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.