Someone in New York finally put me on a panel …

Consolidation and its adverse effects on the arts & cultural exchange

8 minutes to read
Column
Kevin Doyle
05/07/2017

I was not raised in the arts -- nor was I ever a theatre person.

Growing up I did follow world events and I read an actual newspaper -- every day. Several key events stand out in my adolescent/teenage mind -- the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, AIDS activists storming Saint Patrick’s Cathedral to interrupt a mass held by Cardinal John O’Connor, and the 1995 genocide in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica. Some of you may not recall, but there used to be another prominent daily newspaper in the city during the ‘80s and ‘90s called New York Newsday. It received a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Bosnian War. Newsday was the paper delivered to my family’s home, not the New York Times. The details surrounding Srebrenica took a hold on me. In the ensuing years, I read everything I could get my hands on about Srebrenica.

However -- I never saw one work of art in New York about Srebrenica. Until one day in 2000, I saw a preview or ad in the arts section -- about a French language theatre production from Paris that was coming to the Brooklyn Academy of Music called “Requiem for Srebrenica” by a French director Olivier Py. And so I went to this public institution called BAM Harvey to watch this French language production.

What I witnessed was the Srebrenica story I knew -- but it was re-constituted using interdisciplinary methods and avant-garde techniques that were previously unknown to me. I saw the tragic timeline of Srebrenica represented on stage but not in the linear, “docu-drama” approach I was accustomed to from Hollywoods movies. I did not know you could do this on stage. I did not know theatre could be this. I raced home that night to tell my parents that they needed to see this. Not just for what it communicated about Srebrenica -- the genocidal event itself -- or the way Py staged and directed the performance. But because I think I had found my true calling. That this way of making art, of making theatre -- was something I was going to explore now for the rest of my life.

My parents went to see “Requiem for Srebrenica” the very next night. It was the only time in their lives that they ever went to see something at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

I consider this to be very significant. Your average, middle-class parents who had previously only taken our family to see 'The Rockettes' and 'Cats' -- took a chance and attended an avant-garde production from a French director performed with super-titles that was about a genocide. My parents returned home stating that they liked it. It was difficult. But they liked it. We had a long conversation about it. Even despite the tough subject matter.

This was my first real encounter with what I would consider relevant, contemporary performing arts. It is also important to note -- that I consider this a form of cultural exchange.

There exists a gap between the reality we perceive through our compressed and consolidated formats and what is actually transpiring out in the real world.

This encounter went on to fuel an existing interest in French theatre. Eventually, I came across the work of the French playwright Michel Vinaver and his play “11 september 2001” -- I directed the first American performance in the Fall of 2003, here in Manhattan. My own father, a 9-11 survivor, was in the audience. I still feel as if Vinaver’s text enlarges one’s knowledge and perspective of the event -- second only to the 9-11 Commission Report. My work on the play developed into a 15 year correspondence and dialogue with Michel Vinaver, widely regarded as France’s greatest living dramatist and playwriting theorist. I send him every new text I finish, he responds with detailed feedback and comments. He has been an indispensable mentor for me, almost like a second father.

What has transpired during the last 15 years is also a form of cultural exchange. I have learned how to apply Vinaver’s “splicing effect” -- the way he presents and collages multiple perspectives on stage simultaneously -- to many different American issues in my own work -- whether they be homelessness, the Iraq War, or the commercialization of news.

I do not believe I ever would be the playwright and artist I am today, if not for Michel Vinaver. However, I would never have met Vinaver if not for first seeing the work of Olivier Py. And I would not have seen the work of Py if there was not a publicly funded institution like BAM and a commitment to fund cultural exchange through the arts from either the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the United States, or the French-American Fund for the Performing Arts.

I think you can see where I am going with this.

During 2016-2017, I was the recipient of three different grant awards from three organizations in support of three different projects I am working on -- each at various stages of development.

The Asian Cultural Council -- to travel to Bangladesh and research the garment industry there by focusing upon the women who survived the 2012 Tazreen Factory Fire -- with the goal of creating a large-scale, interdisciplinary theatre-film project that contrasts their experiences with those of victims of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire here in Manhattan. The Bi-Centennial Swedish-American Fund from the Swedish Institute to travel to Stockholm to continue work on a documentary film about the daily lives of Iraqi refugees living in the Stockholm suburb of Södertälje. The city and county of Södertälje has accepted more Iraqi refugees since 2003 than the United States and Canada combined. And CEC ArtsLink here in Manhattan -- to travel to Croatia and interrogate the archive of my friend, the late Croatian artist and theatre-maker Željko Zorica as a method to explore tensions between new, consumerist trends and aging socialist viewpoints clashing between what is called New Zagreb and Old Zagreb.

Our limited time does not permit me to delve into detail on each project. I would urge you to take a look at this one essay on my Tumblr blog -- The Wavemaker Faltered -- which discusses what I discovered during my time in Bangladesh. It is urgent. It is life-and-death. I please urge you to read it at your convenience.

