S. Stenning: A Provocation

British Council was set up in the 1930’s to to create a friendly knowledge and understanding between the people of the UK and the wider world. That Friendly understanding should, in the age of the internet and the world wide web, be far easier to create.  In very obvious ways we are interconnected. We can communicate with people in other parts of the wider world more easily, we can find out about the concerns and struggles of others more readily and we hear about events and happenings immediately.

People can directly communicate across the globe without the need for a diplomatic protocol and arguably without any hand-holding from a cultural institution like ours.  That suggests that we now have a more nuanced and informed dialogue than we did in the past and are achieving deeper understanding as  the basis for a more equal and friendly relationship.  It should also then be much easier in that super connected world to ignore the shouting from those with a news angle and by those that use fear of the ‘other’ is a promotional tool.  But that does not seem to be the case.  Although the potential for more direct people to people communication is truly exciting it appears that the super-connectivity also allows simple narrative to become all the more dominant.

For me as a Brit living and working in Cairo I am not at all surprised by recent examples of an affecting and polarizing narrative being is seized upon by the media and then repeated 24 hours a day.  I am, however, absolutely shocked by how much that can dominate the understanding of the wider world and how it gives a collective identity for those that feature in the narrative.  For example, what is being received currently as the meaning of the word ‘migration’? Not the image of the first swallow of summer and accompanying rhetoric about a wondrous natural phenomenon that sustains and enriches life by seasonal movements across the globe.  Rather, we are to be clear that it is a terrible thing threatening the fabric of our society.

In a connected world with the potential for people top people dialogue that seems at the same time to offer a greater potential to rally and to create a homogeneity of understanding what is the role for cultural institutions and artists?

Stephen Stenning
Written for Parallel Crossings: Art, Culture and the Refugee Crisis at Toynbee Studios, London on 26 Nov, 2015

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