Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Brussels speech

A speech given by Michael Walling to the EU's OMC group on the role of Culture in the Refugee Crisis: 14th September 2016.  



Good morning everybody – my name is Michael Walling and my friend and colleague here is Rosanna Lewis. We are very grateful to you for this opportunity to present the report on behalf of the Voices of Culture Structured Dialogue Group on the Role of Culture in Promoting Inclusion in the Context of Migration.

We are particularly grateful to the Structured Dialogue group for taking the shocking decision to choose as their representatives today two citizens of the United Kingdom. Not only is ours the only member state that is not taking part in this OMC group – it is also the only member state whose population has voted to withdraw from the entire European project – albeit by a very small margin in a non-binding advisory referendum that has yet to be debated, never mind endorsed, by our sovereign Parliament, the bulk of whose members in both houses are much opposed to its result. Just saying….

If the UK’s political class was largely in favour of remaining in the EU, the cultural sector was overwhelming so – and across the country, people working in the arts were devastated, disoriented, bereaved by the referendum result. In the cultural sector, the European project is deeply admired and loved – loved because of its idealism. Because it is fundamentally about an openness to the Other. Because it generates new channels of communication and intercultural dialogues, building empathy, understanding, a sense of common humanity – and peace.

These are also the great virtues of the arts and culture themselves. These are the reasons why the European project is at its heart a cultural project, and why culture has to be at the centre of all the EU does. And they are also the reasons why culture is so fundamental to the great challenge currently faced by the continent around migration and refugees.

This year, renegade Britain has been commemorating the fourth centenary of the death of William Shakespeare – whose theatre, even now in the 21st century, remains the model for truly inclusive, transformative and politically impactful cultural practice. Shakespeare’s theatre was called The Globe – it was not called The Island – and it was emphatically about creating an open space in which people from a huge range of backgrounds could come together and encounter people who were different from themselves. He puts into public space the elderly, the mentally ill, gay people, transgender people, the homeless, the displaced, Africans, Muslims, Jews. And in every case, he invites us to see beyond the simplistic label and into the common humanity that we share:

“If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”

If Britain really wants to celebrate Shakespeare, then it needs to celebrate the European, the humanitarian, the dangerous border crosser. If we reject Europe, we reject culture. If we reject culture, we reject humanity. And if we reject humanity, then we will reject the refugees.

Both Rosanna and myself have been working on projects that run counter to this deeply disturbing trend. Rosanna works with the British Council, and has been one of the driving forces behind “Queens of Syria” – a theatre project that brought a group of Syrian refugee women to the UK, where they were able to tell their own, very personal stories of displacement and loss. And on Monday, I will be starting rehearsals for a pair of new plays jointly produced by my company Border Crossings and Palestine’s ASHTAR Theatre – plays that feature alongside professional performers from the UK and the Occupied Territories a Community Chorus of refugees. The plays, called “Ilium and Ithaka: Plays of Love and War”, are based on the founding myths of European culture – Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. So the first play is about what it feels like to be caught up in a seemingly endless cycle of violence – and the second play is about what happens in the wake of war: post-traumatic stress, families rent apart, displaced people on the sea. At the very source of European culture, Homer speaks to the refugee experience of the current moment:

“If any god has marked me out again
for shipwreck, my tough heart can undergo it.
What hardship have I not long since endured
at sea, in battle! Let the trial come.”

You’ll be pleased to hear that the Structured Dialogue group does not consist entirely of Europhile Fifth Columnists fleeing Brexit Britain, but is in fact very diverse, covering a range of sectors and member states. It’s particularly important that the group includes two people who are themselves from refugee backgrounds. One of these is a musician from the Southern Sudan: the other is a museum worker who now lives in Slovenia, where she fled with her family during the wars in former Yugoslavia. The testimonies of refugees from European conflicts – quite recent ones – are a very important resource in dealing with the current crisis. We need to listen to them when they tell us “The moment it all went wrong was when people started saying ‘Let’s segregate all the Muslims’.” If we allow the new citizens of our continent to be “Othered” in this way again – and it is already starting to happen, more than starting – then we could be looking at another Bosnia. The great symbol of the Balkans conflict is the destruction of the beautiful 400 year-old bridge at Mostar: a bridge of no real strategic importance but of great symbolic, cultural value – because it was built by Muslims, and because it was a bridge – a means of connection across a chasm. Fear and hatred destroy bridges: our role as artists and as cultural policy-makers is to build and re-build them.

