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May 18, 2020

ICR: The role of emotion and barriers to collaboration between peoples at a time of crisis


Image by Brooklyn Museum

By: Elena Ruikyte, MA student in International Cultural Policy & Management

Whilst the United Nations (UN) is marking its 75th anniversary – which has at its heart the idea of promoting conversation and creating a global dialogue – multilateralism and international collaboration are facing a substantial challenge, yet for many countries, collaboration is a necessity. The current crisis of COVID-19, that turned into a global pandemic, has highlighted the state’s own capacity for action but also the interconnected and global nature of our existence and therefore the need for a Global response (Bhatia).

That is why now more than ever, it is important to see other nations as partners. It is important that countries are in a process of mutual learning, understanding and respect. As stated in a joint report Culture in an Age of Uncertainty (2018) by the British Council and Germany’s Goethe-Institut, when global challenges become increasingly transnational, International Cultural Relations (ICR) can make an increasingly important contribution. The report suggests that, while ICR cannot directly solve the global crisis, cultural engagement especially when it is mutual, can contribute by offering spaces for dialogue; strengthening civil society and independent actors, and managing tensions between them and the state. However, even though collaboration is often seen as a key to overcoming the toughest global issues, the fact remains that there are many real obstacles to collaboration that all actors involved are facing and must attempt to address.

COVID-19 is a crisis of uncertainty, physical separation and digitalisation. It has highlighted the barriers to international and interpersonal collaboration and the central role played by emotions in both communication about and responses to the pandemic. Even though geopolitical shifts and technological revolutions enable states to reach out to an ever-growing audience beyond borders, lockdowns have suspended peoples’ personal freedoms to travel and gather. The loss of control over our freedoms and global uncertainty resulted an overwhelming sense of anxiety, loneliness and danger. All these emotions lead to fear, a pivotal emotional state at this time of crisis.

Levoy (2020) observes that the current crisis has triggered a second pandemic, that of fear. We fear strangers who might breath too close and we are each a stranger to the other. With this sense of ‘stranger-danger’ fear is directed towards, not only a stranger at the checkout line but any foreigner, immigrant or refugee. As George E. Marcus notes, many scholars have argued that it is fear that drives the public towards nationalism and often xenophobia. What he adds, is a perspective of the theory of affective intelligence, that recognises anger as a fundamental motivation for nationalism. Anger – is a result of any excessive feeling of fear, or distress. So, with the terrifying spread of COVID-19, nationalism, rather than internationalism, is shaping the response.

The way governments choose to respond to and manage the pandemic – working on their own or together – is shaping future perceptions of the national and international public’s perceptions of a country’s competence, honesty, and dependability. Over the past couple of months, the world has seen examples of national leaders blaming migrants for bringing the virus to their shores and there have been discussions over the ideologies that will emerge and gain strength in the future, who will emerge as leaders of the post-coronavirus world?

Despite the global competition, decisions made by world leaders, that are affecting the livelihood of nations, are governed by the same emotions of uncertainty, fear and anxiety. From an analysis of how world leaders have responded to the crisis New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Arden emerged as the front runner in her management of the pandemic. Her communication, as Suze Wilson notes, is a balanced combination of: ‘direction-giving’, ‘meaning-making’ and importantly ‘empathy’. The latter comes more naturally when people have direct access to each other’s emotional cues, and people tend to empathise with others who are close or similar. In the current crisis, when the fear, of both the disease and the other is spreading fast, the fragility of empathy and the importance of an empathetic rhetoric from world leaders is paramount.

Covid-19 has emerged in the age of fake news, misinformation and disinformation spread through the powerful conduit of social media. Charlie Warzel points out that there is an ongoing flow of true and false information about safety equipment, treatment, rules, decisions etc. that is especially challenging for social media platforms and can be harmful and misleading for the users. This has been orchestrated not only by individuals but also some world leaders. Interestingly, but maybe not surprisingly a recent report by Reuters Institute points out that politicians and celebrities are the sources of 69% of all social media engagement with misinformation. In this time of instant and global communication government rhetoric takes on a new power but also a renewed responsibility.

Culture however can also provide an antidote to fear and stranger-danger, it has throughout the crisis provided opportunities for people to come together with a sense of community and unity despite physical distance. Various forms of culture can now be accessed online, as cultural institutions opened their doors in a digital space providing engaging initiatives and live streaming. During the UNESCO ResiliArt online debate, it was noted that people tend to turn to arts and culture as a form of escape from a difficult reality, helping to keep people’s inner lives and emotional sanity together, it is a space of empathy. The important role of culture in helping the public to deal with the challenging circumstances of the COVID-19 crisis is also recognised in a Consumer Tracking Study published by the Policy Evidence Centre (PEC, UK).

