Monday, April 09, 2018

Pocahontas and After

Two images, each showing two young women dressed to show their culture, their pride, their sense of self.  The first image dates from 1907, and shows The Misses Simeon, from the Stoney-Nakoda people of Western Canada, photographed by Byron Harmon.  The second was taken a couple of months ago by John Cobb in Marlborough School, West London, and shows a pupil of Iraqi heritage called Rose Al Saria, pictured with her sister.  It was Rose who chose the particular archive image as the basis for her self-portrait, and who conceptualised the way it would be configured and posed.

This pair of photos is just one example in Border Crossings' exhibition Pocahontas and After, currently on show at Syon House in Brentford, until at least June 2nd.  The exhibition - which people have been saying is as thought-provoking as it is visually stunning - represents the culmination of a sustained period of education and community work, beginning with the ORIGINS Festival last summer.  During the Festival, we not only held a ceremony for three indigenous women to commemorate Pocahontas at Syon, where she had stayed in the summer of 1616: we also brought indigenous artists into direct contact with the diverse communities around the House, in the two Primary Schools where they led workshops and study sessions, in the wonderful CARAS refugee group, and through our network of committed and energetic festival volunteers.  In the following months, a distilled group from each of these partners has been working closely with heritage experts from the archives, Native American cultural consultants, and our own artistic staff to explore the ways in which Native American people have been presented in the past.

Their journeys into the archives have been rich and challenging.  What we think of as "realistic" photographs of indigenous people often turn out to be nothing of the kind.  Edward Curtis, for example, apparently carried a chest of "authentic" costumes and props with him, which he used in his photographs to recreate the life of "the vanishing race" as he imagined it may have been in some pre-contact Romantic idyll.  In other words, the archive photos are often about the photographer and the viewer, far more than they are about the subject.

As our volunteers came to realise this, they became more and more assertive of the need for agency in contemporary portraiture.  Complex and fascinating decisions started to be made, placing the generation of meaning in the bodies of the people photographed.  One subject, Inés Achabal, showed her tattooed back, with its macaws symbolising her home city of Caracas, in response to Curtis's "bon savage archetype" in his 1909 image of an Arikara girl.  For an indigenous Samoan living in London, Sani Muliaumaseali'i, a 1914 image of a mask dancer from the Pacific North-West provided links to his own complex and multi-layered persona.

What I love about this exhibition is that the meaning generated does not reside in one image or the other within the pair - but is rather in the energising of the space between, the dialogue between past and present, between different cultures, between human beings portrayed in different ways.  It seems to me to be at once of way of honouring the indigenous subjects portrayed in the archive photographs, and of reinventing the form that was often too reductive in its attempts to categorise them.

Thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund for supporting this project.  Photos from the British Library and the Library of Congress.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Training Weeks

More Than Words - photo by Julia Slominska
The last two weeks have been spent in workshop rooms.  Not developing a new show.  Not engaging a community.  Not even training people for a specific artistic project.  It's just been a wonderful, open opportunity to exchange ways of working and the ideas behind our approach with like-minded people from across Europe.  What a great thing Erasmus + funding is.  How silly we would be to lose it....

Our first week was the Theatre Training for the MORE THAN WORDS project, so the room was filled with Italian clowns, Hungarian dance therapists, Polish performers, architects and photographers, German academics and community workers....  and so on!  The fact that not everybody starts from a performing arts viewpoint is challenging, of course - but also wonderfully liberating, in that theatre practice starts to be seen from different perspectives, including by ourselves as "trainers".  I found myself connecting a lot of the exercises we use for devising plays with ideas about architectural space, social space, and therapeutic needs.  Involving people from other sectors in a workshop helps to pull you out of the "theatre box" - to see theatre as a wider, socially responsible force.

MORE THAN WORDS emphasises non-verbal approaches, because it's to do with working across cultures, often when there is no common language.  Because this week was focussed on training the trainers, there needed to be some conversations and reflections - but the purest moments were the ones that moved away from this into movement, music and imagery.  As the first partner to offer this training, we had the tricky job of defining parameters - but I think that was done clearly enough for the subsequent work to build on what's been achieved so far.