When the Structured Dialogue group – 33 people from across the continent, very few of whom had even met before - came to Brussels in June, we had only two days to address these incredibly complex and important issues, through what was in many ways an Open Space approach. Those of us who led particular discussion groups within that process have, slightly by default, ended up as the final authors of this report – but we have endeavoured to make it genuinely reflective of the many distinct voices in the room. Before the meeting, we had already been sent, and had given our individual written answers to, three framing questions from the Commission:

• Which recent initiatives best demonstrate the successful role of culture in promoting the inclusion of refugees and migrants? What were the key success factors and have these been
evaluated?
• What are the best ways to organise cultural activities to do this on arrival and after six months?
• What are the strongest arguments that can be made for the use of culture in this way?

While the three Parts of our report do not exactly follow this structure, you can see it underlying the main themes that have emerged. The first Part, dealing with the reasons why culture is such a crucial element in the creation of inclusive societies that embrace migration, is very rooted in specific evidence of projects known to the group from across Europe and indeed beyond. The third Part is about the crucial question of evaluation and how we can measure or assess the impact that cultural initiatives have in developing open and inclusive social and political spaces.

However, we did not entirely follow the structure that had been suggested, in that we felt it concentrated almost entirely on cultural work directly with refugees and migrants, rather than work about relating them to their new host societies. Our report does not in any way deny the value of direct cultural interventions – indeed, it is full of examples of projects that have enabled refugees and migrants to acquire language skills and cultural understanding, to recover from trauma or to develop their employability. But we were also mindful that such an instrumental cultural offer, presented on its own, could be understood by refugees and migrants as a simplistic programme of cultural education, even of indoctrination, positing an inflexible and monolithic European culture to which they, as new arrivals, are obliged to conform. It could be thought to place all the responsibility for learning and adaptation on the migrants themselves.

Cultural rights are human rights, and if people feel that their culture is somehow being rejected - that they are being asked to adopt a completely different way of being – they are likely to resent that. Research has shown that it is a sense of cultural rejection that fuels radicalisation: conversely, people who feel that they are accepted in a community for who they are - are not going to blow it up. And so we also emphasise the importance of cultural and artistic initiatives to introduce the migrants and refugees, their cultures, their stories and their sheer humanity, to the existing European public.

Building bridges. Narrating voyages. Embracing Globes.

Work of this kind is not just about generating the conditions in which new citizens can be accepted and included in European societies. It is also about enriching those societies. Throughout our history, cultural Renaissances have happened when existing cultural traditions come together, and people see all the exciting things that other people do – their imagery, their music, their dances, their poetry, their food. And so Part 2 of our report looks at the potential for art and culture to catalyse positive social change in the context of migration; to affect real transformations in peoples’ minds, hearts and lives; and even to create new policy.

In fact, I would say that only culture can do this – because culture is the only space where we can meet our new neighbours on an equal footing. Because politically – there is no equality. And economically – there is no equality. And socially, perhaps educationally, certainly in terms of health and wellbeing – there is no equality. But in the sacred space of art and culture – there everyone has a voice. So it is in the cultural space that we must begin.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Tristimania

Flute Theatre's Tempest
A couple of weeks ago, I'd arranged to go and hear my friend Jay Griffiths talk about Shakespeare and Manic Depression.  The day before, we had no fewer than three large funding applications turned down.  Had we got them all, the company would have been in very good shape for the next three years.  As it is - we are, as ever, looking for the next penny.  Usually I'm fairly sanguine about such things - we all know that the arts aren't at the top of many agendas these days, and that the few enlightened places with money to give are under siege from hopeful applicants.  But three in one day felt a bit personal.

