellows to expose their positions on controversial subjects: torture, gay marriage, and euthanasia, etc. The changing configurations of standing and seated Fellows visibly demonstrated the group’s political diversity, in addition to its ethnic one.

Consuelo’s exercise served as one of the opening tools used for today’s plenary discussions on Anger and Anxiety. Faisal Abu Alhayjaa had the Fellows form a line spectrum in the middle of the room denoting their level of anger and anxiety in the last month; there was a relatively even spread with a notable cluster in the middle. Arno Vinkovic introduced a short film the Anger and Anxiety group had produced with shots of Fellows answering questions posed to them over the course of the week, including Are you angry? or Are you anxious?. While few fellows admitted to being angry, most in the video described their myriad levels of anxiety.

The questions helped the fellows make connections with two overriding themes: the shift from the personal and the political, and the role of art in channelling social anxieties and anger.

Anger and anxiety may be related, but they are two distinct emotions. The Fellows took note of this diligently in their opening talks and small-group discussions. The small-group leaders and topics were: Faisal speaking to whether anger can protect individuals; Reem Alsayyah and the power of anger; Consuelo’s provocation to examine anxiety in context of global society; and Arno’s analysis of social anxiety in multidisciplinary contexts.

All of them made connections among arts, anxiety, and anger.

The discussions for today’s theme were colored by the populist outpourings in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the United Kingdom’s vote on Brexit.

In the final large-group plenary session, Velani Dibba connected anger as an emotional process to political tensions, only days after the violent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, between white nationalists and counter-protesters. Velani characterised anger as an entity that communicates the need for change faster than logic allows; she called for artists to harness that quality in their art as a powerful tool for awareness and advocacy.

Jenna Ashton’s poignant comments on the social dynamic in Durham, England, and the role of art echoed that of Velani’s and provided a transnational comparison. According to Jenna, Durham has a large working-class population that has been decimated by the collapse of the local mining industry, but also a vibrant progressive culture centred around the local university. She said that employment-insecure working-class males in Durham oscillate between resentment against their elite neighbors and intra-class pressures to perform masculinity, causing socio-economic anxiety in the absence of a vibrant union culture that had once provided a space for collective grievances.

Comparisons between American and British cultures have purchase for intellectual and action-based work, but are also limited as Western case studies. Likewise, Faisal reminded the group in his opening remarks that there is “Eastern anger” and “Western anger.” His comments made clear that while these terms need to be discussed in context of globalisation and transnational exchanges, the anger and anxiety as conceptions are not necessarily universal. Likewise, Adbulkarim Ekzayez stated near the end of the large-group discussion that anger is culturally relative, as he does not his emotional experiences according to the same terminology as the other Fellows.

The Fellows were publicly intrigued that Abdulkarim exhibited the least amount of anger in the opening exercises and videos, despite having experienced the conflict in Syria first-hand. He is one of three Fellows with such experience; Reem and Jumana Al-Yasiri have also been affected personally. Their stories about the violence yielded great insight, but also focused today’s discussion on political action and unrest.

Douglas Lonie argued that if anyone was to ask a protester (or Trump voter, or Brexit supporter) why they are angry, the person’s answer will show that it is always more than just the inciting event, such as a toppled Confederate statue in the American South. He reminded the group that the Remain campaign’s armada of statistics and facts still lost to the unsubstantiated narratives Nigel Farage—the Leave campaign’s de facto leader—spun out.

His comments aligned with the sentiments expressed previously today by Velani and Chankethya Chey. Chankethya related anger to the color black. She said anger was keystone to emotional extremes that does not provide spaces to think. Her comments could certainly be applied to those voters who rejected the researched arguments the Remain and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns produced.

Chris Creegan was mindful of the discussion that anger and anxiety can motivate social, political and artistic action. However, he asked the group to consider where anger and anxiety have resulted in negative acts and horrific deeds such as rape, murder, and war.

Despite the varied responses, the Fellows’ discussions validated both the presence and the effects of anger and anxiety in society—and art.

 

Day 6: Culture Wars

This theme reflects on cultural politics and economics. Culture wars involve clashes of collective identities across divides that ca be societal, national, or transnational. For artists and cultural producers, political institutions and economics impact the ways and degrees to which the arts receive public support and approval. Culture Wars can reflect how art is created in the context of these political debates. 

Reflecting on a performance of Mark Thomas and a guided walk by Edinburgh Art Festival director Sorcha Carey, the Global Cultural Fellows discussed the idea of “Culture Wars.”

By Zach Marschall

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Culture Wars Film by Guy Gotto

The Culture Wars group started today’s session with a clip from the film The Gladiator, specifically the scene in which two warriors fight to the death in the Colosseum for the amusement of the emperor and cheering masses. “We who are about to die salute you,” one ill-fated man yells to his ruler.

