Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2019 - at Border Crossings and Beyond

Ino Moxo - ORIGINS Festival
2020 will see Border Crossings reach its 25th anniversary.  During 2019, we've been busier than ever, working to bridge the gaps between cultures and to generate mutual respect and understanding in the globalised world.  The task has never felt more necessary...

In many ways, this has been an extraordinary year for us, packed with incident and excitement.  At the centre of our programme was ORIGINS 2019: our 10th anniversary Festival of First Nations. Launched at the British Museum back in March with a compelling performance by Indigenous Australian musician Eric Avery, the Festival proper covered two packed weeks in June, taking in some of London's most iconic venues and populating them with world-class Indigenous performances.  It was an incredible privilege to present the first ever London showings of Peru's Grupo Integro, with their brilliant, mind-expanding production of INO MOXO at the Southbank - a piece that made time stand still and took the consciousness of the spectator into the visionary space of Ayahuasca ritual.  Equally unforgettable, and historic, was Madeline Sayet's WHERE WE BELONG, particularly when it played the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare's Globe - placing the Indigenous voice right at the heart of British culture, and offering a completely new view of what that culture may come to mean in the 21st century.  AVA Dance company's NO WOMAN'S LAND at The Place brought Inuit culture to the Festival in the charismatic person of Naulaq LeDrew, as well as gaining a UK National Dance Awards Nomination for Avatâra Ayuso.
Where We Belong - ORIGINS Festival
I was also thrilled with the Festival's programme of Participation and Learning - in some ways the fullest yet, with brian solomon//ELECTRIC MOOSE creating a new dance piece with community dancers and a youth orchestra from the North Kensington community.  WESTWAY SOLSTICE, performed on three summer evenings in sight of Grenfell Tower, offered vitality, hope and energy for our communities and our youth.
Westway Solstice - ORIGINS Festival
Our ORIGINS participation work from the 2017 Festival had an ongoing life this year too, when the photographic exhibition POCAHONTAS AND AFTER visited St Andrews.  Word of that project has spread...   it's put us in touch with the Powhatan nation themselves.  Two of their Chiefs honoured us with their presence at the ORIGINS opening, and I've since visited them in Virginia, accompanied by Madeline Sayet, to explore the possibility of making a new play together...   Watch this space!

The year has also seen us working on a number of collaborative projects across Europe, three of them funded by the EU's Erasmus + programme. In the spring, we co-produced UNDER THE WHALEBACK with the North Frisian Theatre - a production hailed as their best work to date!  THE PROMISED LAND, which focused on the role of the arts and culture in making Europe a welcoming space for refugees, saw us undertake two fascinating weeks of exploration and training in Oldenburg and Toulouse, based on museum work and business coaching.  The project came together in the e-book which we published during the summer: it's proved a huge hit across a whole range of sectors, offering a combination of policy frameworks and recommendations, theoretical discussions and practical approaches. The project also led to Brian Woolland's new play DON'T LET THEM TELL YOU STORIES, which we presented as a rehearsed reading in October at Rich Mix.  MORE THAN WORDS, which looks at ways to work with communities who have little knowledge of the local language, reached a key point with a week in Luxembourg, during which we brought together a range of disciplines and approaches to answer a range of framing questions.  The Intellectual Outputs, including a film starring the Italian clown Raffaele Messina and directed by myself, will come out in the spring of 2020!

The spectre of Brexit has inevitably haunted these projects throughout 2019.  Almost every time we worked in Europe, we seemed to be on the edge of a precipice.  There have been many occasions when it has been very likely that our projects would simply stop - cut off, incomplete and futile.  It was a relief that we managed to finish all we had planned in THE PROMISED LAND, and it now seems that the Transition Period will allow MORE THAN WORDS to be completed during 2020.  But that is, at best, a minor gain in the face of a very frightening future.  In 2016, the day after the referendum, we had to welcome a group of European visitors to London.  On Friday 13th December 2019, I was in Southern Italy for a meeting around the MORE THAN WORDS project, and had to explain to our European partners that the election result was the point of no return. As Border Crossings enters its Silver Jubliee Year, it is faced with the prospect of being an international organisation in a nationalist country, an intercultural organisation in a monocultural space, an advocate of reconciliation under a government dedicated to false and divisive imperialist mythologies.  The last few years have been challenging - but the ones ahead will be much, much harder.

We have our strategies, of course.  We have many dear friends and allies.  We are deeply aware that the "hostile environment" makes our work all the more necessary.  You can look forward to some innovative and creative announcements in the coming months. And, most importantly, you can look forward to THE GREAT EXPERIMENT - our new devised play which explores the imperial history on which our country's new mythology of exceptionalism appears to be based. It seems we may have hit the perfect moment for this essential piece of theatre.

I wish you all a year of peace, hope and resilience.  

Friday, November 22, 2019

Jatinder Verma

Back in 1990, I took my parents to see Tartuffe at the National Theatre. It was a long way from the powdered periwigs and camp capering they had expected. This was Jatinder Verma’s production - the first by any non-white director at the National - and he had, characteristically, set it in 17th century India, and employed an acting style to match the transmogrification. Mudras and accented English offered a perfect parallel to the manners of Moliere’s France, the body language as coded as traditional Asian theatre, the rhyming couplets as sing-song as the “Binglish” delivery that Jatinder drew from his performers.