I hadn't seen Jay for some time - certainly not since her new book came out.  Tristimania is subtitled A Diary of Manic Depression.  It's a tough read, though ultimately a very empowering one - especially tough if you know the author.  She is blindingly honest about a deeply traumatic year.  I knew that when I next saw her, I would have some sharing to do.  And, that night, I just didn't feel up to it.  I bottled out of an event about depression - because I was depressed.  Oh the irony.

Of course, what depressed me wasn't really to do with me.  It was to do with a wider social and political climate.  To begin with, I had wondered if Jay's book was going to subscribe to the view that depression is located in the depressed person - it is certainly very personal, and she does speak about a genetic predisposition (which I would not dispute as a factor).  But, as she's shown in her earlier books, Jay is a very perceptive critic of contemporary global cultures - and Tristimania is ultimately an indictment of a society that wastes its creative people in this way. "Illness" she writes "is the only category which our culture allows us in this age of literalism, of numbering and of unwonder."

Think about that when you next see somebody who is "mentally ill".  Think about it when somebody is depressed.  Think about it when you next meet an autistic person.

I went to a performance of The Tempest for autistic children, presented by Flute Theatre, under the direction of the extraordinary Kelly Hunter.  If the world is a disabling space for the creative spirit, then this was an enabling space for people perceived to be without creativity.  By generating an atmosphere of inclusive openness, based on the common heartbeat that runs through the text, this production opened the complex territories of language and expression to the excluded.  It invited them to share in moments that were ripe with meaning precisely because of who was sharing them.  Near the beginning, there was an assertion of their right to be present in social space - "This island's mine!"  The learning of language became a beautiful dialogue of balletic hand movement.   Social adjustment and personal space were questioned through the way Caliban's interaction with Miranda was perceived.  And so on. It was not only a joy to behold the children being freed into movement, language and liveliness - it also revealed new depths in the Shakespearean text - depths both of meaning and of music.

At the end, as aspects of Ariel, each child in turn held the hands of Prospero and was spun then released in the performing circle.  "Be free", he said.  "Be free".

Monday, August 01, 2016

Sellars on Brexit

Peter Sellars
In the wake of Brexit, the most important agenda that looms before the United Kingdom is to crawl back into its snail shell as quickly and completely as possible.  Links with the outside world are unnecessary and risk diluting the purity of British culture.  I am alarmed to note that for some inexplicable reason, Border Crossings continues to function as an organization with a mission to build bridges across cultures, theatrical traditions and contemporary problems.  They seem to be pursuing this mission with a single-minded devotion, developing work that is artistically sophisticated and potentially high-impact.  I am greatly distressed at the deluded ideals of these sorry people.  With a small shake of the head I can only wish them well on their hopeless quest.

— Peter Sellars

Monday, July 18, 2016

Needles and Opium

Needles and Opium - Wellesley Robertson III as Miles Davis
Back in 1992, as a young director just starting to make work that veered away from the standard British approach to text and performance, I saw Robert Lepage's Needles and Opium during its very brief, 16 performance run at the Cottesloe Theatre.  That night was a game changer.  I'd already been interested in the use of projection and the way imagery and music could generate new layers of meaning beyond mere realism - in fact I was just about to direct my first opera...  but what Robert achieved in Needles and Opium was so much more than an aesthetic shift or a display of technical wizardry.  This was the first production I had seen that used the full vocabulary of theatre to generate profound meaning that could not be achieved in any other way.  It made me understand how the British critical tradition, in which everything is a code for something you can explain in words, totally misses the great joy of performance, which is its lived immediacy - its ability to reach our spiritual heart through the combination of image, movement, tone, word and rhythm.  I searched out other work by this extraordinary artist - I saw The Dragon's Trilogy and The Seven Streams of the River Ota live; I watched Tectonic Plates on video - many times; I showed the documentary Who is this nobody from Québec to several years' worth of students at Rose Bruford.

