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
• 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.