Jatinder’s presence on a National stage was not simply a progressive gesture by Richard Eyre, embracing the changing ethnic and cultural make-up of 20th century Britain.  It was a statement of intent, from both directors, as to what cultural diversity ought to mean. Jatinder didn’t direct a play from India, or one dealing with Asian people in Britain (although he certainly can do both, and frequently has with Tara Arts). On the National stage, he laid claim to a European classic - and he has many times applied his resolutely distinct Asian style of performance in that genre, including Shakespeare as well as Moliere. He has always been incredibly bold: he states his right to address “our” classic texts, and to do them in his own way. His productions are absolutely about cross-cultural dialogues and interactions - but they emphatically refuse assimilation.

It’s a stance we really need at the moment. Thirty years on from that memorable Tartuffe, the National, and the arts in general, are apparently far more “diverse”, with black and Asian people engaged, and often leading, right across the sector. It’s undoubtedly positive that the arts and culture are more representative of the society from which they emerge. But I can’t help feeling that a lot of this apparent “diversity” is - literally - skin deep, and that people of colour are performing, both on and off stage, in exactly the same way as their white counterparts. I recognise that second and third generation migrants may well feel themselves to be as fully British as white people - but that doesn’t stop me questioning whether it is really “cultural diversity” if the cultural product itself remains essentially unchanged, and therefore the cultural and social assumptions remain intact. It’s very rare nowadays that we see anything as bold, as challenging, as Jatinder’s confrontations with the classics.

Over the years, he has become a friend and an ally. We’ve co-produced CONSUMED with his company Tara Arts, and will be presenting THE GREAT EXPERIMENT in their beautiful new theatre in February. Jatinder and I have had many conversations about the arts landscape, about theatre in Britain, India and Africa, about the politics of the aesthetic. I was genuinely shocked when he emailed on Tuesday morning to say he would be stepping down from Tara at the end of the year.  It feels like the ravens leaving the Tower of London - the company he has run since 1976 feels totally synonymous with him.  I hope we’ll still be able to see his work and to hear his voice: he stands against the blandness and sameness, the complacency that can so easily creep into our art form.

Friday, November 01, 2019

Diverting from Diversity - The Doctor

Joy Richardson and Juliet Stevenson in THE DOCTOR
After the ORIGINS Festival in June, I did an interview for the Westway Trust’s new website, responding to the Festival as a whole, and particularly to brian solomon/ELECTRIC MOOSE’s beautiful community performance, WESTWAY SOLSTICE.  The interview raised the vexed and current question of who can / should / gets to tell particular stories in particular spaces at particular times.  It’s a question that has been worrying me for a while…. 

The current orthodoxy is that theatre about (say) Nigeria should be made by Nigerian people, theatre about China by Chinese people, and so on. In many ways, I’m in total sympathy with this. In 2013, when the RSC was being hauled over the coals for presenting the Chinese classic THE ORPHAN OF ZHAO with only three Asian performers in the cast (variously playing a Maid and two thirds of a dog), Border Crossings was held up as an example of a more positive approach, making CONSUMED with Chinese performers not only playing but creating the Chinese characters, including dialogue in their own language. It was our third co-production with a Chinese company, and representative of our intercultural, collaborative approach. Both in our own productions, and in the visiting performances which we bring to ORIGINS, integrity and authenticity are central to what we do.  

However, there have been occasions when I have been challenged about my own role in making this work. I have been asked whether it is up to me (“as a white male”) to curate Indigenous work for London audiences, to direct and shape the performances of Chinese actor-devisers, to bring a Ghanaian text to the English stage. My response has always been that Border Crossings’ work does not appropriate anyone else’s culture: rather its engages with other cultures in a positive and dialogic way, recognising that we are all part of a globalised world, in which we need a dynamic and democratic interaction between cultures and artists in order to imagine how we can jointly inhabit that global space. I happen to come from one of the the countries that was responsible for the colonial processes that brought globalisation about - but that should not exclude me from the current discussions. If we are to recognise how our histories brought us here, then we had better not exclude anybody. If we want our theatre to make a real difference, even on the most basic “diversity agenda”, then it needs to speak to white audiences as well as black ones; to advocate for inclusivity by demonstrating it - not by ghettoising.

It worries me that British theatre seems currently to be stuck in an unhealthy position, uncomfortably close to racial essentialism. The orthodoxy is becoming that ONLY Chinese people can talk about China, ONLY Rwandan people can talk about Rwanda, ONLY gay or queer people can talk about sexuality….  and so on. While I absolutely do not deny the centrality of viewpoint, it is not healthy or progressive in a multicultural space to set up barriers to participation and engagement.  To exclude white males from the debate simply reverses the status quo: it does not lead us towards the equal space that we should surely crave.  