Not that I was alone in this.  If you look at world theatre from the mid-90s onwards, it won't take long  to find the influence of Lepage.  Think of how Complicite moved away from their clowning roots.  Think of Ariane Mnouchkine's embrace of projection in Le Dernier Caravansérail.

So - when I heard that, 25 years after its creation, Needles and Opium was coming back, I was actually rather nervous; and this grew worse when I heard that this was a new staging of the play, one that brought it more "up to date" in the use of technology.  I will confess that, in some of Lepage's recent work, I've found the technology a bit overwhelming.   It's as if the game-playing that is possible with the machine of theatre and all the new developments in the digital world has at times eclipsed the simple desire to tell a story.  Medium becoming message.  I dreaded that the emotional purity of the play's three intertwining storylines might be swamped by technological showmanship.  So I decided not to see it.  And then lots of friends whom I totally trust, including Tony Guilfoyle (an actor who works regularly with both Border Crossings and Lepage) told me I had to.  And I did.

It's clear from his programme note that Robert shared an element of my trepidation.  And that's exactly why the new production is such an extraordinary success: because it reinvents the play for 2016 (and in work of this kind play and production are the same thing).  It makes next to no attempt to recreate what was so beautiful before, because what was beautiful in a live setting in 1992 is mere nostalgia today.  Instead it searches for the beating heart of the piece, and transplants it into a healthy new body.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that the bits of the new version that are least successful are those that come closest to the original that I (still) recall with such passion.  In the original, a key element was an overhead projector, located behind a single lycra screen, which was used for amazingly creative shadow play.  In one astonishing moment, Robert, silhouetted as Miles Davis, was injected by a vast syringe - the liquid spilling around him.

Needles and Opium - the syringe in 1992
Like most theatrical magic, it was really clear how it was done.  It was also terrifying and beautiful at the same time.  In 2016, there is a second performer to play Davis, and so the character is seen fully on stage.  The projections all come from the front, onto an extraordinarily versatile revolving half cube.  And this means that the injection now becomes absorbed in the busier world around it, less clear, less intense.

Needles and Opium - the syringe in 2016
Most of the time, the imagery is fresh and energised - finding a contemporary way to bring 1949, the year of Cocteau's visit to New York and Miles Davis's to Paris, into clear view for an audience today. We know that we are looking at these men and their time from the perspective of now.  And so we find ourselves asking what their stories might mean for today.  And Robert's own story too.  At the centre of the piece is his autobiographical story: his own journey to Paris when dealing with the end of a love affair, and his reaching in to his cultural antecedents, French thought and imagery, American jazz, to find the consolations of creativity.  In the new version of the play, the central character has aged, like his creator, and has acquired a longer view of his emotional turmoil.

In what I'm pretty sure is a new section of text, he tells an unseen therapist about his problems in terms of his Québecois identity.  Central to love, and central to art, is always the question of identity.  As a Québecois, Robert finds himself part of a cultural identity that is not quite European, not quite North American, that can be, and often is, rejected by both and that therefore tends to reject both in turn - but which must ultimately embrace its own inherent diversity in order to reach a psychological equilibrium.

At this moment of extreme identity crisis in Britain, the play felt incredibly immediate and potent.  And consoling too.

Needles and Opium - the cube


Friday, July 15, 2016

LIFT 2016

Minefield
I've been meaning to write about LIFT for a few weeks.  Brexit rather took my attention elsewhere.  Or rather, it made me write in a more direct way about some of the things that constantly preoccupy us as an organisation and as artists working around international exchange.  As in previous years, LIFT was full of work generated through the meetings of artists from different countries, different cultures, different spaces.  It enabled this diverse country to be galvanised and inspired by encountering the results - a ripple effect of "things could be different".  And, of course, all of that is now under threat.  The first piece I want to talk about was funded directly out of the European Union.  The second was itself European.  The third drew powerful resonance when I sent some guests on our European Playmaking Laboratory to experience it.  Their visits were, of course, funded by the European Union.