In Europe, Germany is seen as a leading country in recognising the value of culture, education and International Cultural Relations (ICR). They announced a federal aid package featuring a whopping €50 billion to be distributed to freelancers and small businesses, including those in the creative sector. Also, additional funds were provided to Germany’s Goethe-Institut to continue their work, focusing on language courses online, highlighting the importance of cultural exchange and collaboration in the future. The Baltic countries, Lithuania and Estonia announced their economic support packages that are quite similar: €2.5 billion in Lithuania and €2.6 billion in Estonia. However, neither of these support packages offer additional funds for ICR practitioners and the institutions that develop global understanding and engagement at a time when working together is demonstrably crucial.

The practice of ICR is far from easy even in normal circumstances. Now, when people’s freedom of movement is restricted and emotions of fear, anger and anxiety are playing a central role in nearly all actions – international collaboration and ICR has become even harder to achieve. Whilst a majority of the population is connected in a digital world, there are still people who lack access to technology or a good internet connection and for them it is an obstacle to continued learning, collaboration and connection. Intergovernmental and international organisations have taken action and are already acting as platforms for dialogue, for sharing knowledge and experiences, and for guidance in the current crisis. Nevertheless, what the crisis brings now is the need to rethink and reset the status quo, to establish a different language, a new way of talking that can re-centralise culture’s role in our public life and articulate a collective, global concept of collaboration and sustainability for the future.

As debates on the current crisis and its impact continue, it would be useful for governments to look ahead and start by asking what can be done, by whom and what resources are needed? After the crisis – what will unite us? What will connect us to each other again? Most likely there is still no one who can predict or plan how countries should act after the crisis however, the COVID-19 pandemic gives an unexpected opportunity for countries to reflect on peoples’ orientations towards or against collaboration and to rethink old models of International Cultural Relations by including and foregrounding the role of emotion.

This blog post is part of the development of an event proposition research done during the Placement at the International Cultural Relations Ltd. I am grateful to my placement’s supervisor Stuart MacDonald, FRSA for supporting me, and to Dr Jonathan Vickery and Dr Heidi Ashton for their insights on my research.

August 09, 2012

What’s brewing? The #culturalvalue Initiative

The most perceptive and observant readers of this blog will have noticed references to some recent happenings here at the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies, such as mention of a cultural value workshop in the thoughtful post by my colleague Jonathan Vickery, and in Maria Barrett’s compelling report of the recent ICCPR conference in Barcelona. Indeed, something has been brewing, and I am now really excited to reveal all, or at least some of the activities that I have been working on developing over the past year or two (yes, really that long!).

There is widespread agreement within the cultural policy community (and I’m not talking just the academy) that ‘cultural value’ is shaping out to be the defining debate for the foreseeable future, not just in our relatively small field, but more broadly: the recent announcement by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (the main public funding agency for arts & humanities research in the UK) that they have set aside £2 million for a cultural value project headed by prominent social historian Geoff Crossick testifies to a broader relevance of the topic, and a shared sense of urgency as to the timeliness of a serious and rigorous engagement with it.

For me, personally, the identification of cultural value as a key area worth of in-depth exploration has resulted from my long-standing engagement with researching the idea that the arts have transformative powers, and the related notion of the social impacts of the arts as a driver of cultural policy-making. I might at this point subject you to my full publication list on the topic, but I’ll spare you that, and instead I’ll summarise in a few sentences the conclusion that the past 11 years of research have led me to: in spite of public declarations of commitment to evidence-based policy making, what has been driving cultural policy in Britain (and elsewhere, of course, but I’m sticking here to what I have focused on myself) is a belief in the ameliorative and positive effects of the arts. Such belief has a very long history in Western civilisation (ever heard of Plato & Aristotle?). Due its resilience and continued elaboration over time, such belief in the transformative powers of the arts has become embedded, normalised and institutionalised: it lies at the heart of the workings of our cultural organisations and our educational system. In other words, we have a cultural policy because we have some notion of cultural value as something worth nurturing. Whilst I am not dismissing the growing importance of empirical evidence in aiding decision-making, it is clear that looking at the evidence alone does not explain what has occurred in cultural policy in the past 20-odd years.

