Monastery or Square

The 10th annual No Boundaries conference linked Watershed, Bristol and HOME, Manchester, two UK multi-arts venues; with free online live streaming of the programme being broadcast between the two auditoriums of delegates. The two day conference considered the role of arts and cultural activities, bringing in questions of inclusion, diversity and freedom of speech.

With a primary audience of culture professionals, the sessions were both self-analysis and an exploration of the ongoing dialogue with social and cultural debates happening at a local, national and international level. The digital links enabled the wider access that was intrinsic to the concept and programming; inclusion of contributors from international institutions and online streaming and on-demand viewing for those not able to attend in person or afford the full ticket price (for which bursaries and tiered pricing was available).

Is this significant beyond the cultural sector?

Participation in creative and cultural activities remains a complex debate. There are those that argue that it is fundamental to individual self-expression and to our collective understanding; but the arts too is a field bound by elitism, cultural hierarchy, competing fields of expertise and intent, often within a system in which commodity value is prized and understood most readily. The contested value and nature of creative and cultural practice is an issue that many working in the sector are acutely aware. It affects both practice and administration, theory and action.

The themes say yes

CAN WE EXERCISE FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION? The opening theme considered artistic freedoms, freedom of speech and censorship. Julia Farrington, Index on Censorship set the context, citing Michael Scammell’s, assertion that ‘”Freedom of expression is not self-perpetuating, but needs to be maintained by the constant vigilance of those who care about it”‘, published in the first edition of the magazine. Citing a multitude of recent examples of artistic censorship, including the recent removal of Mimsi’s work ‘Isis Threaten Sylvania’ from the Mall Galleries’ ‘Passion for Freedom’ exhibition, she contended “We obviously haven’t been very vigilant here in the UK”.

Farrington warned of the increasingly pre-emptive policing of these works; of risk aversion expressed via economic cost and sanctions. Nadia Latif, Arcola Theatre added to the discussion, the opacity of response from the sector around the recent cancellation of the National Youth Theatre production of ‘Homegrown’ days before the first performance.

Natalia Kaliada, Belarus Free Theatre, in exile in London since 2010, shared her experience. Having been taught to push boundaries as far as they needed to go to be truly free, those who mistakenly thought the fall of the Soviet Union would result in an opening up, have instead seen the culture of support in ‘the West for artists and dissidents’ turning into defence. Criticism that has been justly levelled at our neglect of these hard won and fragile freedoms and of the unchallenged assumptions around social order, that are increasingly enforced by the social order to legitimise increased social control. As Farrington warns, this removal of provocation is a biased affair, influenced by political agendas in what remains a deeply unequal society.

Basma El Husseiny’s (Culture Resource, Cairo) provocation that conditions are not the same everywhere, situates this history and understanding of freedom of expression as a gift, helping to share and foster understanding – but at too high a cost for some. In Egypt, El Husseiny states:“regimes have convinced most of society that freedom of expression is a privilege for only a small minority of intellectuals and artists who are approved by the regimes and certainly not a right for all citizens. Consequently newspapers articles, plays and songs that contain some political and social criticism can be tolerated if they are presented to a small elite. Thus allowing our military and other rulers to publicly boast enjoying freedom of expression within our societies.”

The right to a critical voice being granted only to the few that fulfil certain privileged criteria is, if not to the same degree, familiar. It would be both complacent and hypocritical to dismiss the legislation, administration and coverage, that allows or limits society to engage in discourse seen as too critical or contentious. Voices may avoid prosecution or overt censorship but yet be silenced by more slippery means. Vasif Korton of SALT, Istabul introduced the Monastery/Square analogy to consider how the formation of our public institutions can either instate the behavioural codes and practices of a social and cultural elite or encourage the genuine participation of a diverse population.

Participation and the 8%

Can the arts support equality, diversity and inclusion if they continue to be dominated by the top 8% income bracket of our society? Jo Verrent, Unlimited, championed this need to DO differently. When the rhetoric is packed away it’s HOW we’re working that truly alters the impact.

Open sessions throughout the conference allowed a response to these questions. Art Centre 2.0, inspired by the new media participation of Web 2.0, was led by Jamie Eastman of Lancaster Arts and began a conversation around some of the ideas discussed in the main programme:
– The terms and models that chimed or presented unhelpful dichotomies
– Where the potential disadvantages of mediation should not negate the merits
– Prioritising process or outcome; desirable approaches don’t always equate to desirable outcomes (and the opposite)

Indeed, the power of cultural and creative practice is real; aesthetic and sensory experience and the emotional response these trigger can be used for every cause and end. Profound and much employed, they serve no one master yet our propensity to simplify and distil, to utilise shared definitions without interrogating our shared meaning, too often means that we conflate the same standards and criteria for assessment, language and rhetoric and cultural and social processes to a luxury commodity, produced and consumed by an elite audience, as a shared cultural heritage (IPR for the Masia) and the exhaustive variations between, around and unconnected to.

We do not operate as a single entity, nor in a vacuum. The necessary ecology of artistic and cultural practice was raised by John Knell, with a specific target in mind, but this way of thinking must be adopted more widely for us to operate effectively beyond the porous parameters of the sector, popular and consumer culture. Creative and cultural exchange is critical for cultural literacy, critique and appreciation of context. Platforms for this ongoing dialogue both on and offline are necessary, to continue bringing different, sometimes opposing, voices together.

NOTE: Rather than convolute the context of this session further, which alone raised many relevant enquiries, future posts will build on this foundation, drawing more focused links with the research, literature and practices around web 2.0 culture.

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