At LIFT 2014, I'd loved Lola Arias' piece The Year I was Born.  For this year, LIFT had joined forces with other European organisations to commission her new production, Minefield - a meeting between British and Argentine veterans of the Falklands conflict.  In some ways, the idea behind this is close to our own model - bring together performers from different cultures, and see what results.  Except that Lola's actors were not performers - or they had not been before this show.  They had a range of professions: I particularly remember one of them being a Special Needs teacher.  What brought them together was their status as veterans of a war I remember from my late teens...  and it was very striking for me personally that the Argentine men were about my age.  One English soldier said how, when they finally arrived in Port Stanley, they noticed how young the Argentine soldiers were.  One of them told how he survived the sinking of the General Belgrano.

Minefield was defined by honesty.  I was about to say it didn't take sides, but that's not entirely true.  Margaret Thatcher and General Galtieri both came in for some pretty hefty and totally justified satire.  The point is rather that there was no sense of right and wrong in the warfare itself, although the men on stage continued to disagree about the issues behind it.  What mattered was that these former "enemies", men who had been in a position where they could easily have killed one another, were able to come together in art, and to find out more about themselves by understanding the common experience they shared.  It was a perfect example of theatre's capacity to place you in another person's shoes.  To see things through another person's eyes.

The Hamilton Complex
I don't know if Mark planned it this way - but that sense of looking through the eyes of an Other felt central to this year's festival.  Perhaps it was just Brexit making me feel that way...  In The Hamilton Complex, a group of 13 year old girls helped us to see the world as they did - with an anarchic humour, a healthy lack of respect, and a deep, touching sweetness.  Matt Trueman has written superbly about this play, and I won't repeat him: I'll just point out how the production not only provoked the audience to see the world through the eyes of these girls, but also to question our own eyes - to think about why we look at young girls and mature women in the way we do, to recognise the political structures underlying these preconceptions.

It's all about empathy.  And my other highlight of this year's LIFT was Clare Patey's extraordinary Empathy Museum on the Greenwich Peninsula.  It sounds the simplest thing in the world to walk a mile in somebody else's shoes, while listening to their recorded voice on headphones.  For everyone who did it - it was profoundly moving.  Almost everyone felt that there was some strange coincidence to their choice - that the experience of the person whose shoes they wore was particularly close to their own, particularly specific to them.  One of our European guests had suffered a recent bereavement similar to that of the person whose shoes she wore.  Another felt the migration story he heard reflected his own.  A young German found herself in dialogue with a survivor of the Holocaust.  The truth, I suppose, is that all of these specifics are part of our common humanity, that is too often suppressed and enclosed.  The job of art is to find the connections.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

The Revolt of the Provinces

Ludmilla Euler and
Mateusz Ochal at our European workshop
Can it really only be eleven days?  On the morning of Friday 24th June, I woke up very suddenly to the radio alarm, and the shock news of "Brexit".  Every morning since, the process of waking has felt like times of bereavement: for a moment or two feeling the way into light, and then the terrible reality comes crashing in.  On the evening of the 24th, Lucy and I welcomed guests from Denmark, Germany, Greece and Sweden to take part in our week-long European Playmaking Laboratory.  They were funded by the EU, under the Erasmus + programme for educational exchanges.  It was difficult to welcome them - and more difficult still to keep a sense of balance as the workshop explored themes of migration, the horrors of the refugee crisis, the shifting sands of European and national identities.  All around us, fallout tumbling like toxic snow.

On Tuesday 28th, I had dinner with Coll Thrush - the historian from Vancouver whose work on indigenous travellers to London was so important to our Hidden Histories film.  We found ourselves searching the past to find any analogy with what was occurring - and landed in 1642, at the outbreak of the Civil War - dubbed The Revolt of the Provinces by John Morrill.  Then as now, a London-based elite with strong links to the continent was perceived to be arbitrary and arrogant in its attitude to the country more widely, leading to a conservative revolution.  Then as now, Scotland and Ireland were serious flash points.   Then, there was a rapid descent into violent anarchy, halted only by the imposition of a military dictatorship.  I realise this probably sounds sensationalist - I hope it is.  Coll's response was: "We tend to think of ourselves - Europeans, North Americans - as being immune from that kind of history.  But it has happened before and it could again."  Of course it could.  Think of Ireland.  Think of Yugoslavia.  Think of the 500% increase in racially motivated hate crimes in the week following the referendum.  Think of the way the extreme right steps in when economies fall apart. Think of what Yanis Varoufakis has been arguing about European disintegration leading to a return to the 1930s.