Last week was also about Applied Theatre, with a group of Italian practitioners joining us to learn how theatre techniques can move into social spaces to empower communities.  Because that covers such a multitude of practices, we alternated the week between practical exercises drawn from our own cross-cultural work, and engaging with other artists who approach performance in different ways.  Hannah Conway led a workshop on music for Applied Theatre, and Kelly Hunter took the group through her extraordinary methods that use Shakespeare as a way to develop creativity with autistic children.  Dave Carey of Chickenshed showed the group some examples of how that theatre has made changes in the lives of disabled children, children in the care system, and young people at risk of offending.  It was incredibly affirming of the form and what it can achieve socially...

At the same time - I always worry about making a case for theatre that sounds too instrumental.  It's not because theatre can affect social good that it needs to exist - it's because it IS social good.  Just trying to make sure that remains at the forefront of all these discussions.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

De-colonising the colony, de-colonising the market

The Stiff Gins
Last week saw me back in Brisbane, for the third (and last) edition of APAM to be held there.  It was, as in 2014 and 2016, an incredibly rich source of inspiration for the next ORIGINS.  For one thing, it was a wonderful chance to re-connect with many of the artists and companies who have been to the festival in the past, and friends whose advice has been useful along the way: Rachael Maza of Ilbijerri, Rachael Swain from Marrugeku, Merindah Donnelly from Blak Dance, Wesley Enoch, Rhoda Roberts, Amber Curreen, Ali Murphy-Oates, Jack Gray from Atamira, Andrea James, Jacob Boehme, Louise Potiki Bryant, Tanemahuta Gray from Taki Rua....   and no doubt many more in the blur of the week!  It's also very valuable to hear them say how important ORIGINS has been for them, and to learn from new people I've not met before how the festival's reputation has grown across the indigenous world.  It matters that we do this.

APAM's indigenous representation has grown dramatically during its time in Brisbane, and not only in terms of indigenous Australians.  This year, there was an entire First Nations Exchange, with people from New Zealand, Canada, Taiwan, Mexico and Norway.  There is a clear sense of a global movement to de-colonise the arts, and to assert the value of indigenous culture.  It feels very important to be part of that.

At the same time, the week raised questions about just where we sit within the global indigenous movement.  In the wake of the Australia Day protests last month, there was a palpable sense of anger from some of the indigenous artists present - an anger that is entirely justified while their people remain so totally dispossessed of their lands and the wealth they contain.  It's one thing for the world to value indigenous arts - it is quite another for it to set right historic injustices.  Until there is a real move towards genuine equality - including economic and political equality - the anger will, quite rightly, remain.

And this has implications for the arts.  In his keynote talk, Jacob was very frank about the way in which enduring power structures continue to marginalise indigenous artists.  It was a speech that felt uncomfortable for any white person involved in presenting indigenous culture.  Including me.  We have to ask whether we are simply perpetuating an exoticisation of the "Other" - whether just by following the structures whereby we pay money to indigenous artists to perform, we may perhaps be complicit in neo-colonialism.  At APAM's closing event, Rachael Maza read out a declaration from the First Nations Exchange, stating that APAM should not continue to be a market, but should be re-configured to follow the preferred mode of operation in indigenous cultures - a model based on developing long-term collaborative relationships, rather than on cultural production being turned into a commodity that can be bought and sold.  At the same event, the young Canadian First Nations artist Moe Clark made an impassioned case to de-colonise the marketplace, stating that the songs and stories of indigenous people are the lifeblood of the culture, and cannot be bought and sold, reproduced and mass-produced.

They are, of course, quite right.

So ORIGINS also needs to ensure that its programming is not conducted on a colonial, commercial model.  We need to maintain the deep relationships we have developed with indigenous artists, companies and elders, and to cultivate new ones.  We need to ensure that the indigenous people themselves are full engaged with the question of why something should be programmed in London - what it will mean in that space, and how it will speak to that audience.  If we are sharing their cultural productions because we want to affect change in our own society, then we need them to share that desire.  If we bring them to London as an act of healing - then we need to know that they want that act to happen.

Perhaps we have always known this in some way.  But it matters to write it down.  To be clear about the equality at the base of what we are doing.  To recognise how programming puts our values into action, and cannot be watered down.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

The Promised Land - Adana. Guest Blog by Eleanor Brown (CARAS)

Lucy Dunkerley meets Syrian women in Adana 
After a week spent in Adana, Turkey, it’s time to distil some thoughts. It was the beginning of a two year Erasmus + project led by the remarkable theatre company, Border Crossings. CARAS has had a long-term partnership with them, sharing skills, experience and enthusiasm for working with people from all over the world. During January, I went with them as a volunteer, exploring the situation for Syrian refugees who have crossed the Turkish border, and considering ways to place that within a wider context.