Robert Icke’s superb production of THE DOCTOR (which I saw recently at the Almeida, and which transfers to the West End in the New Year) suggested a radical re-think in the way theatre responds to “diversity”. It had a very diverse cast - in many different ways, not just racially. However, with the exception of Juliet Stevenson in the central role, and an important scene which was actually about the theorising of viewpoint, the casting was emphatically not done on the basis of race, gender, or other “identity” characteristics.  Indeed, there was a deliberate distancing of the performers from the roles they were playing, with the effect that the audience became actively engaged in a creative and political dialogue with the production. For example, the character FATHER was played by the Irish actor Paul Higgins.  FATHER is a Catholic priest, who Stevenson’s Doctor RUTH prevents from seeing, and giving the Last Rites to a dying girl.  The natural assumption, as the audience hears the actor’s accent, is that the priest is Irish.  So it comes as a shock, a disruption, when we discover through the dialogue that he (the character, not the actor) is black.  Does this change how we think about the situation, we find ourselves asking.  Should it?  Why should the priest’s race make a difference?  If the production had been cast by race and gender, by essentialism, then it would not have been able to raise these important questions about race and gender in such a powerful and disturbing way.  In this instance, it seems to me that the approach to diversity that aims at equality through literal representation is shown to be potentially quite conservative - allowing the audience a complacency around their own liberal assumptions.  

At the heart of Icke’s production was Joy Richardson, who played OLIVIA in our 1999 production of TWELFTH NIGHT, which toured Zimbabwe for the British Council. Joy is a very distinctive figure: a woman of African descent who was born in Guyana. During the play, it slowly emerged that she was playing CHARLIE, RUTH’s lover who died some time before. What was extraordinary was that, even in the closing scenes where this character came to the fore, there was never any indication as to whether CHARLIE was black, white or Asian; female or male (or other). This did not reduce in any way the emotional power of the relationship between RUTH and CHARLIE, or the sorrow of the loss. Indeed, it gave a strange purity to the emotion, precisely because it seemed to move beyond the bounds of “identity”. I’m not suggesting that the play somehow took the audience towards “the universal”, which remains a Western myth, used to subsume other cultures into a Judaeo-Christian world view; but it did suggest that in the most fundamental, physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of our lives, in love and death, there is a common humanity that goes beyond the politics of identity and separation. Love reaches beyond the self - that it the whole point. And death is the one thing we have to agree really is universal.  So perhaps the body, which has come to be read as the signifier of difference through identity, might also be the means by which we come to the next stage of our cultural and political journey.  
Adjoa Andoh as RICHARD II
Theatre is not a literal space: it does not attempt to reproduce reality, or to signify reality through the precise representational approach of film. Rather it constructs a metaphorical space through which we can confront what is strange, constructed and unreal in our own lives.  This is why Brecht deliberately set his plays in metaphorical, distant worlds, revealing the constructed and performed nature of our societies through the medium of theatrical un-reality. That is why, although THE GOOD PERSON OF SZECHUAN is apparently set in China, Jane Horrocks could play Shen-Te and Shui-Ta with impunity - just as Adjoa Andoh was such strong casting as RICHARD II at the Globe.  The freedom to diverge from a literal and essentialised “reality” has to be central to a political theatre that de-constructs the fictions of established structures. 

The delight of this approach to diverse casting is that it avoids the pretence that an audience can simply ignore the physical characteristics of the bodies on stage before them, often called “colour-blind” or “gender-blind” casting. That is just a lie. When somebody stands in front of us, the first things we notice are the physical carriers of identity. As August Wilson put it in his famous 1996 talk “The Ground on Which I Stand”:

“Colourblind casting is an aberrant idea that has never had any validity other than as a tool of the Cultural Imperialists who view American culture, rooted in the icons of European culture, as beyond reproach in its perfection….  For a Black actor to stand on the stage as part of a social milieu that has denied him his gods, his culture, his humanity, his mores, his ideas of himself and the world he lives in, is to be in league with a thousand nay-sayers who wish to corrupt the vigour and spirit of his heart.”  

This is every bit as true of European, including British, culture. A theatre that is alive to the complexities of the current moment will acknowledge the histories that Wilson cites, and will cast performers not to assimilate them all into a tradition of theatre that remains just as it always was, and not merely as literal representations of “real”, “other” identities. The intercultural theatre required by the 21st century will cast people because of who they are, because of what they can bring to a role - but not in the naive way that pretends the performer actually is the person they are representing. It will recognise that the playful nature of the stage offers us the opportunity to read a character through the eyes of a performer - setting up multiple viewpoints on the action and its significance. We need a theatre that opens up our minds and our emotions - not one that reduces our cultural politics to racialised essentialism.  

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Don't Let Them Tell You Stories

The Calais Jungle.  Photo: Jamie Wiseman
DON'T LET THEM TELL YOU STORIES is a new play by Brian Woolland, who wrote THE PLAYS OF LOVE AND WAR.  During 2017-19, Brian took part in our project THE PROMISED LAND, looking at the situation of refugees across Europe and Turkey.

The play, written in response, is being given a rehearsed reading at Rich Mix on October 11th at 6.30pm.  The cast is Rachid Sabitri, Olivia Darnley, Ross Hatt, Peyvand Sadeghian and David Furlong, directed by Michael Walling.