Even before the vote took place, we had already seen the first political murder of the Brexit era.  I have been criticised on social media for calling the death of Jo Cox a direct result of the Leave campaign's xenophobic rhetoric: Thomas Mair was mentally ill, the apologists say.  Of course he was.  So were Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, but that did not prevent anyone locating their murder of Lee Rigby within a discourse of Islamist terrorism.  Disturbed individuals are open to suggestion, volatile and unstable: of course an atmosphere that breeds hatred will carry them into acts of violence, as it serves to identify their targets.  And make no mistake - the Leave campaign deliberately, cynically, sought to breed hatred and racism.  There has been much discussion of the poster Nigel Farage unveiled on the very day Jo Cox was killed - its image of Middle Eastern refugees (who, of course, have nothing to do with European freedom of movement) directly derived from a Nazi propaganda film.  


Less remarked upon has been the leaflet delivered to many households - including mine - by the Leave campaign, which featured a map of "Countries set to join the EU", in which Iraq and Syria were prominently named.  This propaganda was produced in cold calculation by intelligent people with the deliberate purpose of misleading the less informed, stoking prejudice, and firing up hatred.


There was poor campaigning on the Remain side too, of course, as one Project Fear competed with another - and this did nothing to assuage the revolt of the provinces - but at least it was not blatantly misleading, manipulative and incendiary.

We are in a terrible position.  Terrible in the sense of morally abhorrent, and terrible in the sense of deeply frightening.

So - what can we do?  On a long term basis, those of us who work in culture, education, the media and other aspects of public discourse have to reclaim public space for intelligent, nuanced and morally acceptable debate.  The referendum result, hard on the heels of cuts in public spending, is making the work of organisations like Border Crossings infinitely more challenging - and more necessary than ever.  We have to carve out spaces in which we can meet Other human beings AS human beings - overturning the insidious language of labelling and recognising our common humanity.  We have to make emotional connections with the refugees on Farage's poster, with Poles and Romanians, and with the people across the country who voted Leave in protest against their exclusion from political and social processes.  As the great Northern Irish playwright Stewart Parker said in 1986: "If ever there was a time and place that called out for the solace and rigour and passionate rejoinder of great drama, it is here and now. There is a whole culture to be achieved. The politicians, visionless almost to a man, are withdrawing into their sectarian stockades. It falls to the artists to construct a working model of wholeness by means of which this society can hold up its head in the world."

But there is a short term need as well.  We have to fight tooth and claw to remain a part of the European Union, and to assert our identity as an outward-looking, engaged, international and - yes - democratic people.  I recognise that it may sound deeply anti-democratic to suggest that the referendum result should be overturned - but consider this:

  1. The Brexit vote was the result of manipulative and hate-inducing propaganda worthy of Goebbels.  If the campaign is not based on truth but on lies, how can it be considered a democratic process?  Many people who were misled into voting Leave have stated that they now regret this: a second vote would almost certainly show a strong majority for Remain.
  2. The vote is not binding.  We have a representative democracy in this country, not a delegated one, as Edmund Burke explained in his 1774 Speech to the Electors of Bristol.  There are very good reasons for this: a simple yes or no question put to plebiscite is inevitably simplified, while the processes of lawmaking in Parliament are complex and nuanced, allowing for detail and a full exploration of the real issues.  We would not choose to make (say) health policy or education policy by simplified yes or no questions put to the popular vote - and we must not allow something massively bigger to be decided in this debased way.  Our membership of the EU is enshrined in Act of Parliament, and Parliament is sovereign.  It is not therefore up to the next Prime Minister, whoever that may be, to use Royal Prerogative powers to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty in response to the popular vote - that would in fact be the arbitrary and tyrannical option.  Not democracy but ochlocracy.  The referendum is - as its name suggests - a referral.  It is advisory, but it does not carry the force of statute.  David Cameron was quite wrong to call the referendum in the first place - there was no significant popular demand, and it was, like all his decisions, purely tactical -  but it would be far more wrong to treat it as a binding expression of the will of the people.
  3. Given the advisory nature of the referendum, and the malign nature of the victorious campaign, the margin of victory has to be considered.  In any other global polity, major constitutional change requires a substantial majority - at least 66% in many cases (for example Germany and the USA).  It would be wildly irresponsible of the government to take irrevocable action that totally changes the nature of the country and its status in the world on the basis of a 3.8% margin.    
  4. Any democracy, in responding to the will of the majority, also has to take into account the position of substantial minorities.  The positions of Scotland and Northern Ireland are crucial here.  Enacting Brexit would lead to the break-up of the very polity it seeks to preserve and celebrate, namely the United Kingdom.  This is clearly untenable.  Switzerland, the only complex democracy that makes regular use of referendums, requires a double majority of both the electorate and the cantons for precisely this reason.
So - the avoidance of Brexit would not be an overturning of democracy but its assertion, and this is what we must call on Parliament to do.  It would, I am sure, lead to huge dissent, probably to some violence.  But it would not be so dangerous as the alternative.  If we remain in the European Union, and we still can, then we have the opportunity to work with our neighbours to establish genuinely democratic processes and institutions that are fit for purpose in the globalised world of the 21st century. To leave would be to retreat into the shallow rhetoric of the nation state - a notion of sovereignty outmoded since the time of Wilberforce.  

We are part of a continent, we are part of a world.  We have to embrace the other, not separate ourselves from them.  We are interdependent, and so our politics and culture must express our common humanity.  As Jo Cox said in her maiden Parliamentary speech: "We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us."  

This blog was written by Artistic Director Michael Walling in a private capacity and does not represent an official view of Border Crossings as an organisation or its board of trustees.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Destroying the bridge

The Bridge at Mostar - after destruction

I have been reading my friend David Wilson’s autobiographical book Left Field.  For some years David, who founded the charity War Child, was Director of the Pavarotti Music Centre in Mostar – and a significant portion of the book revolves around his extraordinary work in the war-torn city.  During the conflict, the ancient bridge at Mostar became a symbol of all that went wrong – it had been built by the Ottoman Turks, and was destroyed by Croat forces. Andras Riedlmayer has termed the destruction an act of "killing memory", in which evidence of a shared cultural heritage and peaceful co-existence were deliberately destroyed.

It’s a timely moment to recall the terror that resulted from the break-up of the Yugoslavian Federation in the 1990s.  Massacres, ethnic cleansing, a land laid waste, a refugee crisis that gave a foretaste of today’s. Neighbour turning on neighbour and friend on friend because of perceived differences in ethnicity, religion or culture.  No-one would call Tito’s Yugoslavia an ideal polity – but the nationalist mayhem that resulted from its dissolution showed humanity at its worst. Refugees from that time tell us that things started to go wrong when people began to say “Let’s segregate all the Muslims”.  Right here - in modern Europe. 

I am, of course, offering all this as a warning against June 23rd.  If, as now appears very possible, Britain votes to leave the EU, that will signal the triumph of a dangerous fiction, called the nation state, over the undeniable truth of common humanity.  Britain’s retreat into splendid isolation would almost certainly spell the end of the European project: Marine Le Pen would demand a copycat referendum in France, and all across the continent the forces of the radical right, already roused in their paranoid, xenophobic response to the refugee crisis, would continue to assert “national” identities and to close their borders against perceived “outsiders” – desperate people who have already fled violence, persecution and the devastation of their lands.   I don’t believe Donald Tusk was exaggerating when he said that this thing called Brexit could lead in time to the collapse of Western civilization. 

