Building Conversation encourages us to assume an artist’s attitude to interrogate how we talk with one another. But artists blind spots too. Some of these biases cause us to make mistakes. Not all of these mistakes are serious, but in some cases they may lead us to inadvertently reinforce ways of thinking and behaving that we aim to radically review.
An example is how we deal with knowledge and sources of inspiration. As artists, performers, conversation builders, we are also – perhaps foremost – storytellers. We believe in the free access to, and flow of stories, ideas and information. We want to contribute to a democratised, global knowledge space where the lines between (academic) research, arts and society are not sharply drawn. Where everyone feels empowered to think creatively, experiment and innovate about how we live together in this world and as part of it. But by saying that we are all equal in the global knowledge space you really say that you are ‘difference blind’, i.e. colour blind, gender blind or ability blind. You deny that the rules of the game, even if you insist that there are no rules, has been rigged for a very long time and the consequences of this are not just a matter of history. That these consequences shape our current reality. The idea that all knowledge is a common good and that we can use and share and reproduce it however we please is fanciful. As storytellers we need ask ourselves: whose stories do we tell, how do we do it and why? And who are we referring to (and excluding) when we say ‘we’?
An issue such as cultural appropriation is significant for groups who have been historically oppressed in a way that, for example most Germans would not think to object to the use of Hamburgers as an icon of American culinary tradition. But what if the Dutch national football team decided to perform a traditional Māori haka as an opening ritual to a match, mimicking the New Zealand All Blacks? Artists, designers and researchers like anyone else who makes use of information and knowledge that is embedded in intangible cultural heritage to create and innovate ideas (especially, but not only when there is an intention to commoditise these ideas) have to grapple with issues of not just intellectual property, but with the fact that there is no such thing as spontaneous inspiration. The creative process is a process of appropriation. Some of it is transparent and can be regulated, while some of it is unconscious. Between these two extremes there is a wide range of interactions, transactions and acquisitions through which we gather the ‘source material’ to make a new thing.
To become more aware and more conscientious in how we tread in this space, as it is relevant to our practice as and of Building Conversation, we embark on an inquisitive exploration that we call Introspection. We look inward to ask ourselves whose stories we tell, how we do it and why – in acknowledgment that the ‘global knowledge space’ is not a neutral terrain where we are all equal, but instead there are structural, systemic inequalities that impact not only how we engage in conversation, but also how we make, talk about and share our work as creative makers.
That’s what the problem is, I think, there’s a kind of paucity of discourse around the way that white artists in particular, in their encounters with Indigenous cultures, exert or act from a place of privilege and I think that that’s a really big and really complicated conversation that needs to be happening. [..] In other words: she [Abramović] is a white person who has the privilege of skimming our culture for the parts that are useful or interesting to her, whilst failing completely to engage with the muck and pain of dispossession and coloniality and her own complicit position as its beneficiary.’ Sarah Jane Norman, a cross-disciplinary artist and writer of mixed British and Indigenous Australian heritage in an interview about the Marina Abramović controversy