Click here for full details - it's free!

Brian Woolland writes:

Whilst participating in THE PROMISED LAND project, I was privileged to have many remarkable conversations with young people recently arrived in Europe from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria and Mali; conversations which were illuminating, inspirational and deeply challenging to many of my own preconceived notions about 'refugees'.
This play is a response to the project and to those conversations. As the project developed it became increasingly evident that all talk about migration and immigration in simplistic numerical terms is a denial of humanity – of theirs (whoever they might be) and of our own. The play also aims to address the assumption that by creating borders and building walls we can pretend that what’s on the other side is not our concern, not part of our world.
The play is not a documentary drama, and certainly not verbatim theatre, but it does draw heavily on conversations with participants in the project, including those refugees we met in Adana, Bologna, London, Oldenburg and Toulouse. 
I would like to thank all who participated in every way in THE PROMISED LAND project. I am particularly grateful to Micaela Casalboni and Nicola Bonazzi of Teatro dell’ Argine (Bologna) for their richly insightful conversations and inspirational theatre company. And above all to Michael Walling of Border Crossings, for asking me to take part in the project, for our continuing conversations and for organising this rehearsed reading. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

ORIGINS at the Globe - Guest Post by Mei Ann Teo

Madeline Sayet performs WHERE WE BELONG at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Monday night was an historic occasion, when Mohegan theatre-maker Madeline Sayet performed her solo piece WHERE WE BELONG at the Globe's Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to a standing ovation.  The play, which deals with Shakespeare, colonialism, personal stories and shifting identities, sat wonderfully in this iconic space, which gave the event a very particular meaning.

Director Mei Ann Teo writes:

June 17, 2019. London.

The last day of our run at Border Crossings' ORIGINS Festival (visionary artistic Director Michael Walling) happens at Shakespeare's Globe. Every time I hear this story, another rich layer emerges, and this time, in this space, I am beside myself.

Maddy's story did something to that space last night. She was not only speaking to the people in the room, but all those who have passed through it, and are buried around and beneath. She was speaking to the walls, embedding them with new DNA. She was also speaking towards the future; speaking to enable us with the tools to have a future, speaking us into understanding, existence, survival, and into thriving/flying.

It wasn't a solo show, no. She was not alone. With her were the people she met in England, the family she came from, many others but most sweetly, the Mohegan chief Mahomet Weyonomon who has a rock memorial in the green grass at Southwark Cathedral.

With her were all of us, witnessing, being transformed through the passion of her struggling with the question "where do we belong" and while there are never any easy answers and endings, I'm finding the courage to decide to make mine, "everywhere".

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Pathways Through the Festival 3: Belonging

The themes of ORIGINS come together in the idea of Belonging. Madeline Sayet’s WHERE WE BELONG (Rich Mix 14-16 June, Shakespeare’s Globe 17 June) offers an Indigenous perspective on Brexit Britain, exploring both the causes and the consequences of the 2016 referendum through the eyes of someone whose culture was colonised by ours.

A CASUAL RECONSTRUCTION (Rich Mix 14-16 June) probes ideas around identity, culture and cultural ownership to offer new ways in which diverse & minority communities might stake a claim to belonging. Similar themes appear in the photographic self-portraits of Meryl McMaster, who is both First Nations and Scottish.  Meryl’s work is part of SUBSTRATA (Baldwin Gallery 4-18 June).  In NO WOMAN’S LAND (The Place 14-15 June), Naulaq LeDrew and Avâtara Ayuso confront the challenge of belonging to an Arctic that is being destroyed by people who seem to think the planet “belongs” to them, and not the other way round.

At the climax of the Festival, WESTWAY SOLSTICE (Maxilla Gardens 21-23 June) will engage with one of London’s most diverse communities, working with Anishinaabe choreographer-in-residence Brian Solomon//ELECTRIC MOOSE to respond to the ground we stand on, the people who live on it, and the lives that live with us.  Belonging, at the deepest level.

Monday, June 03, 2019

Pathways Through the Festival 2: Participation

For our 10th anniversary Festival, we have expanded the remit of ORIGINS beyond performance and dialogue, into fully participatory events.  From early May, contemporary First Nations choreographer brian solomon//ELECTRIC MOOSE has been working with the community in North Kensington to create a site-specific dance performance called WESTWAY SOLSTICE (Maxilla Gardens 21-23 June).  Using a large and very diverse cast of local people, Brian’s work draws off his Anishanaabe cultural heritage to generate an intense relationship to land, environment and the body.

At the start of the Festival, Indigenous Australian artist Marree Clarke will be leading a KOPI WORKSHOP (Rich Mix 11-12 June), where you can experience the traditional mourning practices of her people. It’s an extraordinary privilege to work with an Indigenous artist on such an intimate and intense aspect of her culture.  Marree will guide participants through an emotional and spiritual journey, focusing their emotions into the creation of their personal clay cap of mourning.