Much of the rhetoric of the Leave campaign has been about how “we” need to assert control over “our” borders.  Setting aside the fact that recent visits to airports and stations suggest the UK borders are now more tightly controlled than they have ever been – allow me to pose a more basic question here.  Who are “we”?  Just what group of people is it that is supposed to be asserting some fundamental right to deny others access to a particular territory and the cultural and social life that takes place within it?  Just what is the identity that the curb on immigration is supposed to protect?  What is the Britishness that will somehow be rejuvenated by the abandonment of Europe, the retreat into splendid isolation?

Isolationist positions tend to be the prerogative of imperial nations.  Spain was a closed society from the time of Philip II onwards, even though it also ruled vast swathes of the globe.  China didn’t just become an isolated state under Mao Zedong – it had another five centuries of it prior to that.  Today, an isolationist stance is also key to Donald Trump’s idea of foreign policy: build a wall at your border, ban all Muslims, and make America great again.  Of course, such isolation only goes in one direction – imperial powers isolate their “homelands” from immigrants and foreign influences, at the same time as they regard other territories as theirs to plunder for natural resources, cheap labour, and holidays in the sun.  Perhaps this is why Boris Johnson and his coterie are so fond of evoking the spirits of Churchill and Thatcher: what they are in fact attempting to do is to place themselves in Britain’s imperialist tradition. Perhaps this is also why, astonishingly, so many Black and Asian Britons, the descendants of immigrants, appear to be flirting with a Leave vote: in a Fanonian style, they have taken on the perceived identity of what was once the imperial ruler of their ancestral homelands.  They don’t seem to have noticed that the age of Empire is long over. 

Or is it?  There are, after all, territories within the United Kingdom that retain their links to Westminster because of the imperial project.  There’s been much speculation about the direction Scotland might take in the event of a Leave vote: if Scotland votes overwhelmingly Remain and England votes Leave, that will be yet further proof that these are now two distinct countries.  But the bigger question is probably Northern Ireland.  For some time now, the uneasy peace of the province has been secured by an easing of the border with the Republic – a “United Kingdom” outside the EU would not be able to sustain this.  I remember very clearly John Hume, the great, unsung architect of the current peace process, comparing his vision for the future of the whole island of Ireland to the European model: a space in which it was still perfectly possible for the French still to be French and the Germans German – but impossible for them to be at war.  He was emphatically right: no state of war has every existed between EU members.  Brexit is a sure-fire way to overturn the comparative stability that has been achieved in the Irish question.  Who are “we” – defending our “Britishness” – if the result of “our” action is to set in motion a violent conflict on what is still legally “our” territory?

It could be like Bosnia.  It really could.

I write this at the end of two intense, stimulating and energising days in Brussels, where I have been part of the EU’s Structured Dialogue process around the role of Culture in the Refugee Crisis.  People who have read this blog in the past may recall that Border Crossings has also worked on EU policy before, as part of the Platform for Intercultural Europe.  The EU is often accused of being undemocratic – but never in Britain have I encountered processes of consultation like these.  In Britain, policy is made on the hoof to suit the needs of the next sound-bite.  And this has to stop.  It is turning our democracy into an idiot’s circus.  The referendum itself was a knee-jerk response to a few electoral successes for UKIP – and what a sorry mess it has turned our to be. 

The EU is not perfect – of course it isn’t.  I have, in my time, sat in a Brussels office with a German accountant attempting to make sense of invoices in Chinese, as a result of onerous accounting processes around EU funding.  But Britain seems to have decided that how well or badly something is managed is all that matters – to the point where it matters more than the thing itself.  For some time now, Arts Council England has privileged the cult of management over artistic vision – and a similar myopia is now filtering the gaze we cast upon the EU.  If something has management failings, those can be sorted out – what we should be judging is the idea itself.  And the idea of the EU is something humanitarian, welcoming, enabling, and peace-making.  It is one of the hopes of humanity.  We would be insane to throw it away. 

Insane, insane, insane.