There is a recurring theme I have encountered in my work during the last two years -- I think it is relevant to the discourse that will take place here at the Asian Cultural Council Forum.

As human expression, language and information becomes compressed into narrow terms, we are becoming incapable of formulating responses to complex problems or issues

There exists a gap between what we perceive as reality -- the reality we perceive through our compressed and consolidated formats -- and what is actually transpiring out in the real world. There is a widening gap between what we perceive online -- and what is actually happening. I saw clear evidence of this last August on a drive through Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. It became clear to me that Trump would win those three states -- easily. I became alarmed because I did not see this truth reflected in the news, on social media, or in polling. However, it was crystal clear for anyone to see if you drove through those states and spent time talking to actual people -- (see the essay PMURT | TRUMP from the Fall 2016). 

Therefore, it was fitting that I was in Dhaka, Bangladesh last November 8 -- watching the election returns online. Because what I encountered in Bangladesh talking with these women who survived the Tazreen Factory Fire -- stood in stark contradiction to what I read in news stories, or watched in documentaries, or researched in the press releases and final reports of NGOs, in advance of my arrival. In actuality, nothing had changed for these women in Bangladesh. In spite of all the Facebook Likes and Youtube Videos and Boycott Campaigns -- these women were arguably worse off now than they were 4 years ago when the fire first happened. All of them still live in shacks located directly next to the burned out remains of the very same factory they had to jump out of fourth or fifth story windows in order to survive. Children still play in a field located directly next to the factory where their mothers were burned beyond recognition. Many of the survivors wished that they had died rather than lived. Because in death, at least their families would have received a higher rate of compensation from the international fund that was agreed to by several clothing companies and NGOs. I should note that Walmart was not one of them.

In my work, I see evidence of a vast consolidation and compression of human experience into more and more narrow and predictable terms. As human expression, language and information becomes compressed into narrow terms, we are becoming incapable of formulating responses to complex problems or issues. It is a vicious cycle -- one that most people tend to avoid -- which only fuels the entire compression even more.

via GIPHY

 

This is where the arts must come in. This is where cultural exchange programs must come in. The arts and cultural exchange have an urgent role to play here. They possess the unique capacity to address this gap. They desperately need to help bridge this gap.

The arts and cultural exchange possess inherent qualities that resist consolidation, that interrupt compression, that possess the ability to stop time, freeze us in place for awhile -- and if they are undertaken by people of talent, integrity, and ingenuity -- can convince us to look for a little while longer, to resist the temptation of turning away, and to contemplate aspects of ourselves and others in a new light -- before we inevitably return to be absorbed by the steady stream of noise we are bombarded with daily.

I believe that the robust public funding of the arts and aggressively proactive cultural exchange programs have a positive long-term role to play here. It is my belief that it is long since past due to mount a bold counterattack against the forces and trends in our country, in our society, who are trying to convince you otherwise. That the arts should not be publicly funded. That cultural exchange programs have no place in this inter-connected digital world. That the focus of foundations and private philanthropy should turn to other more urgent social, political, economic, or environmental issues. I strongly disagree. The arts and cultural exchange must be included. The arts and cultural exchange should not be going anywhere. Because without the unique language and vocabulary that innovative forms of the arts provide us with, without the unique breadth of experiences and dialogue that emerge out of cultural exchange programs -- we will be unable to frame arguments or articulate ourselves about any of the myriad problems we face -- let alone propose solutions.

You cannot fight climate change with the same generic vocabulary words provided by super hero blockbuster movies.

You cannot fight back against restrictions on voting rights by only using the same derivative structure of a daytime soap opera.

And you cannot fight a truly successful democratic campaign against a repressive, totalitarian regime by employing the limited space capacity of 140 characters.

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Remarks delivered by Kevin Doyle on June 13, 2017 at Vanderbilt Hall & Greenberg Lounge at New York University School of Law as part of the 2017 Asian Cultural Council Forum: Making the Case for Cultural Exchange. I participated on the Opening Panel -- “The Importance of Cultural Exchange” -- with Barbara Lanciers (Trust for Mutual Understanding),  Erin Johnson (Stanford University), Robyn Busch (Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation), and Hussein Rashid (Barnard College). The 2017 ACC Forum: Making the Case for Cultural Exchange was presented from June 12-14, 2017 by the Asian Cultural Council and the John Brademas Center of New York University, with the generous support of the Henry Luce Foundation.

Aspects of these remarks were derived from research on WANTABLE and THE AЯTS conducted during 2016-2017 at the Crosshatch Center for Art & Ecology in Michigan, the Arc Artist Residency in Romainmôtier (Switzerland), and The Mesa Refuge in Point Reyes Station, CA. Other aspects were derived from work published in diggit magazine (The Netherlands) and the lecture-performance PMURT at the Vooruit Arts Centre in Gent, Belgium.