Adana is a beautiful place - a golden yellow train station standing in a square surrounded by fluttering flags strung between lampposts and date palms, orange trees heavy with fruit lining every street, poinsettias grown to glorious shrubs showing off their deep red foliage and putting Christmas window-sill versions to shame; streets that fill with the smell of grilled aubergine and kebap as night falls, hookah cafes with apple scented tobacco smoke on the air; and mosques dating back to the 1500s, calls to prayer rolling and echoing between Turkish delight shops, market stalls, and clouds of swooping pigeons. There are shops with stacks of functional, everyday pottery; baskets of herbs; furniture makers; and street cats galore. There’s a great, turquoise river that curves through it all, and a back drop of snow-capped mountains towering in the near distance. It feels like the sort of place that gets on with things without much fuss.

We were a group of academics, business people, theatre practitioners, educators, writers, students and NGO workers, all sharing our understanding and experience of the current refugee crisis. During our time together we began to understand the specific legal context of Turkey, the migration routes of refugees to Turkey and beyond, and to think deeply about how we each respond to the opportunities and challenges this brings.

Finding shared ground with refugees wasn’t hard: swapping plant names with Kurdish park gardeners (poinsettia is ‘Attaturk çiçeği’, orange is ‘portakal’, and crocus is ‘çiğdem’); talking to Bushra, a young Syrian woman striving to learn Turkish to pass the entrance exam to university, who declared a love of Shakespeare; and meeting Fatima, a shy three-year-old who liked counting and loved her dad. These are the ordinary, exceptional people who become refugees, bounced between systems that are confusingly complex and disempowering, navigating an unplanned new path, and hoping for home.

In the NGOs ‘Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants’ and ‘Support to Life’ we heard stories about the current situation: informal tent settlements dotted throughout the city, the challenges of supporting a transient population making a meagre living through migrant agricultural labour, tension between local and new populations and concern about rising costs of living for all, and the challenges of supporting children traumatised by spending their early years in a war. Amongst workers, there were familiar narratives of resilience and hope finding their way through a context of limited resources and restricted options, and a drive to raise awareness and bring about change with compassion, hard work, and front-line action.

Coming back to London and life at CARAS helps to create a wider context. In Turkey, we were with people at the start of one of the world’s huge forced migration routes. Many Syrians will remain in Turkey under temporary protection, and some might seek citizenship eventually, but for others their migration will continue. Some will be granted third-country resettlement in EU nations, some will ultimately consider it safe enough to return home, and others will make their own way via informal networks through Europe to reach a place that feels safe to them; others still will achieve their ambitions, gaining well paid employment and opening up opportunities again: Abdullah wants to continue his medical studies and be a heart surgeon, Burhan is an engineer, and Roshan is aiming to continue her career as a researcher in biochemistry.

Crossing the vast distance that is Turkey by air, seeing snowing mountains and plains, patchworked fields, a blue expanse of coast dotted with islands, rivers and power-stations, hilltop wind-farms, tiny villages and the great metropolis that is Istanbul brought home just how far people flee in order to feel safe. It’s not just Syrians crossing into neighbouring countries, but Afghans embarking on enormous overland journeys, sub-Saharan Africans crossing the harsh expanses of desert and the treacherous Mediterranean sea, everyone driven by fear and nurturing an aspiration to reach a place that allows them to live freely and safely.

People we meet in London are sometimes at the end of their journey, although some will have applications refused and will continue to be moved. The context in the UK is very different too- we are not experiencing a mass humanitarian crisis on the scale that Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Italy and Greece are. But we are working with the same human needs for connection, advice, access to support, and recognition of trauma and the ongoing impacts of forced migration. We face similar myths and stigma about asylum seekers being given better support than others (have a look at these for some myth-busting: asylum accomdation and asylum support payment report), and an ‘othering’ of refugees that prevents people meeting connecting on a human level.

As this project continues, there will be time to consider alternative responses, how we work together across sectors and throughout the EU, and to deepen our understanding of a whole host of human experiences. Stay with us. Follow the story. Next stop: Bologna.