Then, with the clip finished and the lights turned back on, today’s presenters stood in front of the assembled Fellows and stated now that you have an idea of the game we’re about to play…

The Culture Wars group reconfigured the room’s seating to mock a stadium with two sets of three chairs in the middle positioned in front of Mikael Löfgren, Manuel Francisco Viveros, and Solomiya Shpak. They took turns asking a question central to culture wars politics; the Fellows divided into camps and Abdulkarim Ekzayez and Ariel Stolier served as “generals” leading representatives from each side to the middle chairs where verbal exchanges were hurled back and forth. The trio of questioners also served as “senators” by voting in favour of one side for the following debates: are you global or local citizens/artists; should the arts be funded by the state or private philanthropy; is art for social change or the exploration of aesthetic possibilities.

Tensions and decibel levels ran high, but the Fellows managed to re-group in a civilised fashion and break off into smaller discussion circles. Mikael, Ariel, Solomiya, Manuel, and Karim gave short presentations on the topics and directed questions on specific debates that comprise culture wars. Their topics were, respectively: iconoclasm and those symbols that should be protected from deconstruction or satire; how to measure the value of arts in a given community; public art as a public good and the role of the state in deciding what art gets chosen for public spaces; the identity of artistic creations in the context of globalisation; and the role of the art and artist during violent conflict.

Each of these discussions produced thoughtful commentary on socio-political fault lines. In the subsequent large-group session, the group members asked one question that encompassed the overarching themes for each topic with time for brief debate between all the Fellows.

These questions refined the scope of the conversation and how the Fellows engaged with specific terminology. Natalia Mallo rejected the presumed fluidity between global and local in the Fellows’ discussion on these identities. She stated that as a non-native citizen of Brazil, she is excluded from state arts funding and practices of social inclusion despite her 20-year residence in the country. Natalia argued that because she has greater agency as a Brazilian artist when abroad, she demonstrates that global and local identities can be mutually exclusive.

Similarly, Ann Henderson refuted the premise that the tension between local and global would be a point of conflict for her. An advocate for economic equality, Ann stated that she feels greater affinity for African miners working under unfair conditions than the national symbols that populated her native Edinburgh during the 2014 Scottish Referendum. “That’s my community,” Ann said of African laborers.

Gideon Wabvuta stated that while he is influenced culturally by his international travel, he values the practices that allow him to keep himself grounded in his Zimbabwean identity in any location.

Gideon’s comments bridged the discussions between spatially-defined identity and memorialisation and heritage work.

Faisal Abu Alhayjaa said that in his culture, statues memorialising public figures are integral to Palestinian identity. In the Palestinian case, there may be congruency between its public art and popular opinion, but locales with histories of successive political regimes must negotiate their remnant monuments with their current societies. Chris Creegan questioned some cities’ practices to remove such symbols, such as Budapest’s decision to treat Memento Park as a repository for Soviety era statues. He believed the statues’ presence were useful affirmations of history.

Works that memorialise and commemorate history are often public goods, as Solomiya explained to the group. But culture wars also involve disputes over private goods with finite resources such as the number of theatre tickets available each night for purchase.

The Fellows disagreed to various extents on the benefits and costs for different pricing models. Natalia reminded the Fellows to consider motivation for attendance in addition to access; she argued that expensive tickets prohibit the disadvantaged from arts participation, but that cheap state-subsidised tickets do not automatically guarantee the same population shows up either.

Xenia Hanusiak offered an alternative structure to calculate potential audience motivation. She argued that the decision to attend a performance is in part informed by how the individual perceives a sense of community with the work. “It’s not a question of money,” Xenia said.

Debates over access and motivation revolved around the themes of inclusion and exclusion. For example, Ann contended that theatre’s practice to scale seating prices excluded low-income audiences from the same artistic experience as those that could afford the best seats.

Furthermore, the conversation demonstrated that cultural business models also limit or exclude which works art practitioners can introduce to the public. Devika Ranjan indirectly answered Caitlin Nasema Cassidy’s question for how arts administrators could be allowed to create more complex programming with her observation that performing arts companies tend to produce only the safest, most popular shows out of financial necessity.

Throughout today’s deliberations, the role of the state served as the hinge between all topics. Public support can restrict artists by making them comply to funding stipulations, but also force citizens to indirectly pay for art that conflicts with their moral and value systems.

Shubham Roy Choudhury stated that people needed to support art they don’t like because to condition funding on taste would have an isolating effect. Shubham argued that support for controversial work benefits the individual, noting that when that an isolated population would be unprepared to confront such work when it does show up in society.

