Daniel Merrill – Intercultural Co-production and the Cultural Entrepreneur

 

 

 

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This article uses the vehicle of an international arts project to explore some considerations of the idea of cultural entrepreneurship. As such it will not focus on the practicalities of undertaking the project, or indeed many of the specific activities that happened as a part of it, instead exploring how considerations of the cultural entrepreneur come through in such activities.

 

1. The Projects Origins

In 2014 I successfully applied for the Artists International Development Fund, which is made available by Arts Council England and The British Council. The aim was to undertake musical research through active collaboration with artists in three countries – Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. The fund “offers early stage development opportunities for […] artists based in England to spend time building links with artists, organisations and/or creative producers in another country”. The project was to involve six weeks traveling between the three countries creating rapid collaborations with musicians in each country, exploring the potentials of combining my own music with contemporary arab music. This project arose in the form of a collaboration with Amina Abodoma, an entrepreneur based in Alexandria, Egypt who I had met whilst undertaking a Masters at Goldsmith’s Institute for Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship, her work with I-Act and as Manager of Teatro Eskendria has seen her playing an important role in the cultural sector within the country.

Having helped to co-produce an event for Egyptian band Masar Egbari at London’s Cafe Oto, a concert that proved interesting in its inter-cultural reach, Amina and I started to explore ideas about how to further develop concerts projects that would bridge between the Middle East and the UK. Throughout her time in the UK Amina had gained insight into the working of the cultural sector in the UK, and a project to develop reciprocal knowledge was conceived.

The project itself fits into both of the primary forms of international co-production as outlined by Staines, Travers and Chung being both a co-financing and an artistic collaboration. Previous experience has demonstrated that the importance of funders is often misunderstood by artists in developing projects. When seeking funding it is not simply about raising the money to do what you wish to do, but engaging potential funders in what it is that you are doing; starting a discussion. Funders often have much more to offer than simply the money, and a fruitful discussion will help move a project on tremendously. Co-funding not only makes this a multi-linear conversation, but helps to add assurance to further potential funders that your project has an established network that will   allow it to develop. This was therefore essential in this project, which received support in the UK from Arts Council England and The British Council, but by Goldsmiths University, Norwich Arts Centre and Colchester Arts Centre, and Teatro Eskendria and I-Act in Egypt. These organisations provided either financial support or income in kind to the project, but most importantly they assisted in shaping the artistic outcomes, as well as understanding the logistical considerations. The artistic collaborations were facilitated initially through Amina, whose previous work has assisted her in developing a regional network of creatives, venues and organisations. She facilitated contact with two of the most important contacts in the artistic development of the project, Tareq Al Nasser (composer and performer – Jordan) and Ayman Asfour (violinist and musical curator/educator – Egypt), whilst the network of people encountered through studying at Goldsmiths led to the development of contacts with Jackson Allers (DJ, producer and writer) and Jihad Sammat (founder of Radio Beirut) in Lebanon. These names would provide insight both into the music itself and the contemporary music scene and industry in the region.

2. The Thinking

Trends in international co-production are predicated on a number of factors (availability of transportation and communications, heightened institutional awareness of roles in global society), and provide many benefits for the various parties involved (artists, presenters and cultural institutions and audiences).  Various authors have dealt with how the cosmopolitan blending of cultures is an essential element in what has been termed the “creative economy”. Whilst courses such as the MA in Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship that bring together a multi-national cohort can be perceived to fit into the landscape of the creative city envisaged by thinkers such as Richard Florida, or the roaming boarder-less creative class described by Nordstrum and Riderstralle, and the considerations of intellectual property developed through such endeavors is seen as central to the growth of the creative economy by government advisors such as Howkins the critical framework that underpins the course encourages students to consider the very nature of what cultural entrepreneurship is, and how it fits into political and ideological frameworks. Critiques of the culture industry presented by the likes of Adorno and built upon by the likes of Lash, McRobbie and Standing form an essential counterweight, and deeply enrich our understanding of the discourse we are entering. This is not simply about arts enterprise/business, it is about exploring the ideas that underpin this.

A more recent perspective to present itself is not simply the cultural entrepreneur as a hybrid between an artist and a business person, rather the cultural entrepreneur as a person whose work explores culture and cultural formations, presenting challenges and questions. A cultural entrepreneur is related to but is not the same as social entrepreneur. Both explore culture but in different ways. Social entrepreneurs develop businesses to address particular sets of issues, the point being that their enterprise makes profits from providing a social good, and that these profits are reinvested into the enterprise, or the communities they serve. In addressing these issues cultural attitudes and actions will need to change

The  idea of the cultural entrepreneur as presented by Martin and Witter starts elsewhere:

Social entrepreneurs solve problems by disrupting existing systems…. Cultural entrepreneurs, on the other hand, solve problems by disrupting belief systems[.]

