Unlikely communities and cultural projects

I was invited to participate in a discussion as part of the DakshinaChitra Museum in Chennai’s annual symposium. Organised in partnership with British Council India and chaired by Jonathan May, the conversation between Avinash Kumar, Archana Prasad and me was a response to the theme: ‘How innovation in the arts will lead the way’.

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Clockwise from top left: Avinash Kumar, me, Jonathan May, Archana Prasad

The below is a slightly edited version of the talk I gave at the start of that session.


Hello. 

I’m a tired father of two small children, a photographer, and a cultural programmer and producer. I’m also a second-generation Indian born in London (My parents grew up in, amongst other places, Mumbai and Vadodara). 

It’s worth saying that I don’t have an “arts” background — if there is such a thing. I studied history at university; wanted to become a journalist; very nearly became a schoolteacher; and then trained as a producer at the BBC, before joining the Barbican.

For the last few years, I’ve been responsible for a public programme of experimental installations, exhibitions, research projects and events at the Barbican in London. It’s one of the largest arts centres in the world; inside are two art galleries, a concert hall, two theatres and three cinemas. 

The public programme I manage — which mostly happens in the foyer spaces around those art form venues — is a platform for experimental projects which ask social and cultural questions, spark conversations, and bring people together. 

***

In thinking about how to approach today’s talk I’ve been circling around what that word — innovation — means in the context of my work. 

I’ve spent years watching (and participating in!) countless conversations and conferences in the arts and cultural sector about ‘innovation’. Shreya hinted at this in the way she framed our conversation today: rare is the discussion about innovation which hasn’t been dominated by technological innovation. 

Today, I’d like to focus more on social and cultural innovation. 

*** 

At least in the UK, we’ve come to use “arts and culture” almost interchangeably. But in that linguistic sleight, I think we’re losing something important. 

The “arts” — as we have come to know them — lend themselves to crisp classification: music, theatre, dance, film, visual art, and so forth. But culture can speak to something altogether different. Culture is rooted in our customs and beliefs, in the way we (as individuals and groups) think, eat, dream, play, work, commune, imagine and create. 

So, if this panel is asking the question: how can innovation in the arts lead the way? then one answer (and the one I want to talk about) is that the arts can create more space for that which might be more loosely defined as cultural. 

***

Over the last five years, in collaboration with a small team — particularly my former colleague Razia Jordan — I’ve been developing a public programme of exhibitions, research projects, and events at the Barbican which has been motivated by a desire to convene conversations people want to have now. 

This programme has included anything from: 

  • this mysterious lost property office which, as you spend time with it, shares with you the product of over a year’s research about experiences of growing old in the UK, conducted by a public engagement collective in collaboration with amongst others, a major university and ageing charity. 
  • or this structure, a year-long microvenue hosting 90 events and residencies exploring what it means to be human in the face of technological change

I’m going to talk a little about the spirit which I think these, and many other projects in the programme, share. 

***

I’m drawn to conversations between unlikely communities of people from different disciplines. People who might otherwise have been strangers but find themselves in dialogue about a topic they share an interest in. The richest projects in our programme are borne from conversations like these. 

In each of our tribes: families, friends, colleagues, peers, we’ve developed muscle memories and ways of communicating which become deeply-grooved, year-after-year. At their best, these are a delightful shorthand — signalling commonality and paving the way for quick collaborations. But at their worst, these grooves become huge barriers, making it harder and harder to communicate with those who don’t share your frames of reference. 

There’s something precious about spending time in conversation with people who care about the same thing as you, but do so from a different perspective, with a different set of languages, codes, and reference points. 

Dialogues like these are often slow, messy, fluid things — as people try to find their bearings and commonalities, building trust and momentum along the way. 

I think cultural organisations can, and should, try and act as safe harbours for this kind of dialogue. It’s what we’re (we being my small team) are trying to nurture with the public programme at the Barbican. 

In practice, that means building temporary vessels for people from different fields and backgrounds: writers, researchers, activists, artists, citizens, curators to travel together for a while while they explore a topic and co-create a festival or an exhibition or a publication or something entirely hybrid. 

The longer they spend together, the harder to label or classify their project is, I think that’s a strength. Although it ought to be said that this hybridity makes life tricky in a context which is built on classification. Organisations like organisation and I haven’t figured out how to both preserve the open-endedness an approach to production like this demands with the clarity (and predictability, almost) that an organisation is hungry for.  

In fact — that project Avi talked about, HUM.2035, about the future of humanitarian work, is one of the richest examples of this balance. It was, at once: research project; exhibition; speculative design; provocation, and much else… The conversation from which the project grew was ‘innovative’, and the best kind of cultural dialogue.

*** 

If you remove some of the usual scaffolding: the clarifying, classifying forces of art-form, discipline, medium, venue, format, what would you replace them with? 

Another way of asking this question is, if you did not start with an artistic form or medium, where would you begin instead?

In the case of our programme, it is often a question: 

— what does it mean to grow old? 

— what does power do to our brains?

— how have our buildings come to be this way?

— why do we value some forms of storytelling above others?

— what does it mean to human when technology is changing everything?

These are all questions which resist simple answers. 

And they are also questions which touch on the knottiest of topics: tackled at different times by families or politicians, designers or engineers, artists or researchers, but rarely together. 

I’m wary of over-claiming what any cultural project can achieve. You run the risk of over-burdening or instrumentalising people and their work — and you also run the risk of taking away the magic of making cultural work together. 

***

But I think we can talk at the level of institutions and spaces. We — the likes of the Barbican — occupy a rare civic role, part of the fabric of so many different cities, places, societies. To innovate is, perhaps, to allow ourselves to foreground culture in its broadest sense. 

And — as a final thought… I scribbled down something Avi said:  

“It might not be culture in the way we’re used to, but it is culture in the way of everyday life”

This is probably  a whole other talk… I wonder if in doing that, in attempting to think of culture much more broadly, we might find it easier to make cultural organisations more inclusive, representative, welcoming and… useful(!) spaces.