Moe Clark (no relation!) is a Métis artist from Québec, whose practice ranges from the traditional drum to contemporary electronic music.  As well as performing at THE ORIGINS CONCERT (Rich Mix 13 June), Moe will be the host of KIYOKEWIN (Rich Mix 15 June).  Drawing off the traditional gathering and storytelling events practiced by her Elders (and hidden under the kitchen table because they were banned), KIYOKEWIN uses contemporary technology to bring Elders into a living exchange with Festival-goers in a calm and open space.

Through these participatory experiences, we hope that people might start to think differently about their relationships to culture and locality.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Pathways Through the Festival. 1: Migrations

From 2017 to 2020, Border Crossings is focussing on the issue of migration, both in our theatre work, our community and education programmes, and in ORIGINS!  From an Indigenous perspective, migration FROM (not to) Britain is the source of current tensions.  Every event in the Festival in some way responds to the history of colonisation, and its ongoing impact on Indigenous people, their cultures, lands and environments.

NO WOMAN'S LAND (The Place – 14-15 June) brings together two migration stories, as Inuk Elder Naulaq LeDrew and Spanish dancer Avâtara Ayuso bring together their hugely different experiences of life in transit.  Naulaq’s migration from the Arctic of her childhood to the Toronto of today has strengthened her desire to preserve her cultural traditions, the Inuktitut language, the music, dance and costumes of the Inuit and the games they play.  It’s also turned her into a climate activist!  As well as appearing in the show, Naluaq will be talking about her culture at the National Maritime Museum and Rich Mix.

Another encounter between two women from different cultural backgrounds is at the heart of A CASUAL RECONSTRUCTION (Rich Mix 14-16 June): in this case Canadian Métis visual artist Nadia Myre and non-Indigenous theatre-maker Johanna Nutter.  Bravely and playfully facing up to challenging issues like cultural appropriation and the politics of race, the performance responds to the complex cultural and ethnic mixing that is the legacy of imperialism.

SONNY ASSU’s extraordinary visual art (Canada House 21 June – 5 September) and brian solomon//ELECTRIC MOOSE’s probing and insightful dance piece THE NDN WAY (Playground Theatre 17 June) are further examples of work that confronts the cultural politics of colonisation. By presenting this work, ORIGINS will broaden debates around migration and diversity to include the ongoing impact of colonial histories, raising questions around cultural ownership, appropriation & the need for dialogue.

There are also, of course, histories of migration in the other direction too: many Indigenous people have visited London across the years.  HIDDEN HISTORIES (National Maritime Museum 19 June) tells some of their stories and relates them to the present day, while Madeline Sayet’s WHERE WE BELONG (Rich Mix 14-16 June, Shakespeare’s Globe 17 June) evokes the memory of her Mohegan ancestors to make sense of her own contemporary experience of London.

The experience of watching INO MOXO (Southbank Centre 15-16 June) is a journey in its own right, as the audience is led up the Amazon in search of the great Ayahuasca shaman Ino Moxo.  Here the migration is internal as well as literal: the Ayahuasca experience inspires a visionary new theatre form that helps us see the world through different eyes.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

More Than Words - Dancing in Hungary

At first glance, Hungary is not the most obvious place to run a training week around minority ethnic groups and linguistic diversity.  Even Budapest is an astonishingly homogenous city by the standards of contemporary Europe.  During our day in the city, waiting to catch the plane home, we saw only two darker skinned women.  One of them was selling sunglasses on the street, and the other was emptying the waste bins.  We speculated that they were probably Roma.  In the remote spa town of Cserkeszőlő, where the training took place, there was even less diversity.  Unsmiling and overweight middle-aged couples in white towelling robes prowled the hotel corridors, occasionally dipping themselves in the indoor pool or the outdoor jacuzzi, taking buffet meals and rarely venturing beyond the front door.  On the last day, when I had time to enjoy the outdoor pool with some of the other participants, it was very clear that the people sharing it did not like the fact that there were foreigners in their water.  And when we tried to relax in the evening with an Italian friend’s guitar, the disapproval of noise after 9pm was matched only by the exasperation that these barbaric souls could not even speak Magyar.

So, actually, Cserkeszőlő was the perfect place for this MORE THAN WORDS week.  It was a place where a group of cosmopolitan Europeans, used to intercultural and multilingual spaces, to acceptance and diversity, could experience what it actually feels like to be in a cultural mi-nority.  It was a place where the Magyar tribalism advocated by Viktor Orbán was openly on display, and the famous fences made total, terrifying sense.  It was a place where we tried hard to integrate, and were not made to feel welcome.

And so the training room became at once a sacred space and a refuge - a place where, thanks to the careful leadership of IKTE, we were able to operate as an uninhibited and creative group, and to build a sense of security through the processes of moving together.  It offered a very clear lesson in the potential value of such experiences for people from minority cultures: in the dance workshop, there is a chance to escape from the social stigma of the outsider and to acquire a renewed confidence in the self as a physical presence, and to enjoy being part of an integrated and non-judgemental group.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

The Promised Land - A Week in Oldenburg

At the Migration Centre, Oldenburg
Artistic Director Michael Walling reports on THE PROMISED LAND week in Oldenburg:

We spent a lot of time talking about the Shoah.  If you are in Germany, and you’re dealing with questions of cultural diversity, cultural conflict and the presence of the “Other”, then that is to be expected. If you’re also talking about the role of museums, then it becomes inevitable.  German museums, and the German cultural sector more widely, have a crucial role as the guardians of this “cultural memory”.  Holding history and educating society about it, they are charged with ensuring that nothing like the Shoah ever happens again.