Their work explores aspects of culture, which may then raise social considerations, with their economic and political ramifications (from which Social Enterprises may arise). Effectively the Cultural Entrepreneurs activity is in stirring up questions on which social movements or social enterprise might form.

The project would take place over a limited time period of six weeks, creating a natural limit to physical output. As such – though there are direct outcomes that would arise from a project, those which are quantifiable, allowing space for the project to develop considering things on a more conceptual and experiential level is equally, if not more important. It is from these psycho-geographic explorations that the seeds for future work would develop.

3. The outcomes

The project within itself had clearly defined outcomes. This is a further aspect that many artists find hard to bring into focus but is essential. Whilst making anticipated outcomes too specific can become a hindrance to the creative process, making them too vague makes a project open to criticism, making the project equally unmanageable. Funders from both private and public sector organisations are increasingly looking at the intended measurement and evaluation framework for projects, and this is reflected in the application processes and eventual project evaluation. Used effectively, the application process in itself can help you refine what your objectives are, and help to express more clearly what it is that you are actually applying (including understanding how it does and does not meet the potential funders, partners and audiences interests).

Having completed this initial research expedition, the next stage is how to further the relationships established through this. In a world of limited public funding, and between two considerably different formations of the music industry, exploring ways for collaboration that are viable (financially and personally) in the short medium and long term present presents a number of challenges and opportunities. The independent music scene in the Middle East has seemingly developed in the absence of major label influence, with these labels working more in regards to feeding the export market known as “world music”. Though the lack of interest from record labels perceived by artists within the region is a difficulty, and a culture of free downloading of music, it has created an appreciation and engagement with live music and a strong sense of entrepreneurship within the cultural sector. As the music industry in Europe continues to be more and more challenging, with majors and mid level labels alike struggling to maintain investment in artists and releases, there is a great deal for us to learn from this approach. Further opportunities to explore this might suggest potential models or collaborations in terms of industry practice that would be beneficial in both locations.

One of the outcomes in this project was hard to anticipate, and happened in advance of any of the travel that actually occurred. True to the afore mentioned definition of the Cultural Entrepreneur, the simple act of planning this activity became revealing of cultural norms which lead to a considerable questioning. The cultural norms presented were embodied in two words that I would encounter with almost every person with whom I would speak about t the project; “take care”. Having been performing, touring and collaborating with musicians across Europe and North America for over a decade, I am used to undertaking projects that probably to most people seem somewhat harebrained, or at least amusing. However, at no point have I have ever met such earnest requests as “take care”. These two words though said from a place of genuine good intent, when combined with multiple requests for information regarding my whereabouts, contact details, daily check ins etc… and the fact that these words have rarely been uttered in relation to European or North American projects, mask a cultural persepective I had not expected to encounter; the perception of the Middle East as a place of continuous danger.

It would be incorrect to try and present the Middle East as being a region without troubles. Indeed the legacy and living experience of these troubles were abundantly clear. The facades of Beirut’s crumbling buildings and infrastructure, both beautiful and poignant in a city where each district encounters daily power outages, were one vestige of this, and within a few nights I found myself conducting an interviewing a Humanitarian Munitions Disposal Expert, who could chart the history of the country in terms of the land mines and cluster bombs disposed of on a daily basis. In Alexandria, protests and riots are a daily occurrence and multitudes of unregulated (and largely illegal) housing developments are erupting all over the city taking advantage of the political vacuum, and talk of the revolution is still strong, if somewhat jaded. But the point is that for those wishing to travel to or work places listed in UK Foreign Offices orange zones, one of the first hurdles to overcome is convincing others that the events presented in the media do not translate directly to personal risks. For artists or entrepreneurs working on a smaller, or individual collaborative level (as opposed corporate levels), both in the UK and in the region, such perspectives can be paralysing.

 

Such observations about risks in travelling to Middle Eastern countries are passed off in ordinary discussion by a form of concern, but in fact mask an unthinking acceptance of media portrayals of exceptional events without consideration of the mundanity that forms the day to day. Here we brought to R.D. Laing’s considerations of how we use our relationship with others as means to defining our own being:

…Every relationship implies definition of self by other and other by self and that if the self does not receive confirmation by its contacts with the other, or if the attributions that the other ascribe to it are contradictory, its position becomes untenable and may break down.

In the phrase “take care” there is an implication of threat or danger, in this context a perspective that the nature of the countries to be visited (and the people that inhabit them) are  fundamentally less safe than than the country or society in which the statements are made. The statement is made with an assumption that the sayer (other) and the receiver (self) both working under the same perspective, be this a delusion (total self deception), illusion (partial self deception) or collusion (where two or more people participate in self deception).

A collusion is “clinched when self finds in other that other who will ‘confirm’ self in the false self that self is trying to make real… each [finding] an other to endorse his own false notion of himself and to give this appearance of reality”. Through this project the importance of international co-produced projects of this nature, and of the role of the cultural entrepreneur becomes strikingly apparent: to challenge such collusionary norms.

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