The discussions on culture wars covered the spectrum from arts and cultural policies to the position of culture in violent conflict.

Day 7: The Global

The Global speaks to our current moment in an ever-globalising world. Cosmopolitan understandings of human relations are in conflict with reactionary nationalist rhetoric and preferences. As a result, there is debate over how cultures are understood and how groups identify themselves. 

J.P. Singh reflects on the last deliberation day on The Global after the fellows attendance at Edinburgh Book Festival events with authors Tanya Landman and Andrew O’Hagan, and two performances: “Blak, Whyte and Gray” dance performance at the Lyceum, and the play “Adam” at the Traverse Theatre. The Fellows also heard a presentation from Edinburgh International Book Festival director Nick Barley.

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The Global Film by Guy Gotto

Gideon Wabvuta held before him a red chilli and spoke to anger and anxiety and its global manifestations. He narrated his own story in which his mother in Zimbabwe worries about him being in Los Angeles. Gideon also described ways in which his identity in the United States is often perceived through the lens of being African American.

The Global group, last in a series of seven, used the language of spices to connect to earlier themes of the week. Using spices as a theme was the brainchild of Nik Shahrifulnizam Bin Che Rahim, a chef from Malaysia.

Nik introduced his theme with Chinese cinnamon sticks to speak to empathy and humanisation.

Puneeta Roy stood with a bowl of cardamom, with its multiple tastes, to signify highs and lows and the connection with the global. She outlined the need for new forms of inclusion and expansion for artists and consumers.

Natalia Mallo had a bowl of small cloves and started to sing the Brazilian song that she translated as “My voice is my silence and it is not less than my song.” Natalia then related this song to the theme Voice and Silence discussed earlier during the week.

Group exercises, ranging from getting to know one’s partner to singing together, emphasised developing trust and the role of the collective amidst disparate identities.

The “global” theme with respect to the week’s earlier themes was further explored through break-out sessions and subsequently by the group as a whole.

The issue of cultural identity and the possibilities of interactions across them arose in each group’s discussions. These included the place of identity amidst systemic issues, the possibilities for cultural translation, and the role of cultural syntheses.

Given the presence of spice, one group incorporated the metaphor to speak directly to the implications of fusion food as a cultural product. One group pointed out that fusion food can be confusing, but one should still value the product.

These issues were further discussed when the Fellows discussed collectively beyond the group. The notion and presence of cultural goods and evils and respecting each other’s cultural traditions produced spirited discussions. Mahtab Farid urged the Fellows to focus on the good. Asif Majid noted that even in agreeing with the “good” there may be hidden issues of power that must be confronted.

The role of historical context, ritual, and cultural specificities allowed the Fellows to point out that each person was distinct but also part of a whole. This was most apparent in the “song” exercise that Natalia introduced by singing Bésame Mucho and exhorted other fellows to sing a song in any language they chose. For a while it sounded like a cacophony. Amidst the various songs though was the sense of singing together.

As Natalia gestured to fellows to stop singing one by one, the last fellow’s plaintive song filled the room. Sitting cross-legged on his seat, Asif Majid sang with his eyes closed. It was a poignant moment in which one song lingered amidst the silence of the room—but it spoke to everyone.

 

 

J.P. Singh is Chair and Professor of Culture and Political Economy, and Director of the Institute for International Cultural Relations at the University of Edinburgh. Singh has published 9 books and nearly 100 articles. His latest book is: Sweet Talk: Paternalism and Collective Action in North-South Trade Negotiations (Stanford, 2017). Globalized Arts: The Entertainment Economy and Cultural Identity (Columbia, 2011) won the American Political Science Association’s award for best book in information technology and politics. His current book project is Development 2.0: How Technologies Can Foster Inclusivity in the Developing World (Oxford, forthcoming). He is founding Editor of the journal Arts & International Affairs.

 

Zach Marschall is a doctoral candidate at George Mason University and editorial associate at Clutch.co, a B2B research firm in Washington, D.C. He was previously the Director of Publishing and Program Development at the Policy Studies Organization. Also AIA’s inaugural managing editor, Zach holds degrees from Syracuse University and New York University. 

 

During the last seven years Guy has been internationally documenting cross-cultural performative and literary projects that focus on the positive social impact of the arts—from poetry and performing arts, to music and film. Witnessing and participating in the transformative power of creative social engagement has taught Guy the values of a culturally diverse participatory practice—particularly with marginalised individuals such as refugees, the homeless, LGBT and ethnic minorities. Through these experiences, Guy has observed how interactions between different cultures can promote self-development and provide immediate or repercussive change within the people involved in them.