Saturday, 16 February 2013

Voices of the people: political revolutions, cultural revolutions and social revolutions in the Middle East

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Recently The British Council launched its Voices of the People report, for which I was honoured to be asked to write the foreword. The report presents research carried out by the Post War Reconstruction and Development Unit at the University of York over the last two years and was based on over 100 interviews with artists, activists, civil society members and other culturally, socially and politically active participants in Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. However, its conclusions have important implications for many more countries across the Middle East North Africa region, especially in those states undergoing popular challenges to established governments, customs and regimes. Covering theatre, music, art (including street art), citizen journalism and much more, Voices of the People looks at the potential for new forms of creative and political expression to challenge, interpret and create a different future in which citizens are “emboldened and have begun to put pressure on their new governments for institutional reform and greater freedom to tackle day to day realities.” However, many questions remain, including
  • Is cultural change to happen through existing cultural institutions or through informal or grassroots means?
  • What role does civil society play in the cultural future, having played such a strong part in the revolutionary present?
  • There's a difference between catching a moment and building a future. How can the energy of cultural revolution be maintained if there is no funding in the present, emergent artists are not supported in viable and stable careers and much younger people do not have faith in educational institutions to adequately teach or support their ambitions in the arts?
  • How can cultural life be nurtured in the long term, once the fashionability (to the West) of the Middle Eastern revolutions has waned?
  • Who is being overlooked in the rush to celebrate the work produced in the immediate (chronological, metaphorical and topographic) surroundings of the revolutions?
  • Is the artistic work being produced now only an overflow of energy from the real action – political revolution, rebellion against existing oppression, the finding and fielding of new leaders, the formulation of new constitutions following different principles – and will it burn itself out?
  • And...what business is it of the west to worry on behalf of revolutionary Middle Eastern states and to think it has anything to offer by way of ‘helping out’?
With these issues and reservations in mind, this is the talk I gave at a London launch event for Voices of the People. It was a private, working event for a smallish international group of arts producers, editors and commissioners, institution directors, artists, funders and academics across the regions and disciplines being discussed.  Here’s the talk, splintered out of its bullet points:
I’m here to strike a note, not of caution, but of pragmatism and strategy. 
Events in the Middle East are very fashionable at the moment. They allow us to use grandiose terms like rebellion, transformation, radical change. They are spectacular both to witness and participate in, because of a rapid combination of factors which all point to the future: the energy of youthful protestors; the seeming speed with which unsatisfactory structures, leaders or systems have been brought down; the inspired used of technology to organise, communicate, record and archive events; the faith which ideals – which are easy to be cynical about – guide those agitating for the future: ideals like equality, pluralism, stability, openness. These ideals – and their opposites, as we have seen – are not mere concepts but are embodied in laws, policies, institutions and ideologies which affect everything and everyone, from economics, employment, education and infrastructure to attitudes to violence, leadership and fairness. There is also the variety of activity we are witnessing. It’s not just about occupying, demonstrating, shouting out, it’s also about expression and about creative freedom - which are inextricably linked with political freedom, which must guarantee social freedom in its turn.
Revolutions, like the people who create them, are multi-disciplinary. Artists are articulating their concerns, which may not always be overtly political but do always come from their specific cultural and social context and are therefore political by default. The making and displaying or releasing of work is itself a political statement against marginalisation, invisibility, silencing and dismissal. Art, in whatever form, is a space of consideration, reflection, analysis, the integration of ideas and speculation about possibility. But artists must be given the freedom to speak on their own terms, in their own language, with their own identity and manner. Whether these creators work in solitude as novelists and painters or  collaboratively as theatre or film-makers, whether they confront their neighbourhoods as graffiti artists or street performers or seek funding for large scale projects requiring greater technology and support, They are producing new work in which they have much to say and we have much to learn.  
How can we do this?  By making connections. By that I mean certain specific things: we offer expertise and contacts with experienced cultural bodies and institutions; we organise and host events which span countries and include those of both sexes, multiple cultures and all backgrounds; we facilitate collaboration between those who create and those who enable, organise, publicise, curate and commission. Yet this must be done freely, fairly and equally, as part of a two-way exchange. 
Acting with interest and a desire to learn more – rather than an attitude of extending patronage or sating our own curiosity – we can develop others’ careers in tangible ways: festivals, events, exhibitions, commissions, anthologies, which are by everyone, for everyone, and not simply for insiders or decision-makers or as a means of allowing international voyeurs and bystanders to feel the excitement of involvement in strangers’ revolutions. 
But we must act fast. The future lies in a progressive attitude,  not a reactionary one. The revolutions are not over and we don’t know how they’ll end. Potential is found by opening up to the new possibilities of the future, not the conservation of repressive ideas taking the ancient or mythic past as their seal of quality.  
The attainment of political, social and cultural ideals comes about by the offering of resources, organisational skills, opportunities, commissions and the physical places in which to showcase the creativity I am talking about. The question is now what we build together, and how, according to what is told to us by revolutionaries themselves, and not what we think is best. If we humbly get involved in these practical endeavours, we can say we have participated in creating a new world that we all want to see.