This is very important in understanding why Germany has been so exemplary in its response to the (so-called) “refugee crisis” of 2015, and the presence of so many new citizens in its cities since that time.  A highlight of our week in Oldenburg was a visit to the city’s Migrationcenter – a space where refugees were able to learn skills and language in a positive, supportive and well-equipped environment, mentored by experts, with the real expectation of a place in the job market.  We met people on the way to becoming painters, carpenters, metalworkers, dressmakers, hairdressers, warehouse managers, gardeners and cooks.  The Centre Manager explained to me that the German government asked her to justify their funding on the basis of how many people were placed in jobs after training.  It makes perfect sense: invest in new citizens when they arrive so that they come to be contributors to the social and economic space.  It saves a lot of benefit costs and a lot of psychological pain.

The contrast with other countries we have seen during THE PROMISED LAND is very marked.  In the UK, asylum seekers are still not allowed to work, or even to be formally educated or trained.  In Italy, where the situation had seemed a little more positive only a year ago, migrants are now being demonised.  The Reception Centre Opera Padre Marella, which we visited in Bologna, has been told to close by the end of the month.  The young men who were living there will become homeless: Micaela from Teatro dell’Argine tells me that many are simply disappearing into a growing sub-culture, and will no doubt be condemned as morally degenerate when they turn to crime because they have no other way to feed themselves.  In Turkey, where the situation is particularly difficult because of the country’s position as a holding place on the periphery of Europe, we saw Syrians being caricatured as terrorists by Turkish students, even when they were in the same room.  France, where we will be working next, seems as hostile as ever to the presence of minority cultures.

Germany is different BECAUSE of cultural memory.  There is a deep desire to be international and open, a clear moral sense of the danger that comes with “Othering” people from different countries and cultural backgrounds.  If anything proves the constantly reiterated point made by the project team - that the problems faced in Europe around migration are essentially cultural problems in the host population - then it is this.  In a society that recalls with pain and shame what happened when other people were labelled as alien, when it cast itself as culturally and racially superior, then that space of remembrance becomes ready for acceptance and peaceful co-existence.

Of course, Germany is no Utopia.  There are clear economic pressures, and the threat of the AfD is very real.  I found it disturbing that the refugees should themselves be the subject of programmes against anti-Semitism, because they come from Arab countries where there is an understandable objection to Israeli policy towards the Palestinian people.  To subject these traumatised people to images of mass graves in concentration camps is not best practice in cultural education.  But it was heartening to see at IBIS, a refugee organisation we visited, that refugees were being offered specific training in how to counter the threat of the radical right.

Exploring the relationship between Germany’s horror at its own history and the open culture that characterises its present, I perceive an extraordinary contrast with the woeful inadequacy of historical understanding in other European countries.   Germany looks back on the Third Reich with shame: but in France, Italy, Turkey and the UK, an assertive imperial past is still regarded as a matter of pride.  Much of the Brexit discourse has been around Britain being “a great country”, which still seems to regard its past global hegemony as a civilising mission.  Our museum sector and our cultural sector need to learn from Germany: we have to reassess our imperial past for what it was – a plundering of global resources, both material and human, which has resulted in the grotesque inequalities that blight the world today.  We have to confront the systematic massacres of indigenous peoples in Australia, North America and sub-Saharan Africa, the uprooting of people from their lands and the psychological wrecking of their languages and cultures.  We have to get past the comfortable lie that the Shoah was a uniquely evil event in human history.  It was conducted on an industrial scale that was indeed unique – but the underlying urge to destroy those regarded as inferior is common to the imperial projects initiated by European societies across many centuries: projects of which many nations are still taught to be proud.  We have to develop a cultural sector and a museum sector that is inclusive and honest about history: that is what will equip us to deal with the huge dangers of the present.

So it was good that we talked a lot about the Shoah during our week in Germany.  But, at the same time, I felt that the museums we saw were not applying the same sense of cultural responsibility to the present.  We saw an outreach project at Oldenburg Castle, where a group of migrant women had responded artistically to the building, with some really challenging insights – but their work was not incorporated into the narrative of the museum itself.  The Castle retained its identity as the legacy of a “great man” from the 17th century – there was no sense that it might have been built or run by people who were less wealthy, who might have been female, and who might even have come from somewhere else.  Migration and the need for inclusion imply a new understanding of local history that relates the specifics of the locality to the international networks and influences that mould such spaces.  We need to link the local and the global – a process towards which European programmes are well placed to contribute.

It’s odd to find myself responding in this way to North German culture.  After all, this is the land of Lutheranism.  It was here that the Bach Passions were created, offering a lasting example of “great art” that is also participatory, “high culture” that is available to the entire community.  But contemporary Germany still seems to harbour a belief in cultural class divisions: a perturbing exclusivity seemed present in the museum spaces that we saw.