Read more on the dedicated PROMISED LAND blog.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Power and Abuse

Vicky Featherstone
The year begins with the news that Vicky Featherstone - Artistic Director of the Royal Court - is the "most powerful person in British Theatre".  At least according to The Stage, which publishes an annual list of the "top 100".  In all fairness, I should say that it uses the term "influential", rather than "powerful': but the fundamental point would still seem to be that these are the people who can make and break careers.  Which makes it feel rather paradoxical when you look at the reasons behind the choice of Vicky for the "top spot".  Almost all the coverage, and the judges' own citations, are about the stand she took on sexual harassment in the theatre, in the wake of the scandals around Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Max Stafford-Clark etc.  Surely the whole point of these scandals was that they centred on men in positions of "power" (or "influence", if you prefer - theatre careers often develop through "influence"), who made use of those positions for their own sexual gratification?  Surely, if this calls anything into question, it is the very existence of the power structures that make this behaviour not only possible but endemic?

What Vicky did in response to the scandal seemed to me the opposite of "powerful".  She made the space of the Royal Court available for people to speak with impunity about their experiences.  She then made an ill-judged decision to pull Rita, Sue and Bob Too out of the Royal Court's programme on the grounds of its vague association with Max Stafford-Clark - a decision that she then reversed in response to public criticism.  I think she was right to reverse the decision; and that it takes a lot of bravery to admit, so very publicly, to having made an error of judgement.  Is that "powerful"?  Not in any conventional sense.  You wouldn't catch Harvey Weinstein backing down in public, would you?

And this seems to me to go to the heart of it.  Theatre should not be about "power" and "influence" at all.  It should be about talent, creativity, collaboration, and a sensitive, nuanced response to the complexities of the current moment. Such responses are achieved through open discussion and considered debate, not through "executive decisions". My friend Donatella Barbieri gave me a copy of Mary Beard's Women and Power for Christmas - and it's worth quoting at length:

"[We are] still treating power as something elite, coupled to public prestige, to the individual charisma of so-called 'leadership', and often... to a degree of celebrity.  [We are] also treating power very narrowly, as an object of possession that only the few - mostly men - can own or wield...  On those terms, women as a gender - not as some individuals - are by definition excluded from it.  You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure.  That means thinking about power differently.  It means decoupling it from public prestige.  It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers and not just of leaders."

This is how theatre works when it is truly meaningful, and not just a career ladder to pointless stardom.  But the journey towards that new and better way of the art form operating in society will not be helped by the perpetuation of The Stage's "power list".  Let's just scrap it, shall we?

And brava Vicky Featherstone, for suggesting better ways.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Jungle

The Jungle at the Young Vic
Just occasionally, you see a piece of theatre that completely affirms the necessity of the art form, that speaks to its context with intense moral urgency, that refuses to simplify or to sentimentalise.  Such a piece is The Jungle at the Young Vic.  Seeing this performance was a superb way to end what has been a year of political doubt and moral turpitude.  Everyone who sees this astonishing production will be better placed to move into 2018 with a clearer, more defined sense of how we can "act" in this most challenging of times.

The play was perhaps of particular importance for me, as Border Crossings is working on the new Season of Migrations, and in a couple of weeks I will be in Turkey, joining our partners at Adana University to learn from their work in the refugee camps there.  I had been feeling a deep concern about the ethical dimension of this - how is it possible for artists from the very Western countries that have responded so shockingly to the displacement of so many migrants to engage with them in a way that does not become mere voyeurism?  How can we participate in a manner that is both creatively valid and politically potent?  In the Voices of Culture report, we looked predominantly at work that engaged refugees in an instrumental way, at the same time as lamenting the failure of the cultural sector and of governments to open real dialogues and to engage in genuine intercultural exchange.  My recent talk at the European Culture Forum in Milan made the same point - we can't just employ culture as a way of moulding refugees into some pre-determined new identity, or (worse) as a means to distance them as they "tell their own stories" and make the liberal audience feel positively reassured about their own compassion.  What we have to find is a form that recognises our presence in the unfolding political drama, at the same time as understanding that we are not its protagonists.  The Jungle, written by two young men who engaged deeply with the Calais refugees at their time of greatest need, offers that dramatic validity, fuelled by compassion, humanity and anger.
What puts this work head and shoulders above other theatrical responses to the ongoing crisis are a series of courageous theatrical decisions:

  • The audience is in the thick of the action, seated at makeshift tables, representing the camp's Afghan café, on which the actors perform.  The set makes it impossible to distance yourself from the raw emotion of the refugees' experience.
  • The refugee characters are complemented by portrayals of British volunteers, all of whom are commendable, and all of whom are flawed.  They are in some way our representatives on stage - particularly the gap-year Beth, who listens to several testimonies that deepen her sense of the people she meets.  These characters make sense of our presence, which is far from participatory, but which they prevent from being voyeuristic or exploitative.
  • The refugees are the characters at the heart of the narrative.  It's interesting that the printed text ends with a scene for Beth - and this has clearly been cut in rehearsals so that the play ends with a direct address to the audience by Safi, a Syrian migrant, played with grace and dignity by Ammar Haj Ahmad.  I don't know whether Ammar is himself a refugee - he is certainly a Syrian.  The programme biographies rightly present all the actors in a purely professional way - but there is also a sense that some people are working with material they know intimately, and that they have brought a deep sense of their cultural selves to the production.  This is vital - both for the artistic truth and the moral purpose of the project.  Safi gets the last word, and it comes from a place of truth.
  • There are a few moments when video screens serve to remind us of the political context as we have perceived it - through news reports.  We see the little body of Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach.  We see flashes of the Paris terror attacks.  Towards the end, there is a report from a charity worker in Calais - a reminder, as our recent guest blog by John Comino-James pointed out, that the camp is still there.  It's just that today, the refugees aren't allowed to build anything that could be regarded as permanent.  They are imprisoned in a perpetual indeterminacy.  These flashes of our usual "objective" perception of events serves to problematise still further the relationship between the performers and the audience, between the material and its spectators, between the refugees and British society.  

It's been a rather wonderful year for us at Border Crossings, and I had thought that I would use this last blog post to review achievements and look forward.  Well, we know about the achievements, and now I am looking forward - feeling empowered by this stunning piece of theatre further to develop our own ventures in the jungle of culture, policy, and human need.

May 2018 be a year of renewed clarity, commitment and creativity for us all.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

European Culture Forum

Michael speaking at the Forum in Milan
I was delighted - and amazed - to be invited to the European Culture Forum in Milan as one of the platform speakers.  It's not just that Britain is a bit semi-detached from the EU at the moment - it's also that speaking at this event is normally the preserve of EU Presidents and Nobel Prize-winners...  Still - the invitation came and it would have been churlish to turn it down.  What a fantastic opportunity and privilege!

The first day of the forum was very upbeat.  Much of it was around the European Year of Cultural Heritage, which was kicked off at the event, and this clearly gave a lot of people much cause for celebration.  It is, of course, wonderful that Europe is going to be putting so much energy into cultural heritage in 2018 - though I would love to know what this is going to mean in practice, and how far "heritage" embraces the complex morality of our continent's past.  If it does, then perhaps there's space to take in the migrant crisis, the role of Islam, the inheritance of colonialism. There's a danger it could all turn into a festival of "aren't we marvellous?"  Towards the end of the first day, Ferdinand Richard from the Roberto Cimetta Fund sounded an appropriate warning note when he said that culture was in danger of being hi-jacked by nationalism.  This is the Europe we are actually living in, and Britain's current tragedy reflects that.  It seemed important to address this on day 2.

So - the plenary of which I was a part is available to watch here - it actually begins at 8hrs 18mins in, and lasts a healthy two hours, so if you can't stand the thought of that, here's a basic summary.  The Moderator, Hannah Conway, very kindly gave me the first word - so I was able to set a bit of a tone for the debate.  I was asked about the role of culture in promoting social cohesion - and my response was that the two things are essentially the same.  We shouldn't be taking an instrumental view of culture, calling it a "tool" or something to be "exploited" or "used".  Culture, I ventured to suggest, is the public generation of meaning - and so it's the base from which a healthy society can grow.  You don't know why you are doing anything else if you don't have meaning - so of course in order to have any form of social cohesion, you have to have culture.  What's more, for that cohesion to be sustainable, the culture has to be dynamic and fluid - this is where it begins to overlap with democracy.

The question of inclusivity had to be addressed - I think a lot of people were very pleased that I called out the Forum for the all-white panels.  The question of culture within policy matters - I used the example of our refugee work in Plymouth, but also called for something bigger, for a real engagement of art and culture in the political process, on the lines of Periclean Athens.  Of course that was described as hopelessly Utopian - but the truth is that "realism" hasn't done too well recently. The current situation - Trump, Brexit, Putin - is a list of things many people said "could never happen".  And then they did. I think that might be true of the Utopian alliance between culture and policy as well.