Every cultural policy decision is predicated on the existence of cultural value: every decision is in effect a process of valuation predicated on the exercise of cultural authority. This is where things get tricky of course (and terribly interesting): who has the authority to bestow cultural value on some cultural forms and not others? And what vested interests, mechanisms of social distinction and what recognition/silencing processes are at work in these value-bestowing practices? It is clear that, whatever the discipline of cultural studies would have you believe, outside of the academy, cultural authority has not really been democratised, and the power to allocate cultural value is still far from being inclusively distributed across society. In a policy context, a clear sense of this can be gained by having a quick look at arts spending data: in the UK most of the available funding still goes to a handful of big cultural organisations, (too) many of them located in metropolitan London.

Those of you who know me will not be terribly surprised to find out that it is precisely this slightly unsavoury, politically problematic aspect of the cultural value debate that I intend to explore; that and its connection to the politics of measurement and evaluation, another keen interest of mine.

Over the past few months I have been campaigning internationally to make ‘cultural value’ a central theme for cultural policy research, and have been overwhelmed by the response. So much so that, together with colleagues at the Centre for Cultural Partnerships at the University of Melbourne, my serial co-conspirator Dr Anna Upchurch of Leeds University, and the research departments at the English and Australian arts councils, I have been working on developing an international cultural value network of individuals and organisations who are committed to developing a rigorous, collaborative research agenda on cultural value. We are currently looking to find ways to resource the network with a view of facilitating this and opening up the debate beyond the core project partner and our current affiliates worldwide.

I am still recruiting for more cultural value champions for what I am calling The #culturalvalue Initiative, so I might soon appear at a research seminar near you! Whilst I work frantically on filling in funding applications to make all (or at least some) of the interesting projects ideas in my mind happen, you can share your cultural value related thoughts with me on twitter: the Initiative has its own account: @CulturalValue1 or you can tweet me directly: @elebelfiore.

In addition, thanks to generous funding by Warwick’s Arts Impact Officer (who ever said ‘impact’ was all bad?!), I have been able to have the June workshop on cultural value professionally filmed (another post on the workshop to come soon, I promise) and to enlist the help of a web designer to create a nice and functional blog for the #culturalvalue Initiative. This means that, hopefully soon, there will be some really interesting resources on cultural value freely available online, providing a great stimulus for what I hope will be a conversation you will want to be a part of.

More, much more is brewing… so watch this space, and get in touch if you want to be part of the Initiative!

May 30, 2012

City of Culture

Last week I attended (as a contributor) the AHRC Cultural Cities research network meeting. The event was called ‘It’s not the winning… Reconsidering the Cultural City’ and was held at the Merseyside Maritime Museum: (Tuesday 22nd April)

It was an interesting experience, not least as it had tasked me with thinking about the Government’s new City of Culture 2013 project (which I hadn’t given too much thought to). The ‘City of Culture’ concept is simply a ‘title’ -- an official government designation for the city who wins in a competitive bidding process. It comes with not a penny of funding, and despite being a New Labour innovation, the project still has the support of the Coalition government. The title was largely inspired by the success of Liverpool as European Capital of Culture in 2008 (and, in policy language, a way of ‘leveraging’ the strategic capabilities generated by that year long event).

On the face of it, the concept of a ‘UK City of Culture’ seems odd, but also in tune with the growing popularity for ‘event driven culture’ with both British punters, tourists and policy-makers alike. The concept is odd inasmuch as it seems to be a step back from a ‘European’ framework into a national British one (whatever that might be). And come to think of it, Liverpool ’08 didn’t have the big European theme that I thought it would have – given, that is, the way the European Commission normally demand. The second oddity is that the ‘city of culture’ concept suggests that culture in cities only substantially emerges by virtue of official commission or sponsorship. Publicly subsidised arts is still the model of what ‘culture’ is. On one level of course this is inevitable, but on another it effaces the actual social, urban, youth and sub-cultures that animate a city. Does a substantive city ‘culture’ only emerge with the investment-funding-driven objects of arts management? Why do people flock to visit cities like Marrakesh, Asian or African cities with no well funded arts programmes...?

However, whatever doubts I had were for the most part dissolved on reading the winning bid from Derry-Londonderry, which is very imaginative and impressive on several fronts. Its approach to the bid was itself ‘creative’ – policy-making as a creative act: imagine! Moreover, it refuses simply to import global cultural celebrity but instead finds ways of making the city active in cultural production, thinking of the city itself as a ‘cultural product’. This is a step forward. Here are the key documents for reference:

Derry City Council (2009) Derry-Londonderry Candidate City UK City of Culture 2013: Our Bid, Derry-Londonderry.
Redmond, P. (June 2009) UK City of Culture Vision Statement, London: DCMS.
UK City of Culture 2013 (2009) Bidding Guidance, London: Regeneris Consulting/DCMS.

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