This brings me back to our evening at IBIS, and our morning at the Migrationcenter.  In both cases, the refugees themselves showed us the way towards a culture of welcome.  At IBIS, after they had told us about the centre and its work, we all sat down to eat together, and the young refugee men (they were all men) played music.  They danced – and we danced.  We danced together.  The music was Middle Eastern, and the dance traditional.  If anyone had felt possessive, then this was their culture, not ours.  But they invited us in, and we participated.  And this led us very easily towards the important conversations, to the human stories, to the empathy that makes for acceptance.  One young man told me about his journey across a European border in the back of a van with 38 others crammed into a tiny space, unable to breathe. He talked about kicking the door down, about old people and children collapsing at the roadside, about the driver running away.  Another man talked about an ISIS massacre, and the murder of his grandmother.  They told us this because they wanted us to know, and because they were at ease to speak.  A sharing of culture had facilitated this profound exchange of truth – this most basic necessity for social cohesion and functional democracy.

At the Migrationcenter, we were also invited to participate.  The refugees asked us to plant flowers in their garden to mark our visit, and to write messages on the eye-shaped symbols they had carved, which were then mounted on sticks as an art installation outside the centre.  I found it very moving that this should happen – that it should be them who welcomed us, and not the other way round.  That it was they who drew off collaborative artistic practice to make sense of our presence in what had become their space.

Here is what I wrote on the eye:
The Eye is the Beginning.
Before we can encounter another person
chat with them
eat with them
work with them
vote for them
love them
first we must see them. 
In this symbol, the most basic and necessary act of welcome:
You Are Here.  We See You.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Clowning in Potenza - Guest blog by Sinéad Elinore Emery

During our time together in Potenza I was massively impressed by people being willing to explore, learn and grow with such commitment and trust. I was especially inspired by the learning opportunities provided by combination of professionals in the room, from nurses, to engineers, to architects and youth workers. The unity we felt as a group so very quickly, has made me think of past workshops run cross-discipline and how they failed and faltered, through giving space to too much talking and debate. I for one am guilty of all too often hiding behind the power or distraction of words and failing to embrace the power and precision that communicating non-verbally can manifest and this week was just the reminder I needed to re-wire a touch and refocus elements of my practice.

Since undertaking the training, I have used several of the games we explored during out time in Italy, one of favourites being Ha Ho Hee, which I managed to deliver with 80 young people in one go in Egypt, in a prison with 10 category A offenders and at a 60th birthday party in Ireland. What I loved about this great opener was that it provided a wonderfully powerful physical way of either expelling or gathering energy depending on group or individual needs. I have used this game to invite people to pass on good energy across the circle or rid themselves of their nerves through the clear and strong movements and the bold sounds of the ha, the ho and the hee. Within each of the above examples groups were calmer and more focused having played the game.

When in facilitator mode I often find we can over-explain things that are far better communicated through doing and feeling, as opposed to lengthy verbal instructions. The training in Potenza helped me to reflect on how to incorporate less words in to my facilitation. This came in very handy in my most recent facilitation in Egypt, with large groups of young people. Drawing on some of the nonverbal approaches, I found myself resorting to clear and simple nonverbal cues in place of lots of over-explaining and unclear gesticulation.

My time in Potenza was one the hardest weeks of training I have ever experienced. While I took away a heap of great activity ideas and learnt a lot from the practitioners I met, I went on a challenging personal and professional journey during the sessions. This training taught me to remember the value of letting barriers down – something I do not find comes easy- to be ok with things going out of ‘control’ from time to time – a challenge to a perfectionist, to keep things simple – tricky when you feel the need to cover all bases and above all to be ok with failing and things not working out... In fact this is where the clown thrives, working with the problem instead of around it or away from it….  Speaking of which I don’t think I found my clown this time around but I am OK with that.

Something which came flooding over me after our day out in Matera, interacting with unsuspecting members of the public, was the quality of genuine connections and the sheer volume of compassion in this group, something I found utterly overwhelming - juxtaposed with the disheartening consideration of the absence of connection and compassion in so many aspects and elements of day to day life in this complicated world. I will be making it my mission to play Secret Angel with so many of my groups to come - what a wonderful and touching way to encourage people to connect and consider another being, to observe them and think about how they can silently support them, one small way to combat some of the tough stuff we humans go through…. Powerful.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

NATIVE at the Berlinale

The Berlinale is extraordinary.  A documentary about a Maori woman who herself made documentaries, directed by her son as his first film, might just about squeeze into the London Film Festival in a small venue for what is perceived to be a “niche” audience.  At ORIGINS, we would put it into an intimate cinema and focus on the debate it provokes.  At the Berlinale, MERATA: HOW MUM DECOLONISED THE SCREEN was shown on a Saturday night on a gigantic IMAX screen to a packed cinema, and was followed by a long and effusive Q&A.  The indigenous film-makers continually expressed their thanks to the festival for giving them such an empowering platform, and the audiences for coming in such numbers.

