Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Many Faces of Culture- A Student Discourse

Sociology of Theatre & Performance Research Group’s National Interdisciplinary Colloquium for Postgraduate Students.

'Producing Culture'
20th -21st February 2009
Goldsmiths, university of london.

“From cave art to punk rock, ritual healing to cosmetic surgery, human activity is underpinned by a set of shared values, beliefs, and behaviours that are specific to, and bind, a social group. Producing Culture is a student-led colloquium for postgraduates that will explore the ways in which culture is manifested through and defined by social practice”. Stranger A.

I feel compelled to write something about this conference because;

1. It was run by fellow postgraduate students in my department, 2. The theme ‘Producing Culture’ was relevant to my area of research, and 3. The experience has made a marked impression on me.

I arrived to participate in the late morning session of the colloquium and heard two papers before breaking for lunch. The first, given by our own Anna Smith, a student in the Drama Department presented her findings on working with a group of young refugees and the difficulties they experienced with integrating into British society and how theatre was used as a tool to aid with this difficult transition.

The second paper, from a PhD fine Art student, Laura Malacart was the one that really started me thinking out side the box. Her paper, or should I say her film was titled Voicings: Undoing the English Speaking Subject, showed edited clips of what we thought were foreigners giving an account of the problems they encountered with the English language in Britain. She explained that her subjects had been fellow students in an English learning class (Laura is of Italian origin) in London and she decided to investigate the experiences of these students when they first arrived in England. She scripted/transcribed the interviews then gave them to English Actors to recite. The Brief was to memorize the lines of the script and present them without embellishing the words or creating a character, or correcting the English, all within an hour. She set up her camera, gave the Actors the script then left them for the hour, to present the script. What we saw was a manipulation, or a reclaiming of the voice of the unvoiced, heard through the mouths of those who are usually heard and never question language and its power.

My current readings on Post colonial theory came into play here in terms of finding mechanisms for re inventing and or rewriting the ‘master narrative’. I found her medium of presenting her work both artistic and intellectual.

Any idea that entertains the possibility of a duality excites me now.

Duality came in another form in Kathy Milazzo’s paper, from the University of Surrey’s department of Dance, Film and Theatre. The Black Body in Spain’s Romantic Age:Negotiations of Identity dealt with in essence the deliberate absence of the ‘Black Body’ in Spain’s Romantic art, which has been used to confirm and concretize the idea that the ‘origin’ of traditional Flamenco dances as being from European Gypsy culture and not Africa, as her research has uncovered. The depictions of ‘The Black Body’ are used only to emphasize the connection to slavery and little else. Her research lies in trying to understand where this cover up came from and to trace practically through rhythm, movement and language the true links with Africa.

Language for me was crucial in this paper in terms of choice of words to describe movements that were undeniably African in origin. The tone was decidedly derogatory and verging on the vulgar, presumably to reinforce the misguided framed knowledge of Africa during this period. What I then found even more interesting was the same choice of words being used to describe George Balanchine’s choreographic work Agon pas de deux. This paper by the co-chair Arabella Stanger looks at how the choreographer uses ‘balance’ to offset classical harmony. Balanchine was breaking the rules of a most institutionalized traditional technical principle, and ‘displayed’ the difficulty and athleticism of his ballet dancers in the 1950s of New York City. The work was highly controversial but what most traditionalists had trouble with was his use of Black dancers.

The thread of the ‘Black body’ was revisited in the performance Bf “a new choreographic work by Jorge Cresis (a fist year Spanish PhD student in the Drama department), and Freddie Opoku-Addaie,” A Ghanaian dancer.

Perhaps my recent emergence into Post Colonial texts and theory has, I am sure, influenced my gaze and I now ‘read’ performances looking for elements of Post colonialism. I asked during the post show discussion whether race was a theme they tackled in their abstract work. They answered that it was not a deliberate choice but were aware that once the visual image of a White dancer and a Black dancer are placed before an audience, historical links to colonial and Post Colonial readings would occur. Interestingly, the choreography whether conscious or not, succeeded in breaking away from stereotypes and was a constant surprise in its storytelling.

The final paper of this colloquium was from Shanu Shadhwani, the other co chair, presenting on Asian Women, Hybrid Voices and Narratives of Diaspora.

Her work was of particular interest to me because of the closeness of her area to mine. I seems to me that second generation migrants living in Britain are always engaging with their unique experience of living in and negotiating their presence in Britain.

I came away with many terms that many presenters used often in their work, which somehow created a subculture of ‘young researchers’ almost mimicking the language of the ‘text book’. “Newly arrived communities”, ‘host communities’,’ high art’, ‘cultural objects’, ‘niche cultural’, ‘memory making’,’ material culture’,’ social agents’, ‘special agency!!! The terms go on and on.

I continue to read and learn and hopefully find my own voice and identity in this multicultural landscape.

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About the Project

'Beyond the Linear Narrative...' is a 3 year AHRC funded research project being carried out by the Pinter Centre for Performance and Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Taking Pinter’s work as a starting point for, or symbol of, the fracturing of narrative across many art-forms in twentieth and twenty-first century work, this research project asks a series of questions about the links between inter-cultural and political change and the emergence, or re-emergence, of non-linear and fractured narrative.

Focussing on literature and performance, particularly in postcolonial and diasporic contexts, it will ask why non-linear narrative has been such a feature of this period’s artistic production. If these fractured and experimental forms are a response to the breakdown of the west’s grand narratives of progress, what forms of resistance or revision do they provide?

In what ways can they be seen to emerge from the increasing interaction of different cultures in the colonial, post-colonial and post-Cold War world? How do such fractured narratives work in postcolonial and diasporic writing and performance? How can these fractured forms explore our culturally diverse society’s competing and conflicting narratives?

The project addresses the ways changing understandings of the self have contributed to the disruption of linear narrative, and in particular, how fractured narratives enable the move away from the Cartesian mind/body duality to an understanding of the embodied self, making the writing of the body such an important element in contemporary performance, fiction and life-writing.

About the Pinter Centre

The Pinter Centre for Performance and Creative Writing is an interdisciplinary research centre at Goldsmiths University involving principally the Departments of English & Comparative Literature and of Drama, with links with Media and Communications, Music, PACE and the Digital Studios.

In line with Harold Pinter’s keen awareness of the centrality of political issues, the Centre is particularly committed to looking at postcolonial and diasporic literature and performance, and the ways in which contemporary creativity is forging new forms that respond to the cultural diversity of the world in which we live. It also has a strong interest in questions of gender, and writing and performing the body.

The Pinter Centre Website

Pinter Centre Events Calendar