A couple of weeks ago saw the culmination of the work people from Tuttle have been doing with Counterpoint, the think tank of the British Council, to celebrate the British Council’s 75th anniversary. There was a morning spent in the ICA participating in the outputs – through engaging conversations, creative videos and in-depth discussions.
There were four projects which grew out of a series of conversations with Counterpoint, and I was involved in the project management. These projects variously involved
- producing a couple of films raising issues of cultural relations (one of the core interests of the British Council)
- instigating and recording a series of cascading conversations on cultural issues
- exploring the British Council’s rich film archive
- introducing members of the British Council to a variety of social media tools – so they can get on and do it themselves.
This Thursday early in December brought all four strands together.
“Culture” is one those concepts that seems to be haunting me a bit. A while ago I went for a contract with Creative Scotland, which has been tasked to represent “the development of the arts, creative and screen industries across Scotland” – a very broad remit. In the background research for the project (which I didn’t get!), I saw that the committee scrutinising the Scottish Government’s bill for the creation of the agency noted
that the Scottish Government decided against providing any definitions of culture in the Bill. The Scottish Government position on this point is set out in the Policy Memorandum: “[…] the Government sees no advantage in a statutory definition of “culture”. Any such definition might end up unnecessarily constraining or confusing the actions of Creative Scotland and possibly other public bodies”
So the then Minister for Europe, External Affairs and Culture and her civil servants were unable to define a third of her brief.
They have my sympathy, actually. “Culture” is hard to define – it is one of those words that we all know what it means (or think we do…) but is actually hard to define. The British Council’s 1948 charter [pdf] doesn’t define it.
And I’m certainly not going to try, either!
But there are strands… I have worked in “organisation culture”; I am a great user of “high culture” (ballet, dance, jazz, classical concerts… even opera!); and I have travelled to experience different cultures abroad – and within the UK, our regional – and national – cultures being diverse. Culture is all the things we produce and create – high and low, good and bad; the things we like and the things we don’t.
The morning at the ICA started with Catherine Fieschi introducing Counterpoint’s take on the Social Planet. Her keywords were “relationships”, “sharing” and “conversations” – that is what she reckoned created culture, and were central to our modern, social planet.
Lloyd Davis took up the flame and put a context around the work people from Tuttle had done. For him, the interesting space lay in the disintermediation of ideas and artefacts – that is, culture – within the the internet: the “ideas sitting in the cloud”, a rather romantic view! I think there is something else here, too. Much of the work we did with Counterpoint was around the theme of “conversations”. Before writing, conversation was transient; then people could record conversations and, once Guttenberg invented the printing press, share them, too; now we can talk to people around the world, record and share in real time. Conversations have become cultural artefacts, too.
Steve Lawson, who lead the project introducing members of BC to social media, then explained his philosophy for social media and its disruptive potential. Social media can be subversive and bottom-up: nowadays, with smart phones and wifi access, anyone can access the net, and using the tools available depends, as Steve says, on literacy rather than policy. He talked about the serendipitous nature of new media, the ability to combine disparate ideas to create something new, and how that opened that communications.
Debbie Davies and Penny Jackson had each created videos for Counterpoint, and we watch those next. It was a wide brief: produce something relevant. The two videos we saw are very different; but relevant they both were.
Debbie’s made me laugh; Penny’s made me think. There was something very humbling – and moving – about hearing the effect that multi-culturalism had had on people – hearing the story one person told, it struck me that multi-culturalism really does make Britain quite a special place. Living in metropolitan London, it is something I take for granted, so seeing others’ reactions to it is chastening.
This theme continued as we split into groups to have our own curated conversations. Lloyd was strict: to make us listen and engage deeper than we otherwise might, he said we couldn’t ask questions (my default setting!), instead responding with comments or our own observations. This was hard, but it worked: I think our concentration and listening was improved. It was a wide-ranging discussion on how culture affected us – in all sorts of different ways. The conversation was energising and energetic – it was hard not to jump in. My fellow conversationalist and I got excited!
We then saw some more films, this time from the British Council’s film archive. The conversations had been about how we relate to culture, and how cultural relationship make us aware of culture; with these films, it struck me the cultural relationships were through time. Al Robertson has already written about the work he has done exploring the British Council’s film archive; he pulled five shorts out for us to look at, all dating from the 1940s. They were largely propaganda – four were about the war and how Britain was coping, the last about the excellence of Britain’s car manufacturing industry. These films made me acutely aware of what had changed (attitudes towards women in the workplace, for instance, and the loss of much of Britain’s manufacturing); but also what hadn’t – the continuity which is Britain. Even 65 years on, WW2 still defines a lot of our culture. (What’s the betting the Great Escape will be on over Christmas?) Since the 1940s, Britain has been involved in several wars – though it might not affect how we live our lives in the ways the films showed.
Cultural relationships in the present; and with the past.
The work Tuttle did with the British Council was all loosley based around social media and the internet; so maybe there are links to the future too.