But then, Berlin is a genuinely international city.  I don’t mean that it’s intercultural - it’s less diverse than London or Birmingham - I mean that it sees itself as a space engaged in the global exchange of culture, people and ideas.  Pretty much everyone speaks fluent English, which is the main language of the Festival.  Nobody resents the “Other”.  People are eager to learn and to engage with ways of living very different from their own.  As we prepare to fall off the cliff of Brexit, we should look to Berlin as an example of how we can improve ourselves as a necessarily cosmopolitan society in an intimate global space.  I hope that ORIGINS can contribute to this: the need has never felt more urgent or more extreme.

MERATA was one of two films made by emerging directors about their inspirational mothers.  The other was SHE WHO MUST BE LOVED, by indigenous Australian director Erica Glynn, about her mother Freda, who was a pioneer of indigenous media.  About half way through the film, Freda mentioned her youngest son, Warwick.  A bit later on, she mentioned that she had been briefly married to a certain Bob Thornton….   It was only at the end of the film that Warwick Thornton himself appeared, collecting an award at the Sydney Festival and saying that he owed his film-making success to his mother.  Both the films made it very clear how the close family ties in indigenous families can generate an immense cultural energy.

I was also struck by how little of the ego that characterises Western directors was present in the NATIVE presentations.  VAI, the opening feature, was directed by nine indigenous women, each presenting a ten-minute vignette, portraying a woman called Vai (meaning “water”) at different stages of her life.  They weren’t actually the same woman - she could be many ages in the same era, and moved around the islands of the Pacific - but they were like the same woman, with other people in her family always having the same name, even if their personalities were very different.  Vai, water, flows between Polynesian people and binds them together across the vast Ocean.  And, like this story of common cultures and continues regeneration, the very process of film-making suggested a community approach that puts aggressive individualism in the shade.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019


I didn't write the post that normally ends the year on this blog: although, now I think about it, 2018 was an extraordinary year for Border Crossings.  We found ourselves leading two large-scale European projects, The Promised Land and More Than Words, as well as partnering in a third.  Our photographic exhibition, Pocahontas and After, was visited by more than 20,000 people during its time at Syon House in West London, and won a British Library Labs Award.  It's now on its way to St Andrews...  We offered a whole series of ORIGINS Offshoots events with some amazing partners, including the National Maritime Museum, whose new galleries opened in the autumn, featuring the sound installation that we had jointly commissioned from Tanya Tagaq.  As the year ended, we got the news that the Arts Council will fund us for the 2019 ORIGINS Festival - that's something to look forward to in June!

So - why has it taken me until January 15th even to think about taking stock of the year that has just ended?  Well, today is the date of the "Meaningful Vote" in Parliament, and there is a palpable tension in the air.  Everything we do or try to do in Britain at the moment happens in the shadow of Brexit.  Only weeks before the date when we are due to leave the EU, there is complete uncertainty as to the terms of that departure - indeed, in my more optimistic moments, it seems far from certain that it will happen at all.  Here's hoping.  From the perspective of the company, Brexit is a terrifying paradox: it has the potential to destroy us, and (if it happens) will certainly make it much more difficult to sustain our work.  On the other hand, it makes all that we are doing even more essential.

Over Christmas, I read Fintan O'Toole's brilliant analysis of Brexit: Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain.   What an extraordinary post-colonial irony that it should be an Irishman who provides the clearest insight into what we might call "the English question"!  It's the post-coloniality that is most striking in O'Toole's argument: England, he suggests, has tried to compensate for its colonial history by re-casting itself as the colonised, and for the meagre rewards of World War Two by regarding itself as defeated and invaded.  Brexit is the result of an independence movement against a colonial power that does not exist, and a defence against an invasion that has never happened and never will.

The last days of 2018 underlined his case, when a series of little boats, bearing tiny numbers of desperate refugees, attempted to cross the Channel.  Far from admiring this echo of Dunkirk (O'Toole is very good on the "Dunkirk spirit"), Sajid Javid decided that this was a "major incident", and deployed the Royal Navy.  The over-reaction is comic in its extremity - but it is also characteristic of the present moment.  "We are being invaded, we are under threat, we are the victims.  There is bound to be pain, but it's like the war: the pain is part of our heroism."  Except that the pain is entirely of our own making.

What O'Toole makes abundantly clear is that, while Remain politicians have been obsessed with dire warnings about "the economy, stupid", Leave has understood Brexit for what it truly is - a crisis in culture.  This is what I mean when I say that our work is being made more and more essential by what is happening.  What sort of a culture could accept the representation of a handful of hapless refugees as an invading force?  Only one that has completely lost its sense of reality, one that has been fed an entire bogus mythology.  Whatever happens politically in the coming weeks, the work of recreating our identity for a contemporary, intercultural, globalised space will take a long time, and is very urgent.  It is in the cultural sphere that this turmoil must be resolved.

And that is what Border Crossings does.  The Promised Land is all about the refugee question, and how culture can aid the process of integration, of building new communities in which both established and new citizens have a place.  ORIGINS, Pocahontas And After and The Great Experiment all engage with the mythologies around our colonial past, and seek to redress them through the voices of the colonised.  That's why we have to keep going, however difficult it is likely to be.

